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The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel Paperback – August 21, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Liza Dalby's novel is a brilliantly imagined chronicle of the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu. As we soon discover, our narrator has a good many doubts about the writing life. "As I pondered this question of how to be a success at court," she muses, "I came to the conclusion that literary ambition was more likely than not to bring a woman to a bad end." Happily, the real-life Murasaki persisted, and went on to become the author of the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. For The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby draws on this groundbreaking masterpiece and on the surviving fragments of Murasaki's own diary and poetry, along with another masterpiece of the Heian period, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The result is a vivid and emotionally detailed portrait of an intelligent, sensitive, and complex woman.

In Dalby's novel, Murasaki writes her first stories about Prince Genji's amorous encounters in order to entertain her friends, and to express her own creative temperament. As the stories gain a wider public, however, they are transformed into a conduit for observations on the mores and intrigues of court life. And in the end, as the narrator struggles to stay true to her literary vision, her tales are inflected by Buddhist thought and become parables on the transience and beauty of the world:

I have always felt compelled to set down a vision of things I have heard and seen. Life itself has never been enough. It only became real for me when I fashioned it into stories. Yet, somehow, despite all I've written, the true nature of things I've tried to grasp in my fiction still manages to drift through the words and sit, like little piles of dust, between the lines.
Dalby is an anthropologist by trade, who has produced two previous nonfiction studies: Kimono and Geisha. And given that her research for Geisha gained her the distinction of being the only Westerner ever to have trained in that much misunderstood profession, it's no surprise that she is able to reconstruct 11th-century Japan with meticulous fidelity. It's all there--the political and sexual machinations, the preoccupations with clothing and custom, the difficult and tenuous position of courtiers, the intensity of female friendships in a male-dominated society--and the author shows us precisely how Murasaki's sensibilities were shaped by the culture in which she lived. This is a rich and convincing debut, and another chapter in the current resurrection of the historical novel. --Burhan Tufail --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Perfectly capturing the sensual mood of its model, The Tale of Genji, this imagined memoir of Murasaki Shikibu--the author of the 11th-century Japanese masterpiece heralded as the world's first novel--sensitively renders Murasaki's inner life and her times in Miyako (ancient Kyoto). Posed as a series of reminiscences discovered after Murasaki's death by her grown daughter, Katako, the novel reveals the mind of a writer who believed that she could "shape reality by... writing." The young Murasaki dreams of serving as a lady-in-waiting at the empress's court, but her father is a humble scholar, a position that doesn't merit such honors for his children. Instead, she is betrothed to Nobutaka, a relative and family friend. Murasaki resists this match, as Nobutaka is much older, and with her girlhood friend she has invented an ideal, "imaginary lover," the shining Prince Genji. When Murasaki's family is transferred to the distant province of Echizen, she falls in love with a Chinese ambassador's son. But the pair are separated, and Murasaki finally accedes to marriage to Nobutaka. To her surprise, she enjoys a few years of quietude and continues writing the Genji stories, which have begun to circulate and win appreciation. Later, she is summoned to serve at court, as the regent wants "those who read the tales of Genji in the future to know they were inspired by [his] glorious reign." The book focuses on Murasaki's observations, rather than on national events, and the story moves at a leisurely pace, best enjoyed for its rich, evocative descriptions--like that of the fascinating practice of communicating via brief poems. The real Murasaki's poems are included throughout, illuminating Dalby's sensitive, well-researched portrayal of the Heian-period novelist, who realizes poignantly that "literary skill will get you noticed... but it won't make you happy." Author tour; rights sold in England, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain and Japan. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (August 21, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385497954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385497954
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #978,249 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
