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  • Written by Liza Dalby
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  • Written by Liza Dalby
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A Novel

Written by Liza DalbyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Liza Dalby


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: August 13, 2002
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-3278-5
Published by : Nan A. Talese Knopf
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The Tale of Murasaki is an elegant and brilliantly authentic historical novel by the author of Geisha and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha.

In the eleventh century Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, the most popular work in the history of Japanese literature. In The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby has created a breathtaking fictionalized narrative of the life of this timeless poet–a lonely girl who becomes such a compelling storyteller that she is invited to regale the empress with her tales. The Tale of Murasaki is the story of an enchanting time and an exotic place. Whether writing about mystical rice fields in the rainy mountains or the politics and intrigue of the royal court, Dalby breathes astonishing life into ancient Japan.


Katako's Letter
I was pregnant with you when my mother died, but my condition was far from normal. I was often overwhelmed by waves of nausea. The only thing that held them at bay was a fresh citron. Scratching the bumpy yellow yuzu skin released a tiny vapor of citrus essence to inhale and quell my rising gorge. But most of the time I simply surrendered to queasy lassitude. I had to tuck emergency drafts of yuzu and tangerine peel in my sleeves to get through my mother's funeral. She had been living in seclusion for some time. Some people, on hearing of her death, were surprised that she had still been alive.
Your grandmother was well known as the lady who wrote the Tale of Genji. That novel of romance and poignant observation appeared like a bright full moon floating out of a dark sky. No one had read anything like it before. It brought my mother fame and notoriety in her day. Still, I was surprised at the crowd that gathered for her final rites. At least a dozen ladies endured the inconvenient all-day trip to Ishiyama Temple. They must have been Genji readers who preferred the life they found in my mother's stories to their own dull husbands or difficult situations.
I'm sure my mother became a recluse in order to disentangle herself from Genji. The work had come to envelop her life. Yet Genji was also her child. She had created and nurtured it, but then, as children do, it grew up and eventually slipped from her control. I was a much more compliant child than the book. I never gave her as much cause for concern as did Genji.
Perhaps because people were infatuated with the heroine of her novel, they confused my mother with that character. She was nicknamed Murasaki when she entered Her Majesty's service. Readers of the tale seemed to think they knew her because they knew Genji's Murasaki. I think my mother grew tired of the letters and visits from people of all ranks, including imperial personages, whom, of course, she could not ignore. It had gotten to the point where readers became so involved with her characters that they importuned my mother to create particular scenes to satisfy their imaginations. They came to expect things of Genji, and my mother grew equally tired, I'm convinced, of meeting their expectations and thwarting them.
She had even been invited to join the empress's entourage because of Genji. It must have seemed a miracle to her, a bookish widow, to have been lifted out of obscurity into the conspicuous brilliance of that imperial salon. Genji writing brought her to the attention of the regent Michinaga, the man who controlled emperors and ruled the country in fact if not in name. Whatever my mother's relationship to Michinaga may have been, Genji was largely responsible.
One bears children and eventually launches them into society, praying they will make a favorable impression, attain a suitable status, or at least not be an embarrassment. Perhaps one has taught them something that will give them the strength to suffer the karma they were born with. Yet eventually children will do as they will. The influence of previous existence will play out in ways we cannot possibly know. As a parent, one accepts this. But a work of fiction is a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own.
Perhaps it's not so different from a flesh-and-blood child, after all.
The Genji tale was like an elder brother to me from the time I was born. It was always taking up my mother's time, demanding her attention like any selfish boy. It never went away or lessened its demand. As jealous as I was when I was young, eventually I, too, fell under Genji's spell.
We did not meet often during the years my mother lived as a nun. My own career at court was developing moderately well, and I was then under the protection of Counselor Kanetaka, a nephew of Regent Michinaga. It was his child--you--I carried at the time of Murasaki's death.
I thought I should probably never marry. How was I to know the fated connections and promotions that were to come my way? I was not worried about my future, because my mother was not. She would not have abandoned me at sixteen unless she felt my prospects were secure.
The faint scent of cherry blossoms will always remind me of my mother's departing this world. As we left the sand-strewn funerary plain at dawn, we passed stands of blooming cherries in the morning fog. Then, as the sun warmed the earth and the fog melted away, a soft smell filled the air. No one thinks of sakura for its scent--it hasn't the strong honey odor of plum--but out in the countryside, in such masses, sakura seemed to have a subtle fragrance.
I was carrying the urn with Murasaki's ashes to take back to our family temple. My grandfather Tametoki should have been in charge, but, mortified at seventy-four to have outlived his children, he shrank from taking an official part in the ceremony. Shaking his gray head like one of the querulous macaque monkeys we saw on the mountain roads, my grandfather lamented the fortune of his continued good health as much as his daughter's death.
The following month I journeyed for the last time to my mother's retreat near Kiyomizu Temple to gather her things. I knew there would not be very much because she had already given away her musical instruments, her books, and--of course, long since--all of the fine silk clothing she had worn at court. There were some good padded winter robes, which I donated to the temple, as well as the sutras she had been copying in her graceful calligraphy. I managed to find the only things I wanted--her dark purple inkstone, a set of writing brushes, and a Chinese celadon brush rest in the form of five mountains. As I knelt at her low writing table, I noticed another bundle of papers, rolled tightly and wrapped in a scrap of chartreuse silk. Thinking these to be old letters she had kept for the paper on which to copy more sutras, I decided to take them with me for my own writing practice. Paper is not cheap, and I thought I might as well put it to the use my mother intended. The priest was disappointed. These people are always on the lookout for extra paper.
Liza Dalby

