書評: 陶淵明詩選(中國歷代詩人選集#4)

本人前半輩子因為看得懂「陶淵明」三個字,就買下了此書,在書架上一擺就是幾十年。近來突然下了決定,要把整本書讀一遍,說不定是陶先生的靈魂在呼喚我。這篇小文當然是出自外行的拙作,還望不會鬧出什麼大笑話。(感謝柯松韻協助校訂本文。若有不足之處,則是筆者有所疏漏。)

本文結構從最雞毛蒜皮的批評開始,漸入較為深刻的分析討論。文章首先要來抱怨陶先生太愛喝酒,愛到不斷地在作品中提及飲酒,實在無聊,最明顯的例子是《和郭主簿》第二首:

和澤週三春,清涼素秋節。
露凝無遊氛,天高肅景澈。
陵岑聳逸峯,遙瞻皆奇絕。
芳菊開林耀,青松冠巖列。
懷此貞秀姿,卓爲霜下傑。
銜觴念幽人,千載撫爾訣。
檢素不獲展,厭厭竟良月。

在令人心怡的大自然中既然已達到精神的高點,卻又縱情飲酒,未免不解風情。

不過除了這個例子之外,陶先生寫到飲酒並不是混淆詩意。其實,陶先生提到飲酒,通常只是代表個人樂趣的追求,因此讀者可以放遠來看,不必放大檢視詩中反覆出現的飲酒行為。

即使我們接受詩作中飲酒之舉一再出現,詩中一再提到辭官,再三考量是否退隱,也讓人反感。詩選中有八成的內容,似乎都是陶先生的自我辯護,解釋自己為何辭官。反覆強調這個話題顯得單調,且藏著一種酸葡萄心理,就像孔子騙人的說詞「人不知而不慍, 不亦君子乎? 」(《論語》 1:1)。(屈原的自我可憐更不要說,不過至少比孔子老實多了。)同理,陶先生堅持說他不要做官,也很可能是吹噓自己最有資格做官。

但是,這樣的想法,只要看幾首陶先生的詩,就會發現他是玩真的。他不像孔子掩飾政治野心。反而,陶淵明看破了儒家教化的騙局。他辭官歸田不符合孔子所說「天下有道則見,無道則隱」(《論語》8:13),因為他不誇大自己的重要性,也不承認學仕者的偽善。可以說他的主張是「見則無道,隱則有道」。

陶淵明多次強調做官完全是為了俸祿。這不是他輕率地抱怨他人的腐敗,而是揭示一個惡劣現象,連自己也包含其中。 《飲酒》十九的第一句 –「疇昔苦長飢,投耒去學仕」– 以及《歸去來兮辭序》的「公田之利足以為酒,故便求之….猶望一稔, 當斂裳宵逝」等都說得一清二楚。

《雜詩》的第八首說得更直接,把做官的意義說成純粹的寄生手段:

代耕本非望,所業在田桑。
躬親未曾替,寒餒常糟糠。
豈期過滿腹,但願飽粳糧。
御冬足大布,麤絺以應陽。
正而不能得,哀哉亦可傷。
人皆盡獲宜,拙生失其方。
理也可奈何,且為陶一觴。

「代耕」是指着「以祿代耕」說的。並且,筆者認為這首詩裡的「代」和「替」兩個字的用法都是屬於使動用法,意味着「使別人代替我耕田」或 「把耕田的任務推卸給別人」。選集的選注者,徐巍先生,認為這個替字的意思是廢棄。可是前面的「躬親」表示「自己做」,所以最有意義的對比就應該是「使別人做」。陶先生描寫耕田者的辛苦,再談到學仕者的「盡獲宜」是非常巧妙的筆法,也把孟子的「治於人者食人,治人者食於人」苛責得片甲不留。 筆者念了這首就很想為陶一觴。

除了經濟方面之外,陶先生也很懷疑儒家文化上的意義。這邊要探討的是《飲酒》第二十首:

羲農去我久,舉世少復真。
汲汲魯中叟,彌縫使其淳。
鳳鳥雖不至,禮樂暫得新。
洙泗輟微響,漂流逮狂秦。
詩書復何罪,一朝成灰塵。
區區諸老翁,為事誠殷勤。
如何絕世下,六籍無一親。
終日馳車走,不見所問津。
如復不快飲,空負頭上巾。
但恨多謬誤,君當恕醉人。

