The Pillow Book was written in Japan more than a thousand years ago. Little is known about its author, Sei Shonagon, save for what can be deduced from the text itself. In 993, when she was in her late twenties, she joined the court of Empress Teishi. During the Heian period (794-1186), ‘empress’ was a flexible term: Teishi was merely the first among a number of consorts with that title, each with her own entourage, each competing to find favour with the emperor and bear a future sovereign. Teishi became an empress in 990, at the age of 14, when her father was appointed regent to the young emperor. But by the time Shonagon arrived, in 993, Teishi’s power was already in decline, along with her father’s; in 995 the regent died and two of Teishi’s brothers were exiled.
This is the world that Shonagon writes from and about: privileged, precarious, on the way down. But when she describes Teishi’s court being moved to a house of lower status, Shonagon does so with amusement. The food isn’t right, the women have no privacy – but it’s all somehow comic. When Shonagon is upbraided by the empress, she finds ‘even her reprimand delightful’. Repeatedly, Shonagon recasts a disadvantaged position as entertaining. She never asks the reader to be melancholy for more than a moment – for more than would feel good.
The Pillow Book consists of anecdotes from the Heian court, descriptions of nature and pronouncements on how things and people ought to be. It’s often funny and engagingly petty. (‘A palm-leaf carriage should move slowly, or else it loses its dignity’; ‘Small children and babies ought to be plump. So should provincial governors and others who have gone ahead in the world.’) Shonagon is often characterised as an aesthete. She devotes, for example, a substantial passage to how annoying it is when people wear sleeves of unequal width. The book is full of lists: ‘Things That Lose by Being Painted’ (‘Pinks, cherry blossoms, yellow roses. Men or women who are praised in romances as beautiful’) and ‘Things That Gain by Being Painted’ (‘Pines. Autumn fields. Mountain villages and paths. Cranes and deer’). But the core of The Pillow Book is about power. This is true even of, perhaps especially of, the passages that seem most petty.
One of my favourite passages is about a dog. But it begins with a powerful cat: ‘The cat who lived in the palace had been awarded the headdress of nobility and was called Lady Myobu.’ One day, Lady Myobu wanders onto the veranda when she is meant to stay inside; her attendant, Lady Uma, encourages the dog, Okinamaro, to go after the cat. Okinamaro does as he is told. The startled cat bolts inside and disturbs the emperor, who banishes Okinamaro for frightening his beloved cat. He also fires Lady Uma. A few days later, when the dog tries to return, he is beaten by two imperial administrators, and tossed beyond the palace gate. That evening, as the court ladies and the empress are lamenting Okinamaro’s demise, a trembling, swollen dog walks into the court. Could it be Okinamaro? He won’t eat or respond to his name. The ladies decide it’s not him. But the next morning, as Shonagon again bemoans Okinamaro’s fate, the injured dog starts ‘to shake and tremble’. He sheds ‘a flood of tears’. The ladies realise that it is Okinamaro after all: ‘On the previous night it was for fear of betraying himself that he had refused to answer to his name.’ The courtiers prepare him a great meal and soon he receives an imperial pardon.
There is so much to notice in the story of the insufficiently noble dog. He makes it back into the emperor’s graces, but the dismissed attendant does not. When the dog returns, and is recognised, he is treated terribly: only when he pretends to be other than himself can his redemption begin. While he is in exile, the court ladies remember that he was once adorned in peach and cherry blossoms: ‘How could the dog have imagined this would be his fate? We all felt very sorry for him.’ They are the dog, and the dog is them. This is never stated explicitly; as the story demonstrates, sincerity can be detrimental to survival. Shonagon’s text is like those satins whose vertical threads are of a different colour from the horizontal ones: in one light they look red; in another purple. In one light the dog story is movingly personal; in another it is a devastating portrait of power’s caprice.
Modern editions of The Pillow Book include Shonagon’s account of how her text came into being. One day the empress approached her with a bundle of blank notebooks – paper was valuable – and asked Shonagon what to do with them. ‘Let me make them into a pillow,’ Shonagon suggested. (Ivan Morris, Shonagon’s translator, writes that the term ‘pillow book’ probably referred to notebooks kept in a private place, where one might jot down thoughts, impressions, poems and so on.) With ‘a vast quantity of paper at [her] disposal’, Shonagon set about ‘filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material’. She later insisted that the book was ‘written entirely for [her] own amusement’ and was not intended for circulation. Shonagon described herself as ‘the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like’. Her book included ‘everything that I have seen and felt’, she said, and ‘since much of it might appear malicious and even harmful to people, I was careful to keep it hidden.’
