The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 23 February 2017

Stone Mattress

Hello Gentle Reader

The short story is a genre which is plagued with an inferiority complex. It is often passed over and looked down upon when compared to its literary relation the novel. It wasn’t (it appears) until recently that the short story begin to gather overdue attention. The most spectacular recognition came for the short story in two-thousand and thirteen, when Alice Munro, would be crowned the Nobel Laureate in Literature. Munro in her usual modesty, sloughed off any personal pride of the award and shifted the attention to the short story, by stating the award was a wonderful thing, but certainly a wonderful thing for the Short Story. As Alice Munro often voiced, the short story, was often seen as something a writer did as practice—in order to prepare themselves—for the great novel they were about to publish. Munro herself admitted and lamented her own dissatisfaction with the short story genre at first, she continuously told herself after this she would get ready to write ‘that novel,’ in which she was meaning to write. Yet every time she would set around to write it, the work in which she produced, would lose its steam and become, yet another short story. Eventually, Alice Munro would stop thinking about the great novel she dreamed of writing, and resigned herself to the short story. In what many writers would see as failure or a shortcoming, Munro had appeared to take this ‘set back,’ in stride. Rather than giving up Alice Munro pushed forwarded with the short story genre, and began to make it her own. As her career began to mature, and each new short story collection was refined and produced, one after another, critics began to see and claim that in a span of thirty pages, Munro had depicted a life; better than most novelists could in three hundred plus pages. A hallmark of Alice Munro’s fiction is the ordinary lives of the characters in which she depicts. She once claimed that every life she can muster is extraordinary—never ordinary.  In an interview in nineteen-eighty six, Munro is quoted to have stated:

“I don’t know who the ordinary people are. Because everyone is extraordinary to themselves. In fact, I read one review that said: ‘These people don’t have any extraordinary experiences. They’re civil servants, farmers, accountants, nurses.’ Well, nurses have about the most dramatic life I can think of. I don’t know about, it’s probably that I don’t write about—what secret agents? Or people who have psychic experiences or something like this? But I never consider these people ordinary. But then I never meet anybody I do consider ordinary.”

Such is the truth with Alice Munro’s work. There are the quiet dramatic moments of a life which gradually unfold in her clear prose. Despite the ordinary and mundane being present and her characters varying from nurses, to accountants, to farmers and civil servants—tragedy can still strike. Much like Doree from the short story ‘Dimension,’ from the collection “Too Much Happiness,” who at the age of twenty three, finds herself emotionally and socially isolated—and be aware this is the clincher; her husband Lloyd was abusive, and in a fit of righteous delusions, asphyxiates their children to death. Beneath the quiet surface of household chores, motherhood, careers, and small town values and the quiet and nameless luxuries of the ordinary, Alice Munro, shows just how unordinary, gothic, and tragic the lives of her characters are; and just how little we anyone may know about the person sitting next to them on the bus, or their neighbour. The short stories of Alice Munro, are gentle stones tossed into a pond, and the ripples orbit out, caress only briefly—they never crash. Yet, just as soon as they were there, the surface of the pond falls back into its stable self once again; and life goes on.

Alice Munro’s short stories are written with grace and ease. The language is plain, ordinary, and rooted in an almost colloquial manner. They are written as if someone is relaying neighborhood gossip to another over a cup of coffee; or a chance encounter confession from someone, whose is casually feeding the ducks at a pond. There is never a hint if literary pretentions to one of her short stories. Alice Munro never eviscerates, dissects, vivisects; pokes or probes her characters, nor does she display their internal workings, or seek to understand the reasoning by their actions. Rather, Alice Munro depicts their lives as they are—no frills—and observes them as they putts about or go about their daily lives; it just so happens, a moment happens in their life, be an abnormal event or one of those everyday tragedies, their lives change course, and as the story begins to wrap up; the tomorrows; their futures are endlessly set forth before them, while their pasts whisper and haunt from in the background.

