The novel opens with the characteristic summary of the hero's background. Once that is out of the way, the tale properly begins in the second chapter with the hero Genji, his rival To no Chujo, and two other young men telling war stories about their conquests. But because this is the middle of the Heian period and there is nobody to fight, the game is courtship and winning means getting behind the screen. To no Chujo knew a woman of exceptional beauty and taste named Yugao. He had a child with her but now both Yugao and the child are gone. Genji is entranced by what he hears and must have her. Such begins the cycle of discovery, courtship, possession, and loss that will be played out over three generations.
As with most Japanese literature, and Kawabata comes easily to mind, the plot is not nearly as important as the descriptions of setting and a heightened sensitivity for the beauty and sadness of things (mono no aware). Genji is the hero of the story (Kaoru, of the later part) not because of his exploits with women or his machinations at court, but because he is sensitive and articulate enough to communicate what usually cannot be put into words: that life is a sad business of "unendurable beauty."
One would expect that after a thousand years, the novel would have lost much its relevance, but this is not the case. In fact, the surprising thing about The Tale of Genji is that it contains the core of what, for want of a better term, may be called the Japanese sensibility. This is not to be confused with the often-maligned notion of Japanese uniqueness. That is a political thing. The Japanese sensibility as manifested in The Tale of Genji is a habit of being coupled with an aesthetic sense.
During Heian Kyo (794-1186), value was placed on a classical knowledge of Chinese poetry, the ability to play a musical instrument, handwriting that showed one's breeding and character, sensitivity to nature and the seasons, a sense of beauty, sportsmanship, duty, and charm. It was a time when matters of state where largely aesthetic questions about what color to wear or the proper classical allusion to fit the hour. In the chapter called "The Picture Competition" Murasaki writes, "It was indeed a moment in the history of our country when the whole energy of the nation seemed to be concentrated upon the search for the prettiest method of mounting paper-scrolls." These were the things that mattered.
The extraordinary thing about The Tale of Genji is that what was once a chronicle of the lives of a few hundred select people living a thousand years ago has become the mythos for a nation of 128 million. It is almost as if the mannerisms of Heian court life have been replicated in every subsequent milieu. The hierarchy is still with us, as are the mannerly appeals, the focus on the seasons and the passing of time, the emphasis on duty, beauty, ritual, and charm. It is only that the values in the novel have been transposed into a hundred walks of life with seemingly no relation to the Heian period. But dig a little deeper, and they are there. They have just changed form. What Murasaki was able to capture and distill in The Tale of Genji was the fountainhead of a distinctly Japanese civilization (ochobunka). There have been other influences, to be sure, but no other single work of literature can possibly lay claim to being Japan's "textbook in culture." Once you have read Genji, you will see its influence everywhere.
The complete English translations weigh in at around 1100 pages each. Of these, the three principal ones (with their dates of publication) are those by Arthur Waley (1925-1933), Edward G. Seidensticker (1976), and Royall Tyler (2001). Although each has its own strong points, Waley's translation is especially noteworthy because it was the groundbreaking one. Before Waley published the first part in 1925, Genji was largely unknown in the West. After Waley's translation, all those people who had thought that the novel as a literary form had begun with Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) or even Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1470) had to reset their timelines. Here was something of exceptional beauty written hundreds of years before the English novel had even been thought of.
Waley's translation itself is a work of art. Critics have said that it was in fact too much art and not enough translation - that Waley had overstepped his bounds as a translator. But others, including Tanizaki Junichiro and Ivan Morris, have defended Waley. Morris writes: "Arthur Waley's version of The Tale of Genji represents the freest possible type of translation. Indeed the word `re-creation' would be more appropriate; for he has brought Murasaki's novel to life as a great work of English literature in its own right." This accounts for the strange feeling that you have while reading Genji that the novel is recalling works by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, and Hardy instead of prefiguring them.
Subsequent translators have sought to rectify some of the shortcomings of Waley's translation. Seidensticker (1976), for example, restored the forms of address commonly used at the time (the use of court titles rather than given names or surnames) and rendered the poetry in couplets set off from the text rather than as quotations within the narrative. Tyler (2001) went even further in following the original Japanese, choosing to offer the reader a great deal of supplementary material to flesh out a more literal translation. This supplementary material includes footnotes, illustrations, maps, a chronology, a glossary, as well as appendices on "Clothing and Color," "Offices and Titles," "Poetic Allusions," "Characters," and "Further Reading."
Which should you read? I'd start with Waley's The Tale of Genji because this is a classic and reading Waley is a "two-for-one" proposition. Murasaki is here in all her brilliance but so is the guy who used to sit on the steps of the British Museum in between incredible flights of scholarship and imagination. After that, read Ivan Morris's The World of the Shining Prince. This will give you a good understanding of the Heian period. Then Seidensticker and Tyler. Finally, there is William J. Puette's very helpful The Tale of Genji: A Reader's Guide (Tuttle, 1983).