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[738-6] Novella: “Love in a Fallen City” – Eileen Chang

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This is the last post on the Eileen Chang series. Foreign readers are probably most familiar with Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀), which has achieved popularity almost instantly after its first release. Over the decades the story has been adopted and made into theater plays, movies, and television series. It’s more accessible to English readers since it is one of the first of Chang’s works to be translated.

Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering, after that an earth­shaking revolution … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything sub­tle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.

At age 28, Bai Liusu has already been divorced her abusive husband for almost 8 years. Having moved back home and lived off her brothers, she is shocked to find they have resented her all along. In the wee hour of the night comes the obituary news of this ex-husband, whose family expects Liusu to be on bereavement. Her family has blamed her and this disgraceful divorce for the decline of their wealth. So it’s against this backdrop of shifting conflict between traditional family structures and customs and the modern world that Chang posits Liusu, who has to carve out a precarious space for herself, albeit often at the expense of others. In this case, it’s her sister Baoluo. Liusu becomes acquainted and eventually falls in love with the man the matchmaker selects for her sister.

Fan Liuyuan and Bai Liusu are from different worlds. He studied abroad in England and she was raised in family still rooted in customs from imperial times. Despite their mutual affection for each other, they have to jump hoops imposed by class and gender difference. He is phobic of marriage and she is urgent to break free of her family. From Shanghai to Hong Kong their relationship seems to drag insouciantly. The story is fraught with sexual tension, moral ambiguity, and pangs of conscience. Love in a Fallen City illuminates on a woman’s struggle: to find a man, fall in love, get him to marry her, thus ensuring a comfortable future and no loss of social status. Liusu’s victory is a monumental one: not only does she overcome personal qualms, she also honestly coonects with another person—through a war in a besieged 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.

[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.

[659] Fictions II: Artifices – Jorge Luis Borges

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” But then, all our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed; perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do everything, know all there is to know. ” (From Funes, His Memory)

The collection of 9 stories in Artifices continues what Borges has subversively started in The Garden of Forking Paths: a sort of preternatural sense of the power of seemingly-endless hypertextuality. The writing is dense, with obscure allusiveness to literature, culture, philosophy and politics. His reality, real life-based or invented, are hinted at and cross-referenced constantly (sometimes it can be challenging to read), so that reader imagines a macrocasm of metaphysical possibilities existing just beyond the text.

In adultery, there is usually tenderness and self-sacrifice; in murder, courage; in profanation and blasphemy, a certain satanic splendour. Judas elected those offences unvisited by any virtues: abuse of confidence and informing. (From Three Versions of Judas)

Funes, His Memory is about a young man who, after a head injury, acquires a peculiar talent to remember everything. He can perceive every detail with unbearable precision. The story is highly ironic for it calls for generalization and abstraction to thoughts. The Shape of the Sword raises provocative questions about identity, betrayal, and memory. In telling the story of how an Irishman acquired his huge crescent-shaped scar on his face, Borges plays the trick on reader by taking the role of both narrator and protagonist. The Theme of the Traitor and Hero takes the form of a mystery, in which a biographer investigates a century-old crime, the murder of a conspirator. Although the evidence unearthed leads to a final resolution, the outcome is still shocking. It shows how history is both arranged and rewritten for the benefit of itself. Riding on the motif of symmetry of time and space, Death and the Compass is a detective story about a mysterious series of murders that seems to follow a kabbalistic pattern. Borges reverses the convention of a detective story by reversing the roles of criminal and detective. The sense of time is warped in The Secret Miracle, as an imprisoned Jew, undergoing psychological delirium, asked God for a reprieve so he can complete his book. The slipping into dreams, transcendence into spiritual conversations via prayer all melt together into a blur. Three Versions of Judas is provocative because it’s not theological. Judas #1, in fear of death, wishes to be elevated upon most high. He is portrayed as Christ’s reflection. Judas #2 mortifies his spirit the same way that Judas mortified his flesh, in exultation of God. Judas #3 is the true vessel through which God carried out his sacrifice. The End and The South are both duel, knife-fight stories that have embedded meaning for the Argentine intellectual circle during Borges’s lifetime. The Cult of the Phoenix is sort of a prank. The cult is bound by a secret, a ritual even forbidden to its members. Borges circumvents around such secret knowledge, supplying only fragmentary clues taken from literature of all times and nations, clues that are disconnected and out of their place. Which brings back to the idea that only limited knowledge is available in an infinite labyrinth.

There’s no denying that Jorge Luis Borges is an amazing writer and his erudition plays a big part in his stories. But much like other authors of the same calibre and intellect like Umberto Eco and Nabokov late in his life, his work seems to abound in references and allusions, some of which I caught and some I felt completely escaped me.