在表面上這首詩向古時的賢人表示常見的尊敬,可是感覺上似乎含着變相的諷刺。「汲汲魯中叟」…「區區諸老翁」真的讓人想到文化英雄嗎? 「汲汲」可以形容努力不休,也可以表示虛偽奸詐,反正好像是暨忙碌又沒有意義的活動。「區區」也許是說誠摯,也許是說瑣碎,都不算高明的姿態。「魯中叟」…「諸老翁」也有點太輕薄的,缺乏尊重。在這方面,陶先生的寫法很工:他利用雙關語跟儒家打游擊戰,不值接批評魯中叟而躲在雙關語的模棱兩可,來避免反攻。

這層意義,傳統的讀者可能無法感到。 像做選注的徐巍先生,介紹這首詩,只重複了崇儒的套話:「本首讚揚孔子及漢儒,慨歎當世道義淪亡,惟有藉飲酒來排遣憂世的心情。」 不過「六籍無一親」不包括陶淵明本身? 他「不見所問津」不是因為里人能夠靠自己的知識?「若復不快飲 ,空負頭上巾」不是說要戴着頭上巾喝酒? 那算是讚揚孔子及漢儒嗎? 算是憂世嗎? 陶淵明說他「但恨多謬誤」究竟是恨誰的謬誤? 是當世的人的還是孔子及漢儒的? 還有,陶先生為甚麼最後道歉? 他怕得罪了誰? 慨歎當世道義淪亡的詩文會得罪朝夕慨歎當世道義淪亡的文人嗎? 不會吧。陶淵明所慨歎的並不是當世道義淪亡而是愛慨歎當世道義淪亡的偽君子。所以道歉了。(同樣,陶先生的《詠三良》似乎是詠大忠,其實是刺愚忠。) 總之,陶淵明絕對不屬於那些先天下的憂而憂,後天下的樂而樂的人物。他飲酒的意義就在這裡。

的確,說陶淵明不是普通的儒家也不算甚麼突破的結論。不過,否認他憂世的心態就可以看出他入世的真面目。陶淵明辭官歸田可以說是重新建構他的哲學角度。他這份工作的過程是從最現實的基礎進行到最玄妙的終點。講具體一點,陶淵明在平凡的生活當中就發現了美妙的真理,而最後,面對着自己的死亡,他也尋求了一種不朽。

最平凡的活動就是為生活勞動。《飲酒》第十首形容得不錯:

在昔曾遠遊,直至東海隅。
道路迥且長,風波阻中塗。
此行誰使然,似為飢所驅。
傾身營一飽,少許便有餘。
恐此非名計,息駕歸閒居。

在這首,陶先生又承認做官本來是為了吃飽(也是為了出名) ,可他也承認在田裡勞力只要「傾身」就可以「有餘」。這方面跟梭羅一致,認為經濟的問題其實很容易解決(雖然跟上面引用的《雜詩》八意思不同)。

跟梭羅不一樣的一點是陶先生也說到家庭的重要性。有關詩是《雜詩》四:

丈夫志四海,我願不知老。
親戚共一處,子孫還相保。
觴絃肆朝日,樽中酒不燥。
緩帶盡歡娛,起晚眠常早。
孰若當世士,冰炭滿懷抱。
百年歸丘壟,用此空名道。

當世士追求名利,而陶先生只願不知老而已。怕丘壟的淹沒就不敢希望甚麼空名會當作解藥,只有親戚、子孫可能會彌補絕望。

不過這首的部分樂觀只算是個例外。陶先生可能只有這一次提到子孫可以帶來幸福。通常,陶先生以個人的角色進入大自然的深奧,培養自己的敏銳度,發掘可靠的真理。《和郭主簿》二已經提過了。《飲酒》五更代表這種心理:

