It's back to the eighteenth century again, for me (this is becoming a theme - nay, a fixation!): this time to China, with The Story of the Stone, by Cao Xueqin (1715-63). The Story of the Stone - also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, among a number of alternative titles - is a five-volume "novel of manners" (as the cover blurb puts it). Set in the author's own time, it is a vivid and vastly entertaining narrative of the lives, loves, and (eventual) fall of the diverse members of the powerful Jia family - or "the meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of fortune", as Cao himself puts it in volume 1.
Later scholars would have it that the story is (at least) semi-autobiographical; what little we know of the Cao family suggests that they, too, enjoyed several generations of good fortune and prosperity before a tumultuous decline. Yet, as is so often the way with unknown authors of well-known literary works, it is difficult to tell how much of this is later mythologising, and/or extrapolation based upon the narrator's occasional intrusions into the text. What is certain is that it is an extremely detailed (and accurate) portrait of life (social, familial, emotional, spiritual) during a particular historical moment - and also, variously, a love story, a poetic showcase, and an exploration of Buddhist ideas of fortune and destiny.
I read the first volume, The Golden Days, about a year ago, and was (pleasantly) surprised to find it such a fun and absorbing read. The (self-inflicted) tyranny of my books-to-read shelves meant that I've only recently embarked upon volume 2, The Crab-Flower Club. After such a gap, it took me a little while to reacquaint myself with the characters (for there are many) - but soon I was drawn in again. After the supernatural and spiritual happenings of volume 1, this is a much more leisurely affair, focusing on the daily lives and interaction of the characters through the seasons.
The action of the narrative in volume 2 is largely confined to the Jia family residence(s), in particular to the women's quarters and their inhabitants: the children and cousins of the Jia family, the two older generations of women, and their (mostly female) servants. It is full of insights into a vanished way of life: rituals, mindset, aesthetics, food - and tea, a subject taken to amusingly fanatical extremes by one rather eccentric nun:
"Is this tea made with last year's rain-water too?" Dai-yu asked her.
Adamantina looked scornful.
"Oh! can you really not tell the difference? I am quite disappointed in you. This is melted snow that I collected from the branches of winter-flowering plum-trees five years ago, when I was living at the Coiled Incense temple on Mount Xuan-mu. [...] I am most surprised that you cannot tell the difference. When did stored rain-water have such buoyant lightness? How could one possibly use it for a tea like this?"
One of the major themes is hierarchy: the intricate rules regarding interaction and familial duty. Servants and served enjoy a close relationship in certain respects - the maids often drink and eat alongside the family at parties and entertainments, and several have an intimate, bantering relationship with Bao-yu and the others. But the distance is fundamental and insurmountable. Male members of the family consider it their right to take any maid-servant they choose as a 'chamber-wife' (essentially a concubine). When Grandmother Jia's maid Faithful rebuffs such overtures, she must make extravagant vows and find powerful protectors within the family to escape reprisals from the slighted man. All this is subtly underlined by the fact that while the family members' names are left in Chinese, the maids' names (often chosen for them by their masters) are translated into English - Golden, Patience, etc. - emphasising their quality as pet-names.
The main character - again, sometimes read as a representation of its author - is Bao-yu, the (sole) young grandson of family matriarch Grandmother Jia. At 16, he is apparently still young enough to live in the women's quarters and socialise predominantly with his female cousins, but there are hints that he will soon be forced to leave this world in which he is so happy. His budding relationship with his sickly, orphaned cousin Dai-yu (who was brought into bosom of the family at beginning of volume 1) is starting to venture beyond childish teasing into something deeper and more self-conscious - but, as the hope of the family's fortunes, it seems clear that Bao-yu will not be allowed to choose his own marriage-partner... especially not one so financially unviable as Dai-yu. More broadly, there are also signs of money-troubles amid the family's largesse.
All these considerations are merely distant clouds on the horizon in volume 2, however. Although there are some tense, dramatic moments - such as when one of the maids is dismissed for some misunderstood flirting with Bao-yu in front of his mother, and drowns herself in a well at the shame - for the most part this is a cheerful instalment, dealing with daily life. The volume's title comes from the name of the poetry club that is formed by the younger (mostly unmarried) girls, and Bao-yu [aside: clearly a prototype of the Honourary Girlie]. They are a warm, engaging group of characters, and their twice-monthly gatherings are elaborate affairs: celebrations of the season through ritual and feasting, as well as (timed) contests of composition upon agreed themes, in set forms and sometimes even with pre-set rhymes. Poetry-writing is a social skill, requiring quick-witted inventiveness rather than lonely inspiration.
Conveying poetry in translation is undoubtedly tricky, particularly when much of the effect of Chinese poetry rests upon the contrast between tones of words (something lacking completely in English), prescribed syllable and rhyme schemes, and intertextual play upon the works of past masters and age-old themes. Not being able to read Chinese, I can't comment on the resemblence or otherwise of original to translation, but there are certainly some highly effective poems - and, often, ones that are cleverly reflective of character (Bao-yu's tend to be clumsy, funny and bawdy). Here's an example, the winner of one particular gathering:
'Remembering the Chrysanthemums'
Down garden walks, in search of inspiration,
A restless demon drives me all the time;
Then brush blooms into praises, and the mouth
Grows acrid-sweet, hymning those scents sublime.
Yet easier 'twere a world a grief to tell
Than to lock autumn's secret in one rhyme.
That miracle old Tao did once attain;
Since when a thousand bards have tried in vain.
And sometimes, as this conclusion to a couplet contest (one person provides the first line, another has to complete it, in suitable form and theme) proves, it all gets silly:
Dai-yu began to giggle too:
"The Zen recluse with non-broom sweeps the ground--"
The infection of giggles had now reached Bao-qin:
"--His stringless lute-play still more mystifies."