The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby

Very little is known about Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Genji, completed probably in 1021, is often considered to be the first novel, and while there is some question as to whether Murasaki herself wrote all of the chapters, she is generally celebrated as the author. The story goes that she was inspired to write the Genji stories by gazing at the full moon during a religious retreat to Ishiyama Temple.

However, far more likely is the scenario Dalby dreams up for this fictionalized biography: a young Murasaki, giggling with her best friend and dreaming of one day serving at court (however unlikely the possibility), makes up stories about a handsome, romantic prince. As she grows older, she adapts the stories to her better understanding of men and women and what goes on between them.

When she becomes a widow with a young child, she is unexpectedly called to court to serve the new Empress Shoshi, primarily because of her now-popular Genji stories. Aware of the political plotting of the regent, Shoshi's father, and learning all too quickly about the barbs, boredom and bounties of court life, she once again revises her stories to add these realistic details.

The book is almost a case study in how to write historical fiction. Dalby takes the few known facts, some surviving fragments of Murasaki's diary and poetry, and research into the Heian period to create an engrossing and believable story. She also uses—though sparingly—some of the events from the Genji stories themselves. Not one for one: that would be too crass. Instead, she creates some scenes and events that a writer such as Murasaki could have transmuted into those stories.

What an astute strategy! While there are some fiction writers producing slightly concealed autobiography, most writers these days create a character by throwing aspects of multiple people into the blender: this characteristic, that prejudice, these dreams, those handicaps. So Murasaki's writing life rang as true as her friendships and romances.

With this book I truly felt as though I was entering a different world every time I picked it up. Dalby has provided an exquisitely detailed view of life in the early 11th century. She has also included bits of Murasaki's diary and all of her surviving poetry. Men and women of the time carried on courtships and conversations using waka, which today we call tanka. Some of the most intriguing sections are these conversations, but always the short five-line poems grow seamlessly out of the scene:

Lifting my head to look out at the dawning day, I saw a family of waterbirds playing on the lake as if they hadn't a care in the world. Then it struck me that to an outside observer they may look as though they were enjoying life, but in fact they must often suffer, too.

How can I view the birds on the water with indifference? Like them, I float through a sad, uncertain world.

I recommend reading this book when you have the time to sink into it. I so enjoyed my immersion in Murasaki's world and aesthetic that I was sad when the book ended.

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