Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: The Curtain by Milan Kundera

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to match the original.

Like meeting an old friend, I always enjoy reading Kundera. In this "essay in seven parts" he follows in the footsteps of Fielding in setting out what a novel is all about. Kundera has a wonderful knack of conjuring metaphors for our experiences with literature. He likens great novels to geographical discovery of new territory, in other words, novels should communicate what has not yet been said.

In The Curtain Kundera draws attention to the culture and heritage of his Czech homeland, and to the wider "Central Europe" that includes Poland, Hungary, and even Austria. He investigates the history of the novel, and recognises it in its highlights. It is part of a History with its own rules and raison d'ĂȘtre. Without an understanding of this history, many great novels become little more than blips in the general noise, a view he summarises in the final paragraphs of the essay:

In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal. - p. 168

I also sensed some sadness for the less recognised works of art, and that this is a chance to introduce them to a wider audience. Modernist works such as the Polish writer Witold Grombowicz's Ferdydurke, and the Austrians Hermann Broch and Robert Musil's The Sleepwalkers and The Man Without Qualities respectively, are all discussed with passionate interest.

He also provides the reader with wise observations worth reflection. I relate a few:

What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts. - p. 27 
We should certainly ponder this thoroughly: the first great prose treasure of Europe [the Sagas] was created in its smallest land [Iceland], which even today numbers fewer than three-hundred thousand inhabitants. - p. 32 
A nation's possessiveness towards its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland 
... recall Flaubert's words: "The artist must make posterity believe he never lived." Understand the meaning of that line: what the novelist seeks to protect above all is not himself; it is Albertine and Madame Arnoux. - p. 95 
... life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with its own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential! - p. 96 
the deserter is one who refuses to grant meaning to the battles of his contemporaries - p. 112

On the fact that Kafka's great novels about bureaucracy were written at the dawn of bureaucracy, when its mere beginnings were felt to be intolerable. Bureaucracy is now so much greater, but is hardly given a second thought:

reality is utterly unashamed to repeat itself, but confronted with reality's repetition, thought always ends by falling silent - p. 122

On freedom in Kafka's bureaucratised world (with the romantic possibilities described in Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer all but gone from contemporary life):

What can a citizen, with all his rights, change about his immediate environment, about the parking lot being built below his house, about the howling loudspeaker set up across from his windows? His freedom is limitless, and powerless. - p. 136

Friday, August 15, 2008

All Change in 1940s China: "Red Rose, White Rose" by Eileen Chang

Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website The published date and time has been adjusted to mirror the original.

I browsed the web for information and commentary on Eileen Chang's novellas and short stories, yet found very little that is publicly accessible. I do not include online academic journals, which generally require paid membership. This lack of information was a surprise, like seeing an exciting ad for a new chocolate bar, then discovering it can only be bought overseas. Let's not forget that the recent Ang Lee film “Lust, Caution” is based on one of her stories, or that she moved to the USA in 1955 after already establishing herself as one of the greatest novelists of her generation (you can read more about her personal life elsewhere), and even translated some of her own works into English. You'd therefore think her work should have been discussed in English forums more widely!

This lack of freely available commentary motivated me to post a close reading of at least one of her stories. Once I came to the end of “Red Rose, White Rose”, with its powerful conclusion, I knew that this is the story I want to write about.

My reference is the Penguin Modern Classics version of the text in “Love in a Fallen City”, p. 253-312.

