Translated by Meredith McKinney.
Recommendation from: several comments on Shelf Love Jenny’s review of The Tale of Genji
Sei Shonagon was a gentlewoman who served the young empress Teishi. The Pillow Book is a collection of short vignettes about court life as well as thematic lists. The world and events Shonagon depicts are at once distant from my own world and strikingly universal. For instance, while I may not identify with the particulars of watching an imperial procession from within an enclosed carriage, when Shonagon remarks on “the great melee caused by the carriages of the High Priestess’s attendants and the rest all setting off for home,” it reminds me of the parking lot traffic jams after an outdoor concert at Wolf Trap.
Many of the anecdotes included in the Pillow Book involve the frequent practice of exchanging poetic messages between the gentlewomen and their male friends / admirers / lovers. The poetic message usually operated as a challenge, as the recipient sought to compose the perfect reply, based on allusions to Japanese and Chinese poetry, good taste, and quick wit. Shonagon is, unsurprisingly, often triumphant in these battles of wit. Shonagon also has a keen eye for style and clothes and often plays fashion police in her descriptions of fellow court denizens.
After a while, these anecdotes and sections became repetitive for me, especially as it’s hard to truly “get” some of them without the aid of footnotes to explain the puns and allusions that make the stories funny or clever.
It is Shonagon’s many lists that I think mark her work as a classic that transcends time, lists that run along themes such as:
Infuriating things – “you’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail . . .And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out”
Things that create the appearance of deep emotion – “The sound of your voice when you’re constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.”
People who are smug and cocky – “Present-day three-year-olds.”
3 Startling and Disconcerting Things
1. “Someone bluntly saying things that are embarrassing and unpleasant for the other person.”
2. “Someone with a letter that’s to be delivered elsewhere shows it to a person who shouldn’t see it.”
3. “Someone pins you down and commences laying down the law about something that means absolutely nothing to you, without your being able to get a word in edgeways.”
Another delightful moment is in winter, on a fiercely cold night when you are lying there listening, snuggled far down under the bedclothes, and the sound of a temple bell comes to you, with such a deep and distant reverberation that it seems to be emerging from somewhere buried.
It’s also lovely, on a dark moonless night, to catch the smell of smoke from the pine torch being carried up ahead, that penetrates the whole carriage.
And a sentiment that has probably been experienced by most readers in some variation:
Things that give you pleasure – You’ve read the first volume of a tale you hadn’t come across before, and are longing to go on with it – then you find the other volume. The rest of it can sometimes turn out to be disappointing, however.
All in all, while some of the book became repetitious, even skim-worthy, for me, The Pillow Book was a “thing that gave me pleasure” while I was reading it. Shonagon’s writing provides much to delight.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
A Striped Armchair – “What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t be afraid of The Pillow Book! I think every blogger who reads it compares it to a blog, and I’m no exception. The entries had a mix of short and long, random lists, detailed stories, and little anecdotes that make blogs so much fun to read. And Shonagon’s personality, witty, snobby, hilarious, shines through in each of them. She’s acutely aware of how a cultured life should be lived.”
Rebecca Reads – “Because Shonagon lived more than 1000 years ago, her work is also an historical and cultural piece . . . I loved learning about life in a palace that wasn’t what I was used to hearing about (my only palace exposure previously has been Western, via fairy tales and Arthurian legends).”
Tony’s Reading List – “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.”