In beginning a “classic of the month” initiative, it seemed only fitting to start with the world’s first literary classic: The Tale of Genji. Written by an ancient Japanese female courtier Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji is a story of romance, drama, and political intrigue.
The novel provides an intimate look into court life during the Heian period in Japan (794 to 1185). The plot centers around the life and exploits of a Japanese emperor’s favorite son Hikaru Genji (or “shining Genji”) as seen through the gaze of an admirer. Devastatingly handsome, Genji is likely the first Lothario/Casanova figure in literature–the original “McSteamy.”
Genji’s devilish good looks and poetical talents make him a favorite of court ladies of all stripes; however, they also get him into a great deal of trouble. (He impregnates his stepmother, who looks like his mother, and then passes the son off as his father’s)
The Tale of Genji overlaps in many ways with accounts of European court culture: hierarchy enforced through fashion, etiquette, refinement, romantic intrigue, marriage as a bargaining chip, and political gamesmanship.
The writing style of The Tale of Genji, much like that of Shakespeare, takes time to learn to appreciate. The Tale of Genji is rife with out-of-date or culturally removed puns, poems, and references, complicated further still by translation.
Nonetheless, like literary classics of the western world, The Tale of Genji is a rewarding read if you are willing to put in the effort to understand it. I would particularly recommend it to poets, as poetry played perhaps an even more integral role in Japanese court culture than it did in its European counterparts.
Read slowly, google often, and find yourself an annotated version with notes explaining culture, context, and references and you’ll be set!