結廬在人境,而無車馬喧。
問君何能爾,心遠地自偏。
採菊東籬下,悠然見南山。
山氣日夕佳,飛鳥相與還。
此中有真意,與辨已忘言。

這首所描寫的大自然能夠動人到想像旅遊的能力。筆者認為「飛鳥相與還」不是說「鳥兒相隨回巢」而是說「我跟着鳥飛去」。反正陶先生毫無疑問的是離開人境,隨心飛到遠地。

這首被認為是陶先生最有名的作品,實至名歸。 而且它顯示陶淵明主要的立場是充滿着個人主義。他所重新建設的哲學觀念是受到個人的限制。他很少揣想社會的問題。(或許《桃花源詩》的「怡然有餘樂,于何勞智慧」是指着孟子所謂「勞心者治人, 勞力者治於人」。從陶先生的主要態度來看,至少他的理想社會不會容許甚麼勞心者治人的剝削。)

身為個人主義者都會遇到寂寞的危險。陶先生的《飲酒》八真會讓讀者哭:

青松在東園,眾草沒其姿。
凝霜殄異類,卓然見高枝。
連林人不覺,獨樹眾乃奇。
提壺挂寒柯,遠望時復為。
吾生夢幻間,何事紲塵羈。

即使能夠與鳥高飛,生活在夢幻間的詩人也遲早會落地,記得他只是一棵獨樹,被眾草隱蔽了, 也被人家忽視了。個人的驕傲會帶來失望/沮喪。再加上人總免不了一死,就會造成很精神極度低落。陶淵明常常透露這類的憂鬱。

好在,陶先生找到了一個解決寂寞的方法,那就是知音。只要有一個人了解他,那棵獨樹的寂寞就可以接受。陶先生的作品有幾首提出歷史上的隱士,各有特別的人能夠賞識。像《詠貧士》六,有一句「舉世無知者,只有一劉龔」 是說隱士張仲蔚跟唯一理解他的劉龔(字孟公) 。《怨詩楚調示龐主簿鄧治中》有一句「慷慨獨悲歌,鍾期信為賢」是說只有鍾子期一個人能夠欣賞伯牙彈琴。 只要有一個人知音,連獨悲歌的也可以算贏家。

並且,除了當時的知音之外,獨自悲歌的也可以通過文學的管道來尋找生於幾百年後的知音。因此,陶淵明常常寫到「今我不述,後生何聞哉」《有會而作》、「伊懷難具道,為君作此詩」《擬古》六等句,與後代溝通,不但找到知音,而達到不朽。

總之,看完了陶先生的詩選,本人覺得他還活着。 了解他就是多給他一個命。《桃花源詩》最後的一句「願言躡輕風,高舉尋吾契」就是成真的禱告。

Book Review, Midst the Wild Carpathians, by Mór Jókai

Upon finishing this intriguing book, I turned back to page one and began reading again, in the hope that the intricacies of its plot might become clearer the second time around. One dimension of this intricacy relates to the complex political situation of seventeenth-century Transylvania, where Ottoman Turks retained some influence despite the country’s nominal independence and where the word “Hungarian” could refer not only to the native ethnic stock but also to emigres from Hungary proper. Another relates to author Mór Jókai’s inexplicit treatment of cause and effect in the storyline, his disinclination to comment on how certain actions proceed from others. At any rate, my second reading was well worth it, as familiarity built on itself, yielding greater comprehension.

One obvious theme of the book is womanly influence over men. A typical sentence reads, “The chair of state was large enough to accommodate them both. It is true that the pretty wife had to sit half upon her husband’s knee, but that certainly did not inconvenience either of them.” (pp. 75-76) Another runs, “The women, like so many Bacchantes, ran in search of weapons, and mounted the ramparts by the side of their husbands, whom the determination of their wives had turned into veritable heroes.” (pp. 174)

However clever and strong the women of this book may be, though, they operate only through men. They are not independent.

Also intriguing to me is the hero of the last part of the book, Denis Banfi, who seems a typical representative of the gentry in the ease with which he shifts from grandiosity to viciousness. “The traces of noble enthusiasm and of unbridled fury are impressed upon his face side by side just as they are in his heart.” (p. 157)

In short, I enjoyed reading it once and more than doubly enjoyed reading it twice.

Book Review: Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy

William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee reads like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (which I have not read), with the first twelve chapters resembling an innocent rhapsody and the latter fifteen a world-weary dirge. The turning point comes with Percy’s father’s involvement in politics in 1910-12, with World War One, conflict with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 making any return to Innocence impossible. Adding a jarring element to the chapters on Experience is Percy’s rather defensive discourse on race relations.

