Summer reading: Genji, the world’s first (and almost longest) modern novel
Here’s a fun idea: Let’s read the world’s oldest novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century saga of Japanese court intrigue and romance, The Tale of Genji (1,000 pages!), with an Internet reading group to help keep us on track.
Called “The Summer of Genji,” the project began on June 15 and runs through Aug. 30, with participants reading 90 pages a week. That means you can still catch up, if you apply yourself for a couple of weeks, says The Los Angeles Times.
The result of a collaboration between Open Letters Monthly and the Quarterly Conversation, a couple of Internet lit mags, “The Summer of Genji” online reading community includes posts by contributors to the two magazines that shed light on the week’s reading.
For example the June 22 blog entry, written by a lawyer, is an indictment of Genji’s crimes in the first four chapters of the book –as they would be approached by modern American law. Among Genji’s malefactions: rape, criminal trespass, petty theft, stalking, aiding-and-abetting, negligent homicide.
This puts me in mind of two things: A) Genji sounds a lot like guys I grew up with in western Virginia; and B), this book promises a load of guilty pleasures.
Yet, while the intrigue and romance may be plenty spicey, Genji is not only recognized as the world’s oldest novel, but also one of its best — a literary classic. Generally attributed to Shikibu, an 11th century Japanese noblewoman, who, according to Wikipedia, wrote it in installments for the pleasure of aristocratic women.
Genji has been admired by Jorge Luis Borges as a “pyschological novel.” Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata calls it “the pinnacle of Japanese literature.” Virginia Wolfe “reviewed it favorably” after an early translation appeared in the 1920s, according to “The Summer of Genji,” and it’s been compared to other long prose fictions such as Don Quixote, or War and Peace.
“The Summer of Genji” recommends the 2001 translation by the Australian scholar Royall Tyler, which is “poetic and helpfully footnoted.”
Summer is a traditional time for undertaking a long, challenging classic. How many of us know someone who’s read Proust, or War and Peace, or The Iliad over the course of a summer (or tried to, at least)?
As the L.A. Times notes, last year a project called “Infinite Summer” took on David Foster Wallace’s 1,000-page novel Infinite Jest. And a similar effort would be required to get me through Roberto Bolano’s 1,100-page masterwork, 2666, which sits on my bookshelf, mocking me every time I turn on the TV.
My reviewing schedule won’t allow me to participate on “The Summer of Genji” (currently: Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonna’s of Echo Park; next up: China Mieville’s Kraken). That’s a pity, because I love discovering ancient literature.
If someone out there feels motivated to join the “Genji” train, please let us know, and keep us abreast of your progress.