Monthly Archives: March 2010

‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ by Dai Sijie

No, I’m not the last person in the world to read this book.  I read it for a second time, for my Council of Adult Education bookgroup a.k.a “the ladies who say ooooh”, so named by my daughter for our loud ejaculations and bursts of laughter.

So I already knew that it was the story of two young men, the sons of  so-called ‘intellectuals” who were sent to a remote and primitive Chinese village as part of the process of re-education following the Cultural Revolution. After deviously coming into possession of a suitcase of translations of largely 19th century French novels, they decide to share them with the tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress, with whom both boys are in love, as their own form of ‘re-education’.

I’m always a little wary of books written by expatriates: not dismissive by any means, but aware that the act of leaving springs from disillusionment and opportunity, and that the narrative may not be untouched by the need to justify the departure.  But this book, although probably somewhat autobiographical given the history of the author, does not dwell on the hardships of their exile.  The poverty and the grinding labour they are put to is not where their real life is.  Instead it is in their resistance and subversion of the situation in which they are placed.

On re-reading it, I appreciated it anew as a bitter-sweet coming-of-age novel, as all good coming-of-age novels are, and as a variation on the Pygmalion story which, like the the original, does not end as the ‘re-educator’ intends it to end.

I haven’t seen the film, but “the ladies” assure me that it is beautifully done.

‘Sidetracks’ by Richard Holmes

2000, 410 p.

As you know, I’ve become enamored recently of the writings of the biographer Richard Holmes- in particular his autobiographical works ‘Footsteps’ and now ‘Sidetracks’.  He’s been a prolific biographer over the last 30 years and in the prologue to Sidetracks he lists his major biographical subjects and the outcomes of his work:

1969-70 : Chatterton (an essay, no biography)

1971-74: Shelley (a biography Shelley, the Pursuit)

1973-79: A Gothic Victorian (many sketches, no biography)

1975-79:  Gautier and Nerval (sketches, translations, unpublished biography)

1979-80: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (a single sketch)

1980-85: A Romantic Traveller (sketches, finally Footsteps)

1986-87: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (an essay, no biography)

1982-89: Coleridge (half a biography, Coleridge: Early Visions)

1990-94: Johnson (a fragment of biography, Dr Johnson & Mr Savage)

1994-98: Coleridge (second half of a biography, Coleridge: Darker Reflections)

1999… A Runaway Life (but, as he says “that could go anywhere”)

His book Sidetracks consists mainly of essays that have been published elsewhere (particularly The Times), with 2 radio plays- the one on Nerval I wrote about here, and a second play “To the Tempest Given” about the death of Shelley.  The short-ish essays in this book, as the title of the collection suggests, follow up on peripheral characters and suggestions that he passed by while working on his “main” topics.  As they have been written as stand-alone newspaper articles, they are engaging works that quickly familiarize the reader with sufficient contextual information to make sense of the story- often framed as a single event or problem- that he lays out and then explores, sometimes via a meandering route, with us.

My favourites were the two radio plays on Nerval and Shelley, and a real historian’s delight- the essay ‘Lord Lisle and the Tudor Nixon Tapes’, written in 1982.  This essay describes the cache of over three thousand letters written to and by Lord Lisle, Henry VIII’s civilian governor who served in Calais, the last English outpost on the continent. His correspondence was seized when he was placed under house arrest as part of the machinations of the Tudor state machine.  It is said that he ended up in the Tower, where, as a privileged prisoner he was exercising on the ‘leads’ of the tower and spied the King’s barge floating down the wintry Thames.  He called hoarsely to the King for mercy: the King heard him and pardoned him.  The letters have been compared with Pepys’ diaries as a source of “eavesdropping” on history, and after surviving fire, flood, and the Blitz, they came into the hands of Muriel St Clare Byrne, who worked on them for fifty years, culminating in a six-volume publication of nearly 4,000 pages and close to two million words.

The essays in this book are loosely grouped, tied together by a theme of place (e.g. France and Paris) or tangentially related to one or another of his major biographical characters (e.g. Shelley; Boswell; Gothic authors).  Each part is prefaced by his own statement about the essays that is interwoven with a reflection on his growth as a biographer.  I found myself laughing out loud at his description of watching someone reading one of his newspaper essays on a train.

