Tag Archives: Penguin Classics

Some strange tales from Pu Songling

More strange tales from Pu Songling

By way of followup to my post discussing Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio here’s three examples of the tales, with the accompanying commentaries set out at the bottom of the post. If you like these I really do suggest buying the entire collection, which is excellent.

42

THE DEVOTED MOUSE

Yang Tianyi told this story.
Once he saw two mice come out into his room. One of them was swallowed by a snake. The other mouse glared angrily from a safe distance, its little eyes like two round peppercorns. The snake, its belly full of mouse, went slithering back to its hole and was more than halfway in when the second mouse dashed forward and bit it hard on the tail. Furiously the snake backed out of the hole, and the mouse darted once more to safety. The snake gave chase but was unable to catch the mouse, and returned to its hole. As it entered the hole a second time, the mouse seized it by the tail again, exactly as before. Each time the snake went crawling in, the mouse struck; and each time it emerged, the mouse ran for cover. And so it continued for quite some time, until finally the snake came right out and spat the dead mouse on to the ground. The second mouse approached, sniffed at the corpse and began crying over its friend. Then, squeaking dolefully, it picked it up in its mouth and left.
My friend Mr Zhang Duqing wrote a poem on this subject, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Devoted Mouse’.

 83

THE GIRL IN GREEN

In Yidu County, there lived a young man by the name of Yu Jing. He had taken his books with him to lodgings at the Temple of Sweet Springs, and one night he was sitting there chanting a text when he heard a woman’s voice at his window.

‘Oh Mr Yu, what a very serious student you are!’

He was still wondering what a woman could possibly be doing up there in the hills, when in she came, pushing the door open with a disarming smile.

‘So very serious!’

He jumped up in alarm, and found himself standing before a young lady of the most incomparable delicacy and the most exquisite beauty, clad in a green tunic and a long skirt. He knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and asked her, perhaps a trifle emphatically, where she was from.

‘I’m hardly going to bite you!’ she replied. ‘Why the inquisition?’

He was instantly captivated, and they shared his bed that very night. When he came to loosen her silken tunic, it revealed a waist so slender that his hands could encircle it with ease.

The last watch sounded and she slipped away, returning to him the following, and every subsequent, night. On one such night, they were drinking together when she made a remark which betrayed an unusual understanding of music.

‘I love the sound of your voice,’ he said. ‘It is so fine and soft. Sing me a song. I am sure it will quite carry my soul away…’

‘I’d rather not,’ she replied, smiling as ever. ‘I wouldn’t want to carry you too far away…’

He pleaded with her all the more.

‘I am not trying to be unkind,’ she said. ‘It is just that I do not want others to hear. Oh, if you really insist, I’ll sing a song. But quietly, just for you.’

She tapped her ‘Golden Lotuses’, her tiny bound feet, lightly on the edge of the bed and began to sing:

Jackdaw singing in the tree
Tricks me away before the light;
I’ll gladly wet my pretty shoes,
If I can stay with you tonight.

Her voice was light as silk, and barely audible. Yu Jing listened intently, and his whole being vibrated to the haunting, lilting melody.

The song ended. She opened the door and peeped outside.

‘I must make sure there is no one at the window.’

She searched the whole length of the building.

‘You seem so frightened. What is the matter?’ asked Yu Jing, when she returned.

‘There is an old saying,’ replied the girl, with her ever-present smile. ‘A ghost that steals life must forever live in fear. Such is my fate.’

She lay down to sleep, but she seemed restless and ill at ease.

‘This idyll of ours is fated to end,’ she finally said to Yu Jing. He begged her to explain.

‘My heart beats strangely. I know my end is close at hand.’

‘Strange movements of the heart, flutterings of the eyes, such things happen to us all from time to time,’ he protested. ‘You must not be so gloomy!’

She seemed a little comforted by this, and they united once more in tender passion. As the last watch of the night came to an end, she threw on her dress, descended from the bed, and walked as far as the door. There, instead of undoing the bolt, she began pacing back and forth.

‘I do not know why, but something fills me with dread. Come outside with me, I beseech you.’

Yu rose and went out with her.

‘Stay there and watch me,’ she said. ‘Do not go in again until I am beyond that wall.’ ‘Very well,’ said Yu, and he watched her walk silently down the outer wall of the cloister and round the corner, until she was out of sight. He had already turned and was on his way back to bed, when he heard a desperate cry for help. It was her voice. He hurried out again, but though he gazed all around him he could see no trace of her. The voice was still audible and seemed to be coming from up above him, from the eaves over the door. Looking up he saw a huge spider, like a big black bolus, holding in its clutches a little creature that was making the most pitiful noise: it was a green hornet, in the throes of death. He carefully disentangled it and carried it back to his room, where he placed it on the table. Soon it recovered sufficient strength to move, crawled slowly up on to his inkstone and down into the ink. Presently it emerged again, clambered down from the inkstone and began dragging itself across the table, tracing the words

thank you

on the wooden surface. Then it shook its wings several times and flew out of the window. He never saw it again.

88
LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES
A certain man bought a new house, only to discover that it was haunted by fox-spirits, who constantly spoiled his clothes and other belongings and dropped dirt into his noodles.

One day, one of this gentleman’s friends dropped by to visit him. Unfortunately he was not at home, and that evening, since her husband had still not returned, his wife prepared dinner for the guest, before eating separately with her maid.

Now, her husband was a somewhat dissolute character who made a hobby of collecting aphrodisiacs of one sort or another. At some time or other that day the resident fox-spirits had secretly slipped one of the drugs from his collection into the congee. While the wife was eating her dinner she noticed a strange taste that resembled camphor and musk and asked her maid what it might be, but the maid said she knew of nothing. After dinner, the wife began to experience an overwhelming feeling of sexual arousal, and the more she tried to suppress it, the stronger and the more urgent it became. There was no available man in the house other than the guest, her husband’s friend, and so she made her way to the guest-room and knocked at the door.

The guest asked who it was, and the woman gave her name. He asked her what she wanted, and when she remained silent, he guessed her intentions.

‘Your husband and I are friends and treat one another decently. I could never behave in such a bestial manner with my friend’s wife.’

The wife remained there standing at the door and refused to leave. ‘Your husband,’ he protested angrily, ‘is a man with a reputation in the community! Are you determined to destroy it?’

With these words he spat at her through the window-lattice, and finally in great embarrassment she left. As she went she began asking herself how she could have done such a thing. Then she recalled the strange taste in her congee bowl at dinner. It entered her mind that it might have been caused by one of the aphrodisiacs from her husband’s collection, and when she went to look, she found that one of the packages had indeed been tampered with, and the contents scattered all over the cups and bowls on the kitchen table. She remembered having once heard that cold water acted as an antidote in such cases, so she drank some water immediately and soon came round. She awoke from her state of drugged confusion to a feeling of intense remorse and shame. All that night she lay there brooding restlessly, and as dawn was almost breaking, unable to face the world, she threw her sash over a beam and hanged herself. Her maid found her and untied her in the nick of time. Although by this time she was all but dead, she gradually recovered consciousness.

The guest meanwhile had left during the night. The following day at dawn, the master of the house returned to find his wife in bed and plainly unwell. No matter how many times he asked her what the matter was, she lay there in complete silence and would do nothing but weep. When the maid informed her master that her mistress had tried to hang herself in the early hours, he pressed his wife with more and more questions, and finally she sent her maid away and told him the whole story.

