The Tale of Genji was written a thousand years ago in Japan, but anyone can read it today. The notes are useful but not required. So great a classic, written in an ancient language about a vanished world, has been studied intensively, but its characters' thoughts and feelings remain as fresh as ever.

If Genji contains digressions, parallel plots, stories within stories, and shifts of view, so do many other long novels. Some readers feel the tale is not really a narrative but a series of more or less independent stories, but that is not an unfamiliar phenomenon either, since novels published as newspaper serials often come in more or less self-contained installments or sequences of installments. In any case, others find in it greater unity and design. Many extended novels like Genji treat the history of a family from differing standpoints, revealing secrets that the reader then shares while they remain unknown to certain of the characters. Other aspects of Genji may recall folktale or legend, tragedy or opera. It is true that the nineteenth-century English novel does not prepare the reader for a heroine (Murasaki) who dies two-thirds of the way through, for a hero (Genji) who dies a little later, between chapters, or for a closing chapter that ties up no loose ends. These things and others, such as the possibility of multiple marriage enjoyed by the men, certainly set the tale apart from the more familiar works. They also make it particularly intriguing.

The last third of the tale, after Genji's death, puts new characters onstage, in a new kind of setting. Starting out like an uncertain epilogue, this section soon takes on a life of its own, and the darkness and imperfection of its world serve to heighten the brilliance of Genji's. The failings that seemed so striking when they were Genji's pale beside the blunders and the folly of those who succeed him, and his remembered stature only grows. Nostalgia for his time builds, and against it the troubles of the characters in the late chapters seem both fated and pitiable.

The tale achieves this effect by making the characters and their settings throughout seem so real. The narrative is not expansively descriptive, but the telling touches it provides are just those that nourish a living image in the mind. Many people over the centuries have taken it for a record of life itself in its own time. The experience of reading it resembles that of looking through a small but very clear window into a complete and spacious world.

In its richness and variety, The Tale of Genji rewards not only reading but rereading. Greater familiarity with it reveals new depths. The reader's first glimpse of Murasaki is then no longer one of an unknown girl with a story that may be over in a few pages, but of a great woman seen in childhood as Genji himself saw her. The springs of later success and failure become clear, and so, too, the early movements of passion. Rereading may also heighten an awareness of the more profoundly unusual aspects of the work. Most of the tale is quite understandable as the working out of familiar human emotions, but in the long run the undercurrents that shape lives can be seen to be deeper and more powerful, if less personal, than the commonplaces of ambition, love, resentment, and pride. The tale's repeated references to karma, or destiny, and the supernatural then take on new meaning.


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