About Liza Dalby

Liza Dalby - The Tale of Murasaki

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Author of Geisha and Kimono and the only Westerner ever to have become a geisha, Liza Dalby is a consultant for Steven Spielberg?s upcoming film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. She lives in Berkeley, California.


“Luscious, lush and languorously elegant.... You feel you are breathing the air of 11th-century Japan.”
--USA Today

“Liza Dalby is not just a remarkable scholar of Japan--she is a keen storyteller.”
--Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“An impressive spectacle.... Demands to be savored and appreciated.”
--San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

“An amazing feat.... Anyone already an enthusiast either of [The Tale of] Genji or of Arthur Golden’s wonderful Memoirs of a Geisha will already be running to the bookstore for this book.... A wonderful accomplishment.”--Newsday

“Exquisite and poetic.... A leisurely, rich novel told in a dreamy style.... Elegant.”
--The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

“Captivating.... The Tale of Murasaki gets the big things right, including, indispensably, the dark undercurrent of sadness running below the bright, embroidered surface.... All this, and much more, rings so true to the created milieu of Genji that one is inclined to indulge Dalby in all she has dreamed or imagined.”
--The Washington Post Book World

“Authentic.... Re-creates the life of an 11th-century Scheherazade.”
--Entertainment Weekly
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby.

About the Guide

In eleventh-century Japan, Murasaki Shikibu gave her readers The Tale of Genji, what many have called the world's first novel. Today, Liza Dalby gives her readers The Tale of Murasaki, a brilliant, vividly imagined "diary" of Murasaki. Through this device, Dalby artfully brings to life not only Murasaki and her writing, but also the splendor and scandal of court life during the Heian period of Japan. The re-creation of Murasaki's life is a dazzling accomplishment, bursting with the colors, fashion, and poetry of court life, the natural landscape of Japan, and the rites and rituals of Buddhism. We hope the questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow enhance your group's reading of this exotic excursion into ancient Japanese cultural history through the story of a fascinating and complex woman.

