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“The Pillow Book”


The Tale of Genji has been a slump for me, so I shift to The Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon was actually a contemporary of Lady Kurasaki. She was in her thirties when she was active as a writer and on a tradition that she died under difficult circumstances at an advanced age. Unlike Lady Murasaki, not much was known about Sei Shonagon, whose personal name was not known. Shonagon was only her title as an imperial lady-in-waiting. In fact, the sole mention of her writings of her contemporaries is an uncomplimentary remark by Lady Murasaki, who disliked Sei Shonagon’s arrogance. Like most people, she would quickly have slipped into the obscurity of the past, savefor her one stunning achievement: For a few years, exactly a thousand years ago (as of this writing), she kept a “pillow book” of random jottings about her life as a court lady that has enthralled and entertained readers ever since.

Sei Shonagon lived during the Heian Period (795-1085) and was raised in an aristocrat family. It was a period in which art, poetry, and literature flourished, persuaded by the faith that life on earth is both illusory and ephemera. The Pillow Book is not a novel but a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s. She was perfectly placed to observe and record events at court, and to comment upon them. The “pillow book” in which she wrote at night probably consisted of loose leaves of paper; much later, the leaves were copied in essentially random order, leading to the topical and chronological disarray of the book as is now.

The Pillow Book owes its enduring fame to the personality of its author, who was refined, demanding, censorious, sophisticated, witty, accomplished, and very outspoken. She was an egotist and a snob, admired by some of her contemporaries but probably not much liked. For me her personality is most alluring, and the fascination of reading this book is the realization of how badly one would fare under her critical eye.

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