One thousand years ago, a woman in Japan decided to write an account of her life. We do not know her name. Things such as her marriage and her children appear, but only at the peripheries of the text, if at all. Instead we find recollections of days spent reading, lines of poetry, and descriptions of occasional journeys to temples.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, by Sarashina, Translated by Ivan Morris.
176 pages

The text that has come down to us, known in Japanese as the “Sarashina Nikki,” is now a classic of Japanese literature. The life of the narrator, one spent largely turned away from the world, is revealed in lucid prose that transcends cultural and historical distance through its emotional clarity and depth. Part of the diary writing tradition central to Japanese literary history, the “Sarashina Nikki’s” legacy can be seen today in the autobiographical “I-novel,” a key mode of 20th century Japanese literature.

“As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams” —the title chosen by Ivan Morris for his translation — is not a phrase that appears in the text. Taken from an ancient poem, the bridge of dreams was an image used in classical Japanese to suggest the ephemeral nature of existence. Throughout her writing, we feel the author’s regret at having “lived forever in a dream world.” It is to our infinite benefit that she chose to write down her impressions of her life, despite this regret, so that now, in the focused dreaming that is reading, we are able to feel something of what it is to be alive.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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