Everyone has her own Eileen Chang story. For many readers, the story crystallizes in a single horrifying detail. First you gasp. Then you thrill. When I mentioned Chang’s name to a Chinese friend, she smiled wickedly: “In one of her stories, there is a woman so thin, she can slide her jade bracelet up to the elbow.”
Before Joan Didion, there was Eileen Chang. A slender, dramatic woman with a taste for livid details and feverish colors, Chang combined Didion’s glamor and sensibility with the terrific wit of Evelyn Waugh. She could, with a single phrase, take you hostage. Chinese readers can’t forget her; most Western readers have never met her. This year, on the 20th anniversary of her death, the recent NYRB edition of Chang’s Naked Earth provides an opportunity for new readers to fall in love, and for converts to renew what you might call (borrowing a tongue-in-cheek title from her oeuvre) Half a Lifelong Romance.
Chang was born in Shanghai in the 1920s, the daughter of violent extremes. Her mother was an elegant socialite, the product of a Western education; her father was a violent opium addict, descended — ironically enough — from the anti-opium crusader Li Hongzhang. After her father took a concubine, her mother fled for Western Europe, where she skied the Alps in bound feet. Chang was five years old.
After her father’s near-fatal overdose, her mother returned home to direct her children’s education. Her father promised to end his relationship with his concubine and his opium. Neither promise panned out. After the divorce, Chang and her younger brother lived with their father. Their mother fled again to France, studying art. She would not return for nearly a decade. Meanwhile Chang’s father beat her, raged at her; when she contracted dysentery, at the age of 18, he confined her to her bedroom. She was trapped for six months, until she colluded with a nurse to escape to her mother’s apartment.
From an early age, Chang understood that she would survive through her style. Almost immediately after her escape, she published an account of her incarceration in the Shanghai Evening Post. Later in life, Chang famously recycled and reframed her own memories; see Little Reunion, The Fall of the Pagoda, and The Book of Change. But really, all of her work was a series of little reunions with the past. She was always attentive; it was always present. As she wrote in her essay “Notes on Apartment Life,” “I am astounded by how extraordinarily clearly one can hear street noises from the sixth floor, as if it was all happening right beneath one’s ears, resembling the way people’s memories of trivial incidents from their childhood become increasingly clear and close the older and more distant they become.”
Chang’s relationship with her father would seem to be the defining tragedy of her life. Much of her later fiction captures the painful claustrophobia of their relationship; in Fall of the Pagoda, her stand-in, Lute, lives in the family compound, penned in with luxury and the stench of opium. Her story “Heart Sutra” reads like something out of Alfred Hitchcock (and, perhaps, the cinematically inclined brother of Sigmund Freud): towering apartments; broken elevators; a girl who falls madly in love with her father, while he runs away with a classmate who looks just like her.
But Chang was more wounded by her mother’s betrayals. “I had always loved my mother with a passion bordering on the romantic,” Chang later wrote. And in Fall of the Pagoda, Lute says to her mother, speaking of her father, “He never hurt me because I never loved him.”
Chang often downplayed her mother’s influence; she once claimed that the only tendency she inherited from her mother was a love for the color greenish blue. Still, her sense of style — and style’s importance — seems to have descended from the maternal line. As she later recalled, “Because my mother was inordinately fond of having new clothes made, my father once muttered under his breath, ‘People aren’t just clothes-hangers!’ One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing in front of a mirror, pinning a jadeite brooch onto a green, short-waisted jacket. Standing to one side, I looked up at her, awash with envy and unable to wait until I grew up.” In middle school, Chang used her first earnings — five dollars, for a cartoon she submitted to the Shanghai Post and Mercury — to buy a tube of lipstick. Above all, the girl was a stylist.
Chang’s sensitivity to style was an outgrowth of her extraordinary attention to detail. She swooned after smells, sounds, colors. In her writing, the result is cinematically crisp, and phantasmagorical. Take this scene, from the opening pages of The Golden Cangue: “It was almost dawn. The flat waning moon got lower, lower and larger, and by the time it sank, it was like a red gold basin. The sky was a cold, bleak crab-shell blue. The houses were only a couple of stories high, pitch-dark under the sky, so one could see far. At the horizon the morning colors were layers of green, yellow, and red like a watermelon cut open—the sun was coming up.” I don’t know anyone with a palette quite like Chang’s. She had the lunatic sensibilities of Marc Chagall, married to a Henri Matisse-like elegance.
