‘Unbinding The Pillow Book’ by Gergana Ivanova (Review)

After beginning my month of Japanese reviews with a couple of contemporary stories, I continue the theme today by looking back into the distant past.  It’s been a few years now since I first read Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book (in Meredith McKinney’s translation), so when I was offered the chance to take a rather different look at the book, I jumped at the chance.  Today’s post sees us engaging with the work in more detail as we grapple with one core question: just what is The Pillow Book, anyway?

Gergana Ivanova’s Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is an academic text that attempts to answer this very question.  Ivanova is a passionate adherent of Sei’s work, and in a fairly combative manner, she explores the history of the book and explains how it has been misinterpreted and misused over the centuries.  You see, the questions of what The Pillow Book is and what it does are not quite as straight-forward as you would expect.

The book consists of six chapters, with an introduction to the topic and five broad areas of discussion.  To begin with, Ivanova looks at the fraught history of the text (one with no extant manuscript) with the fragmented nature of variant versions continuing well into the seventeenth century.  She then examines how three Edo-era critical editions attempted to codify the book, only succeeding in entrenching the variety of approaches.  When each organises it and interprets the work in different ways, it only goes to promote the idea of a text that can be manipulated any way the reader chooses.

Ivanova mentions Michael Emmerich’s excellent book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, and Unbinding The Pillow Book takes a similar approach at times.  The writer introduces the reader to the plethora of parodies and corruptions of Sei’s work that emerged over the centuries, leading to the fakes being better known than the original.  This is especially true for the erotic versions that grew out of a fascination for the Heian period as an era of sensuality.

Later periods saw a major shift in the way the book’s ideas, and the writer herself, were regarded.  The purpose of the work was now educational, and edited versions were used as guides to women starting their married lives:

The selections of entries from Sei Shōnagon’s work suggest that an attempt was made to omit material that was perceived as morally inappropriate for girls and to include only innocuous cultural pastimes as well as references to motherhood.
p.92 (Columbia University Press, 2018)

There are plenty of helpful hints on household management, here, but the erotic elements of The Pillow Book aren’t completely forgotten.  Some of these later adaptations also focus on a wife’s role in the bedroom…

The problem Unbinding The Pillow Book examines is that the lack of an original manuscript (and of details of the writer’s life) meant that generations of readers and critics were free to interpret both book and author as they saw fit.  In essence, Sei is whoever you want her to be, and, naturally, it’s men who make this call.  Ivanova shows how Sei’s image evolved from crude and wanton (the Buddhist mediaeval view), and a skilled courtesan (early Edo) to an intelligent model for married women (late Edo).  However, it’s the connection made between The Pillow Book and the red-light district (mostly in parodies) that became the most common interpretation:

Her depiction as an experienced courtesan reveals a perception of female court attendants of the past as promiscuous women.  The preface transforms the imperial court into a pleasure quarter and female attendants into prostitutes. (p.75)

The search for the true Pillow Book was hindered in the past by the dominance of the parody texts, with few people having read the original, whatever that actually is.  Part of Ivanova’s mission here is to reveal and dismiss the male gaze affecting the reception of the text.

Another focus is to examine the form of The Pillow Book, and to negate the common criticism of the work as just a series of lists.  One of the more common words in the book is ‘zuihitsu’, meaning ‘miscellany’, and the writer sees it as a term used to categorise Sei’s work and wrongly diminish it.  She argues strongly against this narrow categorisation, celebrating the hybrid text.  Yes, there are plenty of lists, but the book is also a window into history, and more besides:

Touching on a wide range of issues, such as the status of women, subjectivity, aesthetic competence, and literacy, The Pillow Book depicts the court of Empress Teishi as triumphant and glorious. (p.6)

Of course, there’s an elephant in the room, one Ivanova doesn’t shy away from; namely, the comparisons with The Tale of Genji and the view of Sei as a nastier counterpart of Murasaki Shikibu.  Rejecting the need for these comparisons, Ivanova is quick to point the finger of blame at male academics wanting to drag Sei down – she supects they think there’s only room in the Japanese canon for one female genius…

Unbinding The Pillow Book is undoubtedly fascinating and well-constructed, but it’s not really a book for the average reader, having an overly academic feel in places.  There’s a fair amount of the repetition necessary in academic texts, with each part having its own introductory and concluding sections and summary in each chapter, and the frequent nods to other researchers (…as Roselee  Bundy has argued…) grate after a while.  Surprisingly, while there’s a lot on what Ivanova thinks The Pillow Book isn’t, there’s relatively little on what it is.  Aside from a few passages (often the same few over and over again), not much of Sei’s work makes it into this one, and as a result, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t actually read the original.

I also found myself a little put off at times by Ivanova’s defensive tone, with many of the views of Sei taken almost as personal slights.  She criticises the various interpretations over the years as subjective misreadings, but is more than happy to support modern interpretations (such as Manga versions with Sei as an office worker) – which seem every bit as subjective.  In fact, this last section, focusing on new audiences for The Pillow Book was rather short and weak compared to the previous sections, making for a bit of a limp end to the book.

Still, I very much doubt that the average reader is the target audience for this book, and those with a more nuanced understanding of Japanese literature will find a lot to like here.  Even if I would have preferred more of a focus on the original than the parodies and corruptions, I still found Unbinding The Pillow Book an interesting new look at a classic.  Moreover, I suspect that some of my misgivings arise from my own preference for The Tale of Genji over The Pillow Book.  Ivanova may loathe the comparisons between two great writers, but in an age of binary pop-culture wars, I’m very much #TeamMurasaki, and despite her academic views, I suspect the writer is secretly #TeamSei at heart 😉

6 thoughts on “‘Unbinding The Pillow Book’ by Gergana Ivanova (Review)

  1. This will be an important resource for those of us reading The Pillow Book as a read-along in February. Do join us if you feel like reading it a second time. 😉


    1. Bellezza – I’m not sure I’ll have time, unfortunately. To be honest, though, I suspect I’m more likely to try ‘The Tale of Genji’ again first!


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