The Pillow Book Paperback – Oct 30 2007
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About the Author
Sei Shonagon was born approximately a thousand years ago (965 is a likely date) and served as lady-in-waiting at the Court of the Japanese Empress during the last decade of the tenth century. Her father was a provincial official, but is best known as a poet and a scholar. It is possible, though unlikely, that Shonagon was briefly married to a government official, by whom she may have had a son. Her life after her Court service came to an end is totally obscure. There is a tradition that she died in lonely poverty: but this is probably an invention of moralists who were shocked by her promiscuity and thought she deserved retribution. Our knowledge of Shonagon's life and character rests almost exclusively on the Pillow Book itself.
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Comparing Arthur Waley's loose and overly elaborated reinterpretation, Ivan Morris' too-edited and sometimes overly academic translation, and this translation, this one is my favorite by far. McKinney has impeccable academic/linguistic credentials, and was more scrupulous in compiling her source material (not leaving things out as I recall that Morris did--readers can skip whatever isn't interesting to them, which I think is far preferable). In addition, she also writes well in English, so it's generally a pleasure to read--it's translated well without being overly flowery. McKinney's notes are very detailed and explain almost everything that might confuse a modern and/or non-Japanese reader (almost to a ridiculous extent--occasionally it's not quite worth turning to the note!). This version is enjoyable for both readers who are new to the book and enthusiasts or academics who have encountered it before.
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.
Sei Shonagan chronicles her list of favorite things- colors, seasons, clothes, birds, flowers, hours of the day -- with poetic beauty and depth. But she also observes with an intelligent, sly, and often sharp assessment the people and customs of the day, and what went on behind the scenes at court. Her observations range from humorous to withering. Her critque of the proper manner for a man to depart after a night of love is both acerbic and humorous. Reading The Pillow Book is like curling up with a book of beautiful observations coupled with some really interesting dish.
This edition has an informative preface that greatly enhances one's understanding of the historical period, and copious notes that both illustrate and describe in detaill the clothing and architecture of the world she inhavited, as well as an index that identifies the many characters Shonogan writes about.
That this book was written so long ago, and yet contains through all these centuries the human and emotional factors that still affect us today is amazing. A masterpiece of world literature.
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.
In Sei's world, what people wore, how they combined the colors of their clothing was very complicated and most important for men and women so we get detailed descriptions of who wore what and how he or she looked in it (there was a Bureau of Clothing in the imperial palace). She has strong opinion about style and taste but she hardly mentions facial features and body types. In the love affairs and romantic interests, it was taste and sensibility, not physical appearance, that were the focus. She sights that the man you love and the same man once you've lost all feelings for him seem like two completely different people. It was a joy to read Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book in Meredith McKinney's translation.
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