(As for the supposedly unique traits of a certain subset of the Mississippi population, listed in the aforesaid discourse, I find them to be rather universal. For example:

The last time I saw Mims I asked him how he and his wife were getting along. He poked out his mouth: ‘Pretty good, pretty good, I reckon. Cose I always goes up the front steps whistlin’.’

I praised his cheerfulness.

‘That ain’t it, Mr. Will. I want to give anybody what’s in the house and don’t belong there time to git out the back way. You know I never did like no rookus.’ [pp. 301-302]

The same principle is outlined by Fielding:

It hath been a custom long established in the polite world, and that upon very solid and substantial reasons, that a husband shall never enter his wife’s apartment without first knocking at the door. The many excellent uses of this custom need scarce be hinted to a reader who hath any knowledge of the world; for by this means the lady hath time to adjust herself, or to remove any disagreeable object out of the way; for there are some situations in which nice and delicate women would not be discovered by their husbands. [Tom Jones, X/ii])

I liked the first part, concerning Innocence, much better. It’s amazing that Percy, writing at the experienced age of fifty-five, is able to recreate so pristinely the intoxicating wondrousness of his youth:

To climb an aspen sapling in a gale is one of those ultimate experiences, like experiencing God or love, that you need never try to remember because you can never forget. Aspens grow together in little woods of their own, straight, slender, and white. Even in still weather they twinkle and murmur, but in a high wind you must run out and plunge among them, spattered with sunlight, to the very center. Then select your tree and climb it high enough for it to begin to wobble with your weight. Rest your foot-weight lightly on the frail branches and do most of your clinging with your arms. Now let it lunge, and gulp the wind. It will be all over you, slapping your hair in your eyes, stinging your face with bits of bark and stick, tugging to break your hold, roaring in your open mouth like a monster sea-shell. The trees around you will thrash and seethe, their white undersides lashed about like surf, and sea-music racing through them. You will be beaten and bent and buffeted about and the din will be so terrific your throat will invent a song to add to the welter, pretty barbaric, full of yells and long calls. You will feel what it is to be the Lord God and ride a hurricane; you will know what it is to have leaves sprout from your toes and finger-tips, with satyrs and tigers and hounds in pursuit; you will never again need to drown under the crash of a maned wave in spume and splendor and thunder, with the white stallions of the sea around you, neighing and pawing. (p. 55)

While looking back, again, with a seamless fidelity to youthful feeling, on how he expanded his consciousness in youthful Arcadia (meaning the liberal arts), Percy is conscious, with the advantage of hindsight, of Arcadia’s true meaning:

Neither from experience nor observation can I quite say what they learn in their Arcadia, though they gad about freely with books and pads. Indeed, many of them attempt to assume a studious air by wearing black Oxford gowns. In this they are not wholly successful, for, no matter how new, the gowns always manage to be torn and insist on hanging from the supple shoulders with something of a dionysiac abandon. Further, even the most bookish are given to pursuing their studies out under the trees. To lie under a tree on your back, overhead a blue and green and gold pattern meddled with by the idlest of breezes, is not – despite the admirable example of Mr. Newton – conducive to the acquisition of knowledge. Flat on your stomach and propped on both elbows, you will inevitably keel and end by doting on the tint of the far shadows, or, worse, by slipping into those delightful oscillations of consciousness known as cat-naps. I cannot therefore commend them for erudition. So it is all the more surprising that in after years the world esteems many of them learned or powerful or godly, and that not infrequently they have been the chosen servitors of the destinies. Yet what they do or know is always less than what they are. Once one of them appeared on the first page of the newspapers because he had climbed with amazing pluck and calculated foolhardiness a hitherto unconquered mountain peak, an Indian boy his only companion. But what we who loved him like best to recall about that exploit is an inch cube of a book he carried along with him and read through – for the hundredth time, likely – before the climb was completed. It was Hamlet. Another is immortal for cleansing the world of yellow fever, but the ignorant half-breeds among whom he worked remember him now only for his gentleness, his directness without bluntness, his courtesy, which robbed obedience of all humiliation. Still others I understand have amassed fortunes and – to use a word much reverenced by my temporal co-tenants – succeeded. That success I suspect was in spite of their sojourn in our greenwoods. The Arcadians learn here – and that is why I am having such difficulty telling you these things – the imponderables. Ears slightly more pointed and tawny-furred, a bit of leafiness somewhere in the eyes, a manner vaguely Apriline – such attributes though unmistakable are not to be described. When the Arcadians are fools, as they sometimes are, you do not deplore their stupidity, and when they are brilliant you do not resent their intellectuality. The reason is, their manners – the kind not learned or instilled but happening, the core being sweet – are far realer than their other qualities. Socrates and Jesus and St. Francis and Sir Philip Sidney and Lovelace and Stevenson had charm; the Arcadians are of that lineage. (pp. 100-101)

