So get this: the world’s first novel came from Japan — and it was written by a woman — and it’s all about sex.
Japanese literary buffs and commoners alike are celebrating the 1000th anniversary of The Tale of Genji.
The author Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973 – c. 1014 or 1025) was a maid of honor in the imperial court during the Heian Period, a real renaissance for the arts, especially literature.
The Tale of Genji has 54 chapters and more than 400 characters, but most of the story revolves around the life of Hikaru Genji (“Shining Genji”). He’s the son of a Japanese emperor who loses his status and spends most of the rest of his life (and the book) trying to get it back. Along the way, he has tons of juicy love affairs. Genjihas also been called the first example of psychological realism, the way it mines the passions and (sometimes ugly) intentions of its characters. Intrigue! Tragedy! Naughty bits! Genji has it all.
Much of “The Tale of Genji,” the eleventh-century Japanese masterpiece often called the world’s first novel, is about the art of seduction. Not that any sexual act is ever mentioned; very little in Murasaki Shikibu’s prose is plainly stated. Things are suggested, alluded to, often nebulously. What counts in the seduction scenes is the art, the poetry. Quite literally so: the proper approach to a desired lady was through poems, written on scented paper of the finest quality, delivered by an elegantly dressed go-between of appropriate social rank. More poems would be exchanged as soon as the approach bore fruit. A “morning after” poem was an essential part of etiquette.
One reason that physical contact between men and women is hardly ever described in “Genji” is that courtly lovers almost never saw one another clearly, and certainly not naked; full nudity is rare even in traditional Japanese erotic art. Women of the upper class sat hidden in murky rooms, behind curtains, screens, and sliding doors. For a respectable woman to be seen in daylight, especially standing up, instead of reclining in an interior, under many layers of clothing, would have been provocative beyond belief. Women were shielded by curtains even when they spoke to male members of their own family. A male suitor could be driven wild by the sight of a woman’s sleeve spilling out from underneath a shade, or by the mere sound of silk rustling behind a lacquer screen.
Lady Murasaki—not her real name; her sobriquet was the name of Genji’s great love—was born into a minor branch of the Fujiwara clan. Her father was a provincial governor, who, unusually for the time, passed on his deep knowledge of Chinese literature to his bookish daughter. Normally, only men wrote in Chinese, as a sign of superior status, while women confined themselves to Japanese. This explains why the first writers of literary prose in Japanese were highborn women, as were their readers. The famous “Pillow Book,” a collection of musings by the court lady Sei Shonagon, was written at more or less the same time as “The Tale of Genji.”
Not much is known about Murasaki’s life. Her father’s position was neither grand nor secure enough to put her into the highest circles. She married late; her husband was a much older man, and Murasaki was probably not his most privileged wife. The story goes that she began writing her novel after he died.
Although her middling rank would have excluded her from court circles, her literary reputation gave her an entrée into the empress’s salon, where she often felt out of place. A sense of being on the fringes of society, as has been the case with so many writers since, sharpened her observations. Murasaki watched the sexual maneuverings, the social plots, the marital politics, the swirl of slights and flatteries that went on around her, with the keen, sometimes sardonic, and always worldly eyes of a medieval Jane Austen. Her Buddhist view of life’s fleeting nature and the vanity of human affairs added a dash of melancholy to her ornate aristocratic prose.
The Tale of Genji (Japanese: 源氏物語, Genji monogatari) is a 1951 Japanese drama film directed by Kōzaburō Yoshimura. It is based on the piece of Japanese literature of the same name. It was entered into the 1952 Cannes Film Festival.