The husband heaved a sigh. ‘It is my lust that is being punished! This is no fault of yours. Fortunately, this friend of mine is a good man, or I would never be able to hold my head up in the world again.’

After this experience, he became a reformed character, and the foxes disappeared completely.

Commentaries (not all tales come with commentaries, but the majority do):

42 THE DEVOTED MOUSE Zhang Duqing: (1642–?1716), a poet-friend of Pu Songling’s, who like Pu was never appointed to an official position. His ballad, a poem in thirty-six lines, is extant. The contemporary poet and novelist Vikram Seth has retold this tale in verse in his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There (London, 1992).

83 THE GIRL IN GREEN light as silk: Some texts have ‘light as a fly’.

88 LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES The Chronicler of the Strange points out that whereas most people are aware of the danger involved in storing ordinary poisons (such as arsenic) in the house, few appreciate the havoc that can be caused by leaving aphrodisiacs lying around the place. Men have a healthy fear of the dangers of the military battlefield, but are blissfully unaware of the far greater dangers lurking in the bedchamber. For a glimpse of the type of thing our gentleman may have been collecting, the reader is directed to Robert van Gulik’s excellent study Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden, 1961), especially pp. 133–4, where the author describes various potions listed in the ancient sex handbook of Master Dong Xuan, such as ‘Bald Chicken Potion’ (‘if taken for sixty days one will be able to copulate with forty women’ – this drug was apparently so named after an unfortunate cock who ate it by mistake when it had been thrown out in the courtyard, and copulated with a single hen for several days without dismounting, pecking her head bald); ‘Deer Horn Potion’ (to cure impotence and involuntary emission); a potion for enlargement of the penis (a mixture of broomrape and seaweed); and a potion for shrinking the vagina (made up of four ingredients, including sulphur and birthwort root). The same text is translated by Douglas Wile in Art of the Bedchamber, pp. 112–13.

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Ox-ghosts and serpent spirits

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling and translated by John Minford

Over 600 pages of 17th/18th Century Chinese ghost stories and accompanying commentary. Does that sound tempting? Probably not, but it should because Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is quite wonderful and quite unlike almost anything else I’ve read.

Pu Songling was a mediocre scholar, but a gifted author. He wrote  one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese fantastic fiction to reach us today. He told tales of ghosts and fox spirits, of odd encounters and peculiar visions. His work was playful, allusive and frequently erotic. He wrote for men like himself, Chinese gentlemen who would read the stories by lamp or candle light in their scholar’s studios which looked out on carefully crafted views of sculpted gardens and artfully placed rocks which brought distant mountains within their walls.

The Penguin Classics edition contains over a 100 of these stories. They’re short, never more than a few pages and many only a page or so long. They come with quite beautiful illustrations in classical Chinese style (and which I wish I could reproduce here for you). On their surface these are tales of the supernatural, of encounters with ghosts (who are often quite unlike our Western ghosts) and fox spirits (a sort of mischievous faery race, foxes who can change shape into human form and are capable of all sorts of mystical trickery). Underneath that there are all sorts of contemporary political and philosophical references that a lay reader like me can’t hope to catch, but doesn’t need to because the endnotes explain many of them and anyway the stories are a joy even at the shallow surface level I read them at.

In Chinese folklore there is no clear demarcation between ghost and fox spirit, both are liminal entities, ambiguous beings that interact with us mortals for their own ends. They are physical entities, save when they don’t wish to be, capable of being mistaken for human and even of becoming human in the right circumstances. They are transgressive, breaking the rules of the carefully codified society of civil service examinations and scholarly pursuits that the human characters here are part of, and which Pu Songling and his audience were of course part of.

In a typical tale (except that there is no such thing, which is why this review is so hard to write), a scholarly youth is visited by a beautiful maiden (or in one a beautiful boy). He falls in love, and is seduced by this vision. He grows weaker, his essential strength being drained by intimacy with the occult. Or perhaps not, perhaps the spirit wishes to protect the man but he insists on seducing it, spending his own life to possess that which wishes to protect him but which cannot resist his insistent charms.

Others are more redolent of Western folklore and experience. In one story “Tiles, pebbles and brick shards […] fly around the house like hailstones at any moment,” as classic a description of poltergeist phenomena as one could hope to find. In another a sleeping man is frozen in his bed as a bloated hag enters his room and squats upon his chest (google night terrors for that one, it’s actually a surprisingly widely reported form of hallucination).

In one absolutely charming tale a magistrate named Ding Chenghe (Crane Rider) befriends a failed scholar named Ye. Ding helps Ye with his examinations, but despite Ye’s talent Ye still fails and so his career in China’s intricate bureaucracy is stillborn. Ye sets off for home broken-hearted, but becomes ill on the way. Meanwhile Ding is dismissed when he causes offence to a superior, and so retires to the country where he sends for Ye to act as tutor to his son.

Ding’s son flourishes under Ye’s tutelage, and passes his own exams with ease. Ye is consoled that his worldly failure has at least been recompensed by being able to help the son of the man who sought to help him. Time passes and Ding is restored to a position of importance, and so uses it to reward Ye who finally returns home to his own wife and son to show them that he is now a person of rank. When he arrives though his wife is astonished to see him, for Ye has been dead for many years and is buried in a pauper’s grave.

Realising he is dead Ye vanishes, but on hearing what has happened Ding pays for his funeral and for Ye’s son to be properly tutored. When Ye’s son time comes for his own exams, he passes them and so the karmic debt owed by Ding to Ye is repaid.

It’s a beautiful story, and the summary above of course totally lacks the grace of Pu Songling’s language as translated by John Minford. It’s a useful illustration though of how permeable the divide between living and dead, natural and supernatural is. At the same time, the commentary on the tale brings out how it is a parable about a friendship so deep that one friend did not even realise he was dead so keen was he to repay the kindness done to him. “How deep it is, the friendship, the predestined affinity between men of letters who spin out their very hearts in intricate webs of words, how deep the friendship between artists and musicians who share inner visions of mountain peaks and rolling streams?”

Bloggers are of course in their own way our version of friends who spin out their hearts in intricate webs of words.

The immediately following tale is a sadder one, of a scholar who dreams he owes a debt of forty strings of cash and realises it is money owed from a previous life. His wife gives birth to a son. When the boy reaches nearly four years old the scholar’s own fortune of nearly forty strings of cash is almost exhausted. The boy dies, and the scholar uses the remaining funds to pay for the funeral. The commentary makes clear that virtue can be accumulated, as can debts. Virtuous children are the sign of past lives well spent. A childhood death may be the settling of a debt long overdue.

As Pu Songling says elsewhere”A good son is the repayment of a debt due to his parents, the result of good karma; a bad, wilful child is a creditor come for his money, a bad karmic debt. The birth of a child should not be cause for joy, nor should the death of a child be cause for sorrow.” Hard counsel, but perhaps a comfort in a society where death in childhood would have been all too common.

John Minford is a marvellous companion for these tales. He wears his evidently deep understanding lightly, showing how much is buried within them without discouraging the lay reader in the process. His introduction is well worth reading, ideally before reading the tales themselves as he sets the context which here is useful to know, and he includes in a small number of tales notes to show how they would have been read by contemporaries of Pu Songling. Italics in the following quote are mine, to make clear where the commentaries start and end.