Murasaki's adolescence was a lonely one, punctuated by loss. Her mother died when she was fifteen, her sister is "slow-witted," and her brother is a dolt. Murasaki begins writing stories of Genji, the "Shining Prince," at first to entertain her friends. But one by one, her friends exit her life to live their own. Then her father, a mid-ranking court poet and Chinese scholar, is posted to the remote province of Echizen to deal with relations with the Chinese, and her family moves. In her isolation, Murasaki's fictional Genji becomes her closest companion, and her imagination sustains her. During her marriage to a high court official, Murasaki is fascinated by her husband's tales of the politics and sexual intrigue of court life--he has access to the inner courts that her father never did. Her imagination refueled, Murasaki continues to write Genji stories. Word of her stories makes its way to the court, and the powerful, reigning regent, Michinaga, requests that Murasaki begin court service to regale his daughter, the empress, with her stories. Finally attaining her dream, Murasaki's life in the inner courts begins, and she experiences firsthand the glory, sexual machinations, and severity of cloistered court life, all the while writing more of Genji's adventures for her empress.

About the Author

Liza Dalby is an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture. She was the only Westerner to have become a geisha, which she did as research for her Ph.D. and her books Geisha and Kimono. She is a consultant for Steven Spielberg's upcoming film adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and three children.

Discussion Guides

1. Katako describes her mother's fiction as "a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own" [p. 2]. And Murasaki agrees in her conclusion that she had been "deluded . . . into thinking I could shape reality by my writing. . . . Reality was neither the subject nor object of the tales, for Genji created his own reality"[pp. 397<ETH>98]. Do Katako's and Murasaki's observations, in fact, describe what Dalby herself is doing in re-creating Murasaki's life and her world through the art of historical fiction? How is that different than writing the fictional The Tale of Genji?

2. Why does Dalby choose to begin the book with Katako's letter to her daughter? In what other ways does the theme of one person acting as a scribe in order to preserve the present for posterity run throughout the book? In what other instances, and in what manner, do people in Murasaki's world communicate on behalf of one another?

3. A novel is clearly not a "pile of poems with a fragile thread of story holding them together," as Murasaki, the young writer, learns [p. 34]. In Murasaki's experience, how does the process of writing a novel compare to composing poetry? What about to the other forms of written expression appearing in the novel, i.e., writing lists, "pillow books," diaries or "scribbling" to record current events? According to Murasaki, is there a hierarchy of written forms of expression?

4. Upon her entrance to court life, she finds "the sacred presence of the emperor and empress was overwhelming" [p. 248]. Does Murasaki discover, as Ruri had warned her, that, in fact, "life at court conceals a constant tension between ideas of how things are supposed to be and how they are" [p. 50]? Do Murasaki's views toward court change over her time of service? Is her advice to her daughter and her decision to prepare her for court service a surprise [pp. 358<ETH>59]? In comparing herself to Genji's "pretend" son, Kaoru, who "understood the dissatisfaction of getting what you think you want" [p. 389], is Murasaki referring to her disappointment in court life? Are there other aspects of Murasaki's life that turned out differently than the way she anticipated?

5. Dalby often employs elaborate metaphors to describe the scenes before Murasaki. For example, she describes one of the many ceremonies following the prince's birth as follows: "The embroidery was all in silver, and the seams of our trains were outlined in silver thread stitched together so thickly it looked like braid. Silver foil was inlaid into patterns in the ribs of the fans. When everyone was assembled, it was like looking at snow-clad mountains by the light of a clear moon--almost blinding, as if the room had been hung with mirrors" [p. 320]. How does this striking visual image act as a metaphor to convey the intricate relationship between Murasaki and nature? What other literary devices does Dalby employ to convey the visual spectacle or to evoke mood? What images from the novel are most vivid for you?

6. In musing over Michinaga's opinions of the great poets of the time, Kinto and Kazan, Murasaki comments, "Father's most ancient texts on Chinese poetics . . . insist the origin of the poetic impulse must lie in nature rather than purposeful art. 'Insect carving' was how one scholar derided the overly crafted work of his contemporaries" [p. 261]. Does this distinction between "good" and "bad" poetry accurately capture the aesthetic so highly esteemed in Murasaki's Japan?

7. Observing the farmers in the provinces practice their religious rituals, Murasaki wonders, "Could it be that even the royal court followed customs that originated in the sacred mud of the rice paddies?" [p. 147]. What other events or descriptions does Dalby use to illustrate how life "above the clouds" is different from "real life"--below the clouds?