Apparently, Percy is drawn to trees, especially the familiar species of his youth, and when among them, he is drawn to the second person! However, when among scenes of foreign beauty, as on his year abroad, the familiar second person is beyond his reach, and thus he discovers a superlative form of loneliness. (This is a real 於我心有戚戚焉 for me, who discovered loneliness on the coastal highways and in the art museums of remote realms, desperately missing a sharer or co-appreciator of all the beauty I found):

At the sight or sound of something unbearably beautiful, I wanted desperately to share it. I wanted with me everyone I’d ever cared for – and someone else besides. (p. 112)

There are racist words in this book, so don’t read it.

Book Review: Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer

As our republic is ground to nothing between the boulders of socialism and populism – the abyssus abyssum invocat of our two-party system – it seems pointless except as an act of masochism to read anything about its founding and early history. Our institutions of freedom have been so glibly discarded that books about them can amount only to quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, immersion in which would make anyone weak and weary indeed.

Neverthehoo, old habits die hard, and this year, with a gap in my reading list and with July Fourth approaching, I decided to re-read David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, which I’d assigned myself as a morale-booster in the years after 9/11. (External blows stimulated my interest in the history of American freedom; self-inflicted ones killed it.) I’d remembered Fischer’s book for its stress on the ideological aspect of the Revolution and can now report that my memory was in this case true. Washington’s Crossing illustrates how different people (not just British, Germans, and Americans but different groups of Americans such as New Englanders, Virginians, and backwoodsmen) took different views of freedom and related it differently to ideals of equality and social order. My favorite players in this story are the Philadelphia Associators, radical egalitarians, who went so far as to design their uniform to “level all distinctions.” (p. 27)

An important subplot of the book details how George Washington, accustomed to believe in “liberty [within] a system of stratification” (p. 14), became general of an army composed of men (like the Associators) who saw freedom in a different light. As such, Fischer’s book is a study of leadership. Now, leadership today has become something of a fetish, with a cottage industry of how-to courses and its own section in the bookstore. Understood vaguely, leadership can encompass both democratic and undemocratic modes of motivation. Washington’s stereotypical embodiment of leadership is something that should be subjected – as it is in this book – to careful analysis, to yield a more precise conception of how it should function in a democratic society. Fischer’s book starts with an image of Washington as leader – the one in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware – in which he is shown with a telescope, symbolizing “a statesman’s vision.” (p. 2) Someone who leads by virtue of his unique sense of vision calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Socrates opines that only he with the true view of reality is qualified to be king. Indeed it was quite common in the before time to believe that kings were crowned by a special endowment such as vision, and I hope that readers of this review know that such a belief is as obsolete as kings are themselves.

Thankfully, Fischer uses the picture of Washington as the true-seeing leader only as a starting point and argues in the rest of his book that the real Washington was a leader of a different sort. At one point, he distinguishes democratic leadership from its non-democratic cousins by quoting Washington himself: “A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.” (p. 6) At another two places, Fischer draws important distinctions in his own words, remarking that Washington functioned “not only as a leader but a comrade in arms” and “more as a leader than a commander.” (pp. 251, 366) Elsewhere, Fischer employs a qualifier (“consultative leadership”), provides an example (“It was typical of Washington’s style of leadership to present a promising proposal as someone’s else’s idea”), and uses words besides “leading” to describe what Washington was doing (“listening, responding, encouraging, persuading.”) (pp. 265-266)

Since Fischer takes such pains to define Washington’s mode of leadership so narrowly, to the point of having to find better words for it, the reader may conclude that it scarcely warrants the term. (As for Washington’s using other people’s ideas, Fischer reports that the plan to attack at Trenton may have originated with Washington’s adjutant, Joseph Reed, and that the campaign that led to both second Trenton and Princeton was opened by the Associators – and not the officers but the men. If true, these cases stretch the definition of leadership about as far as it can go. [pp. 201-203, 265]) In fact, leadership has long been understood as a paradox, something so dependent on subtlety that it only functions in the absence of its assertion. Laozi’s injunction to “preside yet not control” (Daodejing, ch. 10) is typical of this paradox and seems to anticipate Washington.

