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Sunday 17 August 2014

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon (translated by Ivan Morris)

The Pillow Book has been sitting by my pillow for an awful long time. I tried to read it last year, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind so it is somewhat curious that this year when I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for reading, this was the right book. Having read it, however, it is perhaps a little less curious, and I’m pleased that Women in Translation month encouraged me to give this book another go. 

Sei Shōnagon lived over a thousand years ago (the year 965 is estimated to be her year of birth) and served in the Imperial Empress’s retinue. Her ‘pillow book’ is a collection of her notes and impressions of her life and experiences, apparently intended for her own consumption only, but as she describes in one of the later passages found its way into the public domain. Though Shōnagon describes her own regret about this “Whatever people may think of my book, I still regret that it ever came to light” for my own part I am glad that it did. The Pillow Book is a delightful read which gives an interesting insight into Heian period during which she lived. It also tells us much about life in the Japanese court, and of course about Shōnagon herself.

The book is organised in short texts collected under a header. Some of these give journal-like descriptions about events and occurrences, and others are Shōnagon’s own thoughts and impressions. She covers a wide range of subjects including the Imperial court, relations between men and women, nature, poetry, art, religion. My favourite parts of the book are her impressions, like these:

I love white, purple and black clouds, and rain clouds when they are driven by the wind. It is charming at dawn to see dark clouds gradually turning white. I believe this has been described in a Chinese poem that says something about the ‘tints that leave at dawn.
It is moving to see a thin wisp of cloud across a very bright moon.

Squalid things
The back of a piece of embroidery.
The inside of a cat’s ear.
A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest…”

I enjoy the artlessness of Shōnagon’s writing, the way she is completely honest about her impressions even though there is some suggestion that her ideas are somewhat at odds with the popular society of the age. There is a kind of innocence in the scenes she describes, the simple things which bring her joy and delight, the things she finds ‘splendid’ or ‘hateful’. There are elements to her observations which may seem frivolous, yet they remain fresh and honest. She does not try to be (or appear to try to be) anyone other than she is.

It is interesting to contrast Shōnagon’s impressions against those in the contemporary world. Scenes like this one:

It was a Clear, Moonlit Night
It was a clear moonlit night a little after the tenth of the Eighth Month. Her Majesty, who was residing in the Empress’s Office, sat by the edge of the veranda while Ukon no Naishi played the flute for her. The other ladies in attendance sat together, talking and laughing; but I stayed by myself, leaning against one of the pillars between the main hall and the veranda.
‘Why so silent?’ said Her Majesty. ‘Say something. It is sad when you do not speak.’
‘I am gazing into the autumn moon,’ I replied.
‘Ah yes,’ she remarked. ‘That is just what you should have said.’

Shōnagon’s book displays the elegance of the Imperial court, and a certain adoration for the Imperial family which is, perhaps, hard to understand in this era. She may be accused of disregard for the poor and her attitude shows perhaps a misplaced reverence for rank and title. Yet though these accusations may be true (I would not disagree myself) it perhaps also honestly reflects many attitudes of the era and gives an insight into Japanese society that a more cautious text might have granted.

For myself I found the book delightful, a soothing and interesting read, and though it is a work of biographical nature, it occupies a similar space and feel as nature and travel books. For me it was a perfect antidote to our technology obsessed society, in which information is instant and there is always something shiny to distract us. Shōnagon shows how we can gain pleasure from much simpler things, like waking in a room with the moonlight shining in, something perhaps few people in our contemporary society ever experience, and it left me wondering how Shōnagon would deal with streetlights and concrete, television and the internet; what would make her list of ‘splendid things’ and ‘enviable people’, what impression would she make of trees and flowers and plants that can be found everywhere, whatever country you are in? I am sure she would still make it interesting and precious, and I would like, in my small way, to put together a pillow book of my own just to see how my impressions compare.

The Penguin Classic edition of The Pillow Book includes lots of useful references in the back, giving more context to the poetic references and the social structures and events that Shōnagon refers to in the book. There’s also several appendices covering modes of dress and the names of the months and times, geographical information, historical chronology and a useful explanation of the structure of the Imperial Court. All this additional information helps to place the book into context and, The Pillow Book aside, make for a fascinating read in their own right.

I leave you with one of Shōnagon’s impressions, her opening passage: In Spring, It is the Dawn:

“In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes or fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of insects.
In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold weather wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ash.”  

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon receives a splendid 9 out of 10 Biis. 

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