8. Katako writes that the religious leader Genshin "preached the way for all souls, even women, to be saved directly by the mercy of Amida Buddha" [p. 400]. The assumption behind this statement, and eleventh-century Buddhist culture, is that a woman's soul is usually not worthy of salvation, by virtue of her gender. How else does Dalby capture this inferior, at times almost nonexistent, status of women in eleventh-century Japan? What influence on society do the women in The Tale of Murasaki have, if any?

9. What examples of the sexual mores of the time can you glean from the novel? How would you compare and contrast these practices, as portrayed in The Tale of Murasaki, to those of contemporary Western society?

10. Compare and contrast Murasaki's relationships with women to her relationships with men. Which are more nurturing emotionally? Intellectually? Which better prepare her for society? How do each of her relationships help her shape the development of Genji's character? Does Murasaki learn to like men--or does she just accept that, "in the end, I suppose we always have to take it" [p. 327]?

11. According to The New York Times review of The Tale of Murasaki, Dalby invented Murasaki's relationship with Ming-gwok in order to "broaden her horizons and introduce her to love."* Do you agree that this was Dalby's purpose?

12. If you have not read The Tale of Genji, how would you imagine his character based upon The Tale of Murasaki? Is he Murasaki's "Shining Prince" or her alter ego? An imaginary friend or ideal lover? How does Genji reflect Michinaga's character? What are his strengths and weaknesses [see pp. 151, 294<ETH>96, 388]? At what points do Murasaki's own experiences coincide with or diverge from those of Genji? What is her relationship with him, and how does it change over the course of the novel?

13. Murasaki's father reacts to Genji's infatuation with Yugao by asking: "'Why would a man like Genji neglect a lady of beauty and refinement for this tramp?'" And Murasaki thinks, "I had to smile. Father really was different from ordinary men, and I loved him for it" [p. 231]. What examples can you find of Tametoki being in fact "different" from the other men in Murasaki's life? In what ways is he the same? Is he admirable or foolish or both?

14. How are the Chinese compared and contrasted with the Japanese in the novel? For example, Murasaki is "struck by the different way Chinese and Japanese view [seasonal changes]. . . . The Chinese regarded fireflies as born from fallen vegetation which rots in the humid heat, yet there was no emotion in that observation" [p. 153]. And later, she is "humbled" when Ming-gwok tells her that "the Chinese emperor had an entire bureau of learned men devoted to studying the stars. . . . We Japanese have no idea of these things" [p. 164]. Why do you think that Dalby might have included these and other comparisons between the two races in her novel?

15. What is the significance of Dalby's creating "The Lost Last Chapter of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji" as the epilogue for her novel? Is Ukifune supposed to be symbolic of Murasaki in her last years--afflicted by blindness that finally brings her peace? Is there a difference in style between the last chapter and the rest of the novel?

16. When the serving ladies mock Murasaki for reading Chinese books she rather brashly thinks, "Yes, that's what is always said, but I've never heard of anyone living longer simply because of observing such prohibitions!" [p. 356]. Is Murasaki a woman ahead of her times, or very much a product of her times? Is she rebellious in other aspects of her life?

17. Dalby writes in the Acknowledgments that she "reverse-engineered" The The Tale of Genji into her novel. How does she do this? How is the creative- writing process explored in the novel? Is The Tale of Murasaki primarily a novel about the act of writing?

18. Like Murasaki, Dalby includes a cast of characters at the beginning of The Tale of Murasaki. Murasaki writes of her characters: "Originally I had thought of Genji as the center of this universe of women. Later, as the extended mansion took shape in my mind, I realized that the ladies themselves were of far more interest to me" [p. 199]. Does Murasaki ever become less than the central character in Dalby's novel? How does Dalby develop the other characters in the novel? Are they all secondary to Murasaki, important only in as much as they affect Murasaki, or can any stand on their own?

19. How do the many examples of the man-made order (court ranking, calendar, the Chinese calendar's Monthly Ordinance, the composed garden, the number of layers of the kimonos) enable eleventh-century Japanese society to survive and flourish in the face of the harshness and unpredictability of nature? How is Murasaki's life shaped by these two opposing forces?

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