Translator’s note: In this longer story, I have incorporated some of the commentaries into the text, to show how this was normally done in the old Chinese editions of Strange Tales. The commentators were constantly at one’s side.
When he asked her where she hailed from, she replied that her name was Lotus Fragrance, and that she was a sing-song girl from the Western District. Dan Minglun: Game Two – enter the fox, as a consequence of Game One. Sang was aware that there were quite a number of houses of pleasure in Saffron Bank, and he believed her tale. The lamp was soon extinguished, and the two of them climbed into bed, where they enjoyed to the full the sweet pleasures of love. From that day on, Lotus Fragrance returned to visit him every few nights. Dan Minglun: The ‘real’ sing-song girl has prepared us for Lotus Fragrance [the false sing-song girl]. What subtlety, what skill! Li’s subsequent appearance is linked to that of Lotus Fragrance. The whole story repeatedly links ghost and fox. They appear together, and the whole is in jest, it happens naturally, without the slightest trace of artifice. This scintillating text, with its strange transformations, grows entirely out of this word ‘jest’. The essence of the writer’s art lies in the playfulness of his conception.

‘Someone’s been saying that you’re a fox-spirit. I don’t believe it myself, but…’ ‘Who’s been saying so?’ snapped Lotus Fragrance, and pressed him for an answer. Sang laughed awkwardly. ‘Oh, I was only teasing…’ ‘And anyway, what makes fox-spirits so different from humans?’ she asked. ‘They cast spells on men, they make them fall ill, even die. That’s why we are so frightened of them.’ ‘No!’ protested Lotus Fragrance. ‘It’s not like that at all! A strong young man such as yourself can restore his vital energy three days after the act of love. Even a fox-spirit can do you no harm. But if you go indulging yourself day after day, then a human lover can do you more harm than a fox. Feng Zhenluan: Wise counsel! Young people, take heed of this!

In the afterword Minton is also excellent at bringing out the plays on words and images which can be difficult to translate (a character says to a fox-spirit girl “It wasn’t your face… It was your tail”, it’s fair to say that tail is meant to make the reader think of certain other lower parts of the woman’s anatomy). He brings out too the Taoist and other philosophical underpinnings of the stories, the obsession with the concept that ejaculation could lead to a loss of spiritual and physical strength, the analogisation of detumescence with death which is quite alien to most Western symbolism.

In the foreword Minton quotes a 19th Century Chinese scholar of the tales, who wrote a guide on how to read them. Two of that scholar’s maxims in particular are worth quoting. “If one reads the Strange Tales just for the plot, and not for the style, one is a fool.” “Every time one thinks a situation weird, it is in fact very real and true to human nature. It contains both pure sense and pure sensibility.”

He’s right. So, when a tale starts “In the southern region of China known anciently as Chu, there lived a merchant who was often away from home on business, leaving his wife much on her own.” one knows the woman will be visited by some ghost or mischievous spirit intent on her virtue, but one knows too that in our own world in which neither ghosts nor fox-spirits appear it’s still not wise to neglect those you love.

These are wise and human stories, rich and strange and quite beautiful. I’ll follow up this post in a day or so by quoting a couple of the smaller ones to give a greater idea of Pu Songling’s style, but in the meantime all I can say is that this is absolutely worth buying and reading. Take the stories as I did, one here, one there, spread over weeks and months as a small comfort to return to that is a joy with every visit.

I’ll end this post with a couple of pictures of a scholar’s garden, the garden of the Master of Nets. I’ve seen this in real life, if anything the pictures struggle to do it justice.

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a case of chess poisoning

Chess, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Anthea Bell

I loved Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret. It was melodramatic, but successfully so with Zweig painting a subtle but intense psychological portrait of obsession and desire. I agree with Michael Hofmann that Zweig’s no Arthur Schnitzler, but literature isn’t a competition.

Anthea Bell is among my favourite translators. In fact, seeing her name on a book makes me more likely to read it. She is extremely talented and chooses interesting works to translate.

Chess (also known as The Royal Game, and as Chess Story) is probably Zweig’s best known novella. It’s a study of obsession, it’s translated by Anthea Bell. It’s been generally well received in the blogosphere by bloggers whose recommendations I put a lot of weight on. What’s not to look forward to?

Well, for me the answer was the plot, psychology and characterisation none of which worked. On a more positive note the translation is of course excellent and it’s short. Brevity is generally a virtue, but it’s a particular virtue in bad books.

The narrator is a passenger on an ocean liner. He discovers that among his fellow passengers is Chess world champion Mirko Czentovic. Czentovic is a Slavonian peasant by background, utterly lacking in the slightest hint of intelligence or sophistication, but on the chessboard nobody can defeat him. Somehow this oaf has risen from remote obscurity to dominate his social and cultural superiors and to sweep all opponents before him.

For the moment he rose from the chessboard, where he was an incomparable master, Czentovic became a hopelessly grotesque and almost comic figure; despite his formal black suit, his ostentatious tie with its rather flashy tie-pin, and his carefully manicured fingers, in conduct and manner he was still the dull-witted country boy who used to sweep the priest’s living room in the village. To the amusement and annoyance of his chess-playing colleagues, he clumsily and with positively shameless impudence sought to make as much money as he could from his gift and his fame, displaying a petty and often vulgar greed.

… the knowledge that he had defeated all these clever, intellectual men, dazzling speakers and writers in their own field, and above all the tangible knowledge that he earned more than they did, turned his original insecurity into a cold and usually ostentatious pride.

What I find interesting in this passage is the extraordinary depth of snobbery it displays. I’m not immune to snobbery myself of course. My reaction might not be much different to the narrator’s (and obviously the narrator isn’t Zweig, though interestingly the text at times playfully implies it might be). Despite my own failings though the condescension is so dense here it suffocates.

As portrayed Czentovic is a peasant lacking any great abilities in life save one. Is it so blameworthy that he should seek to profit from that sole gift? Is it so praiseworthy that his socially superior opponents are more disdainful of money, a resource which unlike Czentovic they were born with? Czentovic’s real crime here is his “shameful impudence” in defeating men the narrator clearly considers his betters. The problem isn’t chess, it’s class.

The narrator is an amateur chessplayer himself and has an interest in obsessive personality types. He decides he wants to meet Czentovic, better yet play chess with him. Czentovic though only plays for money, his rates are high and he has no interest in small talk.

Luck strikes when the narrator discovers that he’s not the only one keen to see Czentovic play. In particular he meets a self-confident American engineer who wants to test his own ability against a master. A group of passengers forms, with the American paying Czentovic’s price, and a game is arranged.

On the one side then Czentovic, and on the other an alliance of players funded by the American and banded together to defeat this brute from Central Europe who scorns all values save victory. Obviously I’m not drawing any parallels here.

It’s no spoiler to say that Czentovic at first sweeps the board with them. The only obstacle to his relentless rise to domination comes from advice given to the allies by an onlooker who can’t hold himself back from commenting. When the allies follow this stranger’s suggestions they stop Czentovic’s advance and suddenly the allies have a fighting chance of holding him.

The onlooker is described in the text as Dr B, but who is he? How did he become so able at Chess that he can force a grandmaster to a draw, perhaps even defeat him, and yet nobody has heard of him? Can it be true this is the first time he has played in 20 years? These questions are the real book, to which all else so far has been just preparation. The narrator seeks out this anonymous master and discovers the terrible story of how he gained such extraordinary ability.

