sei shonagon the pillow book: 3 posts

Perfumes for Reading The Pillow Book

“Things that make your heart beat fast: to wash your hair, apply your make-up and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.” The woman who wrote these lines was a 10th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting in the Heian court. We only know her title, Sei Shōnagon, not her real name, but The Pillow Book ensured her fame. In my recent FT magazine article, Three Perfumes for Sei Shonagon, I select three fragrance to accompany the Japanese literary masterpiece.

“For a fragrance that evokes Sei Shōnagon’s description of the royal palace – the carved screens, incense smoke and rustle of silks – I turn to Arquiste’s Nanban. It’s dark and plush, with velvety layers of myrrh, sandalwood and leather, but the infusion of osmanthus, a blossom that smells of apricots and tea, gives a candlelit glow to the composition. To continue reading, please click here.”

Have you read The Pillow Book? Do you ever select scents that match the mood of your favorite books?

Infuriating Things

Sei Shonagon has been my companion for many years. She was an opinionated 11th century Japanese lady-in-waiting, and she wrote what has become the embodiment of Japanese classical prose, The Pillow Book. I’ve already written about this quirky collection and its author and quoted one of my favorite lyrical passages about things that make one’s heart beat faster. Reading her enchanting descriptions of dew on chrysanthemums, first plum blossoms or the color of incense smoke is an instant escape from my routine, and while the world of Sei Shonagon wasn’t a cherry blossom tinted fantasy—a woman’s life at court was one of ennui and seclusion—the genius of the writer is to make you think otherwise. “Delightful” is one of the most frequently used words throughout the book.

pillow book-tea

Lyricism and refinement aside,  I’m drawn to Sei Shonagon for a far earthier reason—her flaws. She complains about her fellow ladies-in-waiting. She whines about her lovers whose morning departure is not as elegant as she would like it to be. She can be a snob. She finds it unseemly that the snow falls on the houses of common people—“moonlight shining into such houses is also a great shame,” she adds. She has a dry sense of humor. She’s vulnerable and prone to bouts of melancholy. She’s merely human. Despite her living more than a thousand years ago, she doesn’t come across as a museum piece.

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Things That Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster

I would love to have shared a cup of tea with Sei Shonagon, a 11th century Japanese court lady and author of The Pillow Book. What a character she must have been! It is rare that a personage removed by so many centuries feels so modern, but I can just imagine her doling out choice comments and sharing some court gossip. Of course, I would be worried that this aesthete might find either my conversation too dull or my attire too plain, since her diary is evidence enough of her strong opinions.

cherry blossoms-350

Besides anecdotes about court life, The Pillow Book is full of poetic vignettes and observations. It’s a world where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense perfumed letters. Sei Shonagon’s rapier-sharp wit and appetite for life shine through her compilation of stories. That she is not all charm and sweet manners makes her even more fascinating.

The Pillow Book was written during a particularly trying period of Sei Shonagon’s life. Emperor Ichijo had recently taken on another consort, sidelining the writer’s patron, Empress Teishi, to a secondary role. Incidentally, the biggest rival to Sei Shonagon’s literary skill served the new Empress Shoshi. It was Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji. With the declining fortunes of Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s future was likewise troubling, and she probably found solace in writing.

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