At long last, a gorgeously written book that you can trust to give you a living sense of being inside the head of a fascinating Japanese female character. Lady Murasaki was a real court lady in 11th century Japan, credited with writing the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji. From the beginning when she is a young girl in her father's house, hoping for an invitation to serve a court and making ups tories about it, we are seeing through her eyes an amazing world. Everything about it is fundamentally different from ours--the architecture that reflects and shapes social life; the eleborate rituals that stem from a naive animism; the clothing, every detail of which has significance; the skill required of every courtier to communicate in on-the-spot elegant poetry. But especially seductive is Murasaki's emotional life. The feelings are universal: desire, love, ambition, hostility, motherhood, pride--but the way they must be expressed and the significance accorded them in Japanese society are amazingly different. Through Dalby's skill at bringing up just the right psychological cues from beneath the stylized social surface, we fall in with Murasaki's point of view, her sense of time, her endurance of loss, her choices in times of crisis and despair. Her lovers, both male and female, her revered father, her worthless brother, and beloved daughter are as distinct and real as she. This book could only have been written by a woman who is also a scholar with an intimate knowledge of things Japanese, a mother, and an artist. Dalby has brought all these sensibilities together in a masterpiece.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Tale of Murasaki" is an amazing book, it is intriguing, spell-binding and contains an athmosphere of 11th Century Japan so believable that you will find yourself completely absorbed by it. Liza Crihfield Dalby has managed to weave in Murasaki's poetry with the story in the most beautiful way, and make it all make sense. Murasaki comes to life in this diary style book, and by the time you reach the end of it, it feels as if you know her [Murasaki] personally. The book contains so much "cultural knowledge", that it gives you an insight to 11th Century Japanese religious beliefs and ceremonies, social structure, imperial court life, clothing, rural as well as urban life, social life... If you liked Geisha, by the same author, or The Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, this is the book for you. But I also recommend this book to anyone with an interest for Japanese culture, history and/or poetry. This book is pure beauty.
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Format: Hardcover
The picture that Liza Dalby paints of Murasaki Shikibu and her world is intriguing -- flawed, but still captivating, if only for the sheer magnificence and ornate beauty of Heian culture that Dalby expertly conjures up.
Dalby's knowledge of the nuances of Japanese history, language, and culture is wonderfully thorough, thus bringing a deeper dimension to the fictionalized story of this amazing woman poet and author. The structure of the novel -- elegantly titled chapters interspersed with beautiful waka and images/stories from "The Tale of Genji" itself -- is quite enjoyable as well. Admittedly, Dalby's writing style sometimes becomes overly elaborate, and the sheer amount of information presented (it even spills over into footnotes) does get excessive at certain points, unfortunately bogging down the plot and characterization.
However, for every slow bit, there also exists a lovely gem -- a witty joke, perhaps, a bit of brilliant imagery, or a marvelously rendered scene. For all its weaknesses, "The Tale of Murasaki" is still a wonderful book, for the glimpse it allows us into Murasaki's impossibly beautiful, vanished Japan.
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Format: Hardcover
If you were told a book was about a culture that communicated in 5 line poetry, who's women painted their teeth black, had no moral problem with casual sex but felt violated if a man saw their face, a culture who believed all negative emotions & illness were caused by wandering spirits, you would be pretty sure that book was science fiction, right? "The Tale of Murasaki" is that book, & it is most definitely NOT science fiction!
In "The Tale of Murasaki", Liza Dalby has recreated a society so completely alien to Western minds that it seems otherwordly. Yet, so vivid is this recreation that the reader is often surprised to look up at walls rather than rice-paper screens! Her descriptions of life in a society based upon the appreciation of beauty is wonderful; gardens that have been dust for a thousand years bloom again in this novel. In the Heien culture of 10th & 11th century Japan, people of the upper classes communicated in a 5-line poetry form called "waka". Dalby skillfully uses the actual waka's written by Murasaki thruout the novel to express moods & illuminate her character's motivations. She also weaves into this novel the actual diary excerpts that still exist from this mysterious woman, & does it so seamlessly that it's nearly impossible to tell where quotation ends & invention begins!
Additionally, Ms. Dalby succeeds in one of the most difficult tasks a writer faces: she successfully ages her protagonist so that the character at 37 is more thoughtful & mature than the character at 17. Many celebrated novelists fail at this, but Dalby shows us Murasaki's growth naturally & beautifully.
The only flaw this reader found is an assumed familiarity with ancient Japanese political systems & religious symbolism.
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