The line between terrible and silly can be a thin one. Here Dr B’s story involves confinement by Nazis, torture by way of sensory deprivation and chess as a means of intellectual escape. I won’t say more as to explain too much would risk damaging a future reader’s enjoyment of the book. I can say that it allows some nice ironies where chess with its constrained space comprised of set dimensions and permitted moves becomes a limitless domain of pure mind quite separate to the imprisoned self.

Zweig died in 1942. Chess was published posthumously. At the time of writing then he didn’t know that Hitler would be defeated. If one remembers that, this becomes a work of fevered despair. Czentovic is unstoppable, except by a man who is a psychological wreck. Dr B is in a sense the European intellectual (perhaps even more specifically the Jewish intellectual), able to outwit Czentovic but fragile against his stolid cruelty. That’s a lot of weight for a slight story though.

The parable is clever, but it hangs off the story, which rapidly becomes ludicrous. Dr B’s backstory seems initially improbable (were the Gestapo really so prone to subtly undermining their prisoners’ sense of self, rather than simply brutalising them?) and swiftly becomes quite incredible as chess becomes both linchpin and threat to Dr B’s sanity. Zweig’s writing depends heavily on both plot and characterisation, and I didn’t believe in Dr B and I didn’t believe in what happened to him.

That leaves just the writing. Zweig certainly can write, but this feels not quite finished and I wonder if he’d have polished it further had he lived. Certainly it would have helped avoid sentences like this: “And now, for the first time, such a phenomenon, such a strange genius, or such an enigmatic fool, was physically close to me for the first time …”

I’m in a distinct minority on this one. John Self of The Asylum liked it and found the plot ultimately plausible. Trevor of themookseandthegripes was taken by it, and so was Will of Just William’s Luck. Tom of A Common Reader liked it too (both Will and Tom’s reviews are particularly worth reading for their discussion of symbolic elements of the novella). The only blog I’ve found so far (though I’m sure I’ve missed some) that shared my concerns was Sarah’s at A Rat in the Book Pile. Links in this paragraph are to the various reviews mentioned.

So, Chess. It’s very short, most readers love it and you may do so too. For me though it crosses the line from tragedy to comedy, without being funny. If you disagree, and if you’ve read it you probably do from what I’ve seen of other reviews, I’d be delighted to hear why I’m wrong.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

The Romance of the Rice porridge.

Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu

Six Records is a classic of Chinese literature. Written in 1809 it’s the memoir of an unsuccessful private secretary. He wrote six short volumes, chapters really, setting out his thoughts on his life, on aesthetics, on how to live. Only four of those volumes remain. They’re an invaluable resource for those wishing to understand 18th and early 19th Century Chinese scholastic life. That’s not why most people read them though. That’s not why I read them.

Six Records of a Floating Life is a deeply personal document. Shen Fu examines his life from different perspectives in each chapter, but in each he returns to the centre of that life – his wife and their love for each other. That makes Six Records something very unusual indeed. It’s an account of a love affair, within marriage, that’s both true and intensely affecting.

Shen Fu married a woman named Yün.

Yün had delicate shoulders and a stately neck, and her figure was slim. Her brows arched over beautiful, lively eyes. Her only blemish was two slightly protruding front teeth, the sign of a lack of good fortune. But her manner was altogether charming, and she captivated all who saw her.

The marriage was arranged when they were both just thirteen years old. They married at seventeen. Shen Fu did not do well enough in his exams to become a magistrate himself and so was reduced to being a private secretary to magistrates – a difficult and often uncertain position. Worse yet Shen Fu’s family fell out with Yün over various misunderstandings leading to him being caught between the two and for a while being estranged from his father.

All this is in 18th Century China, but apart from the marriage being arranged these are problems that could afflict most modern relationships. Career troubles, money problems, difficulties with in-laws. These are all profoundly ordinary concerns. It’s that ordinariness coupled with the openness and honesty of Shen Fu’s description of them that makes this so remarkable a book.

Here is Shen Fu and Yün’s wedding night:

We sat up making jokes, like two close friends meeting after a long separation. I playfully felt her breast and found her heart was beating as fast as mine. I pulled her to me and whispered in her ear, ‘Why is your heart beating so fast?’ She answered with a bewitching smile that made me feel a love so endless it shook my soul. I held her close as I parted the curtains and led her into bed. We never noticed what time the sun rose in the morning.

The tragedy of Six Records is that Yün died in 1803, six years before it was written. That makes this work an act of memory. Yün had health problems throughout the marriage and it was difficult for Shen Fu to afford the medicine she needed on his meagre salary.

I’ll come back to that. Tragic as Shen Fu’s story ultimately is though it’s tragic because of what went before, because of what was lost. Shen Fu and Yün face many problems, but through it all they stay together even though in material terms that often makes things worse. Yün’s health problems are expensive, and the loss of Shen Fu’s father’s approval has real financial consequences. Still, for all they live a hand-to-mouth existence which neither of them is well prepared for by upbringing they live it together.

When lotus flowers bloom in the summer, they close up at night but open again in the morning. Yün used to put a few tea leaves in a gauze bag and put it inside a lotus flower before it closed in the evening. The next morning she would take out the tea and boil it with natural spring water. It had a wonderful and unique fragrance.

Shen Fu is not from a modern perspective (and probably not from the perspective of his time either) a wholly blameless character. He and Yün both are fond of good living and both at times pursue a lifestyle beyond their means. Shen Fu blows a fairly large amount of money on a business trip drinking and sleeping with prostitutes. They are both on occasion unfaithful (interestingly both of them with women and sometimes the same women). Neither of them comes across as particularly wise.

For all that it’s hard not to like Shen Fu. It’s true that it doesn’t seem to occur to him to seek work outside his class if that’s what’s necessary to get money for the medicine Yün needs. It’s true that he’s wasteful, idealistic and impractical. There’s a joy here though which for all his failings, and Yün’s too, made me wish them well even though they really existed and therefore we already know that things didn’t work out for the best.

Here’s Shen Fu on a brief period in his life when he and Yün lived in a sort of artist’s retreat, with little money but fewer responsibilities:

Among my friends were Yang Pu-fan, whose courtesy name was Chang-hsü and who was a talented portrait painter; Yüan Shao-yü, whose courtesy name was Pai and who was adept at painting mountains and rivers, and Wang Hsing-lan, whose courtesy name was Yen and who did skilful paintings of flowers and birds. They all liked the refined atmosphere at the Villa of Serenity, so they brought along their painting things and I studied with them. I would paint characters and carve chops, sell them, and give Yün the money so she could prepare tea and wine for our guests. We would spend the whole day doing nothing but criticizing poetry and talking about painting.

I said above that I read Six Records for the story of Shen Fu and Yün’s love affair. I also mentioned though how much other material is in these memoirs. Shen Fu shares his views on morality, art, even flower arranging. The following passage was, for me anyway, rather dry. I include it because the book’s not just romance and amusement. I think it’s important to read these passages, but I won’t pretend some of them aren’t a little abstract to a modern reader lacking a specialist interest in the period.

