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  • UnbindingThe Pillow Book : The Many Lives of a Japanese Classicby Gergana Ivanova
  • Peter Kornicki (bio)
Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic. By Gergana Ivanova. Columbia University Press, New York, 2018. xii, 226 pages. $65.00, cloth; $64.99, E-book.

Like all works of Japanese classical literature, Sei Shōnagon's Makura no sōshi(The pillow book) circulated only in manuscript until it was first printed in the seventeenth century. Surviving around 600 years of manuscript transmission was no easy matter, particularly when you take into account the destruction that accompanied the Ōnin War. That is why 299 of the 493 works listed in the thirteenth-century catalogue Honchō shojaku mokurokuare now lost and only their titles known. There can be no doubt, then, that we have lost a great deal of the literary production of the Heian period, and we cannot necessarily assume that only the best works have survived, for chance—as well as perceived literary quality—undoubtedly had a part to play in their survival. What is more, as the author of this book points out, even in the case of works that have survived, the extant manuscripts do not necessarily represent all the variant traditions.

Once Heian literary works made it into the seventeenth century, however, they were safe, for most of them were then put into print for the first time. This was not necessarily a simple matter, for hundreds of years of manuscript transmission had inevitably resulted in variants, divergences, and omissions or additions. Somehow or other a decision had to be made about which text was to be printed. And this in turn raises another question. Printing was not unknown in the Heian period, but why was its use restricted almost entirely (the exceptions are two Buddhist texts) to texts [End Page 153]written in Chinese, either texts transmitted from China or, more rarely, texts written in Chinese in Japan? Whatever the reason, in the seventeenth century there was as a result a dramatic transformation of Heian texts both materially—from calligraphically distinct manuscripts often on thick torinokogamito identical printed copies on inferior paper—and in terms of the milieux in which they were circulated and consumed.

The sudden emergence of early Japanese literature in print for the first time in the seventeenth century is an interesting phenomenon in its own right, for it transformed the readership of these works both quantitatively and socially. Growing interest in the rebirth of these works is reflected in the recent work of Linda Chance, Michael Emmerich, Joshua Mostow, and Jamie Newhard, who have severally examined how Tsurezuregusa, Genji monogatari, and Ise monogatariwere read and reread in the Edo period. Gergana Ivanova's new study of Makura no sōshi, which focuses on its "many lives" from the seventeenth century up to the present, is a very welcome addition to the literature on this phenomenon, particularly since this work was, as she shows, a somewhat understated presence in the Edo period by comparison with the other three texts.

Ivanova makes her agenda clear in the title she has given her book, but what exactly does the "unbinding" in the title signify? As she states in her first chapter, she seeks to "unbind" Makura no sōshifrom the labels and perceptions it has acquired over the centuries. She draws attention at the outset to the fact that the category-label zuihitsu(miscellany) was first applied to Makura no sōshias late as the eighteenth century. Another "unbinding" involves her celebration of the kaleidoscope of variant manuscript traditions rather than acceptance of the so-called sankanbonlineage of manuscripts which dominates editions and textbooks today: the fact is that Makura no sōshiluxuriated in variant copies and editions, perhaps to a greater extent than any other text of the Heian period. In short, Ivanova starts out by trying to free Makura no sōshiof the limitations and restrictions that categorizations, perceptions of its author, and "authoritative" readings have placed upon it. This is certainly a refreshing beginning, but where is it going to lead?

The second chapter confronts the textual history of...


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