I first discovered The Pillow Book, quite by accident, at age 19 in a pile of books a college roommate had left behind. It quickly revealed an unknown world of absolute beauty and a life lived as art to my young mind, a world in which the mere examination of a particular color of a mountaintop at sunset or the blink of a firefly winging its way through the first moments of a misty dusk, the small tragedy of a fire reduced to dying embers, are interpreted and elevated to their proper place as the miracles of a life well-observed. Sei Shonagans's observations concerning a sheet of clean, properly produced paper, for example, becomes an allegory for the importance of elegance in all things, the necessity of a thing well done, the small choices that define our place in the world and the infinite possibilites of an ordinary day.
But she doesn't limit her journal, for that is what this is, thus the title, to the minute. She freely and whole-heartedly chronicles the daily doings of palace life, unfettered and uncensored--she wrote in secret, living with the dire danger that she be found out--from the grandest and most complex internecine details of royal ceremonies and celebrations to the delicious gossip of secret romantic affairs of high and low society. There are many passages that are frankly hilarious. The ironies and duplicities of human behavior, it is comforting to discover, were as much a part of the ancient world as they are today. Decadence is timeless, and ever divine, then and now.
She is quick in her disapprovals, and, one suspects, takes great delight in chronicling the scandals of the day.
This is a book to hold close at hand. One need not begin with page one and read the whole thing through--though once you do begin, you will be hard-pressed to put it aside. I enjoy simply letting it fall open to any random page, allowing myself a few minutes or several hours of sheer pleasure. For writers of any sort, or for anyone for whom reading is more than a pleasure but necessary to one's routine, The Pillow Book will become a touchstone, indeed an anchor and a shield against the unpleasantries of modern culture. The wonder is that it has survived. Its over-riding message is that the human condition has changed so very little over these many centuries--we are as we ever were.
The absurdities of the mundane, glamour, the glorious beauty of the infinite within the small, the evil that permeates and remains shrouded within structured societies but does not destroy us, has never been captured so rapturously and with such a rigorous eye.
I can't close without remarking on Sei Shonagon's remarkable prose. Though we English readers can only imagine what has been lost in translation, each sentence is a poem within itself. Elegance is too small a word to describe it. Refinement. Intelligence. The act of writing for art's sake, unaware that anyone other than herself would ever read it. Perhaps she was one of a kind, her mind a genetic mutation that can never be replicated. I can tell you that this book will change your life and effect a re-evaluation of your world view. It's been my lighthouse on the shore of of a stormy sea for 40 years, my northern star.