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[738-3] Novella: “Red Rose, White Rose” – Eileen Chang

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Chang’s novella is, among other things, a subtle examination of how gender dynamics shape relationships.It’s the story of Zhenbao, a young man recently returned to Shanghai after studying in England. He falls into a passionate affair with his classmate’s beautiful wife, Jiaohui, whom he calls Red Rose, a Singaporean woman who carries herself very casually, free from the decorum society expects of women in China. But ever fear of his mother’s wrath, he ultimately forsakes her for an unhappy marriage to the dull, inept, but socially acceptable Yanli, the White Rose.

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. Isn’t that just how the average man describes a chaste widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory – as spotless, and passionate too?

Maybe every man had two such women – at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed’. Marry a white rose and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.

In this darkly ironically, but sexually charged novella, Chang posits that every man faces the same choice at least once in his life. The story derives its moral compass and narrative drive from displaying actions against their consequences, the whole concept of “love” being an unattainable entity for Zhenbao who distances himself from true affection in order to remain the unrelenting master of his principle of creating “a right world.” This principle seems to exempts him from visiting a prostitute every three weeks.

No one is a winner in this novella; and as usual Chang casts a very jaundiced, almost disdained eye on marriage. Zhenbao’s loveless marriage to Yanli is only on paper. He doesn’t care for her and he secretly despises her. He gloats at her social blunder and delights in her transgressions. But he is no better than her, for man like him is the inveterate dreamer who forever fantasizes and finds greater happiness in the tender regard of another human being. Despite repeated disappointments and frustrations, he clings to the hope of experiencing beauty, even if it’s ephemeral.

Red Rose, White Rose along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[738-2] Short Story: “Great Felicity” – Eileen Chang

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Like Traces of Love, this is a story, set in modern China after Boxer Rebellion but before Communist takeover, in which Chang casts a jaundiced eye on the relations between men and women. The happiness prior to marriage is placed in sharp contrast to the dullness and resentment, even disappointment, after marriage. To Chang, marriage is overrated. It’s particularly scathing portrait of the shallowness of the characters, who are more concerned with appearance than with living.

Yuqing is the bride-to-be, born of an eminent family in decline. She seems to know how to play the social system, but being in a family in decline, she is urgent to find a husband. Da Lu, with a degree from overseas university, is the perfect match. She spends the entire allowance from her parents for wedding preparation on herself. In the opening scene her future sister-in-laws are heard bouncing off nasty, derogatory comments about Yuqing, who probably lies about her age and looks heavy-boned. But the sister-in-laws are as fastidious as the bride, thinking they ought to be the focus of the wedding. The bride is no more than the end credits of a movie, whereas they are the much-anticipated upcoming feature. The sisters despise her as the social climber, undeserving of their brother.

The future mother-in-law, Mrs. Lou, is stuck in an unhappy marriage and she is miserable. Her marriage to Mr. Lou, a scholar who recently turned noveaux rich, is always deemed unequal in the social circle. Her family would gang up on her and remind her of her shortcomings. There is a telling line when Mrs Lou observes that without the servants in the house, her husband would have no need to treat her with any consideration as there would be no one to put a display on for:

It wasn’t as if she didn’t realize that if the people who cared about her were all to die, leaving her and her husband to rattle around in the empty house alone, her husband would not bother about her at all. Why be a responsible husband when there’s no one to see?

In the presence of servants and friends she often puts on a show to disguise this unhappiness. But her tragedy is that she cannot even come to terms of her sadness, for she tries to ward off this sadness by dismissing it as nuisance. Chang, relentlessly, nails her:

With thirty years of failure under her belt, she becomes fearless.

Chang really captures that essence of failure, of a disappointed life. Even the bride is not spared. With all the money she spent on herself and tried to make herself pretty, she is no more than “a corpse still not awaken from the grave on resurrection day.”

Great Felicity along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

Growth of Paris

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This is a gem of a book. A history of Paris through the development of its streets, urban space, and infrastructure. Construction of Pont Nouf, for example, became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in the public again after decades of religious violence in 1734. The Pont Nouf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city. This book demonstrates that the Parisien model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier than the times when most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris.

[738-1] Short Story: “Traces of Love” – Eileen Chang

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I am naturally phobic of short stories. They are short, spanning at most a score of pages, limiting plot development. But lately, reading Eileen Chang’s collection changes my opinion somewhat. Short stories can capture a moment in time that reveals a welter of emotions. It could be a single scene—the setting, the weather, and what is said and left unsaid—that nails the moral.