When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers, not an even number. Each vase should contain flowers of only a single colour. The mouths of the vases should be wide so that the flowers can spread out naturally. Whether one is displaying five or seven flowers, or thirty or forty flowers, they should rise straight from the mouth of the vase in one mass, neither crowded together nor falling around loosely and leaning against the mouth of the vase. This technique is called ‘rising tightly’. Some of the flowers should stand up gracefully, while others spread out at angles. Some should be high and some low, with a few buds in between, to keep the arrangement from looking stiff and unnatural. The leaves should not be disorderly and the stems should not be stiff. If one uses pins to hold the flowers in position they should be hidden, the long pins cut off so that none protrude from the stems. This technique is called ‘clearing the mouth of the vase’. From three to seven vases can be arranged on a table, depending on its size. No more than seven vases should be set out on one table, or it will not be possible to tell the eyes from the eyebrows, and the arrangement will look just like the cheap chrysanthemum screens sold in the markets. The stands should be from three or four inches to two feet and five or six inches tall. They should be different in height, but should be in proportion to one another so that there is an attractive relationship between the appearance of them all. If there is a tall stand in the centre with two low ones at the sides, or if the ones at the back are tall and the ones in front are low, or if they are set out in pairs, they will look like what people call a ‘beautiful pile of trash’. Whether the flowers should be dense or spread out, whether they should lean towards the viewer or away, all depends on the sense of pictorial composition of someone who knows how to appreciate them.

Shen Fu has a number of themes that he wishes to explore. Key among them is the transitory nature of life, love and pleasure. Shen Fu recollects how at one moment he and Yün “felt as if we were floating off to the land of the Immortals.” Imagery like that runs through the book, but of course they’re not immortal and in writing this after his wife’s death Shen Fu was only too aware of that. This is a book suffused with past remembered joys each of which is not to return.

Yün’s death is particularly sad, and in places difficult to read. She feels tremendous guilt at leaving Shen Fu. She feels that by dying she is letting him down.

Later she sobbed and spoke again. ‘Even someone who lives a hundred years must still die one day. I am only sorry at having to leave you so suddenly and for so long, halfway through our journey. I will not be able to serve you for all your life, or to see Fengsen’s [their young son’s] wedding with my own eyes.’ When she finished, she wept great tears.

Even writing that now I find it heartbreaking. Here is Shen Fu on the aftermath of her death:

When it happened there was a solitary lamp burning in the room. I looked up but saw nothing, there was nothing for my two hands to hold, and my heart felt as if it would shatter. How can there be anything greater than my everlasting grief?

When I was younger I didn’t understand death, even though two of my grandparents died during my adolescence. I knew what it meant, that I wouldn’t see them again, but somehow the finality didn’t impact emotionally in the way it did intellectually. In recent years though my other grandparents, my mother’s mother and father’s father, each died. I miss those who died earlier, but I didn’t understand then the terrible absence that I feel as an adult. There is a gap in the world where they were. Shen Fu lost his wife who he had loved since childhood. I would rather not imagine that.

Shen Fu wrote six records at the age of 46 (“I am now six and forty years old, adrift in the vast ocean of life.”). Nothing is known of his life thereafter. Perhaps he found love again. Perhaps he found a more fulfilling career better suited to his nature. Perhaps he died of some random infection a few months later. We don’t and likely never shall know.

All we have then is this magnificent tribute and act of memory, except magnificent is the wrong word for something so domestic and so personal. Yes at times it’s a little dull as Shen Fu expounds on an aesthetic principle that is of only academic interest today. Yes it’s at times exasperating as he enjoys himself on pleasure barges spending money his family could better use. Yes it’s incomplete and yes the structure makes it at times repetitive. For all that though it is profoundly human and that for me makes it literature, even if literature hampered by the limits of truth.

This is a modest book, and in many ways a wistful one. Shen Fu knew he was not a success, and he knew that the greatest passion of his life was likely already behind him. Even so he left us this, and the irony is that this failure of a man (on his and his society’s terms) left one of the very few books I’ve ever read that brought me close to crying as I read it. Even so I didn’t find it depressing. It’s tragic to lose someone loved and Shen Fu, long dead as he is, has my every sympathy. For twenty three years though he knew love, and so did Yün. That’s no small thing.

I read the Penguin Classics edition of Six Records (on my kindle but there are some lovely illustrations so a hardcopy would here be the better choice). I’m sure free versions exist, but the Penguin edition came with some extremely helpful essays and footnotes which helped me understand the social and political contexts of Shen Fu’s life and which are well worth paying a little extra for.

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A ruin admidst ruins

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, by Lord Byron

Canto IV of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published some six years after Cantos I and II. During those six years Byron’s style developed, with the result that Canto IV is simply better written than I and II were (III was to be fair also pretty good).

So of the four Cantos this is the most technically accomplished. Unfortunately, it also contains the most references I didn’t get and I read it while feeling a little under the weather. That combination means that this is the best of the cantos, but that I enjoyed it least. So it goes.

In Canto IV Byron drops the Childe Harold persona entirely. He complains in a foreword that all his readers insisted on seeing Harold as just being a representation of Byron himself. That being the case, there wasn’t much point to continuing the character. Byron was right. I’m one of his readers and I saw Harold as Byron. Frankly, I didn’t miss him. Nothing that makes this poem worth reading (and it is worth reading) has anything to do with that unfortunate wight Harold.

Canto IV continues Byron’s mix of political comment, travelogue and ode to the joys of nature. Here he introduces (or reinforces) a theme of feminine grace, but for me the older themes of the passage of time and the folly of ambition stood out more proudly. Byron’s travels now take him to Italy, and there amid its many ruins he contemplates art, nature, love and mortality. It’s heady stuff.

Of all his destinations Italy proves the most inspiring for Byron, as it has for so many of us who’ve been there. From my own experience I know how gazing upon the Roman forum or the Colliseum brings home how fleeting even the greatest of achievements can be. Here’s Byron describing the Rome of his day:

CVII
Cypress and ivy, weed and wallflower grown
Matted and mass’d together, hillocks heap’d
On what were chambers, arch crush’d, column strow’n
In fragments, choked up vaults, and frescoes steep’d
In subterranean damps, where the owl peep’d,
Deeming it midnight: – Temples, baths or halls?
Pronounce who can; for all that Learning reap’d
From her research hath been, that these are walls-
Behold the Imperial Mount! ’tis thus the mighty falls1.

CVIII
There is the moral of all human tales;
Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First Freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, – barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page, – ’tis better written here,
Where gorgeous Tyranny hath thus amass’d
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask – Away with words! draw near,

CIX
Admire, exult – despise – laugh, weep, – for here
There is such matter for all feeling: – Man!
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear,
Ages and realms are crowded in this span,
This mountain, whose obliterated plan
The pyramid of empires pinnacled,
Of Glory’s gewgaws shining in the van
Till the sun’s rays with added flame were fill’d!
Where are its golden roofs! where those who dared to build?

The theme of liberty is continued, as is that of the folly of ambitious tyranny. Byron reflects on the fate of kings and emperors most of whom end poorly and notes that Napoleon for all his grand goals is now imprisoned. Conquest is pointless because fleeting. When freedom is sacrificed to empire that which is bought has no longevity worth the price paid. The irony is that freedom too is inevitably temporary. As Keynes said, in the long run, we’re all dead.

