by Liza Dalby.
This is one of the finest books I’ve read in years. My tastes don’t run toward the literary and fine, but this was worth stepping out of the genres to read.
It’s the “discovered” story of the author of The Tale of Genji, that is, the world’s first novel (debatable, but pretty close either way). The woman, Murasaki Shikibu (a nickname; she ended up named after one of her own characters from Genji) left her diary to her daughter; the daughter published the diary years after her mother’s death.
The Tale of Murasaki is an episodic, literary exploration of living in 10-11th century Japan. Hm…how do I explain it? It rings true about what it feels like to be a writer, both as the unknown girl whose father is worried that she’ll embarrass him and as the writer of the Empress’s favorite stories. Mood swings; isolation; falling in love with all the wrong people; figuring out the difference between what people want to read and what rings true. And, most remarkably, putting poetry in such a context as to both make them make sense and be vital to the plot.
Quickly I peeled off the wet Chinese clothing and hit it. My skin was hot but my hair retained the cold from outside. At one point my cap had fallen off and Ming-gwok took my loose hair into his slender white fingers and buried his face in it. He said someday he would send me some of the Chinese perfumed oil his mother used. I lay down under my pile of padded robes, but left my cold hair outside the quilts, spread in tangled disarray. My dreams were tumbled in disarray as well.
A thousand strands of black hair, tangled hair – like them my thoughts, tangling and entangled.
Time and time again, I kept making comparison to sending someone elegant tweets on Twitter. People would just dash off a quick poem, send it off by messenger, and receive a reply within (sometimes) minutes. There are only so many new ideas, you know.
In the end, Murasaki is tired of writing Genji stories (a lifetime) and wants to leave the court and become an ascetic (although not a nun). She manages to kill off Genji, but is then trapped into writing about his sons (just as she is cornered into staying at court). Eventually, she finds a way out, a satisfyingly literary one. The story of a woman who tastes success, gains respect, and finds the things she loves are the things she has lost or thrown away. I liked it. A good story for a season full of cold and depression.