Sunday, 5 July 2015

Japanese Literature: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

I've just finished a book that inspired me very much, and I'd like to share it today. I was given The Pillow Book as a gift, a lot longer ago than I'd like to admit. I'd been looking forward to reading it for a long time, and I finally got to it this year.

The Pillow Book was written during the Heian period in Japan, by a court lady called Sei Shōnagon. She began it in approximately 990 C.E. and it was finished sometime after 1002. The Heian period was a rare peaceful time in Japanese history, and it allowed art, poetry and culture to flourish. Being able to compose poetry spontaneously was a highly-prized ability, and that alone could elevate a person to a higher station in the court.

I think the book is a bit unfortunately-named. First impressions might be that it's a bit racy! But the story goes that it was so named because Shōnagon kept a sheaf of papers under her pillow that she would scribble on whenever she had a spare moment. It's possible that she never meant for anyone else to see it. The book seems to bear this out. It's a collection of over 250 separate passages, ranging from diary entries and stories of life at court, to observations on nature and lists of various things such as "mountains", "bridges", "things of beauty" and "distasteful things". Shōnagon writes of her pride in writing a poem that the Empress praises, funny misunderstandings, and her opinion on fellow courtiers. She can come across at times as both snobby and a little bit insecure.

The world of Heian Japan is in many ways completely alien to our own. Long-dead Buddhist rituals and festivals dictated every action. Women were referred to by, not their own given names, but the position that their father held at court. (Sei Shōnagon actually means "lesser councillor of the State of Sei".) Higher class women rarely went outside, and spent most of their time behind obscuring blinds. It was a world in which a courtly woman never showed her face to a man. The most anyone might see is a sleeve hanging down from under the blind of her carriage. The choice of material and colours, and how the sleeve was arranged, was the only way the lady could express her genteel refinement. And yet, affairs were common and perfectly acceptable. If a woman wished to take a lover, everyone knew about it as the walls were made of paper and all could be heard. Women would chat openly about it the next day and wonder when the lover's "morning-after poem" would arrive.

Despite living in such an alien world though, Sei Shōnagon is an entirely familiar figure. She looks forward to the more colourful festivals and bemoans the boring ones. She feels keenly that her poetry will be compared to her father's and found lacking. She worries that something that she has said might offend someone. She looks down on the lesser courtiers and idolises the Empress. She says disparaging things about her rival. This is what makes her such an endearing figure and made the book such a joy to read.

A Note on the translations: The book I have is the 2006 Meredith Kinney translation. The reviews I've read were all of the opinion that this translation most reflects the playful tone of the original and is perhaps the "best". Some earlier translations had re-ordered the passages so all of the same types (e.g. stories, lists) were grouped together, or even cut out the lists completely (horrid!), but this translation puts them all back together, and in their original order. I might read one of the other translations for comparison, but personally I think I prefer the book this way.

I have to admit something -- not long after I started the book, I began to think to myself, why can't I do something like this? For a long time, I've been writing little bits here and there, fragments of stories and, of course, lists. But I always thought -- I can't publish a book, not with this ragtag collection of bits and pieces! I don't have the time, patience -- or ideas! -- to write a full novel, and a book of short stories doesn't really appeal to me either. None of the stuff I've written has a coherent theme (as I've been told that anthologies should have). And I've always felt a strange kind of resistance when I read collections of short stories, I don't know why. Whenever I get to the end of a single story, whether long or short, there's a tension between stopping to savour that story, or ploughing on to the next one straight away. And having to stop halfway through a story? It's just about more than I can deal with!

Of course I don't want to publish something I expected others to read, but I wouldn't want to read myself. But what alternatives are there? On reading more about The Pillow Book, I saw that was the first of a genre of Japanese literature called zuihitsu. Apparently, it's a thing! And even if it weren't a thing, I'd be thinking the same thing: is this the genre for me?

The upshot of all this is that I've been inspired to write like I never have before. Not only that, but inspired to observe, to look at the world around me. The people and the places. The tiny little everyday events that I would never have thought to write about before. It'll be a while before I have enough to compile into a book, and I might never find the courage to actually publish it, but all I can say right now is, wait and see!

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