One of her least known short stories has some of the most powerful metaphors I’ve read. Traces of Love or Lingering Emotions (留情) is about a woman who, widowed at age 23, married a man 25 years of her senior when she was 34. He is about to take leave of her to visit his ex-wife, who has been ill. Over the years she had experienced the difficulties of relationship. She has married him out of convenience, for his status and money. She knows he does love her and care for her, but inevitably she can be caught up in moments of jealousy and distress. She takes a rather insouciant attitude in his finance knowing, as predicted by a soothsayer, that his first wife will be dead within a year. This second marriage is not about love for her, but rather stability for her life.

The opening paragraph depicts a sizzling fire in a cauldron of charcoals. But when you finish the story, you’ll realize this fire is really Dunfeng herself. Chang has nailed her right off the bat.

他們家十一月里就生了火。小小的一個火盆,雪白的灰里窩著紅炭。炭起初是樹木,后來死了,現在,身子里通過紅隱隱的火,又活過來,然而,活著,就快成灰了。它第一個生命是青綠色的,第二個是暗紅的。火盆有炭气,丟了一只紅棗到里面,紅棗燃燒起來,發出腊八粥的甜香。炭的輕微的爆炸,淅瀝淅瀝,如同冰屑。 In November, a fire was already kindled in their home. Red charcoal nestled under snow-white ashes in a brazier. The charcoal began as a dead tree that is revived by a dim fire consuming its body, but as soon as it comes to life, it quickly becomes ashes again. In its first life, it was a tender green color; then a dark red in the next. The brazier had a charcoal air to it. Evoked from it a fragrance of a nut porridge as a date is tossed. As the date burns, the charcoal cackles like pelting of hail.

So much details are wedged into this brief visit to her cousin’s home, where Dunfeng has to be careful about exposing her feelings. It’s about saving face and about maintaining the composure. Money is tight for many families since it was in the midst of the Second World War. Water, sugar, an rice are being rationed. Women have to skimp on their rouge and recycle the material from old cotton-padded jackets for new clothes. Dunfeng, though dismayed, fares much better than most and she feels bliss. Chang delivers a rich tapestry of a woman who strives to flourish in her second marriage. At the end she comes to terms of life: that she should cherish little moment of joy and be content. Traces of Love along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.

[737] Aztec – Gary Jennings

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” As we believed in those days, a hero slain in the service of a mighty lord or sacrificed in homage to a high god was assured of a life everlasting in the most resplendent of afterworlds, where he would be rewarded and regaled with bliss throughout eternity. And now Christianity tells us that we all may hope for an afterlife in a similarly splendid Heaven. But consider. Even the most heroic of heroes dying in the most honorable cause, even the most devout Christian martyr dying in the certainty of reaching Heaven, he will never again know the caress of this world’s moonlight dappling his face as he walks beneath this world’s rustling cypress trees. A trifling pleasure–so small, so simple, so ordinary–but never to be known again. “

Aztec is a tome that takes me four months to read (I started on Jan 1, 2015). Set in 1529 when the king of Spain wants an account of the customs, traditions, and people of the ancient civilization in Mexico that is known as the New Spain. The narrator is also the protagonist, a near-sighted Aztec scribe named Mixtli, and the book chronicles his life through to the Spanish conquest, framed as a final confession to a Spanish bishop. A great deal happens. There’s enough facts and history of the Aztec to counterbalance the some really quite sickening and salacious details. There’s the sense of wonder, the lavish details of the landscape, the description of native civilization. Mixtli recalled how a child is raised. Parents would make every effort to discourage any impurities or awakening sexual appetites. But the cruel disciplinary measure his mother meted out on his sister had exactly the contrary effect. She later sank so low being “astraddle on the road.” She even attempted incest but I would spare the details. Weird and indulgent sex is not an uncommon occurrence in this novel.

The adventures often culminate in excessive violence and sexual depravity. In another episode, Mixtli’s friend suffers an accident and has to undergo complete castration, balls and all, with only a hole left for the urethra. Later on, Mixtli and his friend are alone in the desert, an obvious opportunity for “a good time.” However, Mixtli uses his friend’s urethra as the nearest available orifice. To say the least, the sins of Aztec against the reader would make a lengthy list.

While it’s difficult to admit and/or believe, there might be fairly good book lurking under all the grossness and ridiculousness. Jennings’s portrayal of Aztec culture is actually sensitive. Discussion of Aztec civilization usually is narrowed to human sacrifice in English scholarship. Jennings corrects this insularity and presents other aspects in a positive light: law, trade, government, and the like. Human sacrifice is just one of them. Jennings also emphasizes on the different in religion between the Indians and the new white contemporary.

At 1038 pages, the book is grossly overwritten, unless reader enjoys that roller coaster ride of elevating to some transcending epic and plummeting down to total farce and depravity, and then up and down again. The numerous, excited engorged accounts of atrocity and bloodshed, the overripe sex scenes that become almost ridiculous in their frequency and comically graphic, and bawdy comedies of manner—all become unbearably painful. It’s branded as historical fiction, but really is no more than a chronicle of weird and depraved sex pit against an ancient civilization. This book is it for me for this series.

