On the day after a fierce autumn wind*
On the day after a fierce autumn wind I was looking through my bookshelves, trying to decide on my next read, when my eyes fell on The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon. Sei Shōnagon was a lady in waiting at the court of Heian Japan, and The Pillow Book gives an intriguing view into her life. It is structures as a series of short musings about her life, people she like and dislike, lists of various things, fashion comments, all in all not unlike a modern blog, if it weren’t for the very high quality of the writing and the largely alien world she describes (it was finished in the year 1002).
While it is amusing to see that the temptation to make lists was known already in Heian Japan I must admit that I found some of Sei Shōnagon’s lists boring. I suppose they made sense when they were written, and perhaps they still do if read in Japanese or with a deeper understanding of the context, but when I read a list of e.g. bridges, all I see is a list of names. Fortunately only a small portion of the text is comprised by this type of lists.
How delightful everything is!
Sei Shōnagon has a very keen eye for beauty which makes her descriptions delightful to read. The life she describes is also fascinating, perhaps especially the very high status that poetry had in court life. For example I really enjoyed learning that visiting lovers were supposed to send a poem on the morning after a visit.
Things that are unpleasant to hear
Delightful as the book is in many ways, there is no way around the fact that Sei Shōnagon is a snob. This fact is sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, and occasionally, when she writes about someone from the lower classes, it can make the text rather unpleasant.
There is no doubt that I miss a lot of the allusions and poetry, both by having to read it in translation, and by my near complete ignorance of Heian Japan. However, the introduction by Robin Duke and the excellent footnotes by the translator Ivan Morris in my copy helped make it enjoyable, even though much of the text still clearly went above my head.
*All the headlines have been borrowed directly from chapter headings in The Pillow Book.
I reread The Pillow Book as part of my classics club reading challenge.