The issue with Washington was that he initially failed to grasp leadership’s paradoxical nature and was thus forced to learn on the job. The first part of Fischer’s book is a catalogue of his slowness to learn. He ordered his troops not to plunder farmers, to no avail. He forbade them from visiting prostitutes, with the same result. He insisted that the Connecticut Light Horsemen get rid of their mounts and serve as infantry, causing them, after a brief period of conditional obedience, to leave the army (thereby depriving it of their service as scouts).  (pp. 85-86) Encountering a group of militiamen fleeing the British at Kip’s Bay, Washington beat their officers and dashed his hat on the ground. (p. 104)

The main crisis occurred on the eve of second Trenton, when many soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire. Washington’s expression of vexation on the occasion is interesting for its repetition of the word liberty, once as a cause and once as a curse: “‘The great and radical Evil which pervades our whole System & like an Ax at the Tree of our safety, Interest, and Liberty here again shews its baleful influence – Tomorrow the Continental Troops are all at liberty.’” (p. 270)

“If Washington hoped to remain in the field,” Fischer notes, “he had to persuade some of his veterans to stay with him.” In the event, Washington resorted to bribery and begging, authorizing a ten dollar bounty for an additional six weeks of service (another idea borrowed from someone else) and imploring his men,

‘My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.’

Two such appeals were necessary, and even then the deciding factor was individual soldiers encouraging each other to stay. As Fischer summarizes, “Only a few days before, Washington was infuriated with these men and ready to clap some of them in irons. Now he was leading them in another way. This gentleman of Virginia was learning to treat a brigade of New England Yankee farmboys and fishermen as men of honor, who were entitled to equality of esteem.”  (pp. 271-273)

There’s at least a little bit of American exceptionalism operating here. For a gentleman to address once-thought-of inferiors as fellow gentlemen and to give up commanding in favor of entreating them was truly extraordinary. (Fischer discusses the evolving use of the term gentlemen and shows that the deemphasizing of formal status and prevalence of consultative leadership would have been unthinkable in British ranks. [pp. 273, 315-316, 331]) Washington could only resign himself to egalitarianism in a polyglot Yankee society in which no one was entitled to tell another what to do. Others were forced to accommodate as well. The immigrant officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben wrote home to a Prussian friend, “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason you ought to do that’: and then he does it.” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/baron-von-steuben-180963048/) Sometime later, we are told, Abraham Lincoln, as a militia captain, once issued an order, only to be told to go to hell. (https://www.historynet.com/black-hawk-war)

For this reminder that, in spite of everything, Americans can’t be driven like cattle (and often, as we are daily reminded, speak out of turn), I’m grateful for my Fourth of July reading.

Book Review: Rose, Rose, I Love You, by Wang Chen-ho

The plot of Rose, Rose, I Love You revolves around the expected descent of American GIs, on furlough from Vietnam, upon the town of Hualien, Taiwan, in the mid-60s. Time to get the female companionship ready! There’s greenbacks to be made!

The book is a 180-page long ethnic joke, in which the Taiwanese people are caricatured, as they frequently are, as charmingly, innocently vulgar. Many of the characters inhabit the underworld, and as they improvise at life, they are shown to be faithfully coping with Taiwan’s much imposed-upon history, speaking a mongrelized pastiche of Taiwanese, Hakka, Mandarin, indigenous languages, Japanese, and now, out of the latest necessity, English. People in on the joke, such as the author, Wang Chen-ho, and his Taiwanese readers, will be as amused as people often are to look into a mirror – perhaps a funhouse mirror – but the book’s Taiwaneseness doesn’t translate very well and in any case would probably get old for uninitiated readers outside the Formosan funhouse.

