Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book offers a glimpse into a distant, exotic past, where court ladies were so gorgeous they had to shield their beauty from (most) men behind screens and curtains, and spent their days composing poems, and nights by the fire gossiping about the goings-on at court.
Who can resist an ancient, never-ending sleepover?
It’s fascinating and colorful – literally. Probably a quarter of the diary consists of Shōnagon describing the plum pinks and spring-shoot greens of the men’s gathered trousers and women’s akomé gowns.
There are many of her famous lists, some with descriptions so spot-on to this day that you say “Mood,” others lost in translation over the centuries yet still somewhat intriguing, and others... not.
Shōnagon defends herself: “I set to work on this boundless pile of paper to fill it to the last sheet with all manner of odd things, so no doubt there’s much in these pages that makes no sense.”
She was as much an unbearable snob as a witty and observant aesthete, so reading her diary is a bit like calling up a friend and hearing her alternate between complaining about how peasants act and rambling about how wonderful life is.
The night I got my Covid vaccine, I had a fever dream in which Sei Shōnagon (in the voice of Meredith McKinney’s translation) narrated all the minutiae of the day before, so there’s that.
My favorite entries are when she recounts her flirtations with men, complains about them, argues with them, enthuses about the call of the hototogisu, describes the Empress’ beauty and wit, and when she tries her hand at fiction. It’s also a lovely way to acquaint yourself with the gorgeous poetry of this era.
This is a good book to fall asleep to, or to read when you’re on your way somewhere, or to help yourself escape for a little bit in the evening, when work is done.
Read during spring-summer of 2021
As the tide that swells
in Izumo’s Always Bay
so always and always
oh how my heart swells and fills
deep with love to think of you.
On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.
I’m merely sleeping off my irritation at one who leaves before the dew is gone.
The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people.
Things that lose by being painted – Pinks. Sweet flag. Cherry blossom. Men and women described in tales as looking splendid.
Even if you do not share
the yearning that is in this heart
can it be that you
are not gazing as am I
at the moon this evening?