This is a work I've often seen named as the first novel, as well as a work that the introduction claims greatly influenced and embodies the Japanese culture--and this by a women writer. Not many undeniably great classics, especially this old, can claim female authorship, and this one was written around the turn of the first millennium, when Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages. The Tale of the Genji, the product of a sophisticated court, is thus close in age to Beowulf, and by and large, in its English translation in some ways more accessible. In other ways not. The translator himself, Waley, noted it's in many ways "alien to modern sensibilities" and at times I wasn't sure of what was happening, whether I was supposed to interpret Genji's character favorably and wondered what I missed in translation despite frequent footnotes. On the other hand, that very alien sensibility is a lot of the attraction. This is very much a very different world than ours.
The story involves Prince Genji and his various amours in the first four parts and his descendants, especially his purported son Kaoru and his grandchild Niou, in the last two parts. (Kaoru's greatest quality, I kid you not, is his strong "entrancing personal fragrance.") Genji reminds me of a Japanese version of Don Juan. At times things are told so obliquely though, I wasn't always sure if he was involved with various women platonically or sexually, or even whether the various relationships are consensual or not. The women are often depicted as ambivalent and Genji's beauty and accomplishments seem not to simply excuse but erase his flaws in the minds of others. But then, no male character in the book acts all that differently--they're all relentlessly sexually aggressive. When Genji kidnaps Murasaki, a ten-year-old girl he's enamored with, I wasn't sure at first of the nature of his regard and the way he grooms her into a future wife, and initiates her into sex, is indeed creepy to my "modern sensibilities." Murasaki is the major female character in the book, and by and large is too passive for me to feel a connection with her.
But then, so is just about every female character in the book. The Buddhist Japan depicted in this novel is every bit as misogynistic as the Christian Europe of this era. According to the book, Buddhist doctrine holds women are inherently evil--or they wouldn't be incarnated as women. Nor are they allowed into "Amida's paradise" in the afterlife. Women, at least of the upper classes, can only converse with men not part of their immediate family through screens or curtains or through notes or intermediaries. So by and large in this book women are not directly active but acted upon and are constantly cringing away from male attentions, weeping about (but excusing) rape, and then often starving themselves to death, willing themselves to fade away, planning to throw themselves into the river or taking vows as a nun.
I don't know that I can recommend this as a great read or one that can really give you insight into modern Japanese culture. A reviewer pointed out that, like a modern English-speaker reading Beowulf, modern Japanese can't sit down and read Tale of Genji and comprehend it without a translation and notes. This doesn't fit Western (or maybe even Japanese) expectations of what is Japanese. No geishas, samurai, martial arts, kabuki, haiku, manga, sushi, tea ceremony--or ritual suicide. In fact, suicide isn't honorable at this time, it's a disgrace. This is such a lengthy tome--over a thousand door-stopper pages, with hundreds of characters; it's hard to keep track of who is who, especially since in the original they're not named, though the translation I read mercifully gives them monikers to make it easier to follow the narrative. It's often a tedious read, and it doesn't so much end as stop. Nevertheless, I was often struck at times by the psychological complexity and the beauty of descriptions, and it gives a detailed look at the court life of the period. This isn't at all a martial culture that is described, but one with a very elaborate aesthetic where courtiers burst into impromptu verse and notes are judged not just by content but color and quality of paper, how it's scented, style and quality of handwriting, how it's folded and what flower the paper is tied up with.
Given its historical importance, I'm glad I tackled it. I took it at a pace averaging less than a hundred pages each day--slow for me. My rating tries to strike a balance between my recognition of its greatness as well as how much a slog I found most of it. It fits between the one star GoodReads "didn't like it" and the five star "it's amazing" because to be honest my reaction is both. I think this is one of those works, like The Bible or Confucius' Analects or The Koran you get more out of if you prepare yourself, and not something I should have tackled as a stand alone. Someone pointed me to an essay by Michael Dirda about his experience reading the book. Before reading it he loaded himself up with works on Japanese literature and history such as Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince and Donald Keene's Japanese Literature. Others recommend Liza Dalby's Tale of Murasaki for an accessible fictional biography of Lady Murasaki and the Heian court. Maybe some day, if I'm masochistic enough, I'll give Genji another try after preparing myself better--but I doubt it.
(Oh, and as a Star Trek fan I couldn't help but be amused to see that Genji's moniker is "Hikuru." Sulu's first name is supposedly derived from it.)