Writers like Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov may have brought the short story out of the literary shadow of the novel; but their own success with the genre comes at a price as well. Success for the short story is now marked by the success of Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov. Munro wrote short stories, which could rival and battle novels. Her work moved forward through time, and often depicted not a slice of life; but a life which had been lived; recounting all events that lead to that particular moment, or characters reviewing and reflecting on a particular moment, which lead to their current circumstances, and it is there at the end, Alice Munro leaves her characters to the uncertainties of life, of a future which goes on, with the usual routine. Life in these instances just goes on.

It should seem unfair that any writer writing in the short story format would require themselves to attempt to replicate or duplicate the success of either Alice Munro or Anton Chekhov. Though the two writers—among many others—have found great success in the format, they’re way of kneading it into their own functioning literary form of expression, should be left to themselves; while aspiring and veteran writers should swath their own literary achievements and successes in the genre, by their own merit. This is not to state that there is nothing to learn from reading Alice Munro or Anton Chekhov; but what they have accomplished, is their own success; in moving forward the genre should find greater success by writers who practice the form, and take in to new adventures, such as Alex Epstein and  Gyrðir Elíasson, have done.

Contrary to what I have just stated: Alice Munro and her short stories are now considered the reluctant measuring stick of short stories. Her work has found international success and appeal, as it has always reshaped how serious the short story is taken on the literary stage. In order to become a great master of the form, one must first be measured to a standing grand master of it. Aspiring writers, who now are being pushed through the marketing molding machine of Master of Fine Art degrees with an emphasis on Creative Writing. It is here (or so I am told) these writers are taught to formulate their short stories on the similar vein of Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemmingway. What an unfortunate thought. Those who have written great short stories (and yes Hempel, Hemmingway and Carver are talented and worthy writers), often have done so without the requirement to lean on these writers. Antonio Tabucchi is one great short story writer. “Little Misunderstanding of No Importance,” hints at often great and grand narratives, of unique lives lived of adventure, and now reflect and tell their tales, of incidental moments of their lives, as they attempt to recapture that youth, but beyond that asks questions of: is it a touch of chance or simply magic which makes life worth living and pushes each of us forward. Ersi Sotiropoulos’s stories are short, bare bones, but not minimalist; rather they are frank and cautious of a precision of words and poetic detail, which often litters her works which orbit in relationships, miscommunications, and general mundane absurdities. The hallmark of great short story writers such as Alice Munro, Antonio Tabucchi, Anton Chekhov, and Ersi Sotiropoulos, is they are not a slice of an individual’s life presented in its entirety; they hint beyond what is left on the page to an uncertain future, a knowable past, and a grander life which the reader is not privy too, but can dream about.

In the acknowledgements of “Stone Mattress,” Margaret Atwood, makes clear the works collected in this volume of work are best defined as ‘Tales,’ (as is the subtitle of the book) not ‘Story.’ She further explains the semantic and inherent difference between the idea of a story and that of a tale:

“These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short fiction a “tale” removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales. We may safely assume that all tales are fiction, whereas a “story” might well be a true story about what we usually agree to call “real life,” as well as a short story that that keeps within the boundaries of social realism.”

“Stone Mattress,” was published in two-thousand and fourteen, a year which many noted, showed a resurging interest in the short story. Many believed this renewed interest came from Alice Munro’s Nobel; and in following year, many well-known writers (Graham Swift, Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel, and Margaret Atwood) would publish a collection of short stories; be it to capitalize on the short story’s unprecedented success, or perhaps in celebration of its success.