52 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[658] Fictions I: The Garden of Forking Paths – Jorge Luis Borges

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” He walked into the tatters of flame, but they did not bite his flesh—they caressed him, bathed him without heat and without combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he realized that he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him. ” (From The Circular Ruins)

Borges is a brilliant mind. This collection of 8 stories, through Borges’s best-known motifs like mirror, labyrinth, library, and chance, explores the ideas of parallel times in a multiverse in which, we, human beings, are part of the mystery that it’s impossible for us to attain full knowledge of such infinite domain. Borges is really a philosopher’s writer: he uses literary narratives as a vehicle for expressing the ideas of philosophy and in particular, epistemology (a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge).

That is the theme of the Lottery, put symbolically. In reality, the number of drawings is infinite. No decision is final; all branch into others. The ignorant assume that infinite drawings require infinite time; actually, all that is required is that time be infinitely subdivisible. (From The Lottery in Babylon)

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a group of scholars forge an imaginary, dystopian planet, complete with all aspects in life. Fashioned for the purpose of replacing the known world, the story actually has a deeper meaning about the inherent tyranny of totally ordered societies. The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim is highly ironic fiction disguised as and embedded in a literary review. It’s about the search of a man from whom admirable, almost saintly, virtues emanates. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is quite the trick. It’s mind-bending parody of a literary dispute, about a writer, Pierre Menard, whose greatest achievement is to recompose, but word for word, two chapters of Don Quixote. It explores different authorial aims and meanings, the socio-historical situation over time. The Circular Ruins concerns the ever-connecting generations. Each generation owes its origin and existence to the previous one. Borges implies writers as creators who engender one another and whose existence and originality would be impossible without their predecessors. The Lottery in Babylon is a metaphor for the role of chance in life. The all-knowing and omnipotent deity at work behind the world’s happenings is no more than chance. Therefore it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies a religious deity. A Survey of the Work of Herbert Quain is about another invented author and his oeuvre. The Library of Babel describes a library that houses every book that has ever been written (and not written) in infinite hexagonal galleries. The library, a continuum labyrinth, is a metaphysical replica of the universe, a homogeneity space. The search of meaning in the honeycomb rooms is seldom rewarded, therefore, complete knowledge is impossible. We’re limited to what is comprehensible to humans.

This collection of short stories calls for readers who are committed thinkers. Borges is playful stylist but he is dense with allusion to literature, culture, philosophy and language. Beneath his satirical tone is an innovativeness and a laconic integrity. Borges subverts our preconceived notion of what fiction is and enlightens his readers what fiction is capable to achieve. Borges uses the reader’s collective memory—preconceived images, ideas, experiences, and knowledge as the foundation of his stories, only to subvert them and replace with a new, unfamiliar context. To undertand Borges, one must understand the most fundamental thing that Borges’s relies upon, only to subvert soon after, is the knowledge of the division between fiction and non-fiction, which has been developed through years of exposure to the written word and its many forms.

64 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

The Gift Of The Magi – O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

I always have this story mixed up with The Necklace in my memory. Poverty is a common element, and yet the attitude toward life lived by the two women are drastically different. The “Dillingham”, a young couple, had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when Jim was being paid $30 per week. Now his earning diminishes to $20 a week of which $8 goes to the rent.

Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him.

With just enough money to get by, and that expenses always exceed the budget, Jim and Della can barely afford their one-room apartment, let alone buy a Christmas gift. Each of them makes a sacrifice to purchase a gift, which leads to very ironic outcome.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair.

For Christmas, each makes a sacrifice to purchase a gift for the other, which leads to ironic and unexpected outcome. Like The Necklace, this story reads like an allegory that proclaims a moral lesson or two. Material possessions, like exactly what Mathilda Loisel craves in Guy de Maupassant’s tale, however valuable they may be, are of little value in the grand scheme of things. What unselfish and unconditional love Jim and Della show one another transcends any material belongings.

I re-read in Kindle. I remember reading this story for the first time in 9th-grade World Literature class. It was included in a giant tome of a textbook called Adventures in Reading. Then I bought copy of O. Henry Stories from Scholastic Club. He has always held a special place in my heart: I turn to him when I have a reading block, knowing he always delivers a whip-crack, twisty ending. By the way, do you know O. Henry’s real name?

The Necklace – Guy de Maupassant

She was one of those pretty and charming girls born, as though fate had blundered over her, into a family of artisans. She had no marriage portion, no expectations, no means of getting known, understood, loved, and wedded by a man of wealth and distinction; and she let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.

