About a thousand years ago, at a time when literary fashion in the courts of northern Europe had not progressed much beyond the coarse and bloody exploits of Beowulf, in another court a Japanese lady made notes for a startlingly different kind of book. Instead of mead halls and swashbuckling warriors, Sei Shōnagon focused upon such delicate things as the exact colour of a silk robe, the sound of raindrops at night when one is expecting a lover, the accuracy of a quotation from a poem – upon trivia, in fact. Yet the book she assembled from these scraps of sensibility is by any standards a triumph, as a vivid portrait of a person and of an almost unimaginably civilized society. It is also an unexpected pleasure to read.
Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. The Pillow Book is neither a novel nor a formally organized group of essays; it deals with palace life as narrowly constrained and remote to us as something out of science fiction; and many of the author’s basic attitudes can be understood only by recourse to footnotes. Relatively few readers, I’d guess, are dying to learn about Tendai Buddhism or the practice of tooth blackening. What’s amazing is that in spite of all this, it is impossible not to be caught up in the book’s charm and in the humour – sometimes unconscious, sometimes thoroughly black – that informs it. It is hard to think of anyone short of Proust or Montaigne who offers a more precise and entertaining picture of themselves.
Not a great deal is known about Sei Shōnagon, not even her name. Sei refers to her family; Shōnagon means simply ‘Minor Counsellor’ which was her title as one of the women-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako. She was born in about ad 965; she may have been briefly married; she may have had a son. Otherwise what we know is what she says about herself in The Pillow Book. Her contemporary and fellow writer Murasaki Shikibu, author of the huge (and wonderful) novel The
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