A Thousand Years

By John Hertz: Traditional Chinese and Japanese often have a thousand years for “long”.  Raising a drink one may say A thousand years! meaning roughly “Live long and prosper!”

The book which many think the first novel in the world really was written a thousand years ago, The Tale of Genji, completed about the year 1012.  Its author was a court lady, which is remarkable, but that’s another story.  In English it now has four translations, by Arthur Waley (1933), Edward Seidensticker (1976), Royall Tyler (2001), Dennis Washburn (2015), each with fans.

We call the author Lady Murasaki.  She may have been Fujiwara no Takako (i.e. Takako of the clan Fujiwara), who served the Empress Shôshi.  Murasaki is a nickname, after the main female character in her book, called Murasaki (“wisteria”).

We know little about the author personally.  She left a diary, also a work of art, but what has come down to us only covers two years.  The immense Genji scholarship includes labor over the diary.

In re-reading Richard Bowring’s 1996 translation The Diary of Lady Murasaki just now I came across these passages good for a thousand years (pp. 53, 56).

It is very easy to criticize others but far more difficult to put one’s own principles into practice, and it is when one forgets this truth, lauds oneself to the skies, treats everyone else as worthless, and generally despises others, that one’s own character is clearly revealed.

It is so rare to find someone of true understanding; for the most part they judge purely by their own standards and ignore everyone else.

10 thoughts on “A Thousand Years

  1. Thanks for sharing those passages! Words good for a thousand years and a thousand years more. I have been thinking lately about my own struggles to live according to my principles –how hard it can be at times–so it seems very serendipitous to come across this post.

  2. The Tale of Genji was not merely arguably the first novel written in any language, it was the first serious work of literature written in Japanese. Educated Japanese men of the period read and wrote Chinese. The women preserved and developed the Japanese language as a written form.


  3. I quarrel with calling Genji a novel. It’s obviously a collection of stories put together. There is no unified narrative through-line; things just happen one after another. And even,
    (spoiler alert for a thousand-year-old literary classic!)
    gjb guveqf bs gur jnl guebhtu, gur znva punenpgre qvrf (bssfgntr, rira!) naq vf ercynprq nf gur cebgntbavfg ol uvf fba.

    SF has a well-established term for putting together stories and calling it a novel in the hopes that a novel will sell better: it’s a “fix-up”.

  4. @David Goldfarb: I quarrel with calling Genji a novel.
    Fair enough, but would you nominate as the first novel? The notion of the novel as a form wasn’t really developed till centuries later, and things that are generally considered novels, like the works of James Fenimore Cooper, might not qualify as such to a modern reader accustomed to literary conventions developed later.

    Yes, the fix-up is a long standing SF tradition, but I suspect a fair number of stories that got the fix-up treatment were intended to be parts of a longer work from the start. Breaking them out separately and selling them to magazines as shorter works allowed the writer to generate more revenue. Who can argue with getting paid twice for the same words? 🙂

    (And a spoiler in ROT13. Haven’t seen that in a while.)

  5. Camestros did a series on an obscure candidate for early English novel called Beware the Cat.
    That was also more of a fix up, with a series of stories linked by some nested narratives.

  6. If ‘novel’ just means ‘prose narrative of more than X words’, the ancient Greeks and Romans were writing novels; they are regularly discussed under that heading.The one I read for my degree was Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, though I don’t think that’s the first. In Latin, of course, there is Apuleius’ Golden Ass. I think these are novels if Genji is.

  7. This article , discussed here a while ago, suggests that the first novel (that we know of, at least) is Chariton’s Callirhoe. From the description, it seems much more of a novel than Genji is. In a more restricted sense, perhaps one might reasonably say that ‘the novel’ develops later.

  8. I think Genji is clearly a novel, and it surprises me to hear it argued otherwise. I might listen to arguments that the Uji chapters at the end essentially constitute a shorter sequel rather than being part of the same novel, but even that sounds a little iffy to me. Calling the whole thing a collection of stories strikes me as bizarre, and I entirely disagree that there is no unified narrative throughline, since there most certainly is.

    I think the arguments that it is the “first” novel are equally iffy, although calling it the first psychological novel or the first historical novel sound more reasonable.

  9. There are several great stories from before The Tale of Genji, starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh. and of course The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Journey to the West, and so on. Egil’s Saga is from around the same time as Genji and is an awesome character study. But Genji may be the first that was actually written before it was told. I have also heard that Genji justified the acceptance of hiragana as suitable for great literature rather than just for women’s correspondence and shopping lists. For something completely different, if you want the 14th century equivalent of modern-day manga, The Tale of the Heike is a fun read.

  10. Tom Becker: “There are several great stories from before The Tale of Genji, starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh. and of course The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Journey to the West, and so on.”

    Actually, The Journey to the West probably dates from the 15th century or later, though some of the folktales it uses are older than that. (Note that Xuanzang’s record of his journey, which was part of a common form of travel narrative, was compiled in 646, but it’s hardly fiction, much lessa novel.)

Comments are closed.