Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu
(fl. 978–1014)
   Lady Murasaki Shikibu, recognized as Japan’s greatest author, wrote The TALE OF GENJI (Genji Monogatari), the world’s first novel and one of the best. Her reputation parallels that of Shakespeare: Her obscurity and her family’s low position in the medieval HEIAN aristocracy have led a few to question the authenticity of her authorship of the Genji, a masterpiece that has wielded immeasurable influence over subsequent writers from her time to the present.
   The few details available about her life derive mostly from her diary,Murasaki Shikibu Nikki, and from official records. Like CHRISTINE DE PIZAN and SEI SHōNAGON, she was a daughter of a court scholar. In the diary she claims that as a child she mastered, much more quickly than her brother, such subjects as Chinese (the official language, much as Latin was for medieval Europe) so that her father regretted “she was not born a man” (Bowring 1982, 139). In 999, she became wife to the older Fujiwara Nobutaka, who died two years later, leaving her with a daughter. It is believed she began writing her masterpiece, the Genji, shortly after she was widowed; approximate dates for the novel’s composition are 1001–10. She apparently never remarried, but her diary suggests that the powerful Fujiwara Michinaga took a romantic interest in her, and a court chronicler states she was his concubine, although scholars dispute that claim.
   Even though the exact relationship between the two is unclear, her diary implies that Michinaga invited her to tutor his daughter Shōshi, a consort of Emperor Ichijō. Her diary recounts life at court during the years 1008–10, the period of the pregnancy of Shōshi and the birth of her son. Michinaga may have asked Murasaki to write the diary as a record of the glorious birth of Prince Atsuhira, a victory over the rival royal consort, Teishi, whose entourage included the author of The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon.
   One piece of information gleaned from the diary is the origin of her pen name Murasaki. She tells that one evening a drunken nobleman approached the women hidden behind their screens—as custom dictated—and asked if “Murasaki” was present, in reference to the favorite concubine of Genji in the author’s famous novel. The author replied, “I cannot see the likes of Genji here, so how could she be present?” (Bowring 91)—an insinuation that court nobles fall short of the ideal set by her fictional Genji. Lady Murasaki’s given name remains unknown, since propriety demanded that ladies’ private names not be publicly revealed. Shikibu, which serves as her given name, alludes to her father’s rank at the Bureau of Rites. Her diary also reveals that the emperor was impressed with her erudition when the Genji was read to him and that, to her horror, Michinaga took drafts of her masterpiece from her room without her permission. These events serve as indicators that Genji was recognized as a superior piece of literature in her own time, and its reputation as a monumental work survives to this day. Shortly after completing the diary, Murasaki disappears, and nothing is known about her final years (although in later eras strict Buddhists will claim she is in hell, suffering for the “sins” she penned).
   The one other remaining text by Murasaki is Murasaki Shikibu Shū, a collection of waka poetry, mostly extracted from the Genji and the diary. But her towering stature as an author rests upon her supreme achievement of the Genji narrative.
   ■ Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell. The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
   ■ Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki Shikibu: Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs. Translated by Richard Bowring. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
   Barbara Stevenson

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Murasaki Shikibu — /mooh rddah sah kee shee kee booh / Lady, 978? 1031?, Japanese poet and novelist. * * * born с 978, Kyōto, Japan Japanese writer. Her real name is unknown, and the primary source of knowledge about her life is a diary she kept (1007–10). Her Tale …   Universalium

  • Murasaki, Shikibu — (n. 978, Kyōto, Japón). Escritora japonesa. No se conoce su verdadero nombre y la principal fuente de información que se tiene sobre su vida es un diario de vida (1007–10). Su Romance de Genji (terminado 1010) es un relato extenso y complejo… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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