Sunday Salon: Reading on the Move
Firstly I finished The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, (translated by Ivan Morris) while in the night I listened to Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Hard-boiled Wonderland is Murakami's best book, in my opinion (well, of the ones I've heard so far). One voice was modern and slick, concerning a man who had had his brain modified so he could 'shuffle' information quickly. This was set in modern Japan. Alternate chapters were more poetic and set in a mysterious city at 'the end of the world'. In order to enter the city, the prospective citizen has to have his shadow cut away, and this shadow (which has a personality and form of its own) is allowed to die in the harsh environment outside the city walls. As the shadow dies so too does the mind and memories of its previous owner who now lives inside the city. Each chapter is engrossing, strange and memorable (the sort of writing I love to hear again and again) and the whole book comes together beautifully. It is certainly one of the best books I've ever read, and now want to read it in print so I can muse over it some more.
The Pillow Book was set in a much older Japan, and showed a society that seemed even more strange and claustrophobic than the city in Hard Boiled Wonderland.
Sei Shonagon was a Lady-in-Waiting at the court of a Japanese Empress during the last decade of the tenth century. Her 'pillow book' is a collection of her thoughts about court life, with anecdotes about various incidents, lists of charming and distasteful things, and character appraisals and assassinations. As I read I gradually accumulated an impression of not only the lifestyle of the privileged ladies of the court, but also the character of Shonagon. She took pleasure in ridicule, her poetic successes, popularity with the Empress and numerous compliments. She seemed obsessed with clothes of both male and female, and yet seemed incredibly wary about being seen herself, and seemed to spend a lot of her time hiding behind screens and curtains. Her life seemed to be a series of assignations with various lovers (generally under the protection of darkness or, initially, from the other side of a screen or curtain. She seemed to see these lovers mainly by spying on themfrom behind curtains during staged visits.
In some ways life in the Heian court seemed like life for idle classes throughout history. She concentrated on manners, etiquette and form; and delighted in successful put-downs, pracitcal jokes and acknowledgment of her wit by those she considered to be her superior. She was also promiscuous, and yet seemed to spend many episodes of her life in a convent or in retreat. Any major event was celebrated in poetry, and the exchange of poetry seemed to be the main form of communication between men and women. Celebrations generally took the form of processions, and she was careful to list the colour schemes of clothes (many of which were dictated by station, season and bereavement).
Having finished these, I am reading As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams
by another lady-in-waiting at the Heian court, which is wistful and interesting, and listening to The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
'The Help' is absorbing. Any Murakami book is a tough act to follow, and at first I thought 'The Help', with its put-upon black domestic servant in Jacksonville, seemed a little obvious and unadventurous, but soon it caught hold of me with its little, southern-US teeth, and I can't wait to listen to some more.
In complete contrast, a couple more books were waiting for me when I got home: the utterly hilarious Henry Root Letters,
and the sumptuously illustrated DK History of Britain and Ireland.
I've dipped into both of these books, and am this already boring everyone in earshot by reading out long passages from the Henry Root book because I find them all so funny. I follow these with snippets from the History of Britain (which receive a more sympathetic hearing). For instance (from the 'History of Britain') I found out that there are things called 'broughs' in Scotland which were built in the 6th century BCE. They were part residence and part fort, and I now have the urge to go to Scotland and find one. The great thing about this 'History' book are the many photographs. They draw the eye. No doubt I have come across the 'brough' before in my reading, but it is the sort of word that doesn't really stick, and seeing a picture of one of these mysterious-looking objects entices me to the words alongside and so I find out more. I am looking forward to dipping into this a bit more very soon.