I stumbled upon “Stone Mattress,” after a hellish day and in a frenzied night of my mind whirling about. I rarely stop by the local library; its shelves are packed with the populist demands and general requirements of the reading public. The library does not (with no one at fault) even begin to scrap the surface of my niche literary tastes. Upon arrival though, I stumbled upon Atwood’s limited selection available. To be honest, it was difficult to say what I was looking for—perhaps just a familiar old friend who I haven’t chatted with in a while and desired to meet again, if only briefly. The works available of her extensive bibliography did not begin to quench my desire to read her work. First and foremost I looked for the final volume of her “MaddAddam Trilogy,” the eponymous novel “MaddAddam,” but could not find it. Then I decided perhaps there will be something from her back catalogue worth exploring, which I had not read. The only other books available were: “Oryx and Crake,” “The Year of the Flood,” “Hag-Seed,” “Blind Assassin,” “Cats Eye,” and “Stone Mattress.” I had known “Hag-Seed,” was the most recent publication and picked it up first, after which I made my way to an office chair (because all the comfy chairs were taken by a gaggle of gabbing girls, swooning and awing amongst their juvenile gossip), and sat down to read. My first impressions after reading the prologue, was that I was not in the mood for a novel written in the format of a play—now after further research, the only hint of a play like format at first glance was in the first part, while the rest moves with greater ease of controlled prose, with its sentences and paragraphs. After that it was “Stone Mattress.” I rationalized the decision by stating, I’ve read most of all the other works, and I do enjoy short stories—so “Stone Mattress,” it was; after settling into the office chair again, I read the first story “Alphinland,” and decided, the book would return home with me.

First impressions are dangerously important. “Stone Mattress,” begins with three strong interconnected tales, titled: “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady.” These three short stories recount the encounters of three individuals, who were involved with artists and poets during the sixties. The three works recount two women who orbit and revolve on the axis of infatuation, lust and even love for a poet by the name of Gavin. Gavin is introduced as a poet, who is bloated egotistical nature, is remarked with crystal cold clarity that is afforded to those of age. Gavin becomes well known for his sexually charged poems of his youth, where he discusses sex and immortalizes his lovers in his sonnets. One such lover is Constance (from ‘Alphinland,’) who lived and loved Gavin in their shared youth. They lived in abject poverty, which she rationalizes the circumstances, by adding a bit of glamour to the situation, with the romantic notion that she was supporting the great poet Gavin as he starved for his art and lounged around for inspiration, while she worked monotonous and mundane jobs to pay the rent and get some food. Solace comes for sweet Constance in her fantasy writings titled ‘Alphinland,’ which she sells off and makes a pretty penny from; though her fantasy writings are looked down upon by both Gavin and his friends; though when it came to pay for beer or pick up a tab they would always sing praise with undercurrents of mocking malice:

“They’d tease her by saying she was writing about garden gnomes, and she’d laugh say yes, but today the gnomes had dug up their crock of golden coins and would buy them all a beer. They liked the free beer part of it, and would make toasts: “Here’s to the gnomes! Long may the roam! A gnome in every home!”’

Youth is not without its pitfalls. Gavin who is defined by his own self-assurance he is genius; and this vanity does not stop simply at his confident state that he is creative genius—his physical appearance also allows him to be equally as vain, and show off his sexual prowess. As it would happen, he would cheat on Constance with a certain woman by the name of Marjorie. Constance and Gavin would then split apart, and Constance would move to become a multimillionaire, with hordes of fans devouring and devoting themselves to her personal sanctuary of ‘Alphinland.’ A fact which only later on, would drive Gavin to be resentful of the success of Constance with her “juvenile pablum,” then he was with his literary superior poems. Though he would resign himself to his own fate, as a professor of creative writing in Manitoba before taking up with a third wife and heading to the west coast, to reflect and spew his vitriolic contempt at those who come near; much like the young scholar:

“This idea is dismaying: having some estrogen-plumped babe a quarter of his age contort his stringy knobbled limbs while comparing the dashing protagonist of his earlier poems, replete with sexual alacrity and sardonic wit, to the atrophied bundle of twine and sticks he has become.”

Yet what could be more insulting, but to find out that Gavin—the mediocre ego driven poet—is not the subject of her research and thesis, but rather Constance, and her subpar literary achievements in the realm of fantasy.

Its Atwood’s wicked and vicious commentary via her narrators and her own authorial voice is what makes this collection worth the read. It turns out rather quickly that Atwood has little patience of the grieving of loss youth and beauty, or the mindless comfy thoughts of nostalgia, in an attempt to make life feel all that much better. It is in these moments her humorous venom seeps through with the greatest criticism attached, as she asks more daunting questions about the indignity of youth and the arrogance of youth, in the context of a new idea and form of discrimination such as ‘ageism.’ Her commentary on the crumbling boundaries between high literary art and that of genre fiction is lively and enticing; just as is her depiction of the indignities of age and the arrogance of youth, in the context of ageism. Her social viewpoints contain just as much merit as they do delightful rancor with her scathing candor.

