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Who wrote the first novel?

Today's Daily Doodle is brought to you by the birthday of a woman who has a romance with literature. Her Doodle request was "who wrote the first novel", which is fitting, if you knew her. Imagine my glee when I discovered the first novel ever written was by a woman!

Around one thousand years ago in Heian Japan, a woman (of whom little is known) was widowed. The loss of her husband may have been the reason she was driven, or even able to write Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) circa 1010 A.D. This work is considered the greatest work of Japanese literature and the world’s first novel.

The details of the author’s life are patchy at best. Even her actual name is unknown; scholars assigned her the name, Murasaki Shikibu, using the name of the book’s dominant female character (Murasaki) and the author’s father’s position (Shikibu) at the Bureau of Rites to identify her..

Born into a lesser branch of the noble and highly influential Fujiwara family, the author had been well educated, learning Chinese (generally exclusive to males at the time). She had married a much older distant cousin and the couple had a daughter. However, after only two years of marriage, he died.

It is not known how, but four years later, she came to be summoned to the court. Her new position within what was then a leading literary centre enabled her to produce a diary, a collection of poetry, and, most famously, the classic romance Genji monogatari.

Because Chinese was the scholarly language of the Japanese court, works written in Japanese (the literary language used by women) were not taken very seriously. Prose was also not considered the equal of poetry. Her work is described as graceful imaginative fiction. The story is not a personal account of life at court and incorporates 800 or so poems purported to be the writing of the main character. The narrative sustains the story through 54 chapters of one character and his legacy.

At its most basic, Genji is an introduction to the culture of the aristocracy in early Heian Japan, its forms of entertainment, the manner of dress, daily life, and moral code. The era is exquisitely re-created through the story of Genji, the handsome, sensitive, gifted courtier, who was an excellent lover, and a worthy friend.

British sinologist, Arthur Waley, was the first to translate Genji monogatari into English, completing the last of six volumes in 1933. Waley’s was an inspiring translation, reviewed by Virginia Woolf in British Vogue, but it was also very free. In 1976 a translation which was more true to the original in both content and tone was completed by Edward Seidensticker. However, the notes and reader aids were very sparse, an assessment not lost on Genji’s third translator, American scholar Royall Tyler of Australian National University. The publication of Tyler’s version in 2001 (nearly a millennium after Genji monogatari was written) is a testament to a continuing fascination with early Japanese culture and the durability of a remarkable woman’s literary achievement.

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