The Pillow Book and the Queen of Sass

On paper, I should hate The Pillow Book, the 10th century Japanese memoir written by the courtier known as Sei Shōnagon. I hate decadence, I hate backstabbing, I find the lives of aristocrats boring to the point of tears, and above all else I have a visceral dislike of any kind of social snobbery. I am, myself, a massive inverted-snob, as my father often delights in reminding me.

And yet somehow I am a Sei Shōnagon fanboy, and words that would ordinarily make me slam the book shut somehow charm me when they come from her pen. Let me give one example of the type of writer she was — and apologies to scholars of Japanese literature, as I am going to grossly generalise her elegant storytelling (Lady Sei would be horrified).

At one point, she writes that lately she has been receiving so many gentleman callers that even she is starting to worry about the gossip. So she decides to go into hiding for a little while. This seems to create a certain amount of panic amongst the local male population, and one lover she is still in touch with (an army officer) tells her with amusement that the Captain, his superior, keeps interrogating him about where Lady Sei is hiding. The lover explains that he had to lie and lie to the Captain, and was so afraid of bursting out laughing that he randomly picked up a wad of seaweed and started munching it. The days go by, however, and Captain doesn’t let up with his harassing, to the point where eventually the exasperated lover sends a messenger to Lady Sei begging to let him tell the Captain. She doesn’t send him a reply. She just gives the messenger a bunch of seaweed.

When her lover sends another message saying “You didn’t reply! You just sent me a bunch of seaweed! Why did you send me seaweed? What a random thing to do!” she’s clearly pissed off that he’s spoilt the moment by completely missing her clever reference to his earlier seaweed munching. So she sends him a poem, explaining the reference. And he sends a message back saying “Now you’re sending me poems? I hate it when women send me poems! Didn’t I tell you that when a woman sends me a poem I never want to see her again?” So she sends another poem, basically saying “Guess ya did – see ya then!”

Sei Shōnagon could perhaps be described as having been an artist in residence for the Empress of Japan at this time. Technically she was a lady in waiting, but her funny, poetic, insightful and extremely bitchy writings just sort of ‘accidentally’ leaked out to the wider public, as the Empress and her household (which was a political institution in itself) were keen to show how culturally plugged-in they were. Lady Sei reminds me of a cross between Holly Golightly and Jane Austen. She seems to enjoy playing up to the persona of the shallow and manipulative It Girl who takes no shit from anyone — even the Empress — but even so, no one gets to a position of influence like that without being very good at what they do, and boy can she write.

The first thing I loved about her writing was her ability to describe everyday things in the most beautiful of ways. Often this is just in the form of a simple list of things that make her happy. That act, of writing down lists of the things that make life seem magical, struck me as being such a simple but powerful act that I started to imitate it in my personal blog, which I even named ‘Pillow Book’. I was also drawn to her sense of humour. At times it feels like she is deliberately parodying herself. Here are some good examples of her list-making:

  • Topics of poetry — The capital. The kudzu vine. The water burr. Horses. Hail.
  • Cats — Cats should be completely back except for the belly, which should be very white.
  • Musical performances are best at night, when you can’t see people’s faces.
  • Young people and babies should be plump. Provincial Governors and suchlike people who have some authority should also be on the portly side.
  • Things that can’t be compared — Summer and winter. Night and day. Rainy days and sunny days. Laughter and anger. Old age and youth. White and black. People you love and those you hate. The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people. Fire and water. Fat people and thin people. People with long hair and those with short hair.
  • Things that look lovely but are horrible inside — Screens decorated with Chinese paintings. A limed wall. A heaped plate of food. The top of a cypress-bark roof. The prostitutes of Kōjiri.

In doing a bit of refresher research for writing this article, I came across this blog post on The Pillow Book in which its author neatly captures why she seems so much more real to us than even writers from much more recent times:

She complains. She gloats. She finds fault with others. And when she does, the millennium separating her from us vanishes: “Just as a woman is about to tell me something really interesting,” she writes in her list of Things That Irritate Me, “and I’m sitting there just dying to hear it, her baby starts crying.” “I know I shouldn’t think this way, and I know I’ll be punished for it,” she writes in her list of Things That Make Me Happy, “but I just love it when bad things happen to people I can’t stand.” “Ugly people,” she starts off her list of Things That Don’t Have Any Redeeming Qualities, “with disagreeable personalities.”

One of the joys about writing these Eulogize This articles (in fact, probably the primary reason why I do it) is to force myself to put into words why I love the things that I love. Because it’s often when I am halfway through writing one of these that I suddenly realise that the biggest appeal of the work is not the thing I thought it was.

Before I started writing this, I would have said that I loved The Pillow Book because it was doing precisely what I’m trying to do here: put into words why I love the things I love. And I was expecting to write about how this was despite the fact that Sei Shōnagon is so bitchy all the time. But when I first read that quote above, it made me realise that I love this book because of the bitchiness, not despite it. Like the blog post says, there’s a strange kind of intimacy to it. And maybe when you’re that good at evoking beauty from the change of a season, or a rain storm, or the process of an illicit lover sending a love letter, you can get away with saying the meanest things about people.

That said, I’m glad I could never meet her in real life. I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes.