Pillow Books: Prose and Possibility
Sei Shonagon, writing in the 990s to 1000s in Heian, Japan left the world with a unique and creative literary form. It is called a pillow book – translated from Makura no Soshi in the Japanese – and is partially a journal, partially poetry, partially informative essay. What it is in total is a prosaic illumination into a period of one’s life.
What makes Sei’s work special is the wide ranging discussions and observations it holds. Because she is not held to the traditional forms of the narrative, as a novel or purely narrative non-fiction author would be, she is free to wander in the directions that her experiences take her. Thus we read within three consecutive sections of the book vignettes of hateful and despised things, such as driving rain, squeaking and annoying sounds, and also, ironically enough, dull poems; these passages are closely followed by passages about sheer delightful beauty: flutes, and free abandon (Morris, 1992). A quick read of these things show that Sei’s writing is the consistent theme. It is her talent that carries all of the stories. Her skills at describing objects, times and ideas are those of an innocent girl, taken in by the beauties and horrors of life. She is not self conscious at her work, but putting into the exacting words all of the exacting details. Perhaps this is because she didn’t think of publishing. She certainly wasn’t addressing this set to anyone other than her inner mind and heart.
Modern works have been based off of this free ideal of Sei, and of the idea of pillow books in general. Aidan Chambers’ novel This is All, The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn (2008) is perhaps one of the best responses to this genre. It is speculative fiction, as opposed to the valued nonfiction of Sei, but it works for the same purposes. It is a collection of vignettes and thoughts and experiences to pass on to the next generation. In this case, the ‘author’ Cordelia Kenn is readying herself to pass on her life and thoughts to her daughter. As expected, this is not only for her child to remember her mother, but also to enable her to relive the past at some time. It becomes an instructive journal. Again, this is in response to Sei’s important historical work. Through Kenn, we read a warming story of how to re-experience a loved one’s life; through Sei we can actually put together a historical, and yet warming, record of a real life and place lived.
Another way in which people have responded to the Pillow Book is quite the opposite. Rather than produce narratives and scenery, they utilize the form to collect essays themselves – the purest form of objective observation, thematically. In that way, both Eleanor Bron and Heather Mallick have brought their works to us. Bron’s The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron (1987) is perhaps a bit more chronological and orderly, while Mallick’s Cake or Death (2008) is more the humorous, I’ll give you details as I recall them work. Once a reader has been exposed to Sei, though, it is clear that both Bron and Mallick have, in their own ways, borrowed and leaned heavily upon the pillow book tradition. I find that the efforts of these authors are excellent ways of distributing knowledge without the drudgery of the traditional essay or composition. They feel like stories and they feel like companions have written them just for us. Perhaps contemporary readers of Sei’s writings at court felt that special bond and connection not only to the author, but also to the Empress and the court life in general. Surely such a connection for readers and citizens of the Empire would be both instructive, and valuable, not to mention speculative and entertaining. Those are the special qualities of the pillow book.
Modern essays, narrative non-fiction and other expository work come wrapped in plain brown wrappers, for the most part. They are expected to be somewhat dry and more informative than intriguing. Sei Shonagon reaches out from history to dismiss that understanding, however. Her Pillow Book, and others’ responses to it since, has shown readers a new way of enjoying the observation. Prose, poetry and dry humor can all lead up to an enchanting view of history, and a shared experience with a social life.
Bron, E. (1987). The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron, or an Actress Despairs. London: Methuen
Chambers, A. (2008). This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn. London: Bodley Head.
Mallick, H. (2008). Cake or Death: The Excruciating Choices of Everyday Life. Toronto:
Random House Canada.
Morris, I. (Ed.). (1992). Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Columbia: UP.