The very first paragraph introduces us to Zhenbao, and even before we know anything about his character, we are told that there are two women in his life. They are, significantly, symbolised in ideal form: a white rose (a chaste woman) and a red rose (a passionate woman). In the very next moment, the narrator deems it necessary to comment, somewhat critically:

Isn't that just how the average man describes a chaste widow's devotion to her husband's memory—as spotless, and passionate too? - p. 255

When, in the next paragraph, the narrator says “maybe every man has had two such women—at least two”, the assumption of the desirability of both a chaste and a seductive, passionate woman may appear strange to a Western reader. It should be borne in mind that when the story was written (1940s), China had only recently become a republic. Traditional values still held sway. Classical images (for instance the line of a poem by Li Po) are contrasted with mundane, negative images (such as a bloody mosquito):

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 over your heart. - p. 255

The classical images come across as artefacts from another time. The wife is described through the eyes of a married man, as someone annoying. Neither a passionate woman nor a chaste woman, once she becomes a wife, can hope to remain romanticised in his mind. In each case the mistress, on the other hand, is idealised. This is not simple hypocrisy on the man's part. There is an indirect co-dependency between these descriptions: the romantic memory of his mistress is like the spice in curry, covering the underlying rotten meat that he wants to avoid tasting.

If we take it at face value, Zhenbao is said not to be like "every man", instead he is “logical and thorough”. He has a special ability that sets him apart:

If he did bump into anything that was less than ideal, he bounced it around in his mind for a while and—poof!--it was idealized: then everything fell into place. - p. 255

However, this statement is actually highly ironic, as we shall soon see.

The “Red Rose” and the “White Rose” of the title are Zhenbao's idealised women. But unlike the description above, where the mistresses are idealised poetically and the married wives are given negative associations, Zhenbao's “White Rose” is an exception--she is his wife. This relation towards his idealisation is problematic for Yanli, his idealised white rose. Presumably, in a previous era, this would have protected her. But in the present age she gets a raw deal, because there is a structural failure of the social environment to support his ideal. The world has moved on.

Idealising Yanli denies her the status of a proper wife. At the same time she is deprived of the benefits of a mistress. She is excluded from both categories, caught in a no-woman's-land between the old and the modern. As a result she is socially powerless and disconnected, isolated behind the abstract, scholarly “white membrane” that both protects her, and cuts her off from the world:

For ten years now Yanli had gone to school, diligently looking up new words, memorizing charts, copying from the blackboard, but between her and everything else there always seemed to be a white membrane. - p. 294

Her education seems to keep her out of touch with the changing world around her. The ability of traditional learning to make sense of the rapidly changing social environment is impaired.

Yanli's lack of power and status is concluded by the story's ending, when Zhenbao returns to being his “good” self after a self-destructive period. This goodness deprives Yanli of the limited power she obtained as a wife publicly suffering at the hands of her husband, and therefore deserving of sympathy and support. Not only does the foundation for her short-lived status crumble when Zhenbao becomes a “good man” again, she also loses credibility. Her social status is arguably lower than it was before:

The next day Zhenbao rose and reformed his ways. He made a fresh start and went back to being a good man. - p.312

Her esteem is obliterated. Unlike Jiaorui, who has found a better life away from Zhenbao, Yanli has no life and no social status of her own. She is a snow flake of Zhenbao's fantasy. She is his White Rose. He denies everything else.

Hence the mocking tone when the narrator refers to the idealised chaste rose mistress as “'moonlight in front of my bed'”. In the case of a “good” man like Zhenbao, who applies it to his wife, it is disastrous. The metaphor has a distant relation in Browning's “My Last Duchess”. The girl, who was a bit too full of life for the Duke's liking, he prefers as a painting. In Chang's story, the metaphor is split into two parts: the “Red Rose”, the lively one, who Zhenbao consciously does not choose; and the “White Rose”, who is nevertheless still in real life too distasteful, and too human, and has to be idealised to be tolerated.

Although Zhenbao encourages Yanli to listen to the radio, as a way to further a modern woman's education, “he didn't know that Yanli listened to the radio just to hear a human voice” (p. 302). The only place where she feels at home is in the bathroom. There she can be alone with her constipation, cut off from everyone else: “Only in the day-lit bathroom could she settle down and feel rooted” (p. 304).

