I first encountered Sei Shonagon in a college course about the personal essay. We talked about her tone in the essay “Hateful Things,” and I wrote about the credibility of her critique.
“Hateful Things” is an interesting piece when considered as an essay because it doesn’t read like any other essay I read for that class. Like the rest of her The Pillow Book, it is partly a list, partly a personal journal entry, and mostly a personal ramble. Yet, Shonagon writes beautifully. It has an interesting organization to it, and from the beginning until the end, “Hateful Things” progresses from generic to personal in a beautiful way. Much of The Pillow Book is similarly personal, and the vibrant personality of the woman who wrote it makes The Pillow Book a delightful, fascinating, and important book to read.
Sei Shonagon collected her writings (a bundle of papers kept inside her pillow) in the late 900s A.D. in Japan while she was working as a lady in waiting to the empress. She may have had a somewhat lower-class upbringing, but her extensive reading and later employment by the empress made her critical of the lower classes. In short, she’s a bit of a snob. Add to the mix a propensity toward middle-of-the-night liaisons and her feminist leanings and Shonagon’s diary becomes not just historically significant but also delightfully amusing.
Nat at In the Spring it is the Dawn took the name of her blog from the first line of Shonagon’s book and says in her review “I like to think that if Sei Shonagon were alive today, she’d have a blog, and a fun one to read it would be too!” I have to agree. Shonagon is witty and sarcastic, honest and playful. I think she was born 1000 years too early, because she loved finding something, be it funny, annoying, or ironic, in the ordinary events of the day. And despite her claim that she “regret[s] that it ever came to light” (page 264) because people have been hurt by her criticisms, I still believe she would have delighted in an unknown international audience that blogging would have given her.
Because Shonagon lived more than 1000 years ago, her work is also an historical and cultural piece. I know nothing about Japan. In fact, I believe The Pillow Book was the first Japanese book I’ve ever read. I learned about the traditions of Heian Japan, including the necessity of proper poetic response to the poetic notes people sent. Although I like to think of myself as a creative person when it comes to writing, I can’t imagine my social status being dictated by the witty poems I write! I learned a little bit about the superstitions and religious traditions of the era, which I also was completely unfamiliar with. And I loved learning about life in a palace that wasn’t what I was used to hearing about (my only palace exposure previously has been Western, via fairy tales and Arthurian legends).
Because of my ignorance, it would have been very hard to follow the significance of Shonagon’s diary if not for the extensive notes by Ivan Morris. While Morris’s translation is 266 pages, he also includes 80 pages of notes that explain portions of the text and 20 pages of appendices with illustrations of clothes and layouts, details about the calendars and government, and timelines of Shonagon’s life. I wished the text was annotated instead, so I wouldn’t have had to flip back and forth for the entire book, but I loved all the information. I didn’t concern myself with trying to remember all the different names and customs, but I did enjoy learning about them. I suspect this is a book I must reread.
Ivan Morris’s translation is actually an abridgement of a larger, more detailed text. While I hadn’t realized that when I read, apparently most modern translations of The Pillow Book excise similar sections since they are lists that Shonagon wrote to help her remember things and have little interest to a modern reader. The sections that were included were fascinating, and I did find myself interested, even in the brief lists Shonagon kept, especially when they morphed into a personal ramble:
5. Different Ways of Speaking
14. Hateful Things
16. Things that Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
29. Elegant Things
32. Unsuitable Things
(These are just a few: the entire book is peppered with such lists.)
I also love the stories Shonagon included about palace life. Some of them are specifically about herself and experiences (such as 8.” The Cat Who Lived in the Palace”) but others are more generic. It’s as if she’s pretending it’s not her own story, such as 46. “A Lovers Visit,” in which Shonagon talks about “a lady” and her attendants. One can only assume it is her own story. My favorite section was 116. “When I First Went in Waiting.” By this section of the book, I was familiar with Shonagon’s outspoken personality and relationship with the empress and others at Court. To go back and revisit her first impressions of royalty and palace life was then quite entertaining. It was comforting to know that even Sei Shonagon, who was anything but shy, was nervous during her first days in the palace.
Shonagon also had sections dedicated to complaining about people and customs. She had sections delighting in people and customs. She wrote about everything that struck her, and as the introduction states, it’s possible Shonagon was writing some sections as idea-outlines for her possible future novels. Unfortunately, The Pillow Book is the only remaining text by Sei Shonagon, and her life after she left court in 1000 A.D. is unknown.
I call it a diary but The Pillow Book is so much more. It’s a beginner’s education in Japanese Court life. It’s a outline of future novels. It’s an outlet for frustration. It’s a personal history. In the end, I think it’s a fun read.
Do you read blogs by random people who talk about the everyday aspects of their life and yet you find it interesting simply because of how they write about it? Ironically, I don’t but I still enjoyed this book!
[Japanese Literature Challenge 3 because it's classic Japanese literature]
[Really Old Classics Challenge because it was written before 1600 AD]
[Women Unbound Challenge because it's about a women's life]