This year my reading list is likely to be considerably shortened, and I will be putting it down to this particular book recommendation. Totalling over 1200 pages spread over three volumes, this fully illustrated, award-winning, french edition of the Heian period (794 to 1185 CE) classic Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is a worthwhile challenge on multiple levels.
Here is why:
- Scrumptious. This is the most complete illustrated version of the Tale published in the West to date, and quite possibly the most beautiful book I ever read. Every book of the tale is illustrated, including some of the oldest surviving works from the Tokugawa Art Museum collection (Nagoya, Japan). If you are a fan of Japanese art, the byōbu (screens) and kakemono (scrolls) reproductions will have you on a giddy finger-tipping, nose-close-to-book mode for quite a long time (520 painting images).
- Influencing . Written between 1005 and 1013, the Tale of Genji is (controversially) considered the world’s first novel by a known author, lady Murasaki Shikibu. With fully developed characters, historical context, a complex and lengthy narrative mixing prose and poetry, the Tale pre-dates the modern European novel by nearly 600 years. In Japan the Radiant Prince Genji’s amorous adventures, his fall and redemption have continuously influenced Japanese culture. It inspired its own category within Japanese painting (known as Genji-e). Its intricate detail of costumes, accessories, scents, flowers, poetry, painting, and music, embody a perennial “golden age” concept of Japanese elegance which artists continuously returned to – either for inspiration or rejection.
- Controversially remote. Some things you will easily love about this work, others not so much. The appreciation for nature’s transience, refined poetry, and arts embedded in the dialogue remains a delight. Though the novel is sometimes considered unfinished, I thought its open ending fitting – the literary equivalent of a Japanese painting’s empty space association with “unlimited potential”. The frequency with which we are told of Genji’s irresistible radiant beauty feels mostly comical. Among the “not so much” that lingered were the treatment of women, and the ruling classes’ detachment from the world beyond the court. Closing the last volume, one wondered how effectively was the nation ruled, given the time dedicated to leisure and ceremonies? Japanese history provided a relatively clear answer – not enough.
What do you think of “Le Dit du Genji” and its paintings? Have you read this book before? Are there other Japanese books which you enjoyed and would like to share? Add your thoughts on the comments section.
Below a link to the publisher’s page for the book and an online gallery of Genji-e:
Le Dit du Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, edited by Diane Selliers in La Petite Collection at editionsdianedeselliers.com