One of the curious things about the pilgrimage is that although Byron reflects long on mortality and on the passing of things it’s not overall a sad poem. It has much sadness in it. Byron talks often of the transience of human works and in one particularly bleak section he argues that love is as much a passing shadow as ambition or glory. For all that though he finds comfort and joy in the natural world and in the simple act of being alive.

I thought the following passages both distinctly representative of the Romantic sentiment:

CLXXVI
Upon the blue Sympleglades: long years –
Long, though not very many, since have done
Their work on both; some suffering and some tears
Have left us nearly where we had begun:
Yet not in vain our mortal race hath run,
We have had our reward – and it is here;
That we can yet feel gladden’d by the sun,
And reap from earth, sea, joy almost as dear
As if there were no man to trouble what is clear.

CLXXVIII
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet can not all conceal.

As the Canto draws to a close there is a lengthy and for me moving homage to the splendours of the sea. It’s vastness, mystery and beauty. The Canto ends well, and given its length and frankly for me often challenging nature (I’ll return to that shortly) I found the ending such as to give the whole work a greater satisfaction. There is a sense across the cantos of a work and a voice growing into its potential. The travelogue remains, the arguments about issues of the day, but the focus shifts increasingly towards an awareness of ephemerality and the importance therefore of beauty.

Byron assumed a certain sort of readership for his work, and I am not of that readership. I’m fairly solid as a rule on my classical references but even so there were many here I failed to understand. Particularly in the earlier sections of this canto there were times I could tell something was being alluded to but not what. That I think is a consequence of my education being so different to those he expected to read it when it was published.

Equally, I was challenged at times by the circumstances of my reading. At one point I sought to read it on the train from Folkestone to London. Across the aisle a family sat down, possibly from Porlock, and proceeded to discuss at length the various merits of attractions at the London Dungeon. It’s not clear to me why they couldn’t see both the Bloody Mary exhibit and the Jack the Ripper one, but I do now understand that both have much to recommend them.

I hope they enjoyed it. They seemed nice people and very excited. It’s by no means their fault that Byron struggles to make his voice heard over that of the London Dungeon.

In the end, it’s hard not to be won over by this poem. Byron is a man who thinks nothing of a near-page long digression on the differing backgrounds of gladiators and of how a particular Christian martyr ended the games. Among the romantic philosophy, the politics and the sheer pleasure in his travels there’s sometimes a chattiness which makes Byron just fun to be with. Even through a gulf of time, education and indeed class his charm shines through and it’s easy to see at least some of his allure.

Having now read it I can definitely see why this poem had the impact it did. Despite its challenges it’s often easy to read (and would have been easier in its day); it’s entertaining; it conjures up with great effectiveness distant and romantic lands and takes the reader to them (much as a modern holiday tv show might); for the physical rather than armchair traveller parts could actually be used as a guide book; and on top of all that it has philosophy and reflections on glory, ambition, time and mortality.

Central to it all though is Byron himself. A romantic outsider striding through semi-ruined landscapes, contemplating beauty and brooding on past glories. It’s a figure, an image, which remains powerful today. Even Edward Cullen, the vampire from the Twilight books, is his descendant. For Byron the greatest thing his poem had to show was nature itself. For the reader it is Byron that is the true hero.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. I’ve linked to this before, but here‘s a nice article on the whole poem by someone better educated than I to speak to it. It includes a nice excerpt from Canto IV and there are some other excellent excerpts in the comments.

1. The Palatine is one mass of ruins, particularly on the side towards the Circus Maximus. The very soil is formed of crumbled brickwork. Nothing has been told, nothing can be told, to satisfy the belief of any but a Roman antiquary.

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Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, by Lord Byron

Romance, war, nature, love, mortality, current affairs, sightseeing tips and parental love. Lord Byron gave his readers good value in his poems.

I wrote here about the first two cantos of Byron’s epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The third canto opens with a brief recap reminding readers what the poem’s all about and reflecting on the passing of time since the first two cantos. It then turns to the more interesting subject of the battle of Waterloo and from there to wider thoughts of the relationship of man with nature and the freedom he can find in it.

The Waterloo sequences are impressively crafted. Byron takes an incident of a ball the night before the battle and contrasts it over a number of stanzas with the slaughter of the field the next day. The whole sequence underlines the youth and life of those who fought – what they left behind both at the ball and on the field. It’s powerful material which is diminished by me carving out small excerpts, but for all that it’s worth giving a taste of it:

XXII
Did ye not hear it? – No; ’twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –
But, hark! – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!

Byron knew men who died at Waterloo and speaks of them here. He visits a friend’s grave and writes of what he finds. He sees glorious men, but not glorious deeds. Fame and ambition for him merely drive men to pointless ruin. Those who follow great leaders are brought only to destruction.

Against all this there is an alternative. Byron sees the pursuit of worldly wealth and recognition as meaningless and inherently doomed (as well he might, being born to both). Nature is greater than man’s efforts, and through nature man can find happiness. There is a feeling throughout the poem of the transience of our works and the permanence of nature’s (not god’s, Byron invokes him occasionally but his atheism still reads clearly through the text). Here Byron transitions from the Napoleonic theme to the natural:

LVIII
Here Ehrenbreitstein1, with her shatter’d wall
Black with the miner’s blast, upon her height
Yet shows of what she was, when shell and ball
Rebounding idly on her strength did light:
A tower of victory! From whence the flight
Of baffled foes was watch’d along the plain:
But Peace destroy’d what War could never blight,
And laid those proud roofs bare to Summer’s rain –
On which the iron shower for years had pour’d in vain.

From there it’s on to solidly Romantic territory. Life is short and hell is other people. Few things are more enjoyable than wandering around the countryside gazing at the landscape.

Back in February I read von Eichendorff’s Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing. One of my favourite scenes was where a group of itinerant musicians revealed that they loitered on mountaintops waiting for passing English lords who were pausing to admire the view. Once they spotted one, they’d pester him with music until he paid them to go away. I’m guessing a lot of those English lords would have had a copy of Childe Harold on them.

LXXI
It is not better, then, to be alone,
And love Earth only for its earthly sake?
By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone,2
Or the pure bosom of its nursing lake,
Which feeds it as a mother who doth make
A fair but froward infant her own care,
Kissing its cries away as these awake;-
Is it not better thus our lives to wear.
Than join the crushing crowd, doom’d to inflict or hear?

LXXII
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me
High mountains are a feeling, but the hum
Of human cities torture; I can see
Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be
A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,
Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,
And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain
Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

I do actually think that’s well written and I know exactly what he means. That said, it’s hard for me now not to imagine von Eichendorff’s musicians creeping up behind Byron as he contemplates those high mountains. The irony of course is that von Eichendorff’s philosophy itself spoke to the beauty of nature and the importance of living within it rather than chasing ambition.

That’s the trouble with philosophy. It may be deep, it may be true, but comedy has it on the ropes inside five rounds.

Canto III draws to a close on a highly personal note. The canto opens with a dedication to Byron’s daughter Ada. As the readers of the day would have known, his marriage had ended in separation with Lady Byron taking their daughter. The saddest part then of the poem comes as Byron reflects on how much he misses and loves his child. Here’s one final excerpt taken from that section:

CXVI
To aid thy mind’s development, – to watch
Thy dawn of little joys, – to sit and see
Almost thy very growth, – to view thee catch
Knowledge of objects, – wonders yet to thee!
To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, –
This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
Yet this was in my nature: – as it is,
I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

I suspect the mountains were poor compensation for that loss.

