When we think of famous literary novels, we often think of men. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Ulysses by James Joyce. Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
But did you know that the very first novel ever written, and still incredibly popular and meaningful, was written by a woman?
That woman was Murasaki Shikibu, and she wrote Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) way back around the year 1000. Heck, in the year 1000 England didn’t even have a Magna Carta yet. The Renaissance hadn’t taken place. But this woman in Heian court astutely put together her observations, wit, and details into this beautiful novel.
I grew up adoring feudal Japan culture, so I took The Tale of Genji sort of for granted. Of course this great work existed. Of course it had all sorts of fascinating details about life in 1000. It’s only as I got older and realized how rare this kind of material was that I came to truly appreciate what Murasaki Shikibu had done.
Murasaki Shikibu, like many great authors, wrote about the world she intimately knew. In this world, fellow court members weren’t referred to by personal names. It would be like calling the Queen of England “Lizzie”. People were referred to by their titles. That can make the reading challenging for modern people. Especially since the titles of people changed over time.
When we grow up with the Queen of England, and then her grandchildren Prince Harry and so on, it is just second nature for us. The same would have been true for the original readers of The Tale of Genji. They most likely read these chapters in installments and “watched” the characters grow and change position. It all made perfect sense to them for their world.
So delve into this tale. Appreciate the world it describes, and that it took place a full thousand years ago.