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The Pillow Book (thoughts)

April 9, 2010

Tanabata has been hosting Pillow Book Friday for several weeks now, which is a slow group read-a-lon gof Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book as translated by Meredith McKinney. I love the way that she’s structuring it, and I’ve been doing my best not to read ahead, but after having the book out for two and a half months, I’ve finished it. I just couldn’t resist Shonagon’s writing!

Before I picked up The Pillow Book, I found it incredibly intimidating. I thought it was super-long and that it’d be full of obscure references and that it’d be, well, stuffy. Fortunately, all of those impressions were wrong. The Penguin edition has 250 pages of Shonagon’s text, in addition to a very helpful 23 page introduction by McKinney and over one hundred pages of extras: appendices and notes. So it’s not a large book. And while Shonagon’s life in a medieval Japanese court is about as far removed from my life as possible, I didn’t find it obscure. Instead, since her focus is on the little details, it had an eerily universal, relevant tone to it. McKinney explains in her introduction that in Japanese, a writer can choose to use tense-less verbs, which is what Shonagon mainly did, and that increases the timeless feel of the book. Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, any knowledge that I had of Shonagon’s world came from reading Liza Dalby’s novel The Tale of Murasaki a year ago. While Dalby is a scholar on Japan, I don’t think any historical fiction would make me an expert on a time period! So I pretty much went in blind and enjoyed the book that way.

What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t be afraid of The Pillow Book! I think every blogger who reads it compares it to a blog, and I’m no exception. The entries had a mix of short and long, random lists, detailed stories, and little anecdotes that make blogs so much fun to read. And Shonagon’s personality, witty, snobby, hilarious, shines through in each of them. She’s acutely aware of how a cultured life should be lived. Once again, borrowing from McKinney’s introduction:

There can be no question that when Sei Shonagon declared an experience or thing to be okashi it was a response of genuine feeling, but she did so knowing that her readers would understand precisely what she meant, and smile in agreement. Okashi is much more than a matter of merely private and transient responsiveness. It is in essence a kind of aesthetic response, one that can be cultivated and honed, which delights itself by its awareness of the frisson of pleasure that an object or moment produces, and whose pleasure is compounded by the knowledge that it would be shared by others of cultured sensiblity.

Isn’t that interesting? Here’s one of her short lists, entitled Refined and Elegant Things:

A girl’s over-robe of white on white over pale violet-grey. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries.

I love Shonagon’s eye for detail, and how specific she is in these lists. It comes alive for me. Here’s one of her snarkier, hilarious entries:

It’s terribly depressing to discover some quite worthless person blithely reciting a poem that you yourself had particularly liked and carefully coped down in a notebook.

Isn’t that so true, even today? Although more commonly here, it might have to do with a favourite band or something. ;) And Shonagon’s not afraid to turn her wit on herself either.

The story entries are just as fascinating! The glimpses of life at court, at how poetry and poetic games were so central, at how trysts were apparently pretty common, at the fashion choices of the Japanese elite, they were all just marvelous. Shonagon was part of the Empress’ court, and her adoration for the Empress was adorable to me. She might be catty at times to others, but whenever she speaks of the Empress, her heart comes shining through. And occasionally, she includes more fictional stories. One especially caught my eye. It’s a fairy tale about a Japanese emperor who couldn’t stand the sight of older people, and so ordered anyone over forty to be killed. Most simply fled, but the parents of one Captain instead hid, since he couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Later, the Chinese emperor sends the Japanese one a series of tasks, and only the Captain’s elderly father is clever enough to figure out how to accomplish them. There are three tasks, just like Western fairy tales, and the whole way it’s told made me revel again in how similar fairy tales are all over the world. Here’s one of the tasks:

