This is pure cheek, because I haven’t read all the novels ever written: but neither have you, so there. I personally vote for The Tale of Genji, an eleventh-century novel from Japan; the author’s name is Lady Murasaki or 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.

Of the four complete English translations, I’m still devoted to the first, the one by Arthur Waley; it is, scandalously, out of print, but was reprinted for years by Modern Library and shouldn’t be hard to find. That failing, the 2002 translation by Royall Tyler (Penguin Books) is excellent as well, with instructive notes and illustrations, and a handsomely produced paperback. Ivan Morris’s book The World of the Shining Prince (Penguin Books) 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.

(A bit of clarification: Arthur Waley’s complete translation of The Tale of Genji was originally published in six separate volumes. The common Doubleday paperback, reprinted recently by Dover, called The Tale of Genji is only the first volume of the six. The Modern Library reprint mentioned above is complete. The earliest translation of Genji, by Kencho Suematsu, is only the first seventeen chapters; Royall Tyler’s translation has also been issued in an abridged edition. Two recent translations, by Edward Seidensticker and Dennis Washburn, are complete. Any full version of Genji is going to be a brick of a book: weigh your options.)

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