If there is anything profound about this book, then it would be its focus on what I consider a characteristic of Chinese society, namely, the pretentiousness of the leaders vis a vis the led. If an army of American johns is coming, then it should stand to reason that Taiwanese bed-girls would be the ones best equipped to deal with it. It’s not like they wouldn’t know how. But no. In Rose, Rose, I Love You, it is a cohort of mostly male city councilmen, pimps, doctors, lawyers, and pastors who step forward to manage the shit out of the situation, until it is as expensive, complicated, ceremonial, formal, and grandiose as anything this class puts its hand to. The chief busybody is a despotic high school English teacher who assumes the role of minister of orgies despite being a virgin. Talk about weltfremder herrschaftsanspruch!

Book Review: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which I read in the 1965 AMS Press edition of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe) is two books in one: a survival at sea story and a tale of Antarctic exploration. Actually, it’s one and a half books in one, as the latter epic becomes a survival story and ends abruptly.

The writing is as over-articulate and replete with nautical terms as Melville’s, but Poe’s themes of terror and the macabre frequently raise their horrifying heads, as in:

It was not until some time after dark that we took courage to get up and throw the body overboard. It was then loathsome beyond expression, and so far decayed that, as Peters attempted to lift it, an entire leg came off in his grasp. As the mass of putrefaction slipped over the vessel’s side into the water, the glare of phosphoric light with which it was surrounded plainly discovered to us seven or eight large sharks, the clashing of whose horrible teeth, as their prey was torn to pieces among them, might have been heard at the distance of a mile. We shrunk within ourselves in the extremity of horror at the sound. (p. 140)

Perhaps the most obvious imprint of Poe’s signature is his exploration of the ideas of confusion and irrationality, his suggestion that our minds may fail us and become our enemies, as in:

I found my imagination growing terribly excited by thoughts of the vast depth yet to be descended, and the precarious nature of the pegs and soap-stone holes which were my only support. It was in vain I endeavored to banish these reflections, and to keep my eyes steadily bent upon the flat surface of the cliff before me. The more earnestly I struggled not to think, the more intensely vivid became my conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall – to picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I felt my knees strike violently together, while my fingers were gradually yet certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in my ears, and I said, ‘This is my knell of death!’ And now I was consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not, I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and with a wild, indefinable emotion, half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind – in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. (pp. 229-230)

“Crisis of fancy” is genius. “Violently” is Poe’s favorite adverb.

And what would a Poe story be without living inhumation.

Book Review: The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce, the protagonist of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, is motivated by a desire to prevent the following nightmare from becoming reality:

It takes place in sort of a vast hall, in the center of which sits a girl behind a desk….The closer I get to this girl, the older she becomes, until she turns into a middle-aged spinster librarian. Then I see that it’s me. People keep coming up to her from every direction asking her for books. They are all going somewhere….Everyone is in a hurry. They are all going somewhere except me. I’m trapped….When I awaken…my space urge is upon me stronger than ever. (pp. 198-199)

The urge for space and motion might have compelled SJG to join the French Foreign Legion, but alas she settles for immersion in superficiality, which, I guess, is a pretty good way for her to avoid getting involved in anything heavy. Her escape does in fact proceed through France, but it is the France of the floating, expatriate fashion show, where the insipid competition for status is de rigueur. The following passage is typical:

We were driving along toward Saint-Germain. Jim asked me if I wanted to stop off and have a drink there. Would I rather have a drink there, was the way he put it. I saw what he was getting at, of course. The subtle distinction between the cafés of Saint-Germain at l’heure bleue, and his own preferred watering hole, the Select in Montparnasse, was not lost on me. Saint-Germain is only five minutes away from Montparnasse, and they are both everything that is meant by ‘bohemian’ and ‘left-bank,’ but they are not interchangeable. Ho-ho. Far from.

[Ooh la la!]

The floating Saint-Germainian – and by that I mean the type of expatriate we were likely to run into, not the rooted French Intellectual who is too protectively colored to be winkled out – was cleaner, shrewder, smarter, more fashionable, more successful, more knowing; in brief more on the make, than his Montparnassian contemporary….What Jim was trying to find out by this question was if I was that sort of person. I decided for the time being that I wasn’t. (pp. 84-85)

Mon dieu. Thanks for clearing that up.