When Zhenbao accidentally observes her through the open bathroom door in a voyeuristic setting late one night, the narrator frames his view with an aesthetic metaphor. It is false flattery, because, as with Browning's Duchess, this aesthetic reduction is precisely her undoing:

But never in dynastic history has a painting of a pretty woman taken up such an awkward subject: Yanli was pulling up her pants ... In America, the scene would have made an excellent toilet-paper advertisement, but to Zhenbao's hasty glance it was household filth .. damp and giving off a stagnant, stifling, human scent” - p. 307

Even Yanli, already little more than a pale, pretty ghost roaming the house, is too stiflingly human for Zhenbao. The reference to America alludes to the uneasy tension between traditional and modern, and the fact that the present societal and normative environment is not yet up to describing modern domestic realities in China. As a result individuals like Yanli are excluded from proper description, and remain disconnected from social community. If Yanli is curiously inexpressive throughout the story, it is because the language to give expression to her problems does not exist yet.

This China that has its feet in the future and its head in a more traditional era, is described earlier in the story as detrimental to women:

In China, as elsewhere, the constraints imposed by the traditional moral code were originally constructed for the benefit of women: they made beautiful women even harder to obtain, so their value rose ... Women nowadays don't have this kind of protective buffer, especially not mixed-blood girls, whose status is so entirely undefined. - p. 286

It is time to re-evalute Zhenbao's inherent need to be a “good” man. At the very start, the narrator suggests (somewhat mockingly) that Zhenbao isn't the kind of man to idealise his mistress and then hold a negative view of his wife. As we have just seen, this is not the case. He may publicly refer to Yanli as his White Rose, in order to save face, but the truth is just as the narrator described the average man's view of his wife: he thoroughly despises Yanli.

Although on the surface he seems an ideal, good man, his inability to understand his own heart leads to great domestic unhappiness. For a while he even becomes highly self-destructive:

He couldn't smash up the home he'd made, or his wife, or his daughter, but he could smash himself up ... He had to be smashed to bits! Smash him to bits! - p.310-1

The following description is therefore highly ironic, and ultimately mocking:

But Xhenbao wasn't like that; he was logical and thorough. He was, in this respect, the ideal modern man. - p. 255

On the other hand, the irony is also tragic, because these very traits are in some respects necessary for a man born to a poor family, and who has to struggle through life to make a success. New opportunities were made possible by the fall of the monarchy, and for those willing to work hard and make sacrifices a measure of middle class success was attainable. So Zhenbao joined thousands and thousands of others in a quest for a better life. It was still an untrodden road, so only those who were very committed and dedicated could succeed.

His attitude towards women was already set during his studies in Britain,.long before he met Jiaorui and Yanli, To be master of his future, he deemed it necessary also to be master of the women in his life.

... though he could spend money on her, he couldn't be her master ... later, when Zhenbao had figured out how to get what he wanted out of a whore, he'd think back to that time in Paris, his first time when he'd been such a fool. Now he was the master of his own world. - p. 258-9

Some time after his return to China he meets Jiaorui. He quickly categorises Jiaorui as someone who isn't appropriate for him to marry. She is too free and without restraint, too demanding, breaks too many rules, and can't be controlled without a great deal of effort. In short, to master her would probably cost him his future. Or so he thinks:

... if a man had to forge ahead on his own, as Zhenbao did, such a woman would be a major impediment. And he wasn't easygoing like Wang Shihong, who let a woman flout every rule. What was the point if you had to argue all day long? That was sure to sap a man's energy and drain him of ambition. Of course ... she was like this precisely because her husband couldn't control her. - p. 269

On the other hand, he is also aware that he is very attracted to her. She is his type:

He felt quite agitated. He liked women who were fiery and impetuous, the kind you couldn't marry. Here was one who was already a wife, and a friend's wife at that ... She was everywhere, tugging and pulling at him. - p.264

Why then, even though she loves him, does he not follow his heart? The answer is that, first of all, he must follow his own logic to the end: he must think of his future, and he finds her too carefree and irresponsible to allow him to make the necessary effort to achieve his ambition:

She seemed scatterbrained, like a child who goes out and picks dozens of violets, one by one, gathers them into a bunch and tosses them all away. Zhenbao had only his future to bank on, a future he'd prepared for all on his own. How could he bear to see it thrown to the wind? - p. 287

When it comes to his heart he is unwilling to take risks for the long term. Jiaorui's child-like nature (like Rose before her) unsettles him. Even if he could be her master, it would be at a price, possibly impeding his future.

