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[281] Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang

” She stood still a long way off and just bent her head. Shih-fang bowed slightly, turned and left. Ch’ang-an felt as though she were viewing this sunlit courtyard from some distance away, looking down from a tall building. The scene was clear, she herself was involved but powerless to intervene. The court, the tree, two people trailing bleak shadows, wordless—not much of a memory, but still to be put in a crystal bottle and held in both hands to be looked at some day, her first and last love. ” The Golden Cangue

Reading Eileen Chang is to read into the heart of the women of her time: repressed, oppressed, helpless, and surrendered to fate. Although she might be considered a member of the luckier bunch—grew up in a moderately well-to-do household, went to school and eventually university in Hong Kong, between the brocaded lines of grandiosity, Chang can’t help dropping autobiographical hints into her stories. Odds and ends edited out of her family life. After the death of her mother, her father, an opium addict, took in a mistress whom Chang despised, calling her not even worth the bite of a dog. What a venomous tongue for a well-educated young woman. In the 1940s Chang rose to literary prominence, after the war forced her to drop out of college. When Hong Kong fell in December 1941, Chang had no choice but to return to her native Shanghai, where she began writing. Between 1943 and 1944, she wrote some of her most acclaimed works, including Love in the Fallen City (title story of this volume) and The Golden Cangue. Her literary maturity was said to be beyond her age, mostly because the young Chang had taken a jaundiced and misanthropic view of her world.

After three months of this life, she was addicted. If she wanted to leave Madame Liang’s house, she would have to find a rich man to marry. A husband who was both rich and charming? It was unlikely. Plumping for a man with money—that had been Madame Liang’s approach. Aloeswood Incense

In Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, a young girl lives under the roof of her rich aunt, a third concubine to a wealthy tycoon who left her a tremendous fortune that is more than suffice for three lives. Weilong is torn between money and love. She brings her Eurasian lover a dowry, as she moonlights as a tart in her pimping aunt’s establishment.

Liusu tried to imagine what it would be like to see her Fourth Sister-in-law for the first time. Then she burst out: ‘That would still be better. When you see them for the first time, then no matter how awful, no matter how dirty they are, they—or it—is still outside you. But if you live in it for a long time, how can you tell how much of it is them, and how much of it is you?’ Love in a Fallen City

In Love in a Fallen City, the once divorced Bai Liusu is ostracized by her family for being a “bad-luck comet.” What was worse than being a divorced woman? Even at the flowering age of 28, she was no more than a parasite in the house. Her life was over. Chance had her to meet Fan Liuyuan, who loved her and desired her but had no intention to marry. The couple taunt each other with false estrangement in order to fall in love.

Ch’i-ch’iao pressed the mirror down with both hands. The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirror went on swinging back and forth in the wind—one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph pf her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was also ten years older. The Golden Cangue

The Golden Cangue is the most atmospheric of all the tales in this volume. Told with upstairs-downstairs shifts in perspective, it revolves around a wife, resentful of her disabled husband and reviled by his family, who seeks reassurance in opium. The worst is yet to come as the addiction accidentally becomes inter-generational.

Suffice to say that Eileen Chang’s stories rarely conclude in happy endings. Women in her times simply couldn’t afford to have happy endings in their lives. Raw, and exquisitely modulated, she burdens her characters with shattered dreams and stifled possibilities, leads them to push aside the heavy curtains of family and convention, and then shows them a yawning emptiness.

321. NYRB Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. I have started reading her English novel The Fall of the Pagoda, which has just been published by a local university press this month

    • That’s the novel originally written in English? I want to get my hand on it as well. I wish somebody would translate Eighteen Springs.

  2. I spotted this on the NYRB and put it on my TBR. Thanks for this review!

  3. Oh we’re going to read this for our Asian book group in June. I kinda skimmed this post because I want to keep it fresh before reading. Will come back when I finish reading!

    • Yes, I’m aware that the Asian book group will be reading this collection. I’m looking forward to discussing it with you folks. 🙂

  4. These sound like wonderful reads! Thank you!

  5. […] in original Chinese text along with the English translation. Chang’s short story collection, Love in a Fallen City, which I reviewed, and novel Rouge of the North are both available under NYRB Books in […]

  6. […] reviewed by kiss a cloud | A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook | A Striped […]

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