All right. I can see that the distinction between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse is of critical importance in this refugee librarian’s world and that its importance conveys a lot about her world, but it still isn’t important to me or, I daresay, at all.

En fait, all this is very New York, très, très New York – so New York that it’s let’s-not-even-bother-to-think-of-an-adjective New York.

Vous pensez que j’exagère?

It was really funny to see how his well-here-I-am-let’s-see-what-this-little-old-burg-and-its-natives-has-to-offer attitude was quickly caught by the natives and just as quickly resented by the natives. (p. 89)

Pfui!

Book Review: Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark is pure delight. It depicts a week in the life of a provincial Hungarian town at the fin de siècle, when the unassuming protagonists, a Father and Mother in their late fifties, are deprived of the company of their homely daughter, Skylark, who goes to visit relatives. The town’s aristocratic bourgeoisie supplies the supporting cast and completes the book’s charm.

In a smart introduction, contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy quotes Kosztolányi’s diary:

I have always really been interested in just one thing: death….For me, the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The result, quite logical if you think about it, is a “love of life” (Esterházy’s phrase) that permeates Skylark’s every page. No one dies in the course of the story. However, it brims with what the Japanese call aware, a sense of the impermanence of all things, felt most acutely when it emerges from a feeling of pleasure, sweetening it by cutting it short. In Skylark, the aware is on one occasion, an evening of cards at the club, made explicit:

One game spilled into another, with Ákos [the Father] shrewdly holding his own, uncovering every plot and scheme, averting every ambush. It was a long, long game.

But not for Ákos or the other players. What did they know of time, since falling captive to the magic of the cards? For all card players enjoy the intoxication of complete forgetting, and enter a separate universe whose every contours are defined by the cards….

Ákos gave them all a thorough thrashing. Only then did he glance at the clock ticking away on the wall before him. It was already after half past nine. He was suddenly seized by an inexplicable melancholy.

For a moment he hung his head, crestfallen after his unaccustomed frivolity. (p. 140)

A few pages later, Kosztolányi drives the point home:

Ákos suddenly picked up a tumbler full of schnapps they had set before him and downed it in one. The alcohol warmed its way through his body and lifted him to his feet. There was an enormous knocking in his old brain and he felt such delight that he really wouldn’t have minded in the least if there and then, in this moment of giddy ecstasy, when he felt his whole being, his whole life, was in his grasp, he were to fall down and die on the spot. (p. 147)

Et voilà: Life and death are yin and yang, ever-present in equal measure, at the taroc table, in a glass of schnapps, in everything.

Rounding out his study of cosmic paradox, Kosztolányi inserts exquisite portraiture of the oddity of human behavior, as in:

They met secretly in their lodgings, scoffing at everything, disparaging everyone, especially one another. An amber-tipped cigarette holder or a silver cigarette case could fill them with such unspeakable envy, and the good fortune of one of their number with such loathing, that they would immediately conspire against him and (remaining within the bounds of friendship, of course) contemplate causing him fatal injury, denouncing him in an anonymous letter or simply wringing his neck. (p. 19)

and:

In the end, he did what he always did in such situations: the opposite of what he’d originally intended. (p. 22)

Again, pure delight.

Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

Book Review: Abigail, by Magda Szabó

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by an exchange of cares from the petty to the existential. A certain reorientation of perspective occurs as well: The child lives inside her petty cares; the adult views her existential ones from a certain sensible distance.

In Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Georgina Vitay must make the transition all at once, at the command of her father, the General: “From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands.” (p. 121)

It is war, of course, that forces the General’s hand and compresses Gina’s adolescence into a moment. Instantly, her involvement in the world of schoolgirl pranks and grudges is ended, replaced by a series of life-or-death crises. She is now “the new Gina” (p. 126), and her transformation is noted frequently thereafter in such sentences as “They could not shake off the impression that she was playing with them…playing the way an adult does when joining in with the children.” (p. 134)

World War Two has become such a common setting for coming of age books and films that I wonder how anyone has been able to grow up since 1945. Maybe we haven’t. At any rate, Abigail is not only superlative in the subgenre but is a gem in its own right.