Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sei Shonagon: space goddess

When I was researching my submission of "Namatjira" for the name of a crater on Mercury (see this post), I had to go through the list of existing names. Features on the heavily-cratered planet are named after artists of all genres, but they have to be significant in some way and dead for a seemly amount of time.

I was very pleased to see that one of my all-time favourite writers, the 10th century Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon, had been craterised.

I first came across her famous Pillow Book in a second-hand bookshop when I was a teenager. I suppose I thought it might be some sort of saucy romance. I soon found out the error of my assumptions, but it has been one of my favourites ever since, a book I can read over and over without tiring of its pleasures. (I should mention that I'm old school about this and I like the Ivan Morris translation best).

Sei Shonagon was very erudite in an era when women weren't supposed to be. Only men were allowed to know Chinese, but Sei Shonagon managed to teach herself, and every now and then would astonish the male courtiers by some oblique reference to Chinese poetry. She had to be careful about it though, or risk being seen as unfeminine in a blue stocking kind of way.




She had a slightly wry, acerbic personality, and is sometimes a bit vain and shallow. One of the most appealing things about her is just how human she comes across as, over a thousand years ago and through translation from Japanese. It's a fascinating insight into another world, the Heian court of the 10th century, and it's worth looking up the notes as you're reading it to find out what everything means.

The most outstanding thing about her writing is the fine sense of observation. Colours, textures, nuances, little everyday incidents, are rendered profound by her framing of them. She writes lists of things that show the listicles of today's online press how things are really done. Reading her lists and her observations gives you a new appreciation of the world.

As I'm writing this, I turn behind me to look at the bookcase, and there she is, in the Penguin Classic edition I bought all those years ago for the princely sum of $1.30. It's full of bookmarks. This is what I read when I open one:

"Indeed, one's attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking".

A lesson for my teenage self indeed.




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