The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is one of my favourite diaries. Written just over 1,000 years ago by a lady of the Heian court, it records the author's strongly held opinions on everything from appropriate behaviour for husbands of maids to Chinese poetry.
Shonagon herself is bitchy, conceited, and scheming. Yet she is also a subtle observer, amusing, and perceptive. A perfect diarist in other words, though perhaps better company on the page than in the flesh.
Here she is:
One is in a hurry to leave but one's visitor keeps chattering away. If it is a person of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying "You must tell me all about it next time", but should it be the sort of visitor whose presence commands one's best behaviour, the situation is hateful indeed...
I hate the sight of men in their cups who shout, poke their fingers in their mouths , stroke their beards and pass the wine on their neighbours with great cries of "Have some more! Drink up!" They tremble, shake their heads and gesticulate like children ... I have seen really well-bred people behave like this and I find it most distasteful
To envy others and to complain about one's lot, to speak badly about people, to be inquisitive about the most trivial of matters and to resent and abuse people for not telling one, or, if one does manage to worm out some facts, to to inform everyone in the most detailed fashion as if one had known all from the beginning -- oh how hateful.
Things that make one's heart beat faster
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one's gate and to instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one's hair, make one's toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.
Finally, you know that feeling when you have just hit the "send" button on your e-mail and realize you could have improved your message? Well, she's got that down too:
One has sent a poem (or a reply to a poem) and, after the messenger has left, thinks of a couple of words that ought to be changed.
Ivan Morris's free-flowing translation is a work of art in itself -- returning to the Pillow Book after almost 10 years I was surprised at how fresh it still seemed, I'm sure it will be a good friend for the rest of my days.