If it was a private journal, how did it come to be so widely read? Shonagon claims that the book began to make its way into the world after being discovered by a powerful visitor, a provincial governor. ‘I snatched at the book and made a desperate effort to get it back,’ she writes. But the governor ‘instantly took it off with him and did not return it until much later. I suppose it was from this time that my book began to be passed about at court.’ Scholars date the book’s initial circulation to around 995-96, a few years before Empress Teishi’s death in childbirth. It might seem strange that a text which lent prestige to a court out of political favour would be allowed to circulate at all. In Unbinding ‘The Pillow Book’, Gergana Ivanova gives an explanation: the celebrated work was considered a way to appease the angry ghosts of Teishi and her family. Cultural power is not only a weapon to be used against the weak, it is also a consolation prize offered by the strong.
Ivanova has put together an intelligent and informative study. We learn that in the Heian period, one’s status was largely expressible in terms of how much poetry one knew. (The term Heian means ‘time of peace and tranquillity’.) The poetry that was taken seriously at that time was written in Chinese. The language of politics was also Chinese. Japanese was for chit-chat, and for the quotidian arts – and women were expected to confine themselves to it. It would have been more than unseemly for Shonagon, as a woman, to write in Chinese, or even to let on that she understood it as well as it seems she did. The Pillow Book was written in Japanese. In any case, the vernacular was better suited to writing about the pathos of everyday objects and ordinary moments. Part of the thrill of reading The Pillow Book at the time must have had something to do with the way its language felt close to people’s actual lives. Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the other main work of Heian literature still read today, was also written in Japanese.
Ivanova gives a detailed account of the way Shonagon was represented in the centuries after her death. In the Kamakura-Muromachi era (1186-1573), women writers of the Heian period came in for intense reprisals; they appear in the stories of the time as fallen women, ‘incessantly punished’ for their beauty, daring and erudition. In one such narrative, Shikibu comes to people in their dreams, begging them to destroy any copies of her immoral work so that she can be liberated from hell. Another Heian-era woman writer vows to sleep with a thousand men to save her parents from the torment to which her beauty and talent has condemned them. In Tales of the Past, a popular collection of stories published around 1215, Shonagon becomes a destitute old nun and is so far from her former beauty that has to show her genitals to passing warriors to convince them she is a woman and her life should be spared. It was reassuring to imagine these successful women writers as miserable, hideous, homeless and old.
Attitudes changed in the Edo period (1603-1867), when Heian woman writers served a different fantasy. The pleasure quarters that were established throughout Japan at the beginning of the 17th century took inspiration from the Heian era’s sophisticated eroticism, and their ‘elaborate brothel etiquette’ was modelled on contemporary beliefs about Heian court society. Writers like Shonagon were reimagined as glamorous courtesans. One popular Edo book, The Twin Mounds of Conjugality, offered ‘sexually charged stories about 12 literary women from the Heian period’, and featured an illustration of Shonagon being taken from behind as she practised calligraphy in the lamplight, while her brother (yes, brother) looked on, masturbating.
During the Edo period, increased rates of literacy meant that The Pillow Book was repeatedly abridged and republished. Ivanova explains the very different ways in which Shonagon and her book were marketed to male and female readerships. The versions aimed at men often replaced the female characters who were impressed by Shonagon’s quick wit – including Empress Teishi – with men. The versions aimed at Edo women were more practical: one appears as part of a primer on letter-writing; another as a sexual education manual; a third focuses on how learning and quick-wittedness – as exemplified by Shonagon – can make one a more alluring wife. These versions, all of them put together and illustrated by men, left out most of Shonagon’s writing. They were primarily made up of the list passages of the book, which remain the best-known parts. One Edo-period preface exhorts:
Girls with heart, read The Pillow Book in its entirety! If you attend to it intently, your daily comportment will no doubt become self-possessed . . . your heart will acquire natural gracefulness, and when you compose poems about the moon and the flowers, they will be imbued with feeling.
The gist is: Shonagon is hot and/or marriageable. Be clever with words, like her!