This sensory acuity made her vulnerable. For all her father’s abuse, Chang’s most precise, terrible childhood memory was being forced to wear her stepmother’s hand-me-downs. The indignity felt like a physical assault. One dress, she wrote, was “the color of chopped beef, and I wore it for what seemed like forever, looking as if my whole body was covered with chilblains, and even when winter had passed, the scars from the sores remained — the gown was that hateful, that shameful.” During the most productive period of her life, which coincided with the Japanese Occupation, she published her first collections of essays and fiction, her masterly novella The Golden Cangue, and the short stories and novellas now known as Love in a Fallen City. But she was also making her own clothing and operating a design firm. She had finally achieved a measure of self-determination.
In her attention to fashion, Chang was alternately a menace and a non-entity. Japanese authorities regarded her writing as unthreatening; after the Communist Revolution, her work — with its emphasis on haute couture, sex, and envy — was considered “bourgeoise.” Even today, critics tend to describe Chang’s work as touchingly concerned with life’s “trivialities.” Of course, life is nothing but. “Man’s joie de vivre,” Chang announced, “is solely to be found in life’s irrelevancies.” She never quite understood “the Art of Living” as her mother wanted her to — how to properly pare an apple, or remember her own telephone number. “What I knew how to do…was listen to bagpipes, sit in a wicker chair enjoying a faint breeze, eat salt-boiled peanuts, admire neon lights on a wet night, reach out from the upper level of a double-decker bus to pluck leaves from the treetops.”
And Lord, could she pluck. In her fiction, as in her essays, Chang knew the details that would appall, vivify, and stun. So it is that a trivial, bourgeoise writer produced some of the Occupation’s most masterful journalism. “From the Ashes” narrates her experiences as a university student in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded. “When we first heard that war had broken out,” she recalled, “a girl in my dormitory started panicking. ‘What am I to do? I’ve nothing to wear!’” When a bomb landed nearby and the students were evacuated, another student insisted on packing her best clothes into a leather trunk, which she dragged downhill through gunfire. Fashion had always been an arms race; now actual war had upped the ante.
“From the Ashes” confirmed Chang’s reputation as a consummate stylist, practical but pleasure-minded. It was a kind of sensual fortitude. “After Hong Kong fell,” she remembered, “we scoured the streets in search of ice cream and lipstick.” Her polished wit is enchanting, but critics often find a coolness to her high style. And something horrific does live in Chang’s eloquence. She describes “the cantankerous landlady whose crossed eyes stuck out like a pair of taps,” “the young wife whose neck and head could have been the blow dryer at the hairdresser’s.” Reading Chang, you have a sense of intimacy that can be easily revoked. Her eyes might lift suddenly from the page and describe you. One critic pointedly asked, “Can someone who does not connect with people be a writer?”
But she did, and she was. Chang was seduced by colors, but fell as readily for men. (In Classical Chinese, the words sex and color are, in fact, identical.) By the age of 25, already the literary darling of 1940s Shanghai, she fell disastrously in love with Hu Lancheng. Hu was an accomplished journalist. He was also a serial, and simultaneous, womanizer: At the time of their wedding, he was still married to his third wife. Hu left Chang repeatedly — first for a 17-year-old nurse, then for a 40-year-old widowed concubine. The marriage lasted three years.
In fiction, too, her high style was met by high romance. Her famous Love in a Fallen City suffers from a baffling mistranslation: this is, rather, a love that destroys cities. It’s a reference to a classical allusion — the kind of femme fatale who upends cities and nations. Her women fall in love with married men, spies, their own fathers; they dash themselves against passion and beauty; they make desperate, romantic suicide pacts with lovers who leave them to drink their poison alone. They topple cities; they topple themselves.
While the fall of Shanghai could not disrupt Chang’s output, the Communist Revolution ultimately did. In 1952, Chang moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a translator for the United States Information Service. She had always been an accomplished English writer; her first published essay was written in English. Now she rendered American giants like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernest Hemingway into Chinese. Naked Earth, written first in Chinese and then translated into English, was commissioned by her employer as anti-Communist propaganda.
Naked Earth, one of Chang’s most overtly political works, is one of her least appreciated, particularly in mainland China. The book is not quite characteristic Chang. Its Chinese title, often rendered as Love in Redland, sounds like a mashup of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Colleen McCullough. The English title, with its echoes of The Good Earth, seems built on the preposterous assumption that Chang would ever allow anything to leave her pen naked, uncolored by her particular style. And then there’s the provocation of naked political ideologies. As Chang herself observed years earlier, in “From the Ashes,” “Regardless of whether they were political or philosophical, world views which are too clear-cut are bound to provoke antipathy.”