Admittedly while reading “Stone Mattress,” I picked up the meter stick of measurement for short story collections, to hold up against Margaret Atwood’s recent collection. Currently, “Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995-2014,” by Alice Munro sits next me. I often dive (much like an Olympic diver—speedo and all) into the selected work of Munro’s fiction presented to me, from her later career. In it is there is much to savour and enjoy. Some short stories are better than others; but the usual Munro charm exists regardless. While reading a Munro short story such as “The Love of a Good Woman,” with its spectacular opening narrative, with the three young boys who find the submerged car of the town optometrist; Munro gracefully and briefly sketches the different homes lives of each of the three boys, and then the narrative once again shifts to a different perspective. Throughout reading the short story, once is able to see the endless and grand potential of the short story. How it is capable of twisting and twining through a complex and multilayered narrative, and still concludes with Munro’s typical understated understanding with a great dosage of uncertainty. It should come to no surprise when reading “Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood; I would compare the two short stories, and what the two writers do with each form.

With the exception of “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady,” the remaining six tales collected, often leave something to be desired. The eponymous tale “Stone Mattress,” left one with a certain hankering for more. Verna is a compelling creature. Despite her age she retains a certain vanity, coupled with a well-earned vitriolic perspective towards life and men, which she has carefully disposed of, like unwanted luggage left at the airport. As the short tale progresses, we grasp the connection between Verna (and her unfortunate past) with a fellow member of an artic cruise, by the name of Bob. The story reaches its eventual conclusion, with a fair great dose of Atwood’s wicked and scathing sense of humour. Yet Verna remains in my mind undeveloped. Youthful naivety coupled with a sheltered childhood, led to a recipe for disaster. Though we gather a glimpse of this through Verna’s reflection of the time, and how quick she learned to survive in a world which would quickly abandon her, as it tosses her aside as a disposable creature. Her resilience is admirable, though her resentment is disturbing (though understandable). In this instance, greater elucidation would have been more enjoyable to have seen, to grasp a better understanding of Verna. She’s not entirely evil or nasty (a murderer yes) but not inherently evil; it brings to mind these vicious words of wisdom from Veira from “Dolores Caliborne,”: “Sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” We are given a glimpse of Verna’s character before and her realization, beyond that we are only given the vitriolic husk in which she has become, and her darkly twisted vengeful self.

Reading, “Stone Mattress,” after a rough go, was a delightful read; made pleasurable by the scolding sarcasm which is populates the collection. Margaret Atwood is considered one of the best of Canadian literature, by merit and statistical evidence with her critical acclaim and reader popularity. Her work is noted for its social observations and dire warnings (“The Hand Maids Tale,” and “The MaddAddam Trilogy,” come to mind); but beyond the possible pessimistic doom, which may lurk around the corner; Atwood is profoundly wry lively and delightfully dark in voicing her brutal candor with a delightful rancorous characters.

Not many books have made me guffaw loudly, as some of the tales in “Stone Mattress,” have. It was an enjoyable and required read, which, given the circumstances helped diffuse a rather explosive situation in my personal life. Though some of the works collected succeed, it is often apparent, that the novel is a literary form which is perhaps more suited for Margaret Atwood, in which she is allocated the room necessary to fully develop and discuss her observations and ideas. But this judgement is once again being measured next to the work of Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, among other great short story writers, who found great success in the form and were capable of making the short story their own. When Margaret Atwood as at the pinnacle of her abilities, they shine with her wit and her keen sense of social injustice or observations regarding where society is at; when it does not reach that same level, they come across as under developed and a bit dissatisfying. Yet if this collection of work is to be read, for anything above else, the first three tales, are wroth the read!

