‘The Pillow Book’ by Sei Shōnagon (Review)

While we’ll be travelling around the world during Women in Translation Month, most of our journeys will be fairly contemporary, with the majority of books written in recent years.  However, today we’ll be taking a big jump in time as well as space as we look back to the end of the tenth century.  Yes, it was a man’s world then too – but one best written about with a female touch 😉

*****
Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney) is one of the earliest, and best-known, works of classic Japanese literature.  Less a novel than a series of musings and anecdotes, Shōnagon’s work is a description of life at the Imperial court around the turn of the millennium, giving the reader an insight into how the rich and noble lived a thousand years ago.  Mainly descriptive, the book also reveals a lot about Shōnagon herself, allowing us to build up a picture of a woman at court.

As you can imagine, this was a different place and a very, very different time.  Sei describes the seclusion of a miniature world, ensconced in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, with occasional excursions for processions and pilgrimages.  The main focus of the book is the daily life at court, where hours are spent entertaining the Empress, chatting with other gentlewomen and discussing the elaborate clothes worn by courtiers and government officials.  Which may all sound a little bit… well, dull,

Actually, though, it’s all a bit racier than that – morals were a little different then.  Other major areas of interest are the romances and night visits the women of the court receive from the men surrounding the Emperor, and our Sei is certainly a woman who has had her share of such liaisons, allowing her to offer her thoughts on the subject:

“One does want a lover’s dawn departure to be tasteful  There he lies, reluctant to move, so that she has to press him to rise.  ‘Come on, it’s past dawn,’ she urges.  ‘How shocking you are!’ and his sighs reassure her that he really hasn’t yet had his fill of love, and is sunk in gloom at the thought that he must leave.”
[60], pp.55/6 (Penguin Classics, 2006)

These relationships, while officially frowned upon, were fairly commonplace, and  Sei describes a whole ritual of poem exchanges and gift-giving which surrounded the nocturnal visits.

The writer excels in these descriptions thanks to her keen eye, her intelligence and her wit.  Coming from a family known for its literary prowess, she’s constantly completing poems and recognising allusions to Chinese poetry.  While, at times, she does seem a little conceited, she’s well mannered enough to be the first to admit it:

“When one’s returned home on a visit and a senior courtier or someone of the sort comes to call, it would seem that there’s gossip or criticism.  I don’t let this annoy me, since after all I’m not exactly renowned for my modesty and prudence.” [79], p.72

Still, boastful or not, she does (in her own eyes) seem to be a favourite of the Empress, and there are many examples of real friendship between the two.

She’s not everyone’s darling though, and the introduction mentions later criticism of Sei by Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji.  Her sneering (which reminded me a little of Charlotte Brontë’s sniping at Jane Austen…) was partially explained by the fact that Murasaki was herself at court at a later date, attending on a rival empress.  It does seem unfortunate, then, that Penguin decided to adorn the cover of this book with a scene from The Tale of Genji…

Quite apart from the cultural aspects, though, The Pillow Book contains some beautiful writing, with elegant vignettes and moving poems, including the famous first lines:

“In spring, the dawn – when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple clouds float in the sky.” [1], p.3

While she has an elegant, poetic turn of phrase, Sei’s eye for amusing details also makes for some very entertaining stories.  One of the best of these is the story of a returning lover who stops for a morning chat with another woman of the court.  All the while, the messenger of this woman’s lover waits impatiently in the shadows for the man to depart – so that the love poem from his master can be delivered to its unworthy recipient!

Despite these gems, The Pillow Book is far from perfect, and, truth be told, it can drag a bit.  The main culprits for this are the endless lists the writer provides of items she deems worthy of mention: things which are refined and elegant, things which are unsuitable, trees, waterfalls, woods…  While this is fine in moderation, many simply lose much of the intended meaning in translation (most items are chosen for puns on the names), and after a list too many, the reader’s eyes begin to glaze over.  In addition, the style can be a little repetitive (deliberately so – it’s scary to find that the translator has actually lessened the repetition in the course of her work…).

As much as it is Sei’s work, though, much of the credit has to go to McKinney.  The Pillow Book is actually a confusion of entries (there are four different extant versions in Japanese), so there was a lot of work to be done before the actually translating could even begin.  In addition to translating the book, McKinney has provided an excellent introduction, copious notes (at times, overwhelmingly so) and numerous appendices, including glossaries, diagrams and drawings of court attire.  Hats off to McKinney and Penguin – they truly have gone all out on the extras for this one 😉

The Pillow Book is great fun, but it’s a work to dip into, not to plough through – it’s definitely best taken in small doses. There are some great stories and excellent scenes of court life, showing Shōnagon as the entertainer she was.  As McKinney says:

Shōnagon was writing not only for but, in an important sense, on behalf of her audience at court as she noted, described and discussed the myriad things that engaged her interest…” (p.xxii)

The women at court are not the only ones who benefited from her hard work – reading The Pillow Book has been great preparation for my (much-delayed) quest to read The Tale of Genji.  After my experiences with Sei Shōnagon’s work, though, I think I’ll be taking things a little more slowly when it comes to Lady Murasaki’s masterpiece – a little classical Japanese literature goes a long, long way…

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2 thoughts on “‘The Pillow Book’ by Sei Shōnagon (Review)

  1. Fascinating, and I quite like having books to dip into every now and again. Do you know how the book relates to Peter Greenaway's film, The Pillow Book? Have you seen it? I saw it on its release some fifteen or so years ago, and can recall it feeling quite lush and sumptuous. I'm not sure that it's a straight adaptation, more inspired by aspects of the text, perhaps?

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  2. Jacqui – Unfortunately, I'm more of a devourer than a dipper, so this was a challenge at times 😉 As for the Greenaway film, it's not one I've heard of (but then I watch so few films that that's hardly surprising…).

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