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Summer reading: Genji, the world’s first (and almost longest) modern novel

June 24, 2010

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2010 12:58 pm

    Great idea! Our reading stack at The Literate Man ( is pretty high, so I think I’ll have to sit this one out, but your description of Genji just caused me to add it to the bottom of the pile. Thanks!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 24, 2010 11:03 pm

      Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve done, too.

  2. rachel permalink
    June 25, 2010 11:49 am

    This is an interesting project and I’m glad they are doing it. But I don’t think I’ll join in. As far as internet things go, this is a cool thing to do I think. And when taking on a big classic, it is helpful to have other people to talk about it with. The we’re-in-this-boat-together feeling is always helpful.

    Embarassingly, I didn’t know about Genji, but now I will add him to my pile too. Thanks for sharing and making him sound exciting. I particularly like a).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 25, 2010 12:08 pm

      Yes, while I can’t find time to join this group effort to tackle Genji, I have added it to my lengthening wish list. So damned many books, so damned little time.

      No need to be embarrassed. I imagine very few Americans have heard of this novel.

  3. rachel permalink
    June 25, 2010 11:51 am

    Is this a new Mieville book you speak of? Please hurry up and read it and let me know if it is as good as “The City & The City.” If so, I will gobble it up immediately. I however, don’t want to embark upon that path if it is more like his older stuff. I haven’t read it myself but my sister read one of his other books and described it to me and it was so disconnected and horrific sounding I didn’t even want her to even finish telling me about it, let alone consider reading the thing myself.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 25, 2010 12:08 pm

      I will report back on the new Mieville in a week or so.

  4. Patricia Lothrop permalink
    August 27, 2010 1:14 pm

    Before jumping to conclusions about this novel, so distant from us in time and culture, it would be a good idea to read at least a couple of essays by Royall Tyler: one on the greatness of Genji [ ] and the other, available at several websites, on “Marriage, Rank, and Rape in the Tale of Genji.”

    • Denys Areopagite permalink
      September 2, 2010 4:24 am

      To Patricia Lothrop: Many thanks for the link to Royall Tyler’s essay. Which translation of Genji would you recommend?

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