The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon

I finally got around to reading this diary about courtly life in Heian era (right about the year 1000) Japan. I’ve been meaning to give it a go ever since my friend Becca blogged about it (wow, that was three years ago). Anyway, this one of the best books I’ve ever read. No seriously, after reading this book, I started composing a list of the best books that I have ever read just so I would be able to give the book its due.

The book is composed of three general things: i) lists; ii) moments; and iii) anecdotes.

Many of the lists are quite bizarre. She makes lists of mountains, plains, beaches, flowers, types of dress, etc. But she also makes wonderful lists with titles like: “Annoying things”, “Embarassing things”, “Things that are both annoying and embarassing”. I mean, sure, there are lots of positive lists (“Things whose outcome you long to know”, etc…) but I much preferred the bitchy lists, like the following:

Deeply irritating things – A man who sets off alone in his carriage to see an event such as the Kamo Festival or the purification ceremony that precedes it, something that the men all love to go to. What sort of crassness is this? Surely he should invite along some other young men who’d love the chance to go, even if they aren’t of particularly high birth. There he sits, oblivious, a vague, solitary figure dimly seen behind the blinds of his carriage, gazing intently at the proceedings. How boorishly mean-spirited and horrid, you think at the sight of him.

Rain on the day when you’re to go out for some special event or a temple pilgrimage.

Happening to hear one of the people in your service complaining that you don’t like her, and someone else is your favourite of the moment.

Someone you don’t particularly care for, who jumps to ridiculous conclusions and gets upset about nothing, and generally behaves with irritating self-importance.

Guys, there are so many of these bitchy lists, and I love them so much. They make me wish that me and Sei Shonagon were best friends. I bet half the court loved her and half the court really hated her.

The other great part of the Pillow Book were the one or two paragraph long sections where she’d describe some striking element. My favorite was:

[170]* A place where a lady lives alone, in a badly dilapidated dwelling surrounded by a crumbling earth wall, the garden pond full of water weed, and the courtyard, if not literally overrun with wormwood, at any rate with patches of green weeds showing here and there through the gravel, is a truly forlorn and moving sight. There’s nothing more boringly unromantic than a place where the lady has got down to business and had everything repaired and smartened up, meticulously locks her gate each evening and generally keeps the place run in punctilious fashion.


[182] It’s the middle of a fiercely hot day, and you’re finding it impossible to stay cool – your fan only moves the warm air about, and you keep dipping your hands in ice water and moaning about the heat. And then someone brings you a message written on brilliant red thin paper, attached to a flowering Chinese pink, also bright crimson – and you sense how hot he must have felt as he wrote it, and how much you must mean to him, and find yourself unconsciously laying down the fan (that was anyway proving so useless even when plied while the other hand soaked in ice water), your complaints suddenly forgotten.

It seems rather artistically daring for Shonagon to put so much poetic feeling into the minutiae of her own lifestyle. The other Heian-era work I’ve read, The Tale Of Genji, also takes courtly life as its subject and it also contains many beautiful descriptions, but it doesn’t seem to get really involved with moments–real moments–like this. It’s more about some sort of abstract and highly stylized court life in which Shining Genji swoops in and romances everybody. If Shonagon wrote the Tale of Genji, there’d be alot fewer gently falling cherry blossoms and alot more complaining about how terribly flustering it is to have to think up a poem at a moment’s notice or how deeply irritating it is when someone’s carriage has a squeaky wheel.

Of course, The Pillow Book does have a narrative component, too. Some portion of the anecdotes related in the book are just utterly incomprehensible to me. It sounds like a joke, but most of the anecdotes revolve around composing poems and sending poems and thinking up the right responses for poems. Often, they’re just Shonagon boasting about how wonderful it was that she was able to think up of a perfect poetic response at a moment’s notice. And quite a bit is lost in translation. There are at least two lengthy anecdotes that are about poetic gaffes–a person accidentally saying the wrong thing in a poem–that I found completely incomprehensible, even after perusing the footnotes. Seriously, it was like trying to understand the literature of space aliens.

And alot of the anecdotes are just her talking about how wonderful the woman whom she served (Shonagon was a kind of attendant to the Empress of Japan). It’s kind of hilarious to see her extolling the wisdom and wit of an Empress who’s only like sixteen years old.

But although the anecdotes are not as exquisite as the lists and the moments, they do contain some of the stuffness of life. They give a glimpse of its routines and its rituals. For instance, despite their high station, the women at court seem curiously exposed. They’re not behind stone walls, they’re only kept hidden by these reed or ricepaper blinds. Everything is surrounded by these outdoor pavilions. The indoors and the outdoors seem very commingled. And although there is a kind of gender segregation–women were not supposed to allow men to see their bodies–men are constantly dropping by and talking to the women through the blinds. They’re constantly passing notes and poems to each other. People are coming into and out of their lives, including a few instances where men invade their domiciles, Genji-style. It’s a world with alot of movement. Shonagon seems to be constantly shuttling from place to place–the Empress has to switch palaces every few months, and Shonagon also makes pilgrimage trips and visits and has her own changes in housing. It’s very mannered and very light; Shonagon never even alludes to the notion that the people around her are, like, even marginally involved in ruling a country.

