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The Pillow Book

   
 

Reading in Bed! 

   

 

  

 

"I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid, my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects."

So wrote Sei Shonagon some time around 1000 A.D. as she wove together what is now called The Pillow Book.  It is in essence a miscellany of lists (164 of them, whimsically titled with names like Rare Things or Things That Make One's Heart Beat Faster), journal entries, nature sketches, character studies and tales of court life in the Heian Court, all written with a heightened aesthetic consciousness, a quick and haughty intelligence, and a beautiful and evocative poetry in its language.  The mid-Heian Period was a time of cultural development and aestheticism and also a time of female literary development with the emergence of writers like Lady Murasaki and her novel, The Tale of Genji, and many female poets as well ladies of the Court who kept diaries.

Little is know about Sei Shonagon's personal life - only that she was perhaps the daughter of a scholar and a poet, worked a s a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako in the final decade of the 10th Century and perhaps married a government offical called Tachibana no Norimitsu, and may have had a son with him.  She remains mysterious.  

But there is documentation of an ancient story of literary rivalry.  She is mentioned by Lady Murasaki, her contemporary, in her diary: "Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction….Someone who makes such an effort to be different from others is bound to fall in people's esteem, and I can only think that her future will be a hard one.  She is a gifted woman, to be sure.  Yet, if one gives free rein to one's emotions even under the most inappropriate circumstances, if one has to sample each interesting thing to come along, people are bound to regard one as frivolous.  And how can things turn out well for such a woman?"

And perhaps Murasaki knew that Sei Shonagon's language with its beauty and power surpassed her own when she wrote those lines about Sei Shonagon.  Ivan Morris, a translator of The Pillow Book, says of Sei Shonagon: "The language, rhythmic, quick-moving, varied, and compressed, is far clearer than that of The Tale of Genji with its long sentences and huge networks of dependent clauses; for this reason many Japanese consider Shonagon's book to be the greater work of literature."  And Arthur Waley, the eminent Sinologist who translated both writers, said of Sei Shonagon: "As a writer she is incomparably the best poet of her time….the few lines about crossing a moonlit river show a beauty of phrasing that Murasaki, a much more deliberate writer, certainly never surpassed."  And so The Pillow Book remains, a thousand years later, a work of astonishing beauty.

 

Read: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, (translated by Ivan Morris) 

 

 

 

 

       
 

 
       
     

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