Book Review: THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON

The Pillow Book of Sei ShonagonThe Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon:
The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan

In this translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, the translator has liberally edited the original text, including only about a quarter of the original text. As he explains, “Omissions have been made only where the original was dull, unintelligible, repetitive, or so packed with allusion that it required an impracticable amount of commentary.”

What is included is a captivating portrait of life at the Japanese court from about 900 to 1000. The stories show a very playful at at times mischievous collection of women who are not above pranks or teasing. Of course, the text is full of romance and secret assignations. Sei’s pillow book also includes list of embarrassing things and things that make her happy: they are not too far removed from what one might write today.

Her more detailed stories are more revealing, such as when she describes going to a Buddhist temple and the conventions around wealthy versus poor patrons (not to mention her irritation at being jostled and crowded by those of the lower class). She describes a fascinating ceremony for healing an illness. “The incantations of the priest cause the spirit which is possessing the sick person to pass into the medium, who, being young and healthy, easily throws it off.”

I was glad that I read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had much sense of life at the imperial court at all. Still, I was left wanting more. Perhaps I felt this way knowing how much the translator edited the text. There is a newer translation by Meredith McKinney published by Penguin Classics. At some point, I may read that to sate my curiosity.