The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is a fascinating, detailed account of Japanese court life in the closing years of the 10th century. Written by a lady of the court at the height of Heian culture, this book enthralls with its lively gossip, witty observations, and subtle impressions. Lady Shōnagon was an erstwhile rival of Lady Murasaki, whose novel, The Tale of Genji, fictionalized the elite world Lady Shōnagon so eloquently relates. Featuring reflections on royal and religious ceremonies, nature, conversation, poetry, and many other subjects, The Pillow Book is an intimate look at the experiences and outlook of the Heian upper class. Sei Shōnagon, born around 965, was lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako and between the early 990s and 1002 she kept these ‘personal notes’, recording what she saw and encountered with wit, accuracy, and intelligence. There is immense variety here. There are more than 320 entries, each with its own heading: ‘Birds’, Trees’, ‘When His Excellency The Chancellor Had Departed’, ‘Unreliable Things’. . . Some entries are very brief, no more than ‘asides’, and there are even concise lists. Some reflect the sensitive Japanese response to nature or patterned silk; and there are longer narratives of incidents involving prominent political figures. Her singular humour is often to the fore: ‘Masahiro really is a laughing stock. I wonder what it is like for his parents and friends.’ But there are also entries which reflect a considerate nature as shown in ‘One of Her Majesty’s Wet-Nurses’. While Arthur Waley’s classic translation remains well-known it was abridged, and this Ukemi recording presents the translation by Ivan Morris, the first unabridged English version. It is fluent and lively, and reflects the sparkling character of Sei Shōnagon’s writing which, in the 21st century, belies its ancient origins and its academic standing as one of the great works of Japanese literature. This is perfectly captured by in Georgina Sutton’s reading.
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