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Friday 10 February 2017

Love in a Fallen City

Hello Gentle Reader

When Mo Yan became the Nobel Laureate in Literature in two-thousand and twelve, I among others decried the decision as political panhandling and appeasement towards the Chinese governments lobbying for a officially recognized Chinese writer, to receive the Nobel accolade, which in part would be seen as an official acknowledgement on an international stage, of China’s cultural significance. The decision was divisive, with little room for neutrality. Fellow Nobel Laureate in Literature (and a personal favourite) Herta Müller called the decision: ‘a disaster.’ Salman Rushdie, who is no stranger to controversy and his well-documented public opinions; called Mo Yan a ‘patsy of the regime,’ in reference to Mo Yan’s known camaraderie with the Communist Government of China. Yet apologists of Mo Yan would come to his defense. They asserted the criticism of Mo Yan, were baseless and political at best; merely slandering his character, and undermining his literary achievements; in which (they state) that he criticizes the Chinese government on a regional or provincial level, showcasing mild dissidence at best. They further elucidated their arguments by stating the award is literary not political, and therefore Mo Yan’s political inclinations (if there are any) are not valid criticisms of his literary output, which obviously helped him become a Nobel Laureate in Literature. However, others such as Perry Link, who wrote for the ‘New York Review of Books,’ that he took aim at Mo Yan not only because of his political convictions and instead embrace the ubiquitous political ambiguities which are expected of him, but also because of his lack of engagement (or rather complete engagement) with twentieth century Chinese history. As Mister Link notes, when it comes to some catastrophe of twentieth century Chinese history, Mo Yan deflects the event with what he calls ‘daft hilarity,’ which may involve sheep seamen and rabbits or turnips carved into the likeness of donkey dicks. Yet a defender of Mo Yan stated this is not a evasion of the event, but rather a satirical approach to it. Though Mister Link and I obviously share a common idea of what satire is (and no, donkey dicks and seamen are not high on my list of satirical merit).  This method of satire diminishes the tragedy of those events, like the Great Chinese Famine, where 30 million people died, from more than just uncooperative weather, but also mismanagement by the government. Of course other atrocities were also committed during this time such as people being burned alive, or cracking individuals heads open with a shovel (called: opening the flower). Yet in the case of Mo Yan, the issue, the atrocities, the catastrophe is also skipped around in favour of crude humour, which offers a good guffaw (I suppose) and does not upset the political perspective or position on the matter. I myself had defended my own position on Mo Yan, by stating: when one comes from a documented and known authoritarian state, which has blatantly disregarded the idea of human rights and acceptable basic freedoms; there is no middle ground, the writer either stands with the government or dissents against it. In this sense, and by this position, Mo Yan had obliviously allowed himself to settle on the lap of the government.

Mo Yan maybe seen as a victim of political atmosphere and ulterior motives, which involuntarily affect him, and often put him in the middle of a controversial storm, which is engaged more about a lack of political stances then it is about literary quality; but it should be noted: if Mo Yan is a victim of such circumstances, then Eileen Chang, was a neglected causality because of political revolution and reform, despite the fact Eileen Chang was politically indifferent.

Eileen Chang’s early life was a life of contrast. Her mother was a westernized, refined and educated woman of great sophistication. Chang’s mother had left for the United Kingdom when Eileen Chang was two years old, because her father had taken a concubine (mistress) and had become addicted to opium. Though her mother would return years later, her parents would get divorced in 1930, and Eileen Chang and her brother Zhang Zijing were raised by their father.

