Home » Arts & Life, history, Poetry, Translation

These Pictures are Themselves Little Souls

By (February 1, 2015) No Comment

Chinese Rhyme-ProseDoblinThreeLEapsofWangLun
Translated by Burton Watson

The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons
By Liu Hsieh
Translated by Vincent Yu-Chung Shih

The Three Leaps of Wang Lun
By Alfred Döblin
Translated by C. D. Godwin

The new “Calligrams” imprint of the deservedly popular New York Review of Books paperback reprint line (produced in conjunction with the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press) devotes itself to “writings from and on China,” which is both succinct and staggering as mission summaries go. Chinese literature has one of the longest histories in the world; Chinese writers and poets and scholars were parsing fine points of rhetoric and prosody long before the Greeks had ever heard the song of Troy, and they were hotly debating critical fine points a millennium before the monks of Ireland wrote their first playful erotica with ice-cold fingers. The outflow has continued almost unabated for three thousand years, with major works spawning minor works and minor works spawning commentaries and the major commentaries spawning commentaries of their own. It’s an immense and frighteningly tangled bookish heritage.

Any new series dedicated to placing that heritage before a modern Western audience (and particularly the notoriously monoglot and incurious reading public of the United States) faces a task comparable to presenting the wealth of English literature by taking three pages at random from the magisterial Oxford Anthology of English Literature in the great two-volume edition edited by Frank Kermode, John Hollander, Harold Bloom, Martin Price, J. B. Trapp, and Lionel Trilling. You strive to celebrate a tradition, and you end up with:

From the stretching moors, from the misty hollows,
Grendel came creeping, accursed of God,
A murderous ravager minded to snare
Spoils of heroes in high-built hall.

Here lies a king, that ruled as he thought fit
The universal monarchy of wit;
Here lie two flamens, and both those, the best,
Apollo’s first, at last, the true God’s priest.

Thus ended my intrigue with the fair Louisa, which I flattered myself so much with, and from which I expected at least a winter’s safe copulation. It is indeed very hard. I cannot say, like young fellows who get themselves clapped in a bawdy-house, that I will take better care again. For I really did take care. However, since I am fairly trapped, let me make the best of it. I have not got it from imprudence. It is merely the chance of war.

fuEven groping, three sheets clutched in hand, there’s enough here both to catch and to daunt our curiosity. We can sense the dark foreboding in the first passage, but we have no idea who or what Grendel is (plenty of people, we hope, are accursed of God, but not many of them can throw seasoned warriors around like rag dolls) and no inkling of the fate that awaits him. We can smile at the foppish metrical mastery of the second even if we know nothing of Tom Carew, but we have no way of knowing he’s eulogizing a great poet, much less of figuring out just from the text what a “flamen” is. And we know immediately that we like the author of the third passage, but do we guess that he’s using “clapped” in the medical sense, much less that he’ll go on to be the great Johnson’s great biographer? In all such cases, we flail for context.

Still, all things must have their beginnings, and this beginning of the “Calligram” imprint is quite promising, in the curious, off-kilter way that has always characterized the NYRB reprint line, and the first thing any reader will notice is that the books themselves are a good deal prettier and sturdier than the normal run of NYRB Classics: the cover stock is heavier, and the covers themselves have been gorgeously designed by Leslie Miller. These are inviting volumes.

Their invitation is threefold, three volumes to kick off a series that deserves a long life and a wide readership, and if two of those volumes represent steep uphill challenges to that readership, one at least is more familiar, covered under that clever “and on” part of “from and on China”: the important German novelist Alfred Doblin’s 1915 fiction debut, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun (Die drei Sprunge des Wang-lun), here in the very muscular English-language translation by C. D. Godwin, who also provides an Introduction in which he’s brave enough to confess that the book is “by no means an easy or a comfortable read” but is very good about the book’s essences:

The uprising of the historical Wang Lun in 1774, an obscure episode that Doblin found in de Groot’s Sectarianism and Religious Persecution in China, provided only the germ for this story of a fictional Wang Lun, this working out of a problem of meekness against force, spiritual yearning against material existence, a mystical sense of the world against the realities of power. Today the truths which motivates the novel can still shake empires.

The book follows martial arts master Wang Lun in his philosophical and sometimes bumbling spiritual quest in 18th-century China under the reign of the Emperor Qianlong, against whose government he eventually leads a doomed rebellion, and Godwin handles with thoughtful ease the signature swoopings of Doblin’s prose from the external to the internal, as in the long passage where our hero attaches himself to a slightly disreputable sorcerer named Ma No and is sporadically renewed by the contact:

Thoughtfulness and resolve crept over Wang under the influence of his conversations with Ma No. He grew calmer. The walls and curtains that screened off something dark inside him fell away. He smoothed himself, mastered himself with the greatest stealth. The seesaw in him appeared only occasionally: in practical jokes that got on the others’ nerves, in hourlong spells of apathy with no cause; in transient spite, obstinacy. The older vagabonds knew that something holy lay behind the tricks he played, that it was no difference from rolling around in a fit.

The Three Leaps of Wang Lun brought Doblin widespread critical attention, although he’d have to wait a further fourteen years for his masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz to bring him both critical and popular attention; it’s the only book by which he’s known today. It’s extremely encouraging to see such a pretty new edition of The Three Leaps of Wang Lun; it’s an evocative brutally self-doubting book and a perfect reminder to serious English-language readers that Doblin wrote a small shelf full of such books (translations of all those books – and of Doblin’s large assortment of excellent nonfiction, including a slew of lively book reviews – would be most welcome, should this volume spark a wave of new interest among the literati).

Doblin knew precious little about China when he started his “big book”; he was mainly attracted by the idea of an entirely exotic non-Western non-modern society, and he researched as he went along. But he caught something very real of that peculiarly bookish tenor of Chinese literature that winds its echoes through much of the vast canon; he even imparts this bookish tenor to the worries of the emperor himself, who has no illusions about his comparative status:

Thus, sitting in my study, do I think of poetry. I, an insignificant mortal, sