A certain gentleman, Fujiwara no Kaneie by name, received a promotion. He was made vice-minister of war. What a nuisance! “The post was so distasteful,” his wife noted in her diary, “that he quite ignored his official duties.”

His boss, the war minister, sent a reproachful poem: “Threads in the same skein. Why then do they not meet?” Kaneie replied, “How sad to be told that being of the same skein should mean so little.” “Not meeting” suggests Kaneie’s truancy. “Same skein” could mean “same office.” Or “same family” — the all-powerful Fujiwara.

Where are we? In the 10th century, in the nation’s capital, Heian-kyo, today’s Kyoto. The indolently aristocratic, exquisitely cultured, ceremoniously mannered, squeamishly pacifist Heian Period (794-1185) is in full flower. The supreme literary masterpiece of the era, “The Tale of Genji,” is a generation in the future, but a promising precursor of greater writing to come is the “Kagero Nikki” (“The Gossamer Years”). Part-diary and part-memoir, it is the work of a high-born lady whose name is not known.