Chang’s education began when she was four years old. Along with her Chinese education, Chang showcased a strong affiliation with English as well. Despite the fact that her family was not religious, she had graduated from an all-female Christian high school, and had plans to study at the University of London on a full scholarship, but was unable to achieve this goal, because the Second Sino-Japanese was had broken out. During this time, it is noted that Eileen Chang had a argument with her father and her stepmother, and contracted dysentery; rather than receiving treatment her father had locked her in room for six months. During this confinement, Chang had experienced vivid hallucinations. Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Eileen Chang would run away from her father’s dark and dingy world of addiction and abuse, and would seek refuge with her mother. Afterwards Chang would leave to study English Literature at Hong Kong University, but one semester short of finishing her degree, Eileen Chang would have to abandon her studies as Hong Kong fell to the Empire of Japan. Though she moved back to mainland China (specifically Shanghai), Eileen Chang did not complete her studies do to financial complications. Despite the lack of education, in which she received, Eileen Chang was known as a literary prodigy. She had published numerous of her short stories in the school magazine, and at the age of twelve she had already written her debut novel. At the age of twenty three in 1943, a story by Eileen Chang had reached a prominent editor of the time, Zhou Shoujuan; that story was: “Aloeswood Incense: the First Brazier.” The story would be Eileen Chang’s publishing debut, and remains one of her most well know works. After the publication of “Aloeswood Incense: the First Brazier,” in Zhou Shoujuan’s magazine ‘Violet,’ as a special feature, Eileen Chang would become a literary sensation. Afterwards, Eileen Chang would publish more short stories and novella’s (known as her Hong Kong stories) and collected them in a volume titled: ‘Romances.’ Though the stories are set in Hong Kong, Chang wrote them through the perspective of someone from Shanghai, and hoped the island city depicted in the works, would resonate and be enjoyed by those of Shanghai. Though Chang found success during this time as a writer and screenwriter, praised for her mature voice, which exceeded her young years, it was short lived.

Romance and love for Eileen Chang was much like the relationship she witnessed between her mother and father growing up. She married Hu Lancheng secretly in 1944; and remained loyal to her husband, despite him being branded a traitor and collaborator with the Japanese occupying forces during the war. However, the marriage was not salvageable, as Lancheng was a philanderer, and the two divorced in 1947.

After the end of World War II and the end of the Chinese Communist Revolution, the political atmosphere of China changed, turning even dangerous, and in the fifities, Eileen Chang would leave her beloved Shanghai behind, and immigrate back to Hong Kong. It was here Eileen Chang wrote more, and worked for three years in the United States Information Service. During this time Chang wrote “The Rice Sprout Song,” which is unique as it is the first novel Chang wrote solely in English; but going further “The Rice Sprout Song,” details Chang’s own ambivalence towards the new Chinese regime, and its egotistical structure and demand for complete compliance. After completing “The Rice Sprout Song,” the USIO (United States Information Service) commissioned Chang to write another novel, with a specified outline, which would become “Naked Earth.” Chang commented that writing “Naked Earth,” was a miserable ordeal as well as painful, as the work itself did not come from her originally. In 1955 Eileen Chang would leave Hong Kong for the United States, and she would never return to China.

Despite immigrating to the United States, Eileen Chang did not stop writing, though she mainly worked on writing screenplays. From 1957 – 1964, Eileen Chang wrote nine screenplays which were produced. Chang never expressed any disdain or lack of fulfillment with screenwriting which other writers do. Chang treated writing more as a profession then a passion; she excelled in all its form such as screenplay writing, and would find success in it, just as she had with her earlier pre-war shanghai novella’s and short stories.

Chang’s later life in the sixties and seventies were less and less well documented. She married for a second time to a screenplay writer Ferdinand Reyher, but tragedy would once again strike, as Reyher would be struck by numerous strokes and die in 1967. After which Eileen Chang would hold short-term jobs at Radcliff College and University of California, Berkeley. In 1972 Eileen Chang moved to Los Angles; from there she worked on translations, and became increasingly reclusive. Eileen Chang would die in 1995 at the age of seventy four. Chang was not found until a few days after her death, in her sparely furnished apartment by her landlord, which testifies to her reclusive lifestyle. She was cremated and her ashes were unceremoniously dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Her estate was left to her old friends back in Hong Kong.

