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Tuesday, July 13. 2021
It seems an odd thing to think about, but I'd recently heard a comment about the world's first novel. If you'd asked me prior to hearing this comment, I'd have replied it was Beowulf or Canterbury Tales, mainly because these were items of Western Literature and it's what we read about in school. So you tend to think about what is familiar. I suppose you could also point to The Odyssey or The Iliad, though these are technically 'histories' of a sort, and are also classified (like Beowulf) as epic poems. Given this, the comment struck me as intriguing. Because not only was the first novel not from Western culture, but it also started an entire genre unto itself - the Romance Novel.
The Tale of Genji was written sometime in the 1000's, and was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. This may not be her real name, as daughters' names were rarely recorded, and as a noblewoman, her name was more a title and descriptor of status. Shikibu means "Bureau of Ceremonial" - a post held by her father, and Murasaki is the name of the heroine in the novel. While reading and writing, for a woman of status, was not rare in Japanese culture, what Shibiku accomplished elevated the form, and introduced new aspects to writing as an art. She was creative, unique, and thoughtful. As such, she has been held in high esteem within Japanese culture.
Murasaki was known to be a high-placed female at the Imperial Court of Japan, a noblewoman from the powerful Fujiwara family. She was familiar with court intrigue, and a lady-in-waiting. There are more unknowns than knowns regarding her. However, there is some information about the nature of her upbringing and some details of her life which she shared in a diary. It is known that she wrote poetry and enjoyed romantic tales. She was married to an active nobleman who had several wives, and her poetry seems to indicate she resented his gregarious behavior. However, upon his death she was inspired to write The Tale of Genji, most likely due to her loneliness. It is also possible that she was commissioned to write it.
The story is believed to have outlined some of her own experiences in court and possibly described other courtiers she was familiar with. Women of high status at the court were often isolated, and marriages were usually designed to gain power and influence. The loss of her husband led Murasaki to engage in some introspection and seems to have led to a self-imposed seclusion, though she was brought back to the court as a lady-in-waiting later in life, most likely due to the story and its popularity.
Genji is intriguing on several levels. Like Machiavelli's The Prince, Murasaki provides insight into the nature of power politics of the time, and palace intrigue. However, she did so within the context of a life story of Genji, while interweaving several other characters who are well-developed (much like a modern novel). The plot, such as it is, is a life story of love and loss, which means the story is sometimes classified as a romance novel (though Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded of 1740 is considered the first true romance novel). No doubt influenced by the romantic poems she enjoyed reading, Murasaki stuck to what she was familiar with.
In several ways, The Tale of Genji fulfills a role often left to court historians in the West. Most stories and histories we are familiar with, by necessity, were often the result of writing done by learned men at monasteries or a king's court - usually at the behest of a bishop, or the king himself. In Japan, tales of this sort were considered beneath male interest, and were primarily the result of idle time among the wealthy and powerful women, Murasaki seems to have tapped into a cultural vein and gained significant notoriety as due to her skill.
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Depending on how you define a novel, the Book of Tobit predates this by a few years.
The first novel, as such, was Don Quixote, one of the starting points of modern Western civilization. So I've read. Novels being a Western civ thing.
"Novel" is a malleable term.
Depending on who you speak to, you'll get lots of different ideas on how or why or what a novel is.
It's possible that Gilgamesh could be considered a novel.
Book of Tobit is a contender, as well, though it's considered a canonical work.
So it depends. Most 'experts' do tend to lean on Genji as the first novel, such as it is.
Or you can lean on a few options:
If you are, as most are in our culture, biased toward the West, you'll make a variety of declarations about what a novel is or isn't, and how or why it's a Western construct. That's fine, and this is not a sure thing - we all have certain tastes and preferences.
And if you're anti-authoritarian, you'll opt against the 'experts' and find something which you believe suits your tastes. That's fine, too.
I suspect in 500 years the concept of a novel will change again, mainly due to technology. It may even vanish (I doubt it, but anything is possible) due to reliance on visual and audio options.
It is interesting that as technology has progressed, we have reverted to the spoken word again (podcasts and audio books) as a means of learning and 'reading'. Having it written down gives language a level of permanence. It becomes more stable and manageable, but it will still evolve.
After reading up on the varieties of what is or isn't a novel, I'm continuing to lean on Genji as the 'first' novel for a variety of reasons. Not least of which is that it was written as a means to pass time for both the author and its readers. Others fit that bill, to an extent, but there are so many mitgating factors (mythology, lack of introspection, fantasy, etc.) that I tend to believe Genji really 'fits the bill' best.