A long time passed, and then the Chinese Emperor sent a tiny twisted jewel which had seven curves and a central hole running through it, and an opening at the two ends. “Thread this and return it to me,” was the instruction. “We can all do this here.” All the court nobles and senior courtiers, and everybody else as well, declared that even the cleverest craftsman would be defeated by this task. So the Cpatain went again to his father and told him the problem. “Catch two large ants.” the old man said, “tie a thin thread round their abdomens, then attach a slightly thicker thread to this. Then smear the other end of the jewel with honey.” The Captain passed this advice on to the Emperor, then followed the instructions, and when the ants were put into the hole they smelt the honey, and emerged from the other end in no time. When the threaded jewel was sent back to the Chinese Emperor, he acknowledged that Japan was indeed a clever country, and never did such things again.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’d highly recommend this to everyone! I can’t say I had any special interest in medieval Japan before picking this up…Shonagon’s writing is good enough to entrance anyone. Now, of course, I’m rather curious to discover more about life at court. One of the books McKinney recommends for further reading, The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris sounds perfect. And perhaps one of these days, I’ll gather up the courage to give The Tale of Genji a try. Thanks to Tanabata for hosting the read-a-long, which along with Rebecca’s review gave the impetus to pick this up. It’s definitely a book that I’d love to own for myself, dipping into when I need to escape to a beautiful, calmer world.

Have you ever felt intimidated by a book, and then loved it from the moment you began actually reading it?

38 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2010 5:20 am

    I was intimidated by the prospect of Tolstoy’s War and Peace — so long, so complicated, so many battles! I put off reading it for many years, even though I had liked his other novels and the Russians generally. A pleasure deferred was greatly appreciated when it finally arrived. I loved the book from the beginning and look forward to reading it again, when I have the time.

    • April 10, 2010 4:07 pm

      I was nervous of War & Peace too, and then I ended up completely loving it! I definitely see a reread in the next couple of years. :)

  2. April 9, 2010 5:56 am

    I’m definitely one of the people who’s been too scared to pick this up! But, your review has made me think I should try it :)

    I think the books that intimidate me I haven’t yet dared to crack open. I seem to always be waiting for some mythical “perfect time” for it. I make excuses. I have two copies of War and Peace – one the “original” translation, one the newest more contemporary translation – and my excuse for not starting it is I can’t decide which one to read first! I had such a terrible edition of Anna Karenina (still loved the story though) that I do stop to think about the translation now.

    • April 10, 2010 4:09 pm

      Read War and Peace in the P&V translation! Constance Garnett wasn’t concerned w/ capturing Tolstoy’s tone but putting it into the English she thought ti should be. Does that help? lol

      • April 11, 2010 10:01 am

        I don’t have either. The “original” translation is Anthony Briggs, and the “modern” translation is Andrew Bromfield I think it is.

  3. April 9, 2010 9:20 am

    This sounds fascinating. I was intimidated by The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence but loved it as soon as I started it.

    • April 10, 2010 4:10 pm

      Perhaps that’ll be my second Lawrence then! :) I wasn’t in raptures over Lady Chatterley’s Love, but I want to give him another try.

  4. April 9, 2010 9:43 am

    Isn’t Shonagon great? I loved the Pillow Book. The lists particularly, and the eye for detail, as you say.

    I don’t remember if my edition includes an introduction…and if it does, I didn’t read it! :-) So all your notes from the intro were super-interesting to me. Especially that bit about the tense-less verbs! Fascinating! And also the cultivation and cultural understanding of okashi. I really appreciated Shonagon event without any background information, but I bet that knowing more would only increase my appreciation. Thanks for visiting one of my faves.

    • April 10, 2010 4:11 pm

      She’s definitely great! I don’t usually ever bother reading introductions, but I flipped to it about halfway through (once I realised it’d be impossible to ‘spoil’ anyway), and it was full of interesting stuff.

  5. April 9, 2010 10:51 am

    I think I had the same impression of this that you did, but your excerpts are delightful! This is a good reminder for me not to form baseless prejudices. :P

    Salman Rushdie was an author that intimidated me completely until I picked up Midnight’s Children. I expected it to be extremely serious and literary, and was utterly taken aback by the fact that Rushdie had a sense of humor!

    • April 10, 2010 4:12 pm

      I form baseless prejudices all the time! lol

      Rushdie’s one of my very favourites, so I’m glad you enjoyed him more than you expected to!

  6. April 9, 2010 11:08 am

    I would probably have been scared of it, if I had ever heard of it. YOu know I have lived with my head under a pillow most of my life.

  7. April 9, 2010 6:32 pm

    I’ve had this on my TBR forever, since I read The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kent by Aidan Chambers. I like to read books referenced by other books. It’s interesting how similar cultures can be, I wonder if the three tasks thing may be a result of cultural diffusion or what.

    As for book intimidations which turned to love, the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo is one of those for me. I frakken love that book so hard. I was scared of it’s size at first, but just got swept away by the swashbuckling story!

