100 novels: The Tale of Genji

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Tale of Genji

I wanted to love this book.

It is, reputedly, the first novel ever written. Written in the 11th century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, it is a book that is incredibly important for its impact on novel writing as we know it today. It is important in what it tells us about court life in Japan in the 11th century.

Initially I quite enjoyed it. It read more like fan-fiction than anything else, with Genji the ultimate in fantasy men, as he falls in love with various court women and eventually marries someone who is – according to literary scholars – a stand-in for Murasaki herself.

I will confess, I abandoned the story before this marriage.

The problem is not that it isn’t good; it is a deserved classic. The problem is that taking on a sprawling novel set in an ancient Japan is quite a challenge. It is a novel about domestic intrigue and power-play in a world so utterly different from the one I live in that it becomes almost impossible to relate. The characters communicate with each other by writing poetry, a form of writing I find difficult at the best of times. There is no plot, it is simply a musing on human relationships.

It is hard for me to write a fair review of this book. Many people will love it; many already do. But for me it was simply a step too far from my comfort zone.


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