Murasaki Shikibu Nikki (The Diary of Lady Murasaki)

Read:  2014

Author:  Murasaki Shikibu; Richard Bowring (translator)

Published:  11th Century (original); 1996 (translation)

Genre:  Memoir / Historical Non-Fiction

Pages:  144 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle’s Score:  Scoring Liked Book

“The diary recorded by Lady Murasaki, author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shōshi.  Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace, the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts – with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers – and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga

“The diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology, her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.” – from the Amazon summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

Murasaki Shikibu was the author of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), a classic work of Japanese literature that is considered the world’s first true novel.  She was also a skilled poet and a member of the Heian court.

During her tenure as an attendant to Empress Shōshi, Lady Murasaki kept what is widely translated as a “diary.”  This “diary” is actually not a diary at all, but rather a collection of vignettes, poems, and letters to an unnamed recipient for some unknown purpose.  Only a fraction of her “diary” has survived, and this translation takes up perhaps only 60 pages of the entire text. 

Much of this overall work focuses on the events surrounding the birth of Empress Shōshi‘s son, Prince Atsuhira, an event which was of the utmost importance to the ruling Fujiwara family, of which Murasaki Shikibu was a lower-ranking member.  Her writing provides an interesting picture of court life from someone on the inside, describing a variety of rituals as well as daily life.  After reading this, I was surprised to find that the creator of The Tale of Genji – a book revolving around medieval Japanese court society – was not in the thick of that society herself and seemed – to me, at least – to resent having been brought to court at all.  Despite being counted amongst the Empress’s ladies, Lady Murasaki watches events unfold from the fringe; she is observant but detached, and never seems particularly keen to get involved in the intrigues and activities she commits to paper.

I found the first half of the “diary” to be rather tedious, as it was mostly concerned with the minutiae of court life and the palatial surroundings in which our author finds herself; there are quite detailed depictions of architecture and interior design, as well as clothing, dancing, rituals, and the ceremonies which followed the birth of the Prince.  Lady Murasaki’s attention to detail is extraordinary and may be better valued by someone who specializes in this time period or who is reading this “diary” for research purposes.

” ‘Well, we never expected this!’ they all say.  ‘No one liked her.  They all said she was pretentious, awkward, difficult to approach, prickly, too fond of her tales, haughty, prone to versifying, disdainful, cantankerous, and scornful.  But when you meet her, she is strangely meek, a completely different person altogether!’  How embarrassing!  Do they really look upon me as a dull thing, I wonder?  But I am what I am.”

The second half of the “diary” reads more like a letter; it was more personal and, in my opinion, more interesting to a layperson such as myself.  Here, Lady Murasaki gives us her personal opinions about the Empress, various courtiers, and advisers.  Also included are brief references to The Tale of Genji and Lady Murasaki’s opinions of her equally well-known contemporaries: the author Sei Shōnagon and the poet Izumi Shikibu.  It was during this latter half of the text that I was struck by how truly isolated Lady Murasaki obviously felt; there is a sorrowful tinge to her writing and choice of words, and she speaks often of feeling “lonely” and “depressed.”

I previously read Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book and the novel The Tale of Murasaki, and I am planning to read The Tale of Genji in the near future, so I figured I was long past due to actually read The Diary of Lady Murasaki.  To be completely honest, however, I really believe that if this wasn’t written by the illustrious Murasaki Shikibu, this “diary” wouldn’t be nearly as famous as it is; it is, as I mentioned earlier, quite brief, and over half of the “diary” isn’t all that interesting for people like myself, who, rather than trying to feed a specific interest or passion for the Heian period and court life, are simply looking to feel closer to Lady Murasaki herself.

That being said, I will also add that Bowring’s translation was the largest saving grace of this otherwise dull read.  His introduction was almost as long as the original text, and, in my opinion, it was far more interesting.  Bowring provides a great deal of background on Lady Murasaki herself, as well as the language, clothing styles and fabrics in use at the time, political titles, and popular architecture of the period.  Also included in the appendices are a map, floor plans for the palace grounds, and sources for different contemporaries’ points of view for some of the same occurrences presented by Lady Murasaki.  Throughout the entire text are helpful annotations which provide explanations and details about specific occurrences and individuals.  My only complaint about this translation is that it doesn’t include a collection of Murasaki’s poetry, for which she was well-known during her own lifetime.

So, I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in Heian culture, politics, or the period in general.  The Tale of Genji will probably give you a better sense of her style and imagination than this “diary,” while The Tale of Murasaki, while a work of fiction, provides glimpses of court life and a possible background for Lady Murasaki while retaining some form of entertainment (and it also includes some of her loveliest poems).

Elle read the Penguin Classics paperback version of this book.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Lady Esbe says:

    You know this isn’t my cup of tea, but nice review.

    Liked by 1 person

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