It was a salutary experience.  Over several minutes an expression of lively interest steadily faded to one of judicial blankness, soon followed by deep and blameless sleep. (p. 136)

He verbalizes one of the biographer’s (and indeed, the historian’s) ongoing anxieties:

This question of how the biographer achieves authenticity, now began to trouble me.  How much is constructed from broken evidence, a scattered bundle of letters, the chance survival of a diary? How much is lost, forgotten, changed beyond recognition? What secret thoughts are never recorded, what movements of the heart are never put into words? And more than this, by the very act of biographical empathy, how much does the biographer create the fiction of a past life, the projection of his- or her- own personality into a story which is dramatically convincing, even historically correct, but simply not the human truth as it happened? (p. 197)

He speaks of biography as a human exchange: “a handshake across time”, an “act of human solidarity, and in its own way an act of recognition and of love.” (p. 198)

There is love in this book; and  so, I found myself going all goo-ey inside when he reveals his relationship with the writer Rose Tremain, with whom he spent four months in Paris, “looking for some literary expression of the passionate understanding which had brought us, so late and so unexpectedly, together” (p. 319).

In fact, I think I’m a little in love with him myself.

‘Ransom’ by David Malouf

2009, 224 p.

In this book Malouf takes a couple of lines from the Iliad, where King Priam travels to recover the body of his son Hector, who died on the battlefield as a revenge killing.  His body has been dragged behind a chariot, day after day,  in a fury of grief and revenge by the crazed Achilles.  From the interstice of Homer’s brief telling of this paternal act of love, Malouf fashions a small jewel of a story about love, masculinity, fatherhood and fame.  I use the word “fashions” deliberately because as you’re reading it, you’re very much aware of the careful weighting of each word and the crafting of the images. It is deeply poetic in places, and makes you as a reader slow down, re-read, and roll the words around in your mouth, savouring them.

His plan is to travel incognito to meet with Achilles: to speak with him man-t0-man and father-to-father to ask that Hector’s body be released to his family.  Instead of travelling in state, he decides to travel with an unlettered carter named Somax and his mule-drawn cart, selected almost at random from the market where Somax awaits work as he does every day.  This small book is the story of the short journey they take together, and Priam’s encounter with his son’s enemy.

Priam is powerful, and yet powerless to stop the desecration of his son’s body at the hands of his enemy.  His is an act of paternal love, and yet in terms of fatherhood, his relationship with his many sons (borne of many wives) is sterile and formalistic with none of the intimacy that Somax has had with his sons before their deaths.    Priam is feted as the wise king, and yet he knows little of the world outside his own palace walls.

Both Achilles and Priam are aware, through the prescience granted to them by the gods, of the past and the future and their own place in stories to be told in the future.  Achilles is fired by grief , rage and bursting masculinity; Priam, as an older man, is aware of the contingency of a life’s journey and the life not lived.  My favourite part of the book was where he considered the other life he could have had, if his sister had not ransomed him from captivity as a boy. Despite his wealth and position, he is haunted by this other-life and feels somehow inauthentic.

Time in the book seems suspended, like a drop of water  shimmering from a branch before it falls.  The war has dragged on for years and it has that nightmarish quality of an never-ending, intractable stalemate.  Achilles drags Hector’s body behind his chariot, hour after hour, day after day and yet the gods renew it each night so that the nightmare goes on.  The trip in the cart itself takes only a day, and yet it feels much longer.   The meeting with Achilles occurs abruptly.

In the afterword, and in interviews at the launching of this book, Malouf alludes to the wartime experience of his childhood, and indirectly today in Iraq and Afghanistan, where war seems intractible and never-ending.   I don’t really think that this book needs contextualizing in this way.  It stands in its own right as a book that, perhaps, only an older man could have written. There’s a timelessness about the themes and the literature from which it springs, that does not need to be historicized.

There is a dreamlike quality throughout the book, as with many Greek myths.  Gods materialize in a thickening of the air and shift shapes between the prosaic and the ethereal.  The world of the gods works to its own whims: the world of men has a rhythm and meaning of its own.  And as with much of Malouf’s work, the imagery is crystalline and quite, quite beautiful.