#2: GLENN’S NOMINATION FOR GREATEST NOVEL EVER. The Tale of Genji is an eleventh-century novel, universally considered the greatest work of Japanese literature; the author’s name is Lady Murasaki or, more exactly, Murasaki Shikibu (“Shikibu” was a court title). Genji is a long (1100 pages), almost bewilderingly beautiful panorama of the relationships of an illegitimate Heian aristocrat with his family, his friends, his superiors at court and, above all, his wives and lovers. Though there is recurring wit in the tomfoolery these characters get up to for love, no author in any language has a sense more profound than Murasaki of the ache of human longing. No one as well has a sense more searching and observant of how the act of a moment—in the most famous example, the jealous fit of a neglected mistress—can radiate out, sometimes even fatally, into the lives of literally dozens of characters, down to the following generation. By the ends of their lives, Genji and those closest to him are backlit by the results of hundreds of these acts, some no more than nuances, which then pass by them and shape the lives of their young—the Buddhist notion of karma made visible. One can hardly deal with Genji but with superlatives: no novel has a greater number of tableaux and set-pieces, often set at night; no author has a more dramatic or pervasive sense of smell. It offers par excellence the end experience of great fiction, the feeling as of looking out from atop a mountain.
There are now four complete translations of Genji into English, by Arthur Waley, Edward Seidensticker (Everyman’s Library), Royall Tyler (Penguin Classics), and Dennis Washburn (Norton), each with its much-discussed merits and flaws. The earliest translation, by Kencho Suematsu, is only the work’s first seventeen chapters. The Waley translation, the version in which I discovered Genji and the one I reread, was reprinted for years by Modern Library and should be easily available in secondhand; it’s recently been reprinted by Tuttle. Waley’s version was originally published in six volumes; the Modern Library, as well as the later translations, are all complete. Any full version of Genji is going to be a brick of a book: weigh your options. Ivan Morris’s book The World of the Shining Prince (Penguin) is a readable guide to the Heian period of Japanese history, with special reference to Murasaki. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs, translated by R. J. Bowring (Princeton, 1982) contains the remaining little of Murasaki’s literary work, readably translated with copious notes.