Review: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
(translated and edited by Ivan Morris)
(A keeper? Yes, yes, yes.)
Such a strange book. About a thousand years ago, the woman we remember as “Sei Shonagon” (Sei was her family name; Shonagon was a rank or job title – so it’s a little bit like knowing her only as “Assistant Director Johnson”) worked as a lady in waiting to the Empress – well, one of the Empresses – of Japan. (Emperors of the time routinely had several wives, plus various ladies of lower status.) “Her” empress gave Sei Shonagon a supply of blank paper, and she used it to record her experiences and opinions, things she saw and did and thought and said.
Notice all the parenthetical explanations I had to stick into that first paragraph? Well, let’s get the most annoying flaw of this book out of the way right now: Sei Shonagon lived in an alien world. Many of the details of her daily life make no sense at all to us, without explanations. And, in the Ivan Morris edition, we certainly get explanations. Footnote after footnote…many of them are interesting in themselves, all of them are informative, but there are So. Many. Of. Them – a total of 584 footnotes for 264 pages.
Actually, if you don’t already know something about Heian Japan, you should probably start by reading through the Appendices, which will introduce you to the basics of Sei’s world. The drawings of houses and clothes – so important to her, and so different from what we’re familiar with – are particularly useful.
By this time, you’re probably wondering if it’s worth your time to bother with the Pillow Book. Yes, it is. Not every writer can make you care about ancient gossip and scandals; Sei Shonagon can. (Maybe it helps that, to her, all of this involved cutting edge fashion and life-or-death politics.)
More than anything, reading the Pillow Book is like reading a really good blog, one where you never know what the next post will focus on. There are lists – often funny – of things she finds offensive or beautiful or embarrassing. There are odd little incidents involving people she knows and likes or dislikes. She gives us vivid short stories, probably fictional, about the adventures of young men at court, or tells us how the court ladies built a snow mountain and made bets about when it would melt away – and then tried to manipulate the results.
And, just when we’re overcome by the strangeness of her world, she gives us something universal: “Adorable Things:….One picks up a pretty baby and holds him for a while…he clings to one’s neck and then falls asleep.”