2: GLENN'S NOMINATION FOR THE GREATEST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN
May 24, 2014
#2: GLENN’S NOMINATION FOR THE GREATEST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.
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 them by 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.