But, because it's a malleable concept, that's why I mentioned several others in the introduction - because there is no assuredness of what, exactly, a 'first' in this really is or could be.
What I'm sure of is very few people are aware of Genji's importance or how it fits into this discussion at all.
The plot, such as it is, ...
Yes, since there's not much of it as compared with modern novels. It's very much a character-driven story, and if I remember correctly, bits might be missing now. Of course, it's been more than ten years since I read it.
I read parts of it in the original in grad school. As I remember, the women in the class enjoyed it, but the men were generally bored. There were some beautiful turns of phrase and description, though, and if you are going to understand Japanese literature prior to the 20th century, it's a must, I think.
Then we read selections from The Tale of the Heike, a more or less historical war epic written down in the 1300s. All the men enjoyed it, and the women were bored. Learned a lot of equestrian and archery vocabulary.
All of the above: wrong. The novel is a very old genre. We have the Roman "Satyricon" of Petronius perhaps dating from the first century, A.D. Then the north African novel by Apuleius, "The Golden Ass", from the 2nd century A.D. Heliodorus wrote "The Aethiopica" a daring romance novel from the 3rd or 4th century A.D.; he was a great influence on Cervantes who paid him tribute in his last novel, "Persiles y Segismunda". Even earlier there is evidence of a popular romance genre written in Greek from sometime in the Hellenistic age; a few of those novels survive, including the pastoral, "Daphnis and Cloe."
That's silly. You didn't address any of Bulldog's points or in any way address what makes something a novel, and my information is not at all wrong.
I'd suggest re-reading what I wrote in the original post and the comment. My comment included links that pointed to other contenders for "first novel" - but few truly fit the bill.
FWIW, Thomas, I enjoyed Genji very much. Read it years ago (my mother had a copy when I was growing up) and while it's not something I'd likely read now, there is tremendous insight into intrigue. It's no barn-burning Tom Clancy, that's for sure, but those were simpler times.
I think there are several options if you're not fond of Eastern culture and you think the West was so far ahead in so many ways. So I don't think Dex Quire is 'wrong' insomuch as he's just saying "Lots of stuff was written before 1000 and you may consider at least one of these a novel" and that may be true. Technically, several of the transcribed myths of Greece and Rome might pass for novels, and even romance novels. But none were written purely for pleasure, really. Almost all were a means to an end, with regard to morality and/or religion (or whatever passed for it).
Since I was reading it for a class, it was a slog. And since we were using selections from it to learn to read classical Japanese, it was a linguistic struggle as well. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it in English for pleasure.
I had never really thought about the insights it offers into intrigue. That's kinda cool that you pulled that out of it. One day, I may have to read it again.
To talk about the 'first novel' or even explore the origins of the novel without taking into account the Ancient Novels of Greece and Rome is wrong. Research into the Ancient Novel is one of the most exciting fields in Classics Studies today. Also, While it is true that Japan's Genji Monogatari is an early - or millennial example of the novel ... it would be odd to call it a 'first' since that would imply a series (2nd, 3rd, etc.); Genji did not really kick off a genre of 'the novel' in Japan ... the 20th century Japanese novel took its inspiration from Western models at the end of the 19th century. As in many areas of life, Japanese versions attain a world-stature of excellence (viz, Mishima, Murukami, et al.).
Well that's very interesting! I had no idea this was a hot topic in Classics Studies!
Interestingly, it was the influence of the Western novel that probably diminished the influence of Genji in Japanese literature, except there are some pockets of Japanese writers who simply ignore modern literature. Which I kind of respect, actually. I mean, after reading No Longer Human, who wouldn't want to kill themselves?
Bulldog wrote: "... none were written purely for pleasure, really." This is jarringly wrong. If this is the 'Bulldog' whose intelligent commentary I have enjoyed for years on MF, I am shaken ... but I have enough faith in your intelligence to note that if you lightly investigate this recent field in classical studies (The Ancient Novel) you will see what I am talking about. Start with Apuleius' 'The Golden Ass'; indeed the last section is a drawn out religious tract to some pagan mystery goddess but the first 2/3rds is sheer rollicking delight or pure pleasure, to put it another way ... and 'The Satyricon'? Admittedly, a Gay Cruising novel in large part, but, well, call it impure pleasure then .....