Imagine a world where the things in life that count most — pillow talk, matters of the heart, adjustments of power both subtle and sudden — are continually glimpsed as if through a screen, or around a corner. A world where the struggle for status and the great erotic campaigns of early adulthood are pictured obliquely against an autumnal backdrop and a mood of poignant fade-out.
This is the world of “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th-century classic of world literature set in an imperial palace in what is today’s Kyoto, under an emperor whose prestige was great but whose power was almost entirely ceremonial.
Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the court, it is a book in which, as one commentator put it, “love affairs begin and end in the semidarkness, and sometimes the lovers are not even sure who their partner is.”
Combining prose with short poems, “The Tale of Genji” is difficult to classify. But it is widely considered not only the first novel by a Japanese woman, or the first novel by a woman, but also the first novel anywhere, by anyone.
The book comes in 54 parts. A typical sentence, plucked almost at random, gives an idea of its tone: “She seemed so serene and I never knew she was hurt, and my lasting feeling for her went completely to waste.”
The book’s influence on Japanese culture is drenching and pervasive, like the influence of indigo dye on those deep blue Japanese “aizome” textiles. A major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents more than 1,000 years of Japanese responses to Lady Murasaki’s masterpiece. Featuring “Genji”-related calligraphy, album illustrations, painted screens, Buddhist sculptures and sutra, embroidered robes, musical instruments, lacquerware, games, ukiyo-e (or “floating world”) prints, modern-day manga and more, the show is sheer pleasure, from first to last.
Further superlatives, though warranted, sound jarring against the hushed, hypersensitive mood the exhibition fosters. You walk in to darkened galleries through doors framed by stylized golden clouds. Those same golden clouds (known in Japan as “Genji-gujo,” or Genji clouds) are a constant feature of Genji illustrations. Obscuring great portions of each picture, they signal to the viewer that she is entering a fictional, aesthetic realm, where time and space are conflated, and where truths are glimpsed and alluded to rather than spelled out.
Virginia Woolf, noting that the “Tale of Genji” was originally read aloud, wrote that Murasaki’s “listeners . . . were grown-up people . . . absorbed . . . in the contemplation of man’s nature; how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; . . . how beautiful the falling snow is, and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy.” (Don’t be confused by the masculine pronoun: Woolf was describing a predicament that was universal, but perhaps especially feminine.)
The show was organized by Melissa McCormick of Harvard University, John T. Carpenter and Monika Bincsik of the Met, and Kyoko Kinoshita of Tokyo’s Tama Art University. It includes the oldest illustrated Genji book, here opened to an exquisite ink line painting of the character Ukifune. She is reading a letter from her partner that accuses her of being unfaithful.
“Finding herself entangled in a love triangle,” says the wall text, “she nervously faces her inkstone and brush as she considers how to reply.” (People love to complain about wall labels, but sometimes they are pure poetry.)
Everything about “The Tale of Genji” and its reception is steeped in mystery. Is the book really about Prince Genji, its radiantly beautiful male hero? Or is it, as many maintain, primarily about the women in Genji’s life, and their struggles for status, security and love?
The fact that the tale’s author was female is central to its enigma and explains how it came to be written in the first place. In the 11th century, all the prestige of writing was attached to poetry composed in the classical Chinese style. That was for men. The lesser activity of writing prose journals, in a phonetic Japanese alphabet, was left to aristocratic women like Lady Murasaki.
Concocting stories was considered fundamentally frivolous and immoral. But Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji” was so self-evidently great that it was quickly accepted — and very soon revered. Subsequent generations overcame the taint of immorality by conflating the amorous character of Prince Genji with the Buddha — that other radiantly smiling prince — and by attributing a level of divinity, or at least divine inspiration, to Murasaki herself.
By the late 12th century, a legend had already formed that the aristocratic author, following a prompt from the empress, had secluded herself in a temple to write the tale, while gazing at the moon’s watery reflection. As she wrote, she felt simultaneously obliged to atone for her “sinful” activity by copying out a Buddhist sutra and offering it to the temple.
That temple, Ishiyamadera, has long been a pilgrimage site with its own so-called Genji-room. It has lent generously to the Met, which re-created aspects of the Genji-room shrine for the show. Pictures of Murasaki at a low writing desk in her characteristic pose — head slightly bent, black hair flowing over patterned robes — are complemented by a 10th-century sculpture of a bodhisattva, which women since Murasaki’s time have prayed to with womanly hopes: conception, safe childbirth, marital harmony.
The most popular Buddhist scripture of Murasaki’s day was the Lotus Sutra. Promising salvation for everyone who read it, it was linked with healing and longevity rites. So those with means commissioned lavishly decorated copies. By the late 12th century, the influence of Genji was already such that a new kind of Lotus Sutra emerged with the specific aim of rescuing its author from hell for, as McCormickwrites in the catalogue, “having succumbed to the lure of seductive fictions.”
It’s not clear whether one of the most precious works in the show, a Lotus Sutra from Nara, Japan — designated a Japanese National Treasure — is a specifically “Genji”-related sutra, one that combined excerpts from “Genji” with scripture from the sutra. But it is in any case a marvel to behold: Each character from the text, outlined in gold ink, is presented as a Buddha icon seated atop a lotus.
Among many beautiful objects on display is an 18th-century lacquered portable book cabinet designed to hold the book’s 54 separately bound chapters. Each half has drawers inscribed with the appropriate chapters’ titles. The sides and the top are ingeniously decorated with images of the landscape surrounding Ishiyamadera temple.
It became conventional to illustrate each chapter of “Genji” with a single, representative scene that viewers would recognize. Thus, a highlight of the show is the oldest extant complete set of “Genji” illustrations, an early 16th-century masterpiece by Tosa Mitsunobu, owned by Harvard Art Museums. Each illustration complements a page of calligraphy. The calligraphy was written by six Japanese nobleman. So the album as a whole is a collaborative, personalized version of the tale, and yet another indicator of “Genji’s” profound hold over the Japanese imagination.
For me, the most richly suggestive piece in the exhibition is a pair of folding screens by Tosa Mitsuoki, who was the head of a painting school in the 17th century. One shows a scene from Chapter 23, when Genji visits the Akashi Lady’s quarters on New Year’s Day only to find her absent — and yet suggestively present: There is the alluring smell of exotic incense, and her possessions are elegantly scattered around the room.
The mood is thus of ambivalence and frustrated intimacy. What is amazing about the painting is that the artist has overlaid the entire scene with translucent green horizontal stripes, so that we are made to feel as if we were voyeurs, glimpsing the scene through bamboo slats.
“Content,” said Willem de Kooning (in a different context, coming out of a very different tradition), “is a glimpse.” This painting, and this whole marvelous show, double down on that insight. Its main effect, of course, is to make you yearn for a second, longer look.
The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated Through June 16 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.