Archive for April, 2006

return of the pillow book

April 26, 2006

I thought I’d laid Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book to rest when I was at university. It was the focus of the WITS Writing Centre activities in the year I was involved, as the form of descriptive lists is a good way into expressive and creative writing.

The only pillow-book-ism of mine that I can recall was from a list I wrote called something like ‘Mysterious Things’ and it was along the lines of ‘Late night driving on an empty highway’ (I honed the choice of words more carefully than I can recall now). I was trying to evoke the orange glow of the sodium lights on the M1 ’round about Corlett Drive (for those of you who know Johannesburg), the empty hum of your lone car’s fast turning wheels as you sped home at 3am, taking one of those long curves on the slightly banked and raised macadam highway, the tall light poles whipping past at regular intervals. Sadly, a lost pleasure now (not something I would attempt in the new South Africa).

For Easter, my lovely wife and I agreed to not give each other chocolate, and so – quelle suprise – we both produced books for each other. As we are busily planning a trip to Japan in October, we had both chosen – quelle suprise aussi – Japanese books.

I inhaled Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata in a single two hour breath – wonderful book – and am looking forward to reading the omnibus I am a Cat by Soseki Natsumi in due course.

Last night MLW read me excerpts from the Pillow Book – first a detailed description of the clothing arrayed upon the men gathered for dinner at a palace, Smaller Shirakawa. Pages of garment and colour descriptions that you need to chew through. Which is not to say it was boring or anything – the overall and ultimate effect is wonderful as you have a brilliantly painted image in your mind; this is careful and dense description of one sort.

Towards noon the Middle Captain of the Third Rank (as the Chancellor, Michitaka, was then styled) arrived at Smaller Shirakawa. Over a thin silk robe of dark orange he wore a dazzling white one of glossy silk; his Court cloak was lined with violet, and his laced trousers were the same colour, while his trouser-skirt was of deep red material. One might imagine that his costume would have seemed too warm next to the light, cool attire of the other gentlemen; in fact he seemed perfectly clad. His fan, with its slender, lacquered frame, was slightly different from the others, but it was covered with red paper of the same tint. As I looked at all the men gathered there with their fans, I had the impression that I was seeing a field of pinks in bloom. (p58 Folio Society edition)

And then MLW read some careful and dense description of the other sort Sei Shonagon excelled at writing – the lists of observations. The list was 103. Things That Have a Long Way to Go and the items are:

The first day of a thousand-day abstinence.
When one starts twisting the cord of a hampi jacket.
When a traveller bound for Michinoku passes Osaka Barrier.
The time a new-born baby will take to become a man.
When one starts reading the Sutra of Supreme Wisdom.
The day when a man starts up the mountain to begin a twelve-year retreat.

What, I think it’s widely agreed, is so interesting about this book – about both types of description – is not only the exercise in the use of language (so exact, so careful) but also the clear vision the text gives the reader of another way of life that’s full of it’s own mysteries and explications, as well as its mundanities and routines.


Les clubs d’orthographe

April 10, 2006

The Times reports that dictation is taking off in France as a social activity.

Clubs of Francophiles gather together to test their conjugations, spelling and grammar. Sounds like fun (I think).

“But the main thing is that you have a great time here,” said Vonick Epaillard. “I expect dictations in English are not very exciting, because the only difficulty with English is the accent. In French, we have irregular verbs, complexities with past participles, lots of rules, exceptions to those rules and exceptions to the exceptions. It’s a real challenge."