The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-century Japan, by Sugawara no Takasue no Musume,
translated and with an introduction by Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki. Columbia University Press, 2014. Cloth, 264 pages, 17 illus., 3 maps.
A thousand years ago, a young Japanese girl embarked on a journey from the wild East Country to the capital. She began a diary that she would continue to write for the next forty years and compile later in life, bringing lasting prestige to her family.
Some aspects of the author’s life and text seem curiously modern. She married at age thirty-three and identified herself as a reader and writer more than as a wife and mother. Enthralled by romantic fiction, she wrote extensively about the disillusioning blows that reality can deal to fantasy. The Sarashina Diaryis a portrait of the writer as reader and an exploration of the power of reading to shape one’s expectations and aspirations.
As a person and an author, this writer presages the medieval era in Japan with her deep concern for Buddhist belief and practice. Her narrative’s main thread follows a trajectory from youthful infatuation with romantic fantasy to the disillusionment of age and concern for the afterlife; yet, at the same time, many passages erase the dichotomy between literary illusion and spiritual truth. This new translation captures the lyrical richness of the original text while revealing its subtle structure and ironic meaning. The introduction highlights the poetry in the Sarashina Diary and the juxtaposition of poetic passages and narrative prose, which brings meta-meanings into play. The translators’ commentary offers insight into the author’s family and world, as well as the fascinating textual legacy of her work.
“This sparkling new version of the Sarashina Diary opens out an eleventh-century classic for twenty-first-century readers. Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki situate the diary culturally and historically, and their translation conveys the vivid realism of Takasue no Musume’s prose and the haunting melancholy of her poems. As the author herself says of Mt. Fuji, this unique work “looks like nothing else in the world.”
David Damrosch, Harvard University
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