I've mentioned my tendency to steer away from short books before. Anything between 40 and 150 pages makes me feel instinctively uncomfortable, and no matter how many slim volumes I enjoy I simply can't shake the prejudice. When Penguin books offered to send me a couple of their new mini modern classics I decided to test myself, despite my mental knee-jerk. I also took the opportunity to try some new writers: Eileen Chang and R.K. Narayan.
Chang is one of those author's at the very edge of my consciouness. I had a picture of her in my mind; an enigmatic, imperious face, a sleek blouse and a cigarette, born out by the photo on the cover above. I had a vague sense of her writing too, as laquered and sensual (probably because of a half glimpsed trailer to the film adaptation of Lust, Caution). On the evidence of Red Rose, White Rose my vague sense is only semi-misplaced. The scene is Shanghai, and our protagonist is the 'good man' Zhenbao, a middle manager in a textile factory. He has a degree from Edinburgh University, a gentle, pretty, pure wife and a little daughter with excellent prospects. In every sense he is a rising man, much admired in the outside world, his life a 'peach blossom fan'.
Beneath the surface, however, Zhenbao is conflicted, lonely and consumed by jealousy. In his life he has had intimacies with four women: a nameless prostitute in Paris; the carefree, innocent Rose in Edinburgh; his voluptuous mistress, Jiaorui; and spotless Yanli, his wife. These women have shaped him into the man he is.
The prostitute appears something of an aberration, a way to pass the time in a foreign capital. Chang describes an encounter not in the least laquered or sensual. Although the woman's 'cheap perfume mixed with armpit odor and sour sweat' makes for a 'strange smell that he [Zhenbao] couldn't get out of his head', she is not attractive. Her eyes are 'two transparent glass balls', her face 'cold, severe, masculine...the face of an ancient warrior.' The sex leaves Zhenbao badly shaken and ashamed, and 'detemined to create a world that was 'right' and to carry it with him wherever he went. Now he was master of his own world.' An aberration perhaps, but the experience echoes throughout Zhenbao's subsequent relationships.
By contrast Rose is 'smooth and glistening as fleshly planed and oiled wood'; her body is open, youthful, for the taking, and perhaps because of it Zhenbao takes great pleasure in not taking it when it is offered. Instead, he resists, and this restraint fills him with 'astonishment and admiration'. Over the years he gains a reputation as 'a man who could keep perfectly calm with a beautiful woman in his lap.' But being ultimate master of his instincts brings with it great regret.
Jiaorui is different, because Zhenbao can't resist her. The wife of his friend and housemate, she swans around the flat they share together in nothing but a bathrobe or silk pajamas. Pajamas which are everything I first imagined Chang would be: 'made out of a sarong fabric...the design was so heavy and dark that he couldn't tell whether it was snakes and dragons, or grasses and trees, the lines and vines all tangled up togther, black and gold flecked with orange and green.' The sensuality drips off Jaiorui like water. Zhenbao's lust overcomes his caution and, in contravention of every one of his firmly held beliefs, he embarks on an affair with her.
It leaves Zhenbao bewildered, and more than a little frightened by the loss of self-control that sex with Jiaorui entails. What terrifies him most, it seems clear is, intimacy. Intimacy and instinct. Zhenbao lives his life by a set of rules that ensure his success, and which conform to an ideal of goodness that he has developed. Any action he takes which contravenes these rules is experienced at a distance, so that his relationship with Jiaorui is always through a veil. They have sex, but he never really connects with her; he knows he wants her, but he doesn't know what the thing he wants is. And when she takes the decision to leave her husband for him, and the threat of a scandal hoves into view, he quickly abandons her and marries a woman chosen by his mother, his 'white rose' Yanli.
There is no love between Zhenbao and Yanli, and no lust either. Their marriage is a sham, and Zhenbao is eaten away by the memory of Jiaorui, his 'red rose'. While his career in the textile factory booms and his reputation in society grows, Zhenbao's emotional life is non-existent. The undeniable intensity in Red Rose, White Rose is rooted in this inability to channel his desires; in the conscious and unconscious suppression of his feelings. This repression is somewhat self-imposed, arising from his determination to master himself and subliminate everything that shamed him about his first sexual encounter with the prostitute in Paris.
More subtlely, Zhenbao's relationship with his overbearing mother sets the tone for his 'romantic' relationships with other women. His determination to master them and himself is perhaps related to his inability to master his mother, and the sense of filial duty to her that means he cannot. There is incredible bitterness in the way Chang draws the relationship between men and women. The opening salvo of the story seems to preclude the possibility of unconflicted love:
Maybe every man has had two such women - at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she'll become a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is 'moonlight in front of my bed.' Marry a white rose, and before long she'll be a grain of sticky rice that's gotten stuck to your clothers; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.
Zhenbao's story is not unusual I don't think. Literature, especially literature written by women, is full of men like him. Men who sabotage their own happiness, and destroy women in the process, are a recognisable trope. Chang's story is striking more for its narrative ingenuity, and the gravitas with which it alternates between, sensuality and the violence of repression. I'm brought back to the Chang I had imagined - the laquered work - but more refined, with gravitas, and a measured eye for detailed. Not quirky at all, but full of carefully tuned touches; a richly textured kind of writing.
So, yes, still suspiscious of short books, but learning to overcome it. Narayan next.