Over the past several months, I’ve been lingering over the delightful Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. I didn’t read it in one or two sittings as if it were a novel: rather, I read it slowly, as if each section were a prose poem, sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, but always a vivid and beautiful glimpse of another time and another place. I read the Penguin Classic translation by Meredith McKinney, and I thought it was an absolute gem.
The Pillow Book was written around the turn of the 11th century in Japan during the middle Heian period. It seems to have been a book where Sei Shonagon jotted all sorts of things down, from lists of “things that imitate” (yawns, children) to “things that look better in moonlight” (people who are unattractive but have pleasant personalities) to “infuriating things” (dropping a freshly-cleaned comb in the dirt.) These kinds of lists are a complete delight, because they are so familiar — although ten centuries have passed between her time and ours, so much of what she says is familiar, witty, and aptly described.
Shonagon was a gentlewoman who served the Empress Teishi. The Pillow Book is full of anecdotes about court life, and the stories spring living from the page with every personality, every aphorism, every color intact. For instance, women and men were expected to know vast reams of poetry by heart, and a great deal of court conversation consisted of parrying quotations in the wittiest and slyest way. Shonagon was apparently very good at this game, and reports her own repartee in the most unselfconscious manner, along with many other conversations, word for word.
She also reports, constantly, on everyone’s clothes. I don’t know whether everyone would react this way, but I absolutely loved hearing about how splendid the Court Chancellor looked in a plum-pink robe in the spring-shoot combination, with three gloss-white over-robes and a scarlet sash (or whatever.) I felt that it gave the most magnificent sense of authenticity — what people wore every day, or to sleep in, or for festivals. Through Shonagon’s eyes, you also see what they eat, what role religion plays, what games they play, what children do all day, what pets they have, and on and on. It’s as if, by picking up this book, you can have a small, delightful, crystal-clear window into another world.
I’ve finally finished The Pillow Book, and I’m sorry it’s over, partly because I’ll miss 11th-century Japan, and partly because I’m sorry to lose Sei Shonagon’s witty, acerbic company. She’s quite a woman.