    • April 10, 2010 4:15 pm

      Well, that’d be some intense cultural diffusion. :) Count definitely read faster than I expected it to!

  8. April 9, 2010 7:21 pm

    This sounds so very cool! I love the threaded jewel quote. I love all the quotes you included.

    Currently, I’m being intimidated by Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It’s got me pushed up against the schoolyard fence after mostly hiding in the bathrooms during recess.

    • April 10, 2010 4:15 pm

      McCarthy makes me want to fake a temperature so I can stay home from school. ;)

  9. April 10, 2010 8:02 pm

    I’ve added this to my to-read list since reading this review. Thanks!

    This isn’t really intimidation, but I was nervous about reading Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.” Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorites, but I was nervous that her other stuff wouldn’t live up to it. Northanger Abbey, admittedly, isn’t the Amazing Masterpiece that Pride and Prejudice is. But it is hilarious and well-written and full of that Austen snark I love so much.

    • April 14, 2010 2:58 pm

      Oh, I love Northanger Abbey! Henry Tilney is so awesome and metrosexual. :D

  10. ana permalink
    April 10, 2010 11:36 pm

    Loved this post. Wonder whether you knew that McKinney is the daughter of a legendary Australian poet, Judith Wright? Great lineage.

  11. April 11, 2010 5:15 pm

    Eva, this sounds like a great book! I tried to do the read-a-long a while back of The Tales of Genji by Lady Murasaki but it was just too much of a chunkster and I tired of it before I could finish. (It is over 1,000 pages.) I love Japanese lit and I also loved the time period that Genji took place in, with the courts, and I think this book sounds more like a readable book to me. Thank you for the lovely review!

    • April 14, 2010 3:03 pm

      Genji still makes me nervous, but Pillow Book is definitely marvelous. You might enjoy Tale of Murasaki too!

  12. April 12, 2010 6:51 am

    I am glad you enjoyed it so much! I do want to try this translation some time, although from the samples I read I do think I enjoy Morris more. Shonagon is quite the blogger, and I’m glad she decided to write her ramblings because it does give us such an interesting look at her era. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • April 14, 2010 3:03 pm

      That’s so interesting; from the samples I’ve read, I’m not as big a fan of the Morris. ;) I’m glad Shonagon wrote her ramblings down too!

  13. April 12, 2010 11:16 am

    I’m intimidated by all sorts of books. One book, two books, red books, blue books… oh wait, that is Dr. Seuss (he never intimidated me!). Often non-fiction or really just any dense book. For example, Gogol’s Dead Souls intimidated me by its title alone. But then I read the first page and it was hilarious and awesome, so we were great friends after that.

    • April 14, 2010 3:06 pm

      LOL You always crack me up. And I love you for being a Gogol evangelist! I’ll be reading Dead Souls very soon.

  14. April 13, 2010 12:37 am

    This sounds like a great read — I’m drawn to the fragmentary form…

    I was planning to read Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji this year, but now, I’m suddenly intimidated by it!

    • April 14, 2010 3:08 pm

      I hope you read Genji, then post about it so I feel less intimidated! :)

  15. April 14, 2010 1:09 pm

    I’ve read The Pillow Book several times but still learned a few things from your review. Thanks.

    I wish people wouldn’t look at The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji and thing they have to read the entire thing. It’s great if they do, but you can read a section or two of either book and gain from the experience. And have a good time, too. You really don’t have to read either cover to cover.

    I say this as someone who almost finished the first volume of Genji.

    • April 14, 2010 3:09 pm

      That’s a good point about Genji. :) I’ll have to look at it that way!

  16. April 14, 2010 2:30 pm

    You’ve made me interested enough in this book to buy it the other day! (Admittedly, I was considering it before from time to time) I thought Middlemarch by George Eliot was going to be frightfully dull and then became fascinating once I read it. And everyone talks about how hard In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is, but I read it and loved it too. Since then long books don’t seem so intimidating!

    (Hi, I’m Carolyn, I’ve got a new book blog in the neighbourhood and have been really enjoying reading yours in the last few days!)

    • April 14, 2010 3:11 pm

      I hope you enjoy it! I loved Middlemarch; I want to reread it this year. :) And I think this will be the year I get over my fear of Proust and read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time!

      And welcome to book blogging Carolyn. :D

  17. April 21, 2010 2:36 pm

    thank you, for your information


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