starlady: (tomoyo magic hope)
Sei Shônagon. Makura no sôshi | The Pillow Book (ca. 1005). Trans. Meredith McKinney. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Meredith McKinney has done the world a great service by bringing out a new, comprehensive and compulsively readable version of Sei Shônagon's idiosyncratic classic of Heian literature in English. The previous widely-known version by Ivan Morris, while eminently literary, omitted most of the sections of lists of things with which Sei sprinkles her miscellany, and which form a vital part of the book, conveying much more of her worldview and the culture it came from than at first one realizes.

Sei Shônagon was in service at the court of Empress Teishi from roughly 993 to 1000, several years older than many of her fellow gentlewomen and far outstripping many of them in literary-poetic talent; The Pillow Book is among other things a selected recollection of various moments from the acme of Teishi and her branch of the Fujiwara family's glory, which was cut short in 995 with her father Regent Michitaka's sudden death. Her brothers Korechika and Taka'ie were easily shunted aside by their uncle Michinaga, who married his daughter Shôshi to the Emperor Ichijô on the day of the birth of Teishi's son and who went on to subsidize Murasaki Shikibu's service at Shôshi's court at the summit of Fujiwara and Heian glory, recorded vividly in Murasaki's diary and heavily fictionalized in The Tale of Genji. Sei, associated with Teishi and Michitaka despite her well-known admiration for Michinaga, left the court after her mistress's death in childbirth, and completed The Pillow Book, probably close kin to the commonplace books that many aristocrats and courtiers of both genders kept at their bedsides, sometime later. She did so without the official patronage that supported Murasaki's diary, which is obviously meant as a public record of Michinaga's magnificence and munificence, giving The Pillow Book the freedom to be more personal.

A mini-essay on Sei, Heian Japan, and her book. )

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