In the Meiji period (1868-1912), the critical establishment found in Shonagon a way of demonstrating that Japan had ‘modern’ women long before the West. In 1902, the literary scholar Umezawa Waken published an influential monograph on Shonagon and Shikibu, which positioned Shonagon as a forerunner of Japan’s ‘new woman’: ‘single (dokushin), vagrant (horo), arrogant (kyokan), unrestrained (goto)’. Shonagon’s audacious personality was thought to be reflected in her experimental literary style. As early as 1806, critics had begun to classify Shonagon’s text as a zuihitsu – roughly, a miscellany. ‘A zuihitsu,’ one writer explained,
is something in which you write down things you have seen and heard, said or thought, the useless and the serious alike as they come to you. This includes matters in which one is quite well versed, as well as shallow musings that one simply feels it would be a shame to forget. Unable to capture things in a subtle and delicate style, one is likely to include awkward or tasteless things that make it disappointing. But because a zuihitsu is not embellished, character, ability, and learning show, making it all the more interesting.
The fragmentary form of The Pillow Book made Shonagon an anomaly among her Heian contemporaries, most of whom wrote courtly romances. But Ivanova argues that this ‘stereotypical view’ of The Pillow Book – one that emphasises only its random and spontaneous style – has led many people to consider it frivolous, despite the fact that the zuihitsu category postdates Shonagon’s work by centuries.
Was Shonagon marginalised because The Pillow Book was categorised as zuihitsu? There’s something nicely perverse about the idea; after all, the book itself is about classification, and plays with miscategorisation. Shonagon’s lists often reveal what is strange and capacious in a unifying label. Here is ‘Squalid Things’:
The back of a piece of embroidery.
The inside of a cat’s ear.
A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.
The seams of a fur robe that has not yet been lined.
Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean.
A rather unattractive woman who looks after a large brood of children.
The list proceeds from the merely disorderly to the naturally unruly, seeming to counter squalidness with its precision even as it invites assent.
Sometimes, Shonagon will start writing a list and then veer into anecdote. ‘Hateful Things’ begins with general experiences like a hair on an inkstone, an exorcist who gets sleepy on the job, crows cawing, creaky carriages, sneezing, the too-proud husbands of nursemaids. Then, all of a sudden, the reader is presented with an (unmistakeably) personal recollection. ‘Equally disagreeable is the man who, when leaving in the middle of the night, takes care to fasten the cord of his headdress.’ Several paragraphs detail how one ought to leave and how one ought not to. ‘When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then secures the outer sash – one really begins to hate him.’
Other list passages have have led certain readers to dismiss Shonagon as a haughty courtier, rather than a seasoned performer more in line with the Fool in King Lear. ‘Things Without Merit’ is over almost as soon as it starts. ‘An ugly person with a bad character.’ Then: ‘Rice starch that has become mixed with water.’ Shonagon is speaking here of starching clothing, which was considered a lower-class practice. ‘I know that this is a very vulgar item and that people will dislike my mentioning it. But that should not stop me.’ The violation of taste feels ludicrously tiny. Shonagon goes on to mention another vulgarity: fire tongs. ‘After all these objects do exist in our world and people know all about them.’ The forbidden is not sex, but poor people trying to make their clothes look nice, or using tongs to light fires at the Festival of the Dead, when prayers were offered to reduce the suffering of those in hell.
For English-language readers today, there are three available translations of The Pillow Book. Arthur Waley produced the first in 1928, and it remains the most frequently republished. Ivanova makes the case that Waley’s translation is ‘incomplete, selective, and remote from its Japanese source’. (He also omits many of the book’s best passages.) So skip Waley. The translations by Ivan Morris and Meredith McKinney are both excellent. Morris’s has unobtrusive endnotes and accompanying material. In one note, he explains that cats were particularly valued in Shonagon’s time because they were an import from China. He also tells us that the ‘dog island’ to which Okinamaro was briefly banished was a figure of speech, rather than a real place full of baying hounds.
One compelling idea of beauty is that something is beautiful to the extent that it sets off in the mind of the looker (or reader) a series of attempts to categorise the beautiful thing – at which point, once the correct category is found, the beautiful object can settle into ordinariness. The longer it takes before the beautiful thing or person or experience can be satisfactorily categorised, the more beautiful the thing or person or experience – or maybe book – is. The Pillow Book, in this line of thought, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and its author – ancient and modern, silly and sophisticated, cruel and tender, alien and familiar – is similarly beautiful, and ultimately uncategorisable. In English we can catch imperfect sight of her, as if from behind a screen.