Monday, 15 December 2008

In Lust, Caution (2007), Eileen Chang's posthumous short story collection - the pieces were originally published during her youth in Shanghai, and she was well-known within two years of her authorial debut - we can experience more than a mere contemporary panorama. There stories are very good in their own right.

The story that provides the title for the collection, Lust, Caution, is different from the others in its energy levels, concision and structure. It is a high energy story about betrayal and weakness, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet where, in contrast to the original, the woman stakes a greater claim to loyalty.

This story also furnishes the image for the book's cover, which shows Tony Leung as the despicable Mr Yi and Wei Tang as the extremely beautiful, doomed heroine Mak Taitai.

Ang Lee's 2007 film captivated sudiences but its treatment is much longer and more detailed than the original 34 page story.

Julia Lovell, who teaches Chinese literature at Cambridge University, and who edited the collection, says that Chang "obsessively reworked" the story and descibes the reader as often "struggling to keep up".

Ang Lee's cinema treatment is chronologically based, starting at the beginning apart from the brief telephone scene in the Shanghai cafe, which also appears in the story. Chang's version jumps around like a brain stimulated by too much coffee.

Both are good, but the two expositions of the story do not 'feel' the same.

I said that Lust, Caution is different from the other stories because there is no other story like this in the collection, which is excellent.

Chang's style is sort of Jane Austenish. Lovell tells us that, following the post-Mao thaw, Chang was 'rediscovered' by Chinese (much in the same way that another great Chinese writer, Shen Congwen, was rediscovered). She also suffered due to her reluctance to write straight 'political' stories.

Austen's choice of "a little piece of ivory" with "three or four families" was of a similar nature to Chang's focus on the ordinary and the personal, which she believed are suitable sites for literary exposition.

One suspects that Chang's stories will continue to attract filmmakers' attention while contemporaries' 'big issues' stories will become black spine oddities in much the same way as books by, say, Jane Austen's contemporary William Godwin have. So while post-thaw critics, says Lovell, "belittled" Chang's democratic method, future generations will become addicted to her knowing, slighly hilarious renderings of 1940s Shanghai.

Chang veers between the intensely personal, psychological drama of the individual and the laughter of the Shanghai main street. In the service of the latter impulse, she uses culinary metaphors (a person will be compared to a dumpling made from flour provided via food rationing). She also verges on the obscene: one woman's face is said to be "like a fat man's knee".

Ang Lee calls Chang "the fallen angel of Chinese literature" and the devil is verily present in massage parlour waiting rooms, dress shops, kitchens and parlours that she creates.

Of particular note, for me, is Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao's Unhappy Autumn, where the amah whose name appears in the story's title goes about her business of looking after a foreigner, Mr Garter.

Ah Xiao is a dark, brooding character whose miserable life is punctuated by scolds aimed at her small son, Baishun, the sporadic appearances of her separately domiciled husband, and chats with neighbouring amahs, with whom she complains about her employer.

Ah Xiao's soft side manifests itself occasionally, however, as when she donates part of her own flour ration for the purpose of making pancakes for Mr Garter and his Chinese partner of the night, who is a bit run off by romance where all the amah sees are dirty sheets and traces of venereal disease.

There is also much about the complex and slighly claustrophobic Chinese extended family. The position of the individual within this system of obligations is not always a settled and happy one. Mrs Lou in Great Felicity (the title is drawn from traditional marriage celebrations) compensates for her unhappiness by a hilarious stoicity that becomes gradually less amusing as the story unfolds.

But unlike the title story, Mrs Lou's story never descends into the tragic. That fate is reserved for the most favoured of Eileen Chang's creations. Chang, who died in America in 1995, is a very good writer and this book, with the work of a handful of translators, is a very good read.

3 comments:

Eugenia Vena said...

what an impressive style of writing you have. brilliant! specially the ending of the post: "is a very good writer and this story, which contains the work of a handful of translators, is a very good read." I am so inspired to read this book now that I read your singularly insightful, and inspired prose. this one from another post also unique: "He is a whole man, and his life is hard. Perlman’s achievement is to have been able to depict this complete human being in such a confident way." many more and not eough room..not inane at all!

Clare Dudman said...

Thanks for the review. I've just started reading Lust, Caution and was surprised by the style. I didn't expect it to have so much energy - as you say. I'm really glad I came across your review (from Librarything)because it encourages me to try the other stories in the book and take a look at the film.

Matthew said...

Hi Clare, Yes, I really enjoyed reading Chang's fiction. She's got a rare talent. Best wishes.