Still, the commission shouldn’t undercut the novel’s artistic merits. Recent revelations about support from the American government certainly haven’t undermined the legacy of Boris Pasternak. Like Dr. Zhivago, Naked Earth jolts and arrests almost immediately. Inveterate Chang readers won’t be disappointed. There is high style here, and desperate love. (Two university students caught in a secret romance. A doomed commune. Deadly backstabbing. You do the math, comrade.) The question is whether this new release of Naked Earth can attract new readers.
That’s still an open question. Despite her renewed popularity at home, and the international success of Ang Lee’s adaptations, Chang’s fiction, like Chang herself, has run into trouble in its later years. For me, the definitively chilling Chang detail comes from “My Dream of Being a Genius:” “Life is a dazzling gown covered with lice.” It’s a terrifying foreshadowing of Chang’s final days in Californian exile, moving constantly from motel to motel to avoid the lice that trailed her. She was found in her Westwood apartment several days after her death, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. This last request is pure Chang: a grand, futile, romantic gesture. I hope Naked Earth can cross coasts. But that’s almost beside the point.
Longtime Millions reader Laurie has a late entry to our Year in Reading series that includes her nifty system for rating books. We’re only five days into 2007 so I’m sure you’ll indulge us this brief look back at Laurie’s Year in Reading for 2006.To the list I composed last year of ten things that make a book a good read for me you can add #11: Memorable use of language. If you want to know what the numbers below refer to, go to that list. One book stood out from the 80 titles I read this year; it is the only one so far to score positively on all criteria – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. (“She read eighty titles?!,” you say. Twenty of those were poetry or kids books of less than 100 pages each. Another 25 titles had less than 200 pages. So over half the books I read were pretty short.)To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11I avoided reading this book for years thinking it would be depressing, but it’s actually full of low-key observational humor, and is simply a beautifully told story about human nature and Southern life. Absolutely the best book I read all year, head and shoulders above everything else.Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005) 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10As of this writing, this nonfiction remembrance of a very stupid but loving dog is still on the NYT bestseller list, over a year after its debut (wish I had a copy from the earliest initial print run). There’s a reason: it’s laugh-out-loud funny and poignant.Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006) 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10This may be fourth or fifth in the Walter picture-book series, but is still pretty amusing, partly due to the bug-eyed dog illustrations. If you’ve ever been trapped on a cruise ship or victimized by a loving but flatulent pet, check this out (and if you haven’t, count yourself lucky).Possum Come A-Knockin’ by N. Van Laan (1990) 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11Ages 4-7. Another great kids book – rhythmic, romping and humorous picture book adults can also enjoy about a family’s activities as a possum pesters them. Perfect read-aloud material.District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006) 2, 4, 6, 10, 11Heaney’s poetry is so rich in sound, imagery and careful attention to multiple meanings, observations of the human-made world, and of what that world’s tools and constructions say about the toolmakers and builders, that it’s hard not to enjoy, even when the references are obscure to a non-Irish reader. “A Shiver” concisely describes the action of a moment everyone has experienced; “Moyulla” likens a stream to a woman in lively, sensuous language. Like other poems in this short collection, these are told, as Anthony Cuda in his April 16, 2006 Washington Post review says, with “high-pressure linguistic torque.”Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (U.K. 1899; U.S. edition 1991 illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger) 1, 3, 5, 6, 7For ages 10-adult. Dragons start plaguing turn-of-the-century England and two children find out why in this dry-witted, short story-turned-picture-book. The 1991 edited version of the story contains beautiful illustrations by award-winning European artist Lisbeth Zwerger.Tales of Hulan River by Xiao (Hsiao) Hong (China 1942, U.S. 1988) 4, 6, 9, 10Observant, quietly funny and poignant look at small-town Chinese life in the first half of the 20th century, told with great sympathy for women. Hong died in early 1941, I think; this collection of her biographical short stories wasn’t published in English until 1988. Had she lived, she might have produced the great Chinese women’s novel; a story herein of a child bride was like a long warm-up for a novel. Hong is an underrated writer who should join the shelves with Eileen Chang (Love in a Fallen City).The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006) 1, 3, 4, 8For ages 10-adult. I have problems with the crucified toy rabbit scene that occurs about midway through the story. other than that, it was a riveting read. Do not give this to just any ten-year-old though; give it to a kid who won’t be upset by a tearjerker of a tale. Some readers, like Elizabeth Ward of the Washington Post who saw no redemption in the ending and called it “bleak and manipulative,” will dislike the dark tone, so caveat lector.Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David O. Relin (2006) 4, 7, 9, 10Mortenson established (and continues to establish) basic schools in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, built and supported by local communities. His story of time-consuming negotiations and hard work against tremendous obstacles is told by Relin in fine descriptive language. The memoir’s sometimes heavy-handed message, that “the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people” (as said by one Pakistani general) is so broadly ignored by the governments involved in these troubled regions that you don’t wonder that the authors felt compelled to occasionally spell it out.Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006) 1, 3, 7, 11Two cowboy brothers in the 1890s West try to solve a murder using Sherlock Holmes’ techniques. Not high literature, just fun. One of my husband’s favorites this year, too.Other good reads of 2006:A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985) 6, 10, 11Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006) 2, 6, 9The Hummingbird’s Daughter by L.A. Urrea (2005) 1, 3, 6Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998) 1, 3, 7The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006) 2, 9, 11Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami (Japan 2002, U.S. 2005) 4, 9, 10Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006) 1, 3, 7And by category:GrimmestThe Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Distant Star by Roberto Bolano (Spain 1996, U.S. 2004)The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)Hardest to Put DownDeliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (1899)Best HistoryHell’s Broke Loose In Georgia by Scott Walker (2005)Great Use of LanguageA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985)District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006)Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006)The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Not Deep, Mostly Just FunMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin by N. Van Laan (1990)Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006)Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998)Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006)Best Illustrated BookA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (1985)Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit, illus. by Lisbeth Zwerger (1991 U.S. edition)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle, illus. by Audrey Coleman (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin’ by Nancy Van Laan, illus. by George Booth (1990)WorstThe Coldest Winter by Paula Fox (2005) Could be called “the coldest narrative.” Despite the wide range of locales (London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona) and people, Fox’s memoir of her experiences as a news stringer in post-WWII Europe is claustrophobic and self-centered.The Man Who Could Fly & Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya (2006) Someone needs to interpret the Chicano border experience, but not Anaya.Most DisappointingAverno by Louise Gluck (2006)Flaming London by Joe R. Lansdale (2006)One Christmas in Old Tascosa by C. Firman (2006)The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2006)Correcting the Landscape by M. K. Cole (2006)BoringSnow by Ellen Mattson (Sweden 2001, UK 2005)Five Children & It by E. Nesbit (1902)FunniestMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Best Book Event I Attended in 20061st Annual Decatur Book FestivalFinally, Atlanta has a major, general-interest book festival. Michael Connolly, Edward P. Jones, Nicholas Basbanes, Roy Blount Jr. and many other authors, combined with an antique book fair and outdoor concerts in a cafe-strewn section of Atlanta, made for a good Labor Day weekend.Best Book BargainAn autographed copy of Chapters for the Orthodox by Don Marquis (1934), best known for his “Archy & Mehitabel” series, for $1.00. It’s beat up and missing the dustjacket, but I’d treasure anything signed by the guy who gave the world a typing cockroach.Thanks Laurie!
I’ve been reading Megan’s blog Bookdwarf for a long time now. I met Megan amidst all the crazy book folk at BEA this year and was surprised to find her not as short as one might have expected. While the name of her blog may be misleading, however, her taste in books can be trusted. As such, here are Megan thoughts on the best books she read this year:I love reading the lists you collect because they give me a chance to reflect on what I’ve read this year. I feel lucky – I read a lot of great books this year, some old and some new. One of my favorites was Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which I was glad was nominated for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction. Hessler, who has lived in China for over ten years and speaks Mandarin fluently, writes about the changes occurring in China today. Not quite a travelogue nor a memoir, it’s a cultural portrait of a rapidly changing world. What makes it so great is Hessler’s ability to disappear from the narrative and paint a vivid portrait of everyone he meets and everything he sees. He shows us a big picture view with enough complexity and contradiction that we see all nuances.Another favorite this year was Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, part of the NYRB Classics series. First published to great acclaim in Hong Kong in the 40s, Chang’s short stories are being published in English for the first time. She writes about men, women, and the ways even the smallest actions or words can transform relationships. The cultural divide in Chinese society between ancient patriarchy and the tumultuous modernity forms the vivid background. The stories seem to be about how life never works out. They’re bleak and yet you can’t help but be enchanted by the characters.Other books I enjoyed this year were Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, whose talented writing enchants this novel about the war in Biafra, and Random Family by Adrian Leblanc, who spent 10 years researching this finely written portrait of an extended family.PS I also second Mark’s love for Gregoire Bouillier’s Mystery Guest and Ed’s love for Echo Maker, not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s haunting The Road. I think I’ll try to read more older stuff in 2007. It’s part of my job to read the new stuff, but there’s so much out there already that needs reading.Thanks Megan!