Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City

218ht7ekj0l_aa180_.jpgFirst, let me say that I am SO HAPPY to be sitting quietly in my study doing nothing right now. I rode the hardest race of the season this morning, and now I’m beat (riding seems to be good for my back and neck, at least in the short term — they are feeling much better). It was a hilly road race, and while I didn’t do all that well, getting dropped on a particularly nasty hill, I did better than last year, when I got dropped on one of the foothills of the particularly nasty hill, and that’s really all I was hoping for. If you’d like to hear more about these vicious hills, read Hobgoblin. All I have to say about it is that hills suck.

But I wanted to write about Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, a collection of novellas and stories. Most of them were first published in China in 1944 in a book called Romances, and they have been reissued by the wonderful NYRB Classics. I got off to a tiny bit of a slow start with the first novella, but after that I gobbled these stories up; they are gripping tales of love, family, and politics — often about the conflict among these three things. Chang lived through and wrote about political and social turmoil; the title novella takes place in a besieged Hong Kong, where scenes of violence strengthen the main character Liusu’s shaky romance and settle her uncertain future. This is not to belittle the political turmoil of the time, but to show how it can affect individual people:

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 than an earth-shaking revolution … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history.

Liusu’s “victory” is getting her lover to marry her, therefore ensuring a comfortable future and no loss of social status. In these stories, love often seems indistinguishable from war — whether it takes place in a besieged city or not, love and courtship can be a fight for one’s life.

Chang also writes about the conflict between traditional family structures and customs and the modern world that’s threatening them. One of the things that’s fascinating about this book is the glimpse it gives into a world where family members refer to each other as “Ninth Old Master” or “Second Mistress” or “Third Brother,” where a matchmaker arranges marriages, and where one’s status in society can determine one’s life. But the stories also tell of characters who are struggling to be modern, such as Zhenbao in the novella “Red Rose, White Rose,” who was “the ideal modern Chinese man”:

Never had a son been more filial, more considerate, than Zhenbao was to his mother; never was a brother more thoughtful or helpful to his siblings. At work he was the most hard-working and devoted of colleagues; to his friends, the kindest, truest, and most generous of men. Zhenbao’s life was a complete success. If he had believed in reincarnation — he didn’t — he’d have hoped simply to pick up a new name, then come back and live the same life all over again.

Zhenbao came from a poor family but worked hard to create a better life for himself; Chang describes him as the perfect Western self-made man. But — and this should be no surprise, for if an author describes a character’s life as perfect in the beginning of a story, it simply must get shaken up — Zhenbao cannot be “modern” in the sense of following all his desires. He is unhappy with his wife but feels he cannot pursue the woman he loves; he is torn between romance and loyalty to family and friends. He is in many ways a traditional man wanting to be free of tradition, but unable to make himself so.

The gender dynamics are a little hard to take, which is no surprise, as the book describes a society that is still old-fashioned in many ways; what I’m uncertain about is Chang’s take on the subject. Occasionally, the narrator will step in and say something about “what women are like,” which tends not to be very flattering, and I don’t know if this is Chang talking to us, or if she is speaking for the culture and not for herself. It’s not easy to detect Chang’s presence in this book — what her views are on the stories she tells.

The writing is captivating, although it follows a rhythm that feels unusual to me — many of the stories cover large sweeps of time, decades in a character’s life perhaps, and Chang will offer a scene for a few pages that gives all kinds of detail and moves through time slowly, and then she’ll sum up years in a short sentence or two. The narratives move abruptly. This is not a flaw; it just takes some getting used to.

For more information on this book, check out Scott Esposito’s interview with Chang’s translator Karen S. Kingsbury and Orpheus’s interesting post on Chang and popularity.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

9 responses to “Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City

  1. How fasinating – what an unusual sounding book! I read so little beyond my own Western culture, and once I’ve had my fill of American novels (haven’t quite got there yet), I must start reading more globally.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful book. This is not the first time I have heard it mentioned. Plus it’s a NYRB Classic. I will have to be sure it gets a sooner rather than later mark in my catalog.

  3. Oh, and congrats on improving in your race over last year. Improvement always is encouraging and affirming. You’re doing something right! :)

  4. I have heard this author mentioned lately and was hoping you would share what you thought about it. It sounds good–I always enjoy reading about other cultures, though I don’t do it enough! I think I tend to read more books about China that are written by westerners than by Chinese authors. Thanks for the links–I’ll have to check those out as well.

  5. I just added this to my TBR list that sits by my desk. It sounds like a wonderful collection and I like the idea of stories and novellas together in the same book -the contrast of lengths sounds particularly intriguing. You really wrote beautifully about this book!
    Courtney

  6. Sounds like my annual trip to China next year might be best taken with Chang (although I plan to be reading other things — added to my TBR list while reading The Lady and the Panda — that will have me visiting again before next year).

  7. Litlove, I want to read more globally too; that’s why I jumped at Kate’s Reading beyond borders challenge — I have two more books to go to complete it. Thank you Stefanie :) I love NYRB classics — they look so nice and fit perfectly in my hands. Danielle, I’ve heard about Chang from other sources too — and I’m glad I did, because they inspired me to check her out, and it was well worth it. Courtney, there are four novellas and two stories, although if the editor hadn’t labeled them that way, I might just have called them all stories — the stories aren’t significantly shorter than the novellas. But it is interesting how they all cover so much time — they could be expanded into novels if Chang had wanted to. Emily, I like the idea of an annual trip to China!

    • CazPortland

      I recently finished the book. I am so impressed of your comments regarding the book. Chang used many Chinese proverbs such as “Those legendary beauties who felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that. Legends exist everywhere, but they don’t necessarily have such happy endings”, the meaning and its effects are lost through translation; and if readers do not familiar with these proverbs, they cannot grasp Chang’s meaning and expression.

      Chang mastered the art of character development. The way she described characters in Golden Gangue are marvelous. Love is like a double edge sword in her words; it cuts out one’s heart piece by piece and leaves marks so one can only live with in the memmory of love.

      Reading this book, I found Chang is like a “Chinese Jane Austen” , the way her characters seek love, deal with love, etc. similar with Austen’s works.

      I read Lust Caution, and became a fan of Eileen Chang’s literature. I found myself watching “Love in a fallen city” movie in Cantonese and only understand a couple words in the movie.

      Thanks for the post. I enjoy reading it!

  8. Pingback: Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City (1943) « Smithereens

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