Found: A Long Lost Chapter from the World’s Oldest Novel, the 11th-Century Japanese Classic, The Tale of Genji

Hen­ry James’ dis­par­age­ment of Vic­to­ri­an nov­els has always struck me as odd. “What do such large loose bag­gy mon­sters,” as he called them, “with their queer ele­ments of the acci­den­tal and the arbi­trary, artis­ti­cal­ly mean?” The ques­tion might be asked of what has often been con­sid­ered the first mod­ern nov­el, Miguel de Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote, a trag­ic-com­ic adven­ture whose first vol­ume ranges over 52 loose, episod­ic chap­ters and whose sec­ond appeared ten years lat­er to com­ment explic­it­ly on the first’s suc­cess.

And then, six-hun­dred years ear­li­er, there appeared what many con­sid­er to be the first nov­el ever writ­ten, The Tale of Gen­ji, which “cov­ers almost three quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry,” notes trans­la­tor Edward Sei­den­stick­er in an intro­duc­tion to his 1976 edi­tion. “The first forty-one chap­ters have to do with the life and loves of the noble­man known as ‘the shin­ing Gen­ji,’” the son of an emper­or. We fol­low Gen­ji from birth to his 52nd year, then the final ten chap­ters relate the tale of Kaoru, “who pass­es in the world as Genji’s son but is real­ly the grand­son of his best friend.” (See a 12th-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tion from the tale above.)

Writ­ten by a noble­woman and lady of the court in 11th cen­tu­ry Heian Japan, the book’s author is called Murasa­ki Shik­ibu, but her real name is unknown. Shik­ibu “des­ig­nates an office held by her father”; Murasa­ki prob­a­bly derives from the name of a main char­ac­ter in the nov­el. There is no “con­clu­sive evi­dence that the Gen­ji was either fin­ished or unfin­ished at the time, nor is there con­clu­sive evi­dence that it is fin­ished or unfin­ished today.” Some chap­ters have been thought spu­ri­ous, some deemed miss­ing. No orig­i­nal man­u­script exists, and only four of the novel’s 54 chap­ters have been authen­ti­cat­ed as tran­scrip­tions from the orig­i­nal text.

That is, until this month, when a “lost”—or pre­vi­ous­ly unknown—chapter sur­faced, and “is now the fifth con­firmed tran­scrip­tion of the his­tor­i­cal nov­el,” as Hakim Bishara writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic. “The new­ly dis­cov­ered chap­ter, titled ‘Waka­murasa­ki,’ depicts Genji’s encounter with Murasa­ki-no-ue, the young woman who lat­er becomes his wife.” It was dis­cov­ered by Moto­fuyu Okochi, The Japan Times reports, “a descen­dent of the for­mer feu­dal lord of the Mikawa-Yoshi­da Domain in Aichi Pre­fec­ture.”

The new Gen­ji mate­r­i­al appears “in one chap­ter of a five-chap­ter work called ‘Aobyoshi­bon’ (blue cov­er book), com­piled by poet Fuji­wara Tei­ka,” who is believed to have tran­scribed the old­est doc­u­ment­ed ver­sions of the nov­el dur­ing the Kamaku­ra Peri­od (1185–1333). There is as yet no crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion of how this find might change the way schol­ars read the book, but as a loose bag­gy mon­ster, it can expand and con­tract, change its shape and com­po­si­tion, with­out los­ing its essen­tial char­ac­ter.

As Sei­den­stick­er writes, “Murasa­ki Shik­ibu was no Aris­totelian, plan­ning her begin­ning, mid­dle, and end before she set brush to paper. The Gen­ji is full of hes­i­ta­tions and wrong turns and retreats.” Full, in oth­er words, of the mean­der­ings of the mind. (You can read Seidensticker’s trans­la­tion of the Gen­ji online here.) Anoth­er West­ern admir­er of the nov­el, Jorge Luis Borges, writ­ing of an ear­li­er trans­la­tion, put it anoth­er way: “What inter­ests us is not the exoticism—the hor­ri­ble word—but rather the human pas­sions… Murasaki’s work is what one would quite pre­cise­ly call a psy­cho­log­i­cal nov­el.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Splen­did Hand-Scroll Illus­tra­tions of The Tale of the Gen­jii, The First Nov­el Ever Writ­ten (Cir­ca 1120)

The Old­est Book Print­ed with Mov­able Type is Not The Guten­berg Bible: Jikji, a Col­lec­tion of Kore­an Bud­dhist Teach­ings, Pre­dat­ed It By 78 Years and It’s Now Dig­i­tized Online

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs of 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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