Tuesday, March 29, 2011

the pillow book

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon is a collection of thoughts, like a diary, written by a court gentlewoman in Japan in the tenth century. This absolutely blew me away when I started, because it was impossible not to make comparisons to Old English literature, and there is just nothing like this in Old English (sidenote: though many works I studied in Old English are dated pre-10th C., technically the period ends in 1066, so this book is roughly contemporaneous with the late Anglo-Saxon period). This book seems so personal, in a way that Anglo-Saxon literature is not, and it's so concerned with the affairs of women (it's written by a woman) and everyday life, and aesthetics, it's like an entirely different world. There is something really incredible about reading something that seems so personal and yet was written 1,000 years ago. Besides, this book is a great introduction to the world of the Japanese court in the 10th century, with its descriptiveness and anecdotes.

There are things that are frustrating about reading a book from 1,000 years ago in translation. For instance, I just don't know much about the literary context. While this book is presented as the personal musings of Sei Shonagon, not intended for anyone else to see, this feels like a rhetorical device, but I don't know how likely it is or how many other such books were written. The politics and some of the expressions can be opaque, the constant expressions of devotion to the Emperor's consort struck me as stylised and possibly politically motivated, but then, at the time the book was written the consort was dead and out of favour in court, so maybe it is best to take them as genuine? I would love to read more about it.

The most annoying thing is reading it in translation, my edition points out all the puns/double-meanings scattered throughout, particularly in the poems I feel like reading the original would really add to the experience. But some of the lost meaning is down to time rather than language, with footnotes expressing merely the lost meaning of a place, or word.

Overall this is such a charming book, Sei Shonagon is very personable, I enjoyed the vignettes, the anecdotes and lists, they come together to create a sense of aesthetic enjoyment of life. Sometimes it grated, when poor people are dismissed because they are not dressed nicely, but on the whole it was a lovely experience, full of a sense of humour and life as well as a strong sense of taste and aesthetic appreciation.


  1. Anonymous2/4/11 09:31

    Have you read the "Tale of Genji"? Sounds like something in the same tradition. Maybe writing books was the hobby for upper class Japanese women in the 11th century.

  2. Apparently 'The Tale of Genji' was written by Sei Shonagon's great rival,who also wrote a diary style book like 'The Pillow Book'. I haven't read 'The Tale of Genji', I started to read the e-version you sent me but the translation seemed a bit awkward, would like to get my hands on a better one.

  3. Anonymous2/4/11 22:13

    The tale of Genji is not exactly on the bestseller lists, but i think there are a few different e-versions available if you want to do a web search.
    Sadly we can't rely on Angus and Robertson's any more. I could not even find "Voyage to Venus" when I looked there this morning. We could get any number of teen vampire romances though. (sighs) I remember when A & R's filled about four floors of a building in Pitt St (or was it Castlereagh?) Just can't find good book stores any more. Except Canty's at Fyshwick is not bad, and that one in Newtown you showed me
    And I'm NOT getting an ebook reader or an ebook, for that matter.

    Maybe Amazon.com could help you, but that might mean paying proper money.

  4. I've got a few bookshops I like to keep my eye on in Sydney :) Not that they are guaranteed to have everything... But I have a couple of library memberships too.

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