1. Ehrenbreitstein, i.e. ‘the broad stone of honour,’ one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was dismantled and blown up by the French at the truce of Leoben. It had been, and could only be, reduced by famine or treachery. It yielded to the former, aided by surprise. After having seen the fortifications of Gibraltar and Malta it did not much strike by comparison; but the situation is commanding. General Marceau besieged it in vain for some time, and I slept in a room where I was shown a window at which he is said to have been standing observing the progress of the siege by moonlight, when a ball struck immediately below it.

2. The colour of the Rhone at Germany is blue, to a depth of tint which I have never seen equalled in water, salt or fresh, except in the Mediterranean and Archipelago.

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Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is travel writing in the form of epic poem, a guide for the aristocratic tourist to carry with him across Southern Europe, with diversions into contemporary politics, thoughts on mortality and complaints about British looting of Greek artefacts (Byron’s not a fan of Elgin).

It’s surprisingly fun, once you get used to the style, with Byron’s own footnotes dotted through the text – filling in bits of colour or recommending the best angle to approach a particular view.

Childe Harold, in the first two cantos at least, is really just a framing device. He’s a “shameless wight” who has “spent his days in riot most uncouth” who leaves England because although just in his 20s he has “felt the fulness of satiety”, in other words he’s bored with his “concubines and carnal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”

Driven by ennui, Childe Harold goes travelling, and once he does we barely hear of him again, he’s referred to on occasion to remind us it’s his story, but in the main it’s Byron addressing the reader directly, Harold almost forgotten. That means this is an epic poem largely without characters and without plot, it’s a good job Byron’s easy to get on with. It’s no surprise though that Byron’s contemporaries thought that Childe Harold was a thinly disguised self-portrait.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in three parts, Cantos I and II in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The first pairing made Byron famous in his own day, apparently it’s III and IV where this talent truly shines though and it’s those for which people mainly still read the work today.

Anyway, back to the poem itself. I’ll come to the subject of style shortly, but first here’s an example pair of stanzas discussing sights to see while in Portugal:

XX
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe;1
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punish’d been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

XXI
And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path:
Yet deem these not devotion’s offering –
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Pour’d forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life.2

It’s easy to picture some young man on his own Grand Tour holding a copy of that while climbing up that path, annotating the margin with his own observations. If you scroll down to where I’ve put the footnotes below, you’ll see too how Byron’s footnotes work with the text, expanding it, adding asides, generally making it all a bit more lively and personal. Half the fun of Childe Harold is the footnotes, which incidentally makes it very important which edition you get as most don’t bother including them. I’ll link to the edition I recommend at the end, but I would say this is a time not to go with Project Gutenberg or any print on demand versions, which generally only have the poem itself.

As the poem continues, Byron continues to guide us along his travels, he visits sites of great battles, talks about French aggression towards the Spanish and the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he penetrates the Albanian interior and meets the famous Ali Pasha. It’s often glamorous stuff, written about in a frequently world-weary tone – a combination which must have been irresistible to the less travelled people of his day. Hell, it’s hard to resist now.

Here Byron writes about the battle of Talavera, then recent current affairs rather than history. Byron later lent critical support to the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottomans, so he wasn’t a pacifist, but as the following stanzas (and his subsequent reference to the troops as “Ambition’s honour’d fools!”) show he was deeply sceptical to claims of the glory of war:

XL
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix’d embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share;
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.

XLI
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies;
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met – as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain.

One of the surprising things about Childe Harold is how modern many of its sensibilities are. Byron is passionate about freedom, democracy, rights of self-governance. His sympathies lie with people who wish to run their own lives, and against those who wish to conquer others. He’s angry at bigotry and sceptical of religion, at times openly atheistic and though he tolerates various faiths it’s clear that as a rule he doesn’t see much to choose between them. If it wasn’t too modern a term, I’d call him a humanist:

III
Sun of the morning, rise! Approach you here!
Come – but molest not yon defenceless urn
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Joves – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.

IV
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven –
Is’t not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given?
That being, thou would’st be again, and go,
Thou knows’t not, recks’t not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.

What’s perhaps less modern is a definite pastoralism, a romanticism (but then of course he is the great romantic hero). Men’s lives are short and petty things, empires fall, glory is lost in the dust of the battlefield, gods are barely longer lived than those who worship them, but nature remains. In nature there is a solace that cannot be found elsewhere, a cleansing balm, reconnection with nature lends perspective and a deeper enjoyment than is available in any lehman’s bed.

The romantic movement is not one I’m strong on, but I do understand that it elevates nature, the concept of the fall remains from Christian thought but is recast as a fall from a natural rather than divine state. Our civilised aspects divorce us from that which is most true (Chateaubriand is big on this). That theme runs through these cantos too. Harold, Byron, is jaded by pleasures at home and unimpressed by martial scenes and great deeds, but solitude and contemplation of the natural revives him:

LII
Ne city’s towers pollute the lovely view;
Unseen is Yanina, though not remote,
Veil’d by the screen of hills: here men are few.
Scanty the hamlet, rare the lonely cot:
But peering down each precipice, the goat
Browseth; and, pensive o’er his scatter’d flock,
The little shepherd in his white Capote3
Doth lean his boyish form along the rock,
Or in his cave awaits the tempest’s short-lived shock.

In terms of readability, it’s fair to say it took me a while to adapt to the style of the work. For the first hour or so I was aware of the structure of the poem, I was thrown by lines not scanning as I expected, part of me still working out the rules. You may find the same if you try it. It’s worth sticking with though, because after I pushed myself through that barrier, it became natural, it flowed. Now, when I read it, I read it as easily as prose, but that didn’t happen straightaway. Poetry is its own language, the rewards are there but I found I had to invest a little time learning how to get them out. It’s best if you’re not already used to reading this sort of work to bear that in mind, have a little patience and persist a little longer than perhaps you might otherwise be inclined to.

Stylistically, well, I’m not versed enough in poetry to talk effectively about technique, but it’s fair to say he wrote better later. This is good, it flows well and the imagery is sometimes striking, but it lacks the power of those parts of Cantos III and IV I’ve looked at. In some ways that makes it an excellent entry point to Byron’s work, it’s good enough to show his talent but doesn’t spoil you for the better works to come.

In the end, this is a warm and human work. It’s chatty, in the footnotes, and its descriptions of Southern Europe are interesting and entertaining. Some of the asides are lost on me, I’m just not as familiar with the Napoleonic wars as people who lived at the time obviously would be, and I don’t have the richness of Classical education Byron assumes in his readers, but I found that if I didn’t worry about getting every reference it didn’t matter – I got enough to make it still rewarding. It’s also a fascinating insight into a world at times very different to our own (at one point Byron falls into a fever, and credits his recovery to his guards holding off his physician at knifepoint so preventing the likely lethal treatment of the age), and at other times strangely familiar:


Or Wahab’s rebel brood who dared divest
The prophet’s4 tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West;

The edition I have is a Penguin Classics imprint, containing a wide range of his poems, not just Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s edited by Susan J Wolfson and Peter J Manning, and is up to Penguin’s usual high standards. As I’ve said a couple of times now, the footnotes and endnotes are essential, here they’re reproduced in full, as they should be. I’ll be reading Cantos III and IV, from the same edition, in the coming month or so. Byron spaced them out, I’m comfortable doing the same.

