The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel

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9780385497947: The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel

Out of the life and work of Lady Murasaki, the author of, the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, Liza Dalby has woven an exquisite and irresistible fiction that with rich, nuanced authenticity and lyrical drama, brings an elaborate past world to vivid life.

The sensitive and modest daughter of a mid-ranking court poet, Murasaki Shikibu staves off loneliness with her active imagination, telling stories about the dashing Prince Genji to her close friends. At first, they are their private entertainment, but soon Genji's amorous adventures are leaked to the public and Murasaki is thrust into the life of a kind of 11th century Japanese celebrity. She is compelled by a charismatic regent to accept a position at court regaling the empress with her stories. At court, Lady Murasaki becomes caught in a vortex of high politics and sexual intrigue, which begins to reflect itself in her stories.  In this way, she comes to write her masterpiece, The Tale of Genji.

But this is much more than just an elegantly plotted historical novel. The Tale of Murasaki is a beautiful work of literary archaeology. Dalby, the only Westerner to have become a geisha and the author of the definitive book, Geisha, subtly reconstructs the fashions, sensibilities, manners, and preoccupations of 11th-century Japan. The result is a vivid portrait of a woman and her times, the most splendid in Japanese history. In The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby transports her readers to an exotic world and time and wraps them in a story that speaks clearly across the centuries. It is a dazzling literary achievement and a truly unique and wonderful reading experience.

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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

From the Back Cover:

"The Tale of Murasaki brings vividly to life the fascinating eleventh-century world of the creator of Japan's enduring masterpiece The Tale of Genji. Liza Dalby is not just a remarkable scholar of Japan--she is a keen storyteller."
--Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

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