Margaret Leroy studied music at Oxford, and she has worked as a psychiatric social worker. Her non-fiction books include Pleasure: the truth about female sexuality and Some Girls Do, and for two years she was an agony aunt on Options magazine. Margaret has written four previous novels: Trust, which was televised by Granada and reached an audience of eight million, Alysson's Shoes, Postcards from Berlin and The River House. Postcards from Berlin was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her latest novel is The Drowning Girl, which has been a bestseller in both the UK and the US, where it is published as Yes, My Darling Daughter. It was chosen by Oprah for her Summer Reading list. Margaret's books have been translated into 10 languages, and her articles and short stories have been published in The Observer, The Sunday Express, The Sunday Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. Here she writes about The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.
Margaret Leroy on The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Japanese Empress around 965 AD. When I first came across her writings, I was startled - not only because she seemed so sophisticated, so contemporary, but also by a sense of recognition: she reminded me vividly of my own way of experiencing the world.
The Pillow Book is an extraordinarily intimate insight into a writer's mind. And Sei Shonagon is above all a writer, and she has a writer's pathology - that compulsion to put down what she sees, the sense that nothing is quite real until it is recorded in her notebook. The Pillow Book was not intended for the eyes of others, and it reveals the workings of a writer's mind at a very early stage in the writing process. These are the things you write down before you order them, before you impose a narrative arc, a pattern - where all you have are jottings, anecdotes, fragments. It's a gorgeous patchwork of a book, a ragbag of secrets, stories, memories and lists - lists of disparate things that are joined together like pearls on a thread by the emotion they evoke, as when she lists Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past:
To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook...
It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.
Last year's paper fan.
A night with a clear moon...
Many of her observations are sensuous: she is preoccupied with what is seen, smelt, heard. She loves the design woodsorrel makes on figured silk, and the way snow looks when it falls on a roof of cypress bark, and the sound the wind makes when it blows through rushes. She is horribly depressed by rain, and moved by the distant cry of wild geese. She is upset by Squalid Things: 'The back of a piece of embroidery. The inside of a cat's ear...' She is moved by the loveliness of shiny raindrops on tattered bits of spiderweb, and cannot understand why, when she tries to tell other people about this, they are not as excited as she is. And, endearingly, she has that passion for stationery that is so typical of the writer: 'I feel very pleased when I have acquired some Michinoku paper, or some white, decorated paper, or even plain paper if it is nice and white.' Here, I sense something akin to my own fondness for 4B pencils and blue paperclips.
Some of The Pillow Book - though less than is commonly imagined - is about sex. Sei Shonagon likes men a lot. It's delicious to see her managing to persuade herself that there are moral reasons why a preacher should be good-looking - because then people will pay more attention to his words. She is wonderfully perceptive on the subject of past love affairs. 'When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.' She very frequently has a man in her bed. It's unclear whether or how she was paid for these encounters, and maybe it's irrelevant; what is clear is that these sexual exchanges matter emotionally to her. But a life of sexual licence, as we well know, has a cost. Her pleasure in her visits from her lovers is tempered by little surges of anxiety and unease. You can sense her vulnerability after her lover has left her bed, as she frets about whether she will receive her 'next-morning letter' - which will ideally contain a line or two of charming poetry, and have a flower attached. She cannot feel at ease until the letter has come.
The subtext of her accounts of these relationships is a concern with how to live well in a sexual culture which is in some ways like our own - where for many people sexual encounters do not take place within a moral framework. Rather than morality, her concern is good manners: what matters is to behave with kindness and courtesy. She is particularly engaging on the subject of what happens after sex. A thousand years before sex therapists pronounced that the time immediately after sex is most crucial for the health of a relationship, Sei Shonagon was musing on Hateful Things, and the man who is in too much of a rush to leave her. She prefers the man to drag himself from her bed with a deep sigh, as though it is agony to leave, to say whatever remained unsaid during the night, to linger as though he cannot bear to tear himself away.
Indeed, one's attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser-sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash - one really begins to hate him.
Sei Shonagon may be sexually wise and emotionally literate - but sadly she is not particularly good. She is deeply flawed, and it's distressing that her vice is perhaps the most repellent of the mundane vices - snobbery, a deep and unashamed belief that an accident of birth confers value on a person. If only this snobbery of hers were as anachronistic as the over-robe and trouser-sash she describes, but regrettably, it isn't so; and in our society, in which social mobility has stagnated and the privileged for the most part seem blithely unconcerned, her elitism seems as contemporary as so much else in her book. The only solution is to ignore these prejudices of hers - as you might with a friend whose elitism you disliked but who in other ways you loved - and to hurry on, in search of more entrancing lists, like these:
Things That are Distant Though Near.
Festivals celebrated near the Palace.
Relationships between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.
The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First.
Things That are Near Though Distant.
The course of a boat.
Relations between a man and a woman.