1038 pp. Forge Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[736] Half A Lifetime Romance – Eileen Chang

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” Time does fly for the middle-aged: a decade whips by in the blink of an eye, a flick of the fingertips. When you’re still young, even three or four years, maybe five, can seem an entire lifetime. That’s all they’d had, from meeting to parting—just a few years together. But in that brief span, they’d had a full measure: all the joy and the sorrow that comes with (as the Chinese saying goes) birth, old age, illness, death. ” (Ch.1, p.1)

Half A Lifetime Romance is Eileen Chang’s most beloved novel and yet the last to be available in English. Set in the 1930s Shanghai, the tale revolves around an unlucky duo whose life circumstances along with malign scheming on the part of their families prevent them from being together. But the brief span of relationship renders a full measure of life.

The novel does begin with a sense of hopefulness despite all the ominous endeavors to come. Gu Manzhen, a charming, modest young woman, is determined, after her father’s early death, to support her large family through respectable, if poorly paid, clerical work. At work she meets Shen Shijin, a young engineer at the textile mill who finds her fortitude both graceful and inspiring. He is as withdrawn as she is task-driven. Like many a young man in his times, Shijin is the product of a conservative, emotionally complicated household poised on an antiquated moral system of which the casualty are women. He tends to be diffident and unsure of himself.

Manzhen could be quite strange sometimes. She could be extremely and uncomfortably self-conscious, but then again, entirely un-self-conscious—and yet she was by no means a simple-minded person, someone who had no social awareness; nor was she the bashful type. (Ch.3, p.46)

Indeed Manzhen navigates within the claustrophobic boundaries of her home and familial obligation. She has take extra tutoring work after her regular job to make ends meet—all because she wants to relieve the burden of her sister, Gu Manlu, who has been working as a taxi-dancer and escort. She is conscious of her sister’s line of work, but even more piteous of her being deprived of any prospect of marriage. This family dynamics exerts a tight grip on the plot. Manlu’s work has become the root cause of Manzhen’s argument with Shijin, setting the faultline for the impending disaster.

Kicked into motion is a series of insidious scheming, manipulations, and misunderstandings that sets Manzhen and Shijin apart. Highly unusual in any literature, mothers become wreckers of this relationship, being partially complicit in the malign forces that work their way against the couple. Chang masters in plumbing such personal and inter-family psychology by indirectly recounting her own family dramas. She was raised by a single parent and locked horns with her step-mother. The result is a seamlessly layered story of love, betrayal, opportunism, family oppression, and above all, bad timing.

Throughout the novel, Chang fleshes out her characters by setting up parallel yet differing events in order to reveal shades of difference in their personalities. There are meetings of family members, visits made to the Gus and to the Shens, outings of Gu and Shen’s friends—all contribute to a sense of ephemeral and yet the best of times. They have lived the best of times together despite the brevity.

Through the character of Manzhen, a girl “who knew herself and her world, and yet she could be utterly naive” (Ch.5, p.91), Chang exposes the human vices: selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, double moral standard, deceit and debauchery. That the most vulnerable and modest character shall be subjected to such harrowing experience is bent to provoke empathy. She serves as a vehicle through which reader can trace the vicissitudes that take one from naivete, through trauma, and beyond.

As for the writing, Chang’s has the cinematic touch that really sets the atmosphere. In sharp contrast to the high-strung, tendentious tonality of wartime Chinese literature, her style is wrought with sarcastic rhetoric, witty imagery, and opulent symbolism. There’s an ornateness in her language that doesn’t bog down the pace of her story-telling but serves to bring alive the forms of life. These forms, which find manifestation in signs, whether in fashion or language, are both splendid and desolate. Paradox is an important element in this book and in her works overall. That all said, the English translation is brilliant, but inevitably tames and contains the Chinese texts, trading greater decorum for mess edge and pungency.

377 pp. Penguin Modern Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata was another sad case in the Japanese literary scene in terms of how writers would end their lives by committing suicide. In 1972, Kawabata became despondent over the grotesque public suicide of his friend and portégé Mishima Yukio and, far more quietly and decorously, committed suicide himself.

When Kawabata was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1968, the novel most often mentioned as his great work was Snow Country (which I have avoided for a long time), a tale of sexual obsession set in the snowy mountain vastness of northwestern Japan. But to my own taste Beauty and Sadness is a more subtle, and more moving, work. It tells of the reunion of an elderly man and a woman artist whom he loved long time ago, of the jealous rage the artist’s young portégé conceives on her behalf for having been jilted in that affair, and of the terrible revenge she wreaks on the old man’s family.

Kawabata is an author to read if you’re into obsessive qualities in writing style. Love, regret, obsession, eroticism, and evil blend in his slight, almost ephemeral prose, where more is implied than is ever made explicit.

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