Mary Cooks While I Read the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, Trans. Ivan Morris

Mary and I have a deal: She fixes dinner and I do the dishes. It doesn’t take her long because truth be told she’s not into cooking anything that takes a lot of time. But there is that period when I’ve finished work for the day before she trots out the dinner. When I discovered The Pillow Book, I knew I had solved the problem of what to do while she struggles with the slotted spoon, for this is a book that can be read in short bursts. You don’t even have to read the pages in order, for there is no narrative to it.

It’s a journal written during the first ten years of the eleventh century by Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to the Empress of Japan, . In England men were still wearing helmets with horns on them. Chaucer wouldn’t be born for another three centuries. That we can get inside the mind of a woman of that long-ago time from such an alien culture is something of a miracle.

Sei Shonagon is pretty, randy , fashionable, witty and snobbish—in short a combination of sweet Dorothy Wordsworth, snarky Dorothy Parker, and a celebrity fashionista. She fights the boredom of imperial court life by noticing things which she describes in detail with her ink stand and brush. She likes making lists: pleasing things, distressing things, elegant things, hateful things. She is extremely concerned with proper behavior. She sometimes writes little essays in the journal, which she probably kept in the drawers of her wooden pillow.

A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. The lady urges him on: ‘Come, my friend, it’s getting light. You don’t want anyone to find you here’ He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night has not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.

Presently he raises the lattice, and the two lovers stand together by the side door while he tells her how he dreads the coming day, which will keep them apart; then he slips away The lady watches him go, and this moment of parting will remain among her most charming memories.

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


4 thoughts on “Mary Cooks While I Read the Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, Trans. Ivan Morris

  1. Great timing, Herb. I’ll get it. Hilary and my 15 And 17 year granddaughters are going to Iwakuni, Japan, June 21 – July 11 to see Seanan, who is a Navy Chaplain working for the Marine Corps. How time flies, he’s 48.
    I just picked up, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.


  2. This is so interesting. I’m thinking Mary’s journals should be titled, “Struggles With the Slotted Spoon.” I am still trying to digest the idea of having drawers in your wooden pillow. Now there is something we haven’t tried for a good nights sleep!


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