Throughout her later life, in which she lived in voluntarily exile, Eileen Chang was forbidden in her homeland of mainland China. Her works were representative of a bourgeoisie lifestyle and undermined the communist revolutionary ideals. All of this would best be considered unfortunate, as Eileen Chang showed no political interest in any of her works. The only novel in which she displayed any independent political stance would be “The Rice Sprout Song,” in where she casts a skeptical eye on the Communist party’s revolutionary ideas; and “Naked Earth,” by contrast was commissioned by the United States government to be used as anti-communist propaganda, and Chang herself had found the work laboriously dissatisfying. Eileen Chang though overall was not interested in the political situations of her country. She preferred to write about the relationships of individuals, and the subtle complexities of societal traditions and independent desires. Yet she would be forbidden and forgotten for much of her later life in her home country. Chang herself represented a previous China, one in in which the Communist Revolution sought to distance itself from – if not completely obliterate from recent memory. She was not ideologically suitable, for the communist propagating machine. Her lack of political convictions saw her unjustly forgotten and forsaken from her beloved Shanghai and homeland. Considering the personal upheavals and challenges Eileen Chang faced in her personal life; this persecution against her must have simply been the final obstacle which she took on and then resigned herself too, choosing to live quietly and alone, utterly unknown in Los Angeles.

I often imagine Eileen Chang and Mu Xin, as the two most prominent and forgotten writers who found themselves as victims of ideology and history. Yet the two writers remained resilient towards the persecution. Unlike Mu Xin, Eileen Chang never found herself physically in danger of the Communist oppression; though she was close enough to the fire too be burned with her first marriage, and it could be discerned, she preemptively removed herself from the dangers of being burned. The two writers share a common story of exile, and reconciliation. Both writers are now well revered in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Eileen Chang has once again found her successes and early literary stardom reinstated, as her vintage, sophisticated and graceful work has fond new readership, and much admiration.

For English language readers though, Eileen Chang is still foreign. Many may be acquainted with Eileen Chang from Ang Lee’s espionage film “Lust and Caution,” which is based off a manuscript by Eileen Chang; but beyond this, Chang would be more known in Chinese literature classes, then a casual read. This is rather disappointing, considering her scathing insights into human relationships, refined into fine silk prose, whose pessimistic overtones only begin to veil after the reader is engrossed.

“Love in a Fallen City,” is a great starting point for any reader wishing to get introduced into the works of Eileen Chang. It’s a collection of her novella’s and short stories, which detail the independent lives of people living in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s. In these works, Eileen Chang offers a time capsule of a fading world, now completely alien (or nostalgic) to the China of today, which its blend of communist ideology along with its straddled capitalistic ventures. The stories presented here showcase traditions trying to maintain relevancy in an increasingly modern world, with revolutionary ideas, being stroked down alleys and in basements. The titular story itself “Love in a Fallen City,” presents the vindictive viciousness of the traditional ways of life, but offers hope with the modern sensibilities taking over. It’s a slight tale of two cities: Shanghai representing a traditional conservative center of Chinese culture; versus Hong Kong and its bright future and its metropolitan air. The two cities are presented during the Japanese occupation, and traces the relationship between Bai Liu-Su, a divorcee who suffers her extended family’s barbs and jabs, for their understanding she has brought shame upon them; and the charming Malayan business man Fan Liy-yuan, who takes an interest in Bai Liu-Su. Through the occupation of Hong Kong and the devastation, Eileen Chang presents only a small glimpse of hope for the young lovers, this will be the only inclination of a happy ending to appear in the work.

“Love in a Fallen City,” retraces the themes of relationships of her characters. The woman are oppressed by old feudal desires, they desire and dream of a pure idea of love, but over time become pessimistic with the notion and disenfranchised by their existence, to the point of desolate despair. The saving grace however of this rather dark perspective presented here, is the glitz and the glamour in which these disturbing acts take place. My personal favourite of this collection: “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier,” is an expert example of the ideal youth attempting to better their life, but are engrossed then ensnared and finally entrapped.

“Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier,” documents the life of the young girl Weilong who seeks out her disgraced aunt Madame Liang, in order to seek her support in her studies, in which she can further her future and better her life. Wisdom, cunning, cleverness, a sharp mind – these are not attributes which are often attributed to youth, and as the novella progresses, we see and understand why. Weilong’s aunt is scandalous and there is good reason her brother has distanced himself from her. Yet Weilong possess the most wonderful qualities of youth: stubbornness, headstrong,  self-assurance; which inevitably will be her downfall. Weilong is enticed in the luxurious world of her aunt, Madame Liang; where she lives a life of glamour, fashion, and of course her house is equipped with servants. In this setting Weilong is a child placed within the centre of her dreams, and begins to understand the cost of it, and even willing chooses to go down a path of prostitution (as Madame Liang, was a rich man’s concubine), in order to emulate the life of her aunt. When confronted with the reality of her decision—by observing real prostitutes—Weilong considers the difference herself and the prostitutes she observes, and yet with almost frank revelation, she admits with cool reasoning, there is no difference, between herself and the prostitutes, with only one exception: they have no choice in their profession, while she readily took to it like a cat to milk.

“Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier,” is a striking portrait of a young girl who makes an attempt at bettering herself—education, getting a job, going to work, and living a respectable life for herself; she becomes a shining example of the possibilities of modernity in contrast to the stifling traditions of prior societal cultural traditions. Yet, Chang makes a startling statement with regards to Weilong: she lacks the certainty to be a modern woman, and falls into the same entrapments and roles of women, that have plagued them for many years, and what is worst, Weilong shows no remorse or shame in her decision, but rather embraces it.

“Love in A Fallen City,” is a collection of Eileen Chang’s work. The prose glitters, with luxury and a unique and local world of China, in which many of us will not know now; but beneath the jewelry, the fine fashion, the money – they all hang on the spiders web, and while one is busy and distracted trying on the luxuries of life, they are slowly consumed by the grander web, which laid hidden beneath the fineries which always catch our attention before the trap or the cage is even considered. It’s not a light read, but it’s made bearable by its often lightness of scenery, which only fades when the eventual price tag and interest come to collect the payment for those refineries.

Eileen Chang at the height of her powers has a keen critical eye of individuals who fall prey to their own foolishness. She coldly dissects the relationships between individuals and the sexual politics at play within those relationships. Now considered a genius and a legend, Eileen Chang is now renowned in her homeland, as one of the greatest writers to have worked in the Chinese language, during the twentieth century. Her novels are more than just doomed romances, they critically cast a skeptical eye over society, but the observational findings are only noted in the most myopic or smallest of places; but that is exactly where they are felt, lived and understood the most—in the most intimate of places, between lovers, between husbands and wives, between family members.

It should be mentioned, the collection itself can be difficult to understand, because of the unique local culture and atmosphere (as well as time period) that Eileen Chang writes about. Thankfully the collection is a well cited and documented source of wealth of resources. The introduction by Karen S. Kingsbury, and the subsequent footnotes, gives one an understanding of the writer, as well as the cultural landscape of the time.

Eileen Chang died alone as a recluse in her apartment in Los Angeles. Her body was discovered four days after her death. She voluntarily went into exile, perhaps with a understanding she would end up there if she stayed in China regardless. She was a victim of history and ideology; but she was also a victim of personal tragedies. Her childhood was unhappy, and she only appeared to experience success early on, before political atmospheres had obliterated her happiness. Eileen Chang however is now considered one of the most influential Chinese writers, of the last century, and she retains a devoted readership to this day. I do think because of Eileen Chang’s voluntary exile and seclusion from the world, is the only way she escaped the political decision, in which other writers have been forced to make. If Eileen Chang had stayed in China I wonder if she would have been faced with the decision of imprisonment, re-education and persecution so many other writers had suffered; or would she resolve herself to the gilded birdcage, as a sweet songbird, in which to praise the reigning ideology. Only by complete removal I think was Chang able to avoid the decision. It should be noted other writers have not been so fortunate to have had that freedom. Yet Chang’s own personal decision came at its own price; a price of seclusion, exile, and abandonment from the world, where she was overlooked and forgotten, and only later on was she to be reinstated and appreciated for the talents in which she possessed.

Eileen Chang is a tragic legend, but it makes her work even more potent and more relevant to be seen through those lenses to a degree. There can be no doubt: Eileen Chang is certainly a genius and a legend.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary