The Lady Murasaki and the First Modern Novel

“Pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, scornful” and the mother of the modern novel.

Lady Murasaki, was a courtier at the Heian court at the end of the first millennium. She wrote the massively influential The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogartari); a novel that is still considered one of the most important pieces of Japanese literature. The novel is a staple of the Japanese curriculum.

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The Heian period (794-1185) was the most glorious period in Japanese history. Moving from Nagaokakyo to Heian-Kyo (present day Kyoto) to counter balance the overly-powerful Buddhists in Nara. The period is defined as one of decadence and refinement.

Through careful manipulation and marriages the Fujiwara clan dominated Heian politics. Lady Murasaki was born c.973 to the northern branch of the Fujiwara’s. Although her great grandfather had been the first regent of the period, by the time of Murasaki’s birth her family had fallen from grace; despite their status her family had a literary reputation with many of her ancestors being famous poets.

Although in Heian society husbands and wives kept separate households with children raised by their mothers; Murasaki lived in her father’s house along with a number of siblings (it is most likely that their house was on Teramachi Street in Kyoto). From a young age she showed talent in her writing and classical Chinese (a subject usually taught to boys only) Her father often said;

“Just my luck, what a pity she wasn’t born a man”

After a short marriage to a much older second cousin and the death of her brothers, Murasaki was brought to court by the mighty Michinaga. Michinaga’s time as regent marked the peak of Fujiwara power. He married of (pimped out) four daughters to four emperors.

Murasaki was brought to attend the court of MIchinagas 12 year-old daughter Soshi who he had named Empress (even though the current Empress was still alive). The relationship between Murasaki and Michinaga was most definitely one with benefits. In her diary she documents having to fight off many advances from Michinaga. In the translation of her diary it describes the way she would bore him with the minutiae of her life at court, his daughters comings and goings and even the birth of his grandson in ‘elaborate’ detail.

Of course the sausage-fest that is Japanese history, the names of women are not officially documented. Women were known by nicknames. Murasaki had two nicknames; one being ‘Our Lady of the Chronicles’ which she most likely earned by teaching Soshi Chinese. The nickname Murasaki came from a character in the Tales of Genji. The only hint of what Murasaki’s real name could have been comes from Michinaga writing down some of his favorite ladies-in-waiting. In a 1007 diary entry Fujiwara Takako is mentioned.

The Heian court was immensely fashionable. Courtiers were increasingly isolated with very little to do art, writing and sex was all they had. Women wore floor length hair, white faces and blackened their teeth. Their clothes were cumbersome and multilayered. The well known Hinamatsuri dolls are an example of what was fashionable at the time. Women held salons, vying for status and respect. The company was carefully selected, the original Empress Teishi had had Sei Shonagon, celebrated author of The Pillow Book. Soshi was surrounded by talented female authors such as Izumi Shikibu and Akazome Emon. Murasaki showed her exactly how she viewed her rivals, writing of Izumi in her diary as;

“…not very satisfactory. She has a gift for dashing off informal compositions in a careless running-hand; but in poetry she needs either an interesting subject or some classic model to imitate.”

It is not known when or where Murasaki started the Tale of Genji. It is possible she wrote the first chapters for a private benefactor. At 445px-Lady_Murasaki_writingthe time paper, ink and calligraphers were expensive; it is almost a certainty that Michinaga provided Murasaki with the tools to complete the manuscript. The Tale of Genji is a novel in three parts. It spans over a thousand pages and is thought to have taken over a decade to complete. It tells the story of the gorgeous ‘shining prince’ Genji, continuing after his death.

She redefined the genre of the monogatari, avoiding the tradition of fantasy and fairy tale clichés. Murasaki’s contrast of formal Chinese style and mundane topics give the work a satirical voice. The themes found in the book are common for the period. By far Murasaki’s favourite phrase is ‘物の哀れ (mono no aware) – the sorrow of human existance’ she uses it over a thousand times. Genji is comely, refined, gifted yet sympathetic and human. Historians have deduced that in the book Murasaki found an escape from her boring life at court. Helen McCullough atributes the universal appeal of The Tale of Genji to its ability to;

“transcend both its genre and age. Its basic subject matter and setting—love at the Heian court—are those of the romance, and its cultural assumptions are those of the mid-Heian period, but Murasaki Shikibu’s unique genius has made the work for many a powerful statement of human relationships, the impossibility of permanent happiness in love … and the vital importance, in a world of sorrows, of sensitivity to the feelings of others.”

There is a running theme throughout  that Prince Genji is able to recognize the inner beauty and fragility of his many lovers.

The Tale of Genji was enormously popular. It is generally thought that it was finished by 1008, but before that Murasaki notes in her diary that Michinaga regularly came to steal chapters. Despite it being written in Japanese the Emperor had it read to him. The book was scarce in the provinces but copies were highly sought after. By as little as 100-years later it was seen as a classic. Poets in the medieval ages used it for references of classical diction. The language used in The Genji Monogatari was seen as pure Japanese, a Japanese that needed preserving.

The fact that the novel was written in Japanese helped its popularity. At the time of its writing Japan was beginning to become increasingly insular. The Tang Dynasty (Japan’s touchstone to Chinese culture) was losing its grip. By the end of the Heian period Japan had ceased diplomatic visits that wouldn’t recommence for almost 500 years.

The Tale of Genji has had a huge cultural impact on Japan. Murasaki’s written work (along with other Heian poets) forged the Japanese language and its mix of kanji and hiragana.

A sample of writing showing the mix of Japanese kana and Chinese Kanji
A sample of The Genji Monogatari.

Its legacy has been used by many different groups from far-right nationalist claiming it as the finest piece of literature (ever, of all time) to the Japanese treasury that put a scene from the novel on the 2000 yen note.

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The date of Murasaki’s death is not clear, some have her dying in 1014 others have her living to 1025. At the time of her death she would have been around forty to fifty. She is buried in a small garden in the city of Kyoto. In the year 2008 Kyoto held a year of celebrations to commemorate one thousand years of The Tale of Genji.

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In the town of Uji, where the final chapters of the tale take place there is a statue of Murasaki.
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