Sei Shonagon is not the real name of the author. Shōnagon means "Minor Councillor", which I think must have been her father's position (from what I understand, ladies at court were known by nicknames and the positions of their father rather than their actual name); Sei refers to the family of Kiyowara, apparently. She was the daughter of a poet (Kiyowara no Motosuke) and a contemporary of the more famous Murasaki Shikibu (author of Tales of Genji, whose name, incidentally, is the name of a flower plus her father's position), who did not like her one bit (she thought her arrogant, frivolous and presumptuous). The rivalry may be founded in the fact that they served two different Empresses: when Sadako's father (Michitaka) died, his position at court was taken by his brother (Michinaga), who had the Emperor marry one of his daughters as well in order to secure his position -- court intrigues are fun. Shikibu served the second Empress.
Her real name may have been Kiyowara Nagiko, but no one really knows. Nor is it known what became of her. The Pillow Book therefore has the strange air of providing an intimate opening into a life that is otherwise inaccessible -- the exact opposite of what history normally provides: the dates and facts are missing, but the everyday observations, the preferences, dislikes and passing thoughts are somehow there to be read.
It is also not clear to what extent the Pillow Book was originally intended to be circulated -- Murasaki Shikibu suggests that it was, but the explanation given in the text (and supported by the writer of the introduction to my edition) is that it started as a private journal which then became public.
It is not structured as a coherent story, and in that lies much of its charm. In fact, there does not appear to be a consensus as to how it should be ordered. The anecdotes of court life are interspersed with lists of "depressing things", "splendid things", "things without merit", "things that fall from the sky" and a number of others. And I do like the lists. They not only provide an (albeit randomly structured) insight into the preferences of a woman who lived a millennium ago on the other side of the world, they are also strangely lyrical. And I confess I am very fond of a random structure.
But the anecdotes are what I love. They are moments in a life. That bit of the past that history books do not provide. In fact, it makes sense to me to see this book as the antithesis of conventional history. It does not provide the coherent sequence of pivotal events and orderly presentation of their connection which one would get from a history book. Instead the book focuses on the moments, with a lot of space dedicated to the colours and cuts of clothes, witty repartee and good and bad behaviour. Because I am a history nut I found the hints of court intrigue and power shifts fascinating, but they are always in the background.
No explanation is provided, for example, for why Sei Shōnagon would support Michinaga, the man who not only made the life of the Empress she served hell, but was also the main rival of a man I would swear was one of her lovers: the Empress' brother, Korechika. They certainly flirt shamelessly
She seems to have had a number of lovers. She never specifies who they are, but some of her finest episodes are on the proper way for a man to leave his lover in the morning (before sunrise, to appreciate the dew). And while the extensive end-notes of my edition offered some opinions as to who had been these lovers, I felt quite free to speculate, and ascribed the position to all the marvellous men who flirted with her over poetry and visited her at night.
You see, the poetry is central to all this. Sei Shōnagon is obsessed with it, and I believe the whole culture was (albeit to a lesser extent). They send each other a middle line from a poem, and the recipient is expected to respond with a first and a last line; when confronted with a tricky situation, the highest praise follows an apt allusion to a famous poem; men send poetry to lovers, the women respond. Mixed with a real fondness for puns in the extreme, there is a genuine love for language, and mixed up with it a love for men who love language and can use it right.
It is observant, intelligent, poetic and haughty. I would catch myself nodding along with her rants on the bad manners of people in general (although I must admit our particular grievances are different: I have never had cause to be annoyed that someone referred to themselves in the first person singular while in the company of the Japanese Emperor and Empress -- actually, come to think of it, I may have experienced that very thing, but I did not know to be upset by it at the time). The illusion that people are the same everywhere and everywhen is powerful, but does sometimes shatter. Her treatment and views of "commoners" are occasionally shocking to modern sensibilities. But I remain fascinated by a book that allows me to observe the things taken as universally understood, as obvious, by someone so far from my own time and place.
The endnotes helped, of course. Ivan Morris' edition is from the 60s, and belongs to the tradition where notes could include very subjective positions. He speaks of the "vile" tradition of tying paper flowers to trees, for example. But I enjoy that. And they are in general very enlightening.
I recommend the book without reservations.