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Reading “The Pillow Book”


After some name dropping, place naming, the diary of Sei Shonagon gets more personal and juicy. She pays close attention to clothes and apparel of courtiers regardless of their ranks. She can be humorous and acerbic at the same time. Remember that this was 11th century Japan, in the palace grounds, where strict formality is observed. Court lady might be visible by many men during comings and goings, but they refrain from making eye contact. I especially enjoy reading about her pet peeves:

From entry [25] Infuriating things — A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. . . . A hair has got on your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. . . . A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on. . . . People who sit warming themselves at a brazier, stretching their hands over it and endlessly turning them this way and that. . . . It’s also disgusting to witness men getting noisy and boisterous in their cups, groping around inside their mouth with a finger or wiping their whiskers if they have them . . . I also really hate the way some people go about envying others, bemoaning their own lot in life, demanding to be let in on every trivial little thing, being venomous about someone who won’t tell them what they want to know, and passing on their own dramatized version of some snippet of rumor they’ve heard, while making out that they knew it all along.

At times the diary nudges to more intimate subject. She seems to have had several lovers during her period at court, a situation probably not uncommon for gentlewomen, but although she recorded her close relationships with these men, there is never a hint of any physicality in her descriptions.

From entry [60] I do wish men, when they’re taking their leave from a lady at dawn, wouldn’t insist on adjusting their clothes to a nicety, . . . One does want a lover’s dawn departure to be tasteful. There he lies, reluctant to move, so that she has to press him to rise. ‘Come on, it’s past dawn,’ she urges. ‘How shocking you are!’ and his sighs reassure her that he really hasn’t yet had his fill of love, and is sunk in gloom at the thought that he must leave.

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