The first novel ever written

words from the 11th century

I don’t know about you, but I tend to read according to my mood (dark, optimistic, anxious, in need of a brain massage etc…) as opposed to what may be currently trending or what is on the latest bestseller list (unless there is something to satisfy my mood at that time). Another characteristic of my reading habits is that I tend to read in bulk. For example, when I started in on John Irving I spent the next few months on John Irving exclusively. And after visiting Ireland and its wonderful bookshops and being educated by an enthusiastic employee, I loaded up on Frank McCourt, Sally Rooney, Iris Murdoch, Maeve Binchy and rediscovered James Joyce for that entire fall and winter. You get the picture.

As an aside, I want to mention that Japan has always fascinated me. It is one of the few destinations that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing. Its modernity flanked by an ancient culture is reason alone to pack up and get going as soon as possible. And of course from a purely aesthetic point of view there are: the cherry blossoms and azaleas, silks and ceramics, gardens and pagodas, art and food preparation with an acute attention to detail. So after viewing, Memoirs of a Geisha, it only stands to reason that I would enter a reading frenzy on all that is Japanese.

Some of my favourites from this time are:

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (one of the best recommendations ever by a friend)

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki that reads like Hemingway in its clean unadorned style

Silk by Alessandro Baricco which I liken to a song or poetry

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng that is full of mystery, magic and tradition

The book that put me over the edge

And then comes the book that made me go bonkers with excitement! The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby is about the life of the author who wrote the first ever novel back in the eleventh century. I mean the first novel, written by a woman back in the eleventh century! Of course I had to get my hands on a copy.

Lady Murasaki wrote the first ever world’s novel in the eleventh century, during the Heian period. It is entitled , The Tale of Genji and is considered the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. It is about the romantic adventures of her character, the beautiful Prince Genji. Initially she wrote for and shared her story only with an intimate circle of friends, but when the Regent discovered her talents she was moved into the Imperial Palace where she entertained the Empress and other members of the Royal Court with her tale. And it is through this ancient work that we are able to learn about Japanese Imperial life as well as life outside the Palace. Over 1000 pages long, this epic and personal story, describes in detail the customs, dress codes, food, drink, aesthetics and poetry of the time. Murasaki Shikibu takes us into private chambers, beautiful gardens and harsh lands, we witness Royal births and deaths, competitiveness, jealousy, love and hate, familial ties and forbidden acts side by side with those living it.

Since The Tale of Genji was written 1000 years ago in archaic language and poetic style it needed to be translated for public modern consumption. The first translation, undertaken, in the the early 20th century, by the poet Akiko Yosano opened the door for future translations, of which there have been many. However, the main ones are by Arthur Waley, Edward Siedensticker and Royall Tyler. Tyler’s copy is the one I have purchased seeing as it is the most recent and has been cited as the most readable. My copy has just arrived and I cannot wait to get started. I am looking forward to talk about this epic tale with any and all who have already completed The Tale of Genji, once I have read it. To be continued…

3 thoughts on “The first novel ever written

  1. Lissa Manganaro

    Thanks again for a very insightful read. I tend to read like you . . . depending upon my mood. I am reading an Irish author right now, Tana French’s, “The Trespasser”. It’s a detective/thriller and I am really enjoying it. She is a fabulous writer.

    “Memoirs of a Geisha” has got to be one of my all-time favourite books. It read like a true story and I had to keep going back to the jacket cover to confirm whether it was or not. I will now have to explore some other Japanese authors and books.

    If you are interested in forest bathing, the Japanese are the experts – “Forest Bathing” by Dr. Qing Li is a fascinating read. It is the science behind the how being amongst the trees is good for our mental and physical health.


    1. I have added Tana French’s book to my book wish list. Sounds terrific. I will get back to you once I have read it.
      Not in the Japanese category, but still an awesome read, in my opinion, was, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” by Dai Sijie.
      Regarding the power of trees…that is one of the reasons we purchased the house in Italy. In one of my upcoming snippets (the letter e) I gush about exactly that and if you take a look at Chapter II of Hills of Friuli (when it comes out) you will see the incredible forested valley where we will be living. Maybe this will give you motivation to come on over and get some tree and wine therapy?!


  2. Pingback: Falling for Autumn – Manu writes

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