Written by Japan’s original blogger, a mistress of wry observation and scalding wit, Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” retains its fresh, authentic appeal more than 1,000 years after its inception. Shonagon was a contemporary and presumed rival of Lady Murasaki, author of the “The Tale of Genji.” If “Genji” represents the glittering stage of classical, Imperial life, Shonagon’s missive takes us into the everyday, comical corners backstage, to share the reality of daily court life. Written in the zuihitsu (literary jottings) form that Shonagon made popular during the Heian Period (794-1185), the book consists of 185 entries, some merely fragments of thought, lists, descriptive scenes and scraps of poetry. The last entry contains a disclaimer from Shonagon insisting that she never meant her book to be seen by others, and explaining the ingenuous title — using note paper to make into “a pillow.”
Shrugging off praise, Shonagon admits, “I am the sort of person who approves of what others abhor and detests the things they like.” It is this straightforward, ironic tone that keeps “The Pillow Book” modern, despite the passing years.
Even when Shonagon disappoints, as she does with her short complaint, “Men Really Have Strange Emotions” — which laments how men will sometimes love “ugly”women — she touches familiar strands of humanity. Love her or hate her, “The Pillow Book” firmly reveals the (in)consistencies in human nature from which we all suffer.
Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.