Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Anniversary: First Modern Novel

The Tale of Genji, written by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu 1,000 years ago, is sometimes considered the first novel. The distinction of first novel is much debated and The Tale of Genji is often described as the first modern or psychological novel, though that characterization is also disputed. I prefer to consider 2nd century Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass as the first novel on no other basis but its name (which is actually Metamorphoses but The Golden Ass is much better).

The Tale of Genji is a giant of the Japanese literary canon (and not just because it's enormous - well over 1,000 pages). Nobel prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata considered it "the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature". It's a book primarily about love and sex and as such represents a suitable origin for the modern novel. But, notably, it does not feature a man trying to turn himself into a bird and instead turning himself into an ass.

(image credit: 11th century handscroll of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, wikipedia.org)