It is one of the great ironies that so patriarchal and martial a civilisation as Japan’s should have nurtured one of the greatest female novelists who ever lived. And Murasaki Shikibu was not only a great novelist but arguably the first novelist in any language.
Many, like the late classicist EV Rieu, would disagree. In the introduction to his then groundbreaking 1946 translation into English prose of Homer’s Odyssey, Rieu noted: “… the Odyssey, with its well-known plot, its psychological interest, and its interplay of character, is the true ancestor of the long line of novels that have followed it.”
Generally, the distinction of being the first novel has been accorded to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (or, more properly, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha), the first part of which was published in 1605 and the second a decade later.
Leaving Rieu’s assertion aside, and the claims of Cervantes, one must note that Murasaki (her surname; names in Japanese being surname first and then personal name) lived from about 973 to around 1014 and completed her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari in Japanese), in 1007 or 1008. That termination date is based on entries in her diary, but more than a thousand years of literary scholarship has not resolved when the work was begun and ended, or the very vexing question of whether Murasaki wrote all 54 chapters. A 15th century scholar and, much later, the poet Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) proposed that Murasaki’s daughter had written as much as the last 14 to 21 chapters.
But, like authorship conspiracy theories about Shakespeare (a butcher’s boy – or a glover’s son – couldn’t have written such elevated stuff; it must have been a nobleman), it does not matter much because looming large over everything is the text of Genji. At its heart is the Shining Prince, Genji, an emperor’s son.
Gripping from the start
The tale follows Genji’s love affairs, the intrigues at the medieval court and its shifting political sands, all the while giving the reader a deftly and deeply drawn portrait of the everyday, social and cultural life of the time. As a picture of a society at work and play, it is breathtaking. As a reflection of family life and personal anguish and joy, it is heartwarming and heartbreaking. As a life of a charismatic, warm-blooded, marvellously realised character, it is unforgettable. And we are speaking here of a text that runs to more than 1 100 pages in Royall Tyler’s surpassing translation (2001).
Eerily, the first line of Genji almost seems to prefigure the opening of the Quixote. Murasaki begins: “In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favour.” (Tyler)
While Cervantes starts: “In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot quite recall, there lived not long ago one of those country gentlemen or hidalgos who keep a lance in a rack, an ancient leather shield, a scrawny hack and a greyhound for coursing.” (John Rutherford’s luminous and playful 2000 translation.)
In both instances, of course, the reader is gripped from the outset. These great works, both labelled as the first novel ever, stand at the head of that genre (Homer, nodding, will forgive us). What binds them further and makes them revolutionary is their attitude to women and class.
Don Quixote loses his heart to Dulcinea del Toboso, “his lady”, to whom he dedicates his quests and from whom he seeks blessings for them. He sees Dulcinea as beautiful and royal; his squire Sancho Panza, clear-eyed and down-to-earth, has a rather different impression: “… she was sieving that wheat I mentioned, and all the dust she was raising floated up in front of her face and clouded it over.” (Rutherford)
Nonetheless, Don Quixote worships this working woman whom others regard as and refer to merely as a “wench”: neither class nor dull reality turn the gentleman-adventurer-philosopher from devotion. So, too, in Genji there is a love that overcomes barriers. When the young prince is 17 he finds his first great love, Yugao, shortly after a brutally candid discussion with young noblemen in which women are ranked according to their qualities and the “lowest class” deemed to be wholly without merit. Genji’s love turns out to be of that very class he and his youthful discussants have denigrated.
So-called ordinary people often get short shrift in literature. They are saved from what the historian EP Thompson dubbed “the enormous condescension of posterity” by being understood and properly represented by the finest sensibilities and minds and writing. Centuries after Murasaki, the poet Tachibana Akemi (1812-1868) wrote of everyday life, avoiding traditional poetic themes; no cherry blossoms and maple leaves for him. Imagine the shock that the following subject and imagery would have provoked in a reader expecting the conventional:
Stark naked, the men
Stand together in clusters;
Swinging great hammers
They smash into fragments
The lumps of unwrought metal.
(Translated by Donald Keene)
The scene could describe any mine in South Africa; perhaps even the labour before the slaughter of Marikana.