Friday, June 29, 2012

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Translated and Edited by Ivan Morris)

I think I've already established some time back that I loved Essays in Idleness (beginning with the title, which should appeal to any student). So, when I heard of a similar book, I decided to go and read it. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is similar to Essays in Idleness, seeing as it is a series of disconected writings of varying lengths. The main difference is that the Pillow Book is more focused on royal court life.

The book was interesting. It provided a glimsp into Heian court life through the eyes of Sei Shonagon, who was a Court Lady. She obviously loves the Emperor and Empress, as seen by the way she constantly praises them and the way she describes them.

Heian court sounds very witty and indulgent. Maybe too indulgent. Ok, positives first. I think the whole poem quoting thing is way cool. The way that they respond the poems with poems (and are puns), I just wish I could do that (although I highly doubt I can memorise/create so many clever poems).

Negatives: they sound so mean. Or rather, Sei Shonagon sounds like a mean person. One episode that I remember very clearly relates to poetry. Sei Shonagon was very impressed with the way she heard someone recite a poem, but disparagingly remarked that she was disappointed that it was a commoner. Ouch.

Sei Shonagon also sounds like a romantist. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing. I suppose you could refer to Sense and Sensibility and think: Do I prefer Sense or do I prefer Sensibility? Sometimes, her love of the romantic leads to really beautiful descriptions, but sometimes, it goes over the top and just annoys me. But it may be that I just can't appretiate her sense of beauty/romanticism.

If you're going to read this book, I will tell you now that you should get a copy with extensive footnotes. Not only are you going to want to know more about the people mentioned, you'll need explanations on the poems and some events, not to mention court protocol. The copy that I read had a really nice thick footnote and appendix section (almost 200 pages!) that was very illuminating, but the problem was that all the footnotes were placed at the back. This made the constant flipping back and forth necessary and annoying. So maybe you'll want to look out for a copy where the footnotes are at the bottom of the page.

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