In many ways, it contains all the virtues of modern realist fiction. It’s an intensely detailed portrait of a time and place. It contains short, sharp descriptive passages that are surprisingly moving. Its freedom from plot and chronology allow it to skip around and discuss everything within its world. And it has vividly realized characters. Well, one vividly realized character. Shonagon herself seems utterly delightful. Her voice sings out across a thousand years; even translation is not enough to disguise its uniqueness. Her voice suffuses the book. It’s embedded in her cadences and reversals. Even throwaway phrases are delightful because they come packaged in that voice:

Disconcerting things. An ox cart that’s overturned. You’ve assumed that something of such enormous bulk must of course be thoroughly stable, and you’re simply stunned to see it lying there, and deeply disconcerted.

Spilling something is always very startling and disconcerting.


Cats – Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

It’s a beautiful voice, and it induces an emotion that one does not often get from books. Reading The Pillow Book conjures up a stillness inside the heart. And that’s not a feeling that I’ll soon forget.

(Also, for those who were put off by my review of The Tale Of Genji, I’d like to announce that The Pillow Book is one hundred percent rape-free).

Genji is a rapist

So, I don’t know if you read my twitter account, but if you do, then you’ve noticed that for roughly the past two weeks I’ve been tweeting about the ridiculousness of the Tale of Genji.

Until very, very recently (like…three weeks ago), I thought the Tale of Genji was about a bad-ass samurai who goes around slicing up dragons and evil warlords and shit like that. In my mind it was kind of in the same genre as The Epic Of Gilgamesh or The Legend of Hamza or Beowulf  (except, of course, that it was prose. Even I knew that this was the “first novel” [although there were some Roman and Greek novels that I keep meaning to read]).

But it is not about that at all! The Tale Of Genji is twelve hundred pages (I read the single-volume unabridged Seidensticker translation) of solid domestic drama. The main character is this guy, Genji, who is the emperor’s favorite son (but for complicated reasons, can not become emperor himself) and who is super beautiful and loved by everyone. And this novel documents his relationships with about two dozen women (and then follows it up with 400 or so pages of a complicated story involving Genji’s son and grandson).

The Tale of Genji is really beautiful. And the writing is very modern. There’s a sense of grace and sadness that emanates from it, even from the very first pages, but which intensifies as you read on. It can be slow going (at least it was for me), but it’s also a really memorable and fascinating experience.

And it’s also really kind of a disturbing book. Because Genji rapes a lot of women in it. Like, at least five or six. And Genji is definitely the hero. He’s “shining Genji”. You’re supposed to love Genji (at least it seems that way) and see him as kind of a romantic ideal. But the book, although the book is euphemistic and indirect at places, it is also not the least bit ambiguous about saying that Genji forcibly has sex with women. For instance, take this example from the second half of the book, where he rapes the long-lost daughter of his best friend.

  “The night was a lovely one. The breeze was rustling the bamboo, the wind had stopped, and a bright moon had come out. Her women had tactfully withdrawn. Though he saw a great deal of her, a better opportunity did not seem likely to present itself. From the momentum, perhaps, which his avowal had given him, he threw off his robe with practiced skill — it was a soft one that made no sound — and pulled her down beside him.

“She was stunned. What would her women think? She was sobbing helplessly. Her father might treat her coldly, but at least he would protect her from such outrages.”

Now, when I searched the internet to figure out what people think about this aspect of the Tale of Genji, I found articles like this one, which say, basically, “That’s how things were back then.”

But I don’t think that’s a very satisfying answer. A lot of books in them that have a lot of rape in them. For instance, does anyone think that Briseis consented to having sex with Achilles? But in cases where that rape is totally internalized as part of the culture of the author, it goes pretty unnoticed (as in the Iliad) and it is left to revisionist writers (like Euripides in The Trojan Women) to bring that sort of thing up.

I don’t know how common rape was in these social circles in Heian Japan. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was not as common as it is in the Tale Of Genji, because even in the novel, all the other characters will occasionally talk about how Genji is a little too interested in amorous adventures and hound-dogging on girls.

But even if it was common, this novel clearly views it as something emotionally traumatic and wrong. Over and over, you see women crying, or distressed, or offended by Genji’s rather forceful overtures.

But then again, they also usually recover, and come to love Genji.

It’s difficult. How can Genji engage in this behavior that is unforgiveable, in modern times, and pretty despicable, even by the standards of the book, and yet continue to be not only the hero of the novel, but also to held up as some kind of romantic ideal?

The book does not really offer an easy answer to that question. And that’s part of the reason why it’s worth reading.