Child Harold’s Pilgrimage. There’s also an excellent article about the poem here.

1. The convent of ‘Our Lady of Punishment,’ Nossa Señora de Pena, on the summit of the rock. Below, at some distance, is the Cork Convent, where St Honorius dug his den, over which is his epitaph. From the hills the sea adds to the beauty of the view. – [Since the publication of this poem, I have been informed of the misapprehension of the term Nossa Señora de Pena. It was owing to the want of the tilde, or mark over the which alters the signification of the word: with it, Peña signifies a rock; without it, Pena has the sense I adopted. I do not think it necessary to alter the passage; as though the common acceptation offered to it is ‘Our Lady of the Rock,’ I may well assume the other sense from the severities practised there. – Note to 2nd Edition.]

2. It is a well known fact, that in the year 1809, the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen, but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend: had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have ‘adorned a tale’ instead of telling one. The crime of assassination is not confined to Portugal: in Sicily and Malta we are knocked on the head at a handsome average nightly, and not a Sicilian or Maltese is ever punished!

3. Albanese cloak.

4. Mecca and Medina were taken some time ago by the Wahabees, a sect yearly increasing.

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Filed under 19th Century, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Romantic Literature, Superfluous Man, Travel writing

This will destroy that

Originally posted 24 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

I recently finished reading the Jonathan Sturrock translation of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, this is the Penguin classics edition and as you would expect is well but not obtrusively footnoted. It is the unabridged text, thus containing chapters such as “A bird’s-eye view of Paris”, which interestingly were not included in the first edition of the novel (of which more shortly).

My French isn’t good enough to read the original text, so I can’t comment on the fidelity of the translation, but in terms of readability Sturrock did an excellent job. The text is clear, easy to read, often very funny, archaisms are kept within reasonable bounds (the novel is set in the 14th century, some archaisms seem unavoidable) and he avoids jarring use of contemporary language or particularly English phraseology. Overall, for me this was a good translation.

So, what of the novel itself? Well, firstly, if your knowledge of the text comes from popular culture then it’s nothing much like you would expect. La Esmeralda takes a few chapters even to make an appearance, Quasimodo is more a supporting character than a central protagonist and some key characters are omitted from popular accounts entirely. The novel is primarily a love letter to a form of architecture, a eulogy for an art form Hugo sees as rightly surpassed but which he mourns nonetheless. The title of the Penguin translation is the same as that in the French, Notre-Dame de Paris, the common English title of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame fundamentally misses what the novel is about (insofar as any novel can be said to be about any one thing).

The central character of the novel is the cathedral, Notre-Dame itself. The other great character of the novel is Paris. As well as Notre-Dame and Paris there are some human characters, Pierre Gringoire the unfortunate playwright and philospher, Claude Frollo – an archbishop and alchemist who has devoted his life to science and has but two acts of clemency to his name (neither of which is rewarded), La Esmeralda – a beautiful but naive young gypsy, Djali – La Esmeralda’s goat which is charming and intelligent and knows too many tricks to be safe in a world of superstition and animal trials, Captain Phoebus – a handsome and womanising soldier, Louis XI, Jehan Frollo – a young student and libertine, Jacques Coppenole – a Flemish hosier and harbinger of later democratic movements, Quasimodo – a deaf hunchback. As with any large 19th century novel there are of course also a great many minor characters, some critical to the novel, some mere curiosities or diversions.

But, and this is key, the central characters are Notre-Dame itself and the city of Paris. The human (and goat) characters drive the plot, they provide entertainment, comedy and tragedy, but they are not what the book is about.

When originally published three chapters were omitted, Hugo claims this is due to their having been misplaced, but recovered in time for the second edition. Whether that is true or not I have no idea, but interestingly the omitted chapters are ones that many readers to this day still choose not to read. These are the architectural chapters, and they are the heart of the novel.

The thesis of Notre-Dame de Paris is that historically architecture was humanity’s way of recording itself, that our ambitions, thoughts, dreams and in a very real sense our literature were written in stone. That architecture itself was a summation of all other arts, capturing the essence of a culture in as lasting a fashion as was possible. This ends with the invention of the printing press, and with that invention literature replaces architecture. Where once a culture would preserve its thoughts in stone, now it could preserve them in words, but words easily copied and distributed so that though each individual copy had but a short life the words themselves would last as long as humanity itself did. The printing press gave literature a longevity even greater than that of architecture, and in doing so rendered architecture sterile, an art without function and one from which later geniuses would occasionally emerge in isolated instances but which fundamentally had become a pastiche of itself.

That is what the book is about, the occlusion of architecture as an artistic form by literature. Or at least, that is a key element of the novel. In setting out this thesis, Hugo spends whole chapters merely describing the cathedral and the city, the lines of the stone, towers, additions and amendments to great buildings, views, architectural movements, these are chapters that many readers simply skip as they in no way advance the plot of the novel and tend not even to mention any human characters – but they are the heart of the novel and in any event are beautifully written. The chapter in which Hugo goes on a massive diversion from the plot to set out in explicit terms the interrelationship between architecture, literature and the world of ideas is a spectacular piece of work, one which contains ideas still fresh and challenging today. To skip it because Quasimodo et al are offscreen for most of it allows you to get to the end quicker but at the cost of one of the novel’s finest sections.

Otherwise, the novel is a mix of comedy and tragedy. Indeed, it moves really from one to the other, starting with many comic elements which darken as the novel progresses until at the end hope is largely lost and characters die in terrible and tragic ways. The good are not rewarded, and by the end it is highly questionable if anyone in the novel is truly good anyway (certainly not La Esmeralda, wikipedia is quite wrong in saying she learns to look past Quasimodo’s ugliness, the novel is perfectly clear that she does not). The evil are not by and large punished (and again, it’s highly questionable who is evil, Claude Frollo attempts both rape and murder but twice in the novel acts utterly altruistically to protect the helpless and devotes much of his life to taking care of his wastrel brother). True love goes unrecognised, infidelity succeeds, death is capricious and lives can be lost on the distractions of a deaf judge. At the start the novel is tremendously funny, by the end we are in the territory of gothic horror.

The novel of course contains other conceptual strands, it’s a classic 19th Century novel of ideas, there is much about the inevitability of the move over time to democracy (Hugo and Francis Fukuyama seem to agree on that point), there are wonderful diversions to the lives of the criminal classes and a tremendous (and tremendously funny) knowingness about petty human vices. There are at least three great unrequited love stories.

But at the end, like Huysman’s La-Bas (which I highly recommend), it’s a eulogy for something past, for a world of craft and romance (in the broad sense, not merely romantic love), it is a (seminal) work of romantic fiction, it’s a call to arms to protect an architectural heritage being slowly destroyed by later revisions. It is not, however, a love story in the conventional sense.

Notre-Dame de Paris is well worth reading, it is an easy read in the main (other than in the architectural chapters, which need more careful attention), it has a plot which if not always entirely probable (I don’t think likelihood was something Hugo was particularly interested in) is always full of passion and incident, and it contains ideas on architecture and literature which remain relevant today. Not only is it worth reading, it’s worth rereading, particularly if as I managed you can read it while on holiday in Paris.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Notre-Dame-Paris-Classics-Victor-Hugo/dp/0140443533/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214305652&sr=8-5

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Filed under 19th Century, French, Hugo, Victor, Paris