When Jiaorui makes a move to break from her husband (Wang Shihong) to be with Zhenbao, he bolts and uses his mother as an excuse:

... if you love me, then you have to consider my situation. I can't cause my mother pain. Her way of thinking is different from ours, but we have to think about her, since she has only me to depend on ... And Shihong is, after all, my friend – p.293

The adultery with Jiaorui, who is Shihong's wife, is not even an afterthought. The excuse that Shihong is his friend is for the sake of Zhenbao's reputation, rather than any moral scruples, or true friendship. His mother's welfare is his primary stated reason. For her sake he wants to find a more stable future. His mother's hint to Jiaorui when Zhenbao is in the hospital indicates that she may have approved of Jiaorui. Zhenbao's unwillingness is mainly down to his insecurity about being able to control her.

The tragedy's design sets in when he looks to older, more established structures to support his future. Those very structures, it would seem, are no longer as reliable as they were for previous generations. Nevertheless, he doesn't know this until it is too late. The importance of his mother is genuine though. His traditional sensibility finds expression in a secret desire to be adored and praised by many mothers:

He wanted to get ahead, move up in the world .. he'd contribute something to society ... even now he had a fuzzy intimation of the warm welcome awaiting him—not just from his own mother but from a whole world of mothers, tearful, and with eyes only for him – p. 289
He eventually allows his mother to choose a wife for him.

His mother cried in front of him a few times, urging him to marry, and he put it off for a while, then finally agreed. His mother arranged the introductions.- p.293

His mother is motivated to marry him to a girl so that she no longer has to worry about him not taking care of himself. She chooses Yanli for him, but Yanli is a disappointment and they do not get along. His mother, showing a strength of resolve to match Zhenbao's own, moves out of the house. This double blow is the beginning of Zhenbao's deep disappointment with his life:

Zhenbao was very disappointed in his wife: having married her for her tractability, he felt cheated. He was also unhappy with his mother—moving out like that and letting people say he wasn't a good son. - p. 297

His brother and sister also turn out to be lazy, preferring to feed off their older brother's endeavour. The esteem and praise he expected from his family for his good deeds and hard work never materialise. He is deeply unhappy, and after a period of self-destructive behaviour wherein he unashamedly takes to drink and women, he reforms his ways—but still at the expense of his wife.

Most of the story is taken up by his affair with Jiaorui. The intensity and anguish that accompanies it, and the tears he cries when they meet once more many years later, illustrate how much more emotion he felt with her, even though he tried to deny his feelings at the time. He is the architect of his unhappy destiny though, and therefore, in this analysis, I have spent more time analysing his relation to the problem than to the cure he abandoned.

Jiaorui, for her part, followed her heart and found someone else to love—and now has a family. The narrator would side with her, it seems, and there is ultimately a sense that Zhenbao wasn't man enough to go for a feisty woman like Jiaorui—even though he felt attracted to her. She is the most modern, in that she wasn't afraid even to break up her marriage to find her happiness, whereas Zhenbao's deference to older values in the end didn't serve him as well as he'd hoped.

One might conclude by saying that both Jiaorui and Yanli suffer through Zhenbao's tendencies, but whereas Yanli is permanently diminished through his idealisation of her as a White Rose, and her gradual isolation, Jiaorui might reply that she has no need of being idealised as his Red Rose, that she is happy without him. It merely reveals his inability to understand and listen to his own heart.