I first read The Necklace for my 9th-grade World Literature class. It certainly made a lasting impression. Guy de Maupassant infuses this short work with such heartache. The whip-crack ending, and that the graduating class adopted it and made into a play in my senior year, perpetuate it in my memory.

She had no clothes, no jewels, nothing. And these were the only things she loved; she felt that she was made for them.

A vain woman who incessantly complains about her poverty always makes the perfect subject of a drama. Madame Loisel is such a woman: she’s got the beauty, grace, and charm that put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land. She is embittered that fate has blundered over her, for she is born for luxury and delicacy.

‘Wear flowers,’ he said. ‘They’re very smart at this time of the year. For ten francs you could get two or three gorgeous roses.’

In describing Mathilde Loisel’s reaction to her husband—that she refuses to humiliate herself at the upcoming party, Maupassant expertly portrays Mathilde as a woman who is disgusted that she would have to wear an old dress and no jewelry to the ball. In doing so, Maupassant actually raises the level of disgust from his reader towards this character. I feel no sympathy for her, although pity for her husband. I almost want some tragedy to befall this ungrateful woman to teach her a lesson. It does! She is miserable not because she’s poor, but because she is ungrateful for what she has. In her vain quest for materialism Mathilde does end up losing the good lifestyle she and her husband share before the ball. Mathilde must live a life of toil and sacrifice to pay off the debt for the necklace she bought to replace the lost one that she wore at the party. Her former life is a luxury compared a decade of poverty as penance for her stolen night of pleasure at the party. Also ironic is that Mathilde’s beauty, which had been her only valued asset, withers as a result of her labor for the necklace.

I haven’t read this story for years, only recently reminded of it when I downloaded for free on my Kindle. Bits and fragments of the story linger in my head over the years like air captured in the symphony hall immediately after the end of a piece. To re-read it is to re-live the vivid memory of the play some twenty years ago. I remember the girl who played Mathide Loisel broke down in hysterical tears in the scene where she lost the necklace. That was so funny and also a served as a gesture of mocking her character’s vanity. Hopefully I will see the cast members in the upcoming 20th year high-school reunion. Now I have set my heart on reading the the volume of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories.

[320a] The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Despite their occasional longwindedness, Poe writes some of the most powerfully atmospheric short stories. The story of The Fall of the House of Usher is simple: the anonymous narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his comfort. From the beginning, the story gives the impression of totality (as opposed to synecdoche), where every element and detail is related and relevant.

The House of Usher, which doubly refers both to the actual structure and the family of “a peculiar sensibility of temperament”, plays a significant role in the story. The emotions of fear, anxiety, and doom center on Roderick Usher who suffers from an unnamed disease, more psychological than physical—an illness that causes his hyperactive senses. He is not sick, but he is sick, because he expects to be sick based on his family’s history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac.

Usher’s physical appearances bears much resemblance to the house in which he lives:

Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy…

The house itself is presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as “eye-like” twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house does perish along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick’s poem “The Haunted Palace” which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom.

What makes a thriller so is that the story doesn’t call for a reason. We never understand what exactly the family evil is that causes a nervous affection in Roderick usher. The house is clung with some unknown curse for which Roderick despairs to find a remedy. If paranoia and madness are contagious, then the unnamed narrator must have fallen prey instantaneously since both he and his friend have become increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. Then there is the mysterious sister Madeline, who was buried alive. The story picks up its pace to a shocking climax in which the narrator relates the shield falling from off the wall and that a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard.

Linked Short Stories

The Sunday Salon.com

I have repeatedly spoken about my not being well-read in short stories, which usually don’t leave a trail in my head and I need something more hearty and meaty like a long novel to nibble on. Alice Fulton’s collection of short fiction might remedy my deficiency. The 10 linked short stories in this collection track the lives of four generations of women from Troy, N.Y., where love comes to die. The first story begins in 1908, and subsequent stories are spaced approximately a decade apart, creating a colorful patchwork of the 20th century. She may be a poet of the higher realms but her prose in this book is muscular and brilliantly appropriate. Beautiful sentences, beautifully crafted, never get in the way of the story she is telling; they just make the reader’s experience richer and more satisfying. Some of the women she inhabits in telling their stories are bereft of humor, but when her character is a woman of wit, she is hilarious.

According to the New York Times, Fulton is an award-winning poet, so “it should come as no surprise that vivid descriptions abound.” If this collection is any indication, Fulton may be firmly establishing herself in a different genre. She once said she is drawn to the symbolic elements of a poem, how they act as a “pattern of lace held together by tiny joining threads.” Her prose, however, might be regarded as a tightly woven blanket. It’s exciting to watch Fulton as she finds the right threads with which to create nuanced fiction, firmly bound.