Relatively little is known about Sei Shonagon's life. We know she was a court lady in tenth-century Japan, at the pinnacle of the Heian period.
And she left behind a glimpse into her culture's period in "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon." It's a sort of mishmash memoir -- gossip, reflections, lists, and personal recollections are all mingled together, with a light, poetic delicacy that still is striking today.
The story behind the Pillow Book is that when Shonagon (possible real name: Kiyohara Nagiko) was serving the Imperial Family, the Empress Teishi received a bunch of notebooks that she couldn't use. As they were too valuable to discard, she gave them to Shonagon to use as she chose.
And so Shonagon basically poured her thoughts into her "Pillow Book" -- she offers brief reflections on the world around her, diary-like recollections of things that happen among the ladies in waiting, essays on court life, lists, poetry, and pretty much anything else she dreamed up.
One of the most intriguing things about the Pillow Book is the glimpse into tenth-century Japan that it gives. Shonagon's stories are about little things like flutes, disobedient dogs, clothes, and the Empress's ladies betting on how long it would take a giant mound of snow to melt (no, I'm not kidding). Somehow, it leaves the past seeming a little less distant.
Normally these stories would be curiosities only. But Shonagon -- despite her tendency towards snobbery -- had a special knack with prose, and and a bright, shimmering wit. Her charming love of beauty is often enchanting; she often lists things that she finds pleasing, such as moons, summer nights, flowers and willow trees. Her words were almost as pleasant, since she littered her writing with jokes, metaphor and wordplay.
Not that her recollections are without negatives -- she listed her pet peeves (such as parents worshiping a very unappealing child -- something we've all been annoyed with), and things she found depressing or annoying. A stickler for form and ettiquette, she had very precise ideas about how things should be done... right down to how love affairs should be conducted.
If there's a problem with this, it's that Shonagon -- in the manner of her time -- tends to gloss over the more important, unpleasant details of life. And her own anecdotes show that she could be very cruel, as when she gave a mocking poem to a newly-homeless peasant, instead of a promissory note. It may have been typical of her class and culture, but come on.
"The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" opens a little window into the scented world of Heian-era Japan, and leaves behind the impression of a spunky, sharp-witted lady who would have stood out anywhere.