Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City was one of my favourite books of last year and a new author discovery for me. Chang doesn’t have a huge body of work, but recent English translations like Half a Lifelong Romance (translated in 2016) and this one, Little Reunions (translated in 2018), seem to have revived interest her work and there’s a fair amount of buzz – among those who get buzzed about translated lit, anyway!
Love in a Fallen City reminded me of French writers like Marguerite Duras and Françoise Sagan – simultaneously capturing a very specific moment in time, but also writing in a style that’s timeless, romantic, passionate. Coming of age stories become epic, while war and social upheaval becomes background noise.
Little Reunions follows another French tradition, that of “autofiction”, a term that gets tossed around a lot these days but originated in 1970s French novels. Main character Julie Sheng’s life follows Eileen Chang’s life very closely, not just in the broad strokes – a difficult mother-daughter relationship, surviving the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong as a University student, returning to China to begin a literary career, becoming involved with a older, married man involved in some questionable politics – but in very specific details about her family, friends, locations, and incidents. Sadly, the NYRB edition of this book contains no introduction, but the one-page biography of Chang serves as an outline of the novel.
If you’re a purist, autofiction is supposed to be fiction based on the author’s real life, told in a close first-person perspective, using real names. Little Reunions is more in the style of Rachel Cusk’s Outline series of books in that we’re at a bit of a remove and names are changed throughout. It also reminds me of Outline because there’s a lot of dialog, but not a lot of interpretation. Julie’s early relationship with Chih-yung:
“I’m always wild with joy,” she said, “while you seem mournful.”
He smiled. “I’m like a child who has cried a long time for an apple, but continues to sob after he’s received it.”
She knew he was saying that he always wanted to meet someone like her.
“You look like a Six Dynasties Buddhist statue,” she once said to Chih-yung.
“Yes, I love those Buddhist statues with their willowy, thin waists, I don’t know when it began, all those big-bellied Buddhas.”
So I guess there is some interpretation there, but it doesn’t make the passage much clearer to me. I’m not sure if the translation or the distance (time wise, culture wise) made it so difficult for me to understand, but I found Little Reunions extremely opaque, and not in a good way. The character list and biography help, a bit, but people are always “chuckling” about things that aren’t funny, or “seething” about innocuous things. It’s not quite on the same level as Love in the New Millennium, but close, without all the supernatural stuff. It’s got the same tone of a diary or reportage without context.
Despite the trouble I had with this book, I’m not put off and intend to keep reading Chang. For one thing, the book was redeemed by the frame story, an older “Julie” who occasionally breaks through to comment on something that happened many years later. Or you could say that most of the book is an elaborate flashback. Either way, that older Julie was a magical presence:
On the night of her thirtieth birthday, Julie contemplated the moonlit balcony from her bed. The concrete balusters, like overturned stellae, lying in ruins, were bathed in blue moonlight. Moonlight of the late T’ang dynasty of a thousand years ago. But for Julie, thirty years already felt too long, weighing heavily on her heart like a tombstone.
There is one good thing about being older, Julie often thought – no more exams. And yet she never stopped dreaming about exams. Nightmares, always nightmares.
It’s also not clear that Chang ever wanted this work to be published. It didn’t appear in Chinese till nearly 15 years after her death, and at one point Chang wanted to destroy the manuscript. I have to consider this apart from the works she published deliberately.
So, I don’t recommend you start here with Chang, unless you’re confident in your cultural and historical knowledge of the place and period, or patient enough to get through a book that doesn’t seem to want to let you in. I will press on, and probably read Half a Lifelong Romance next (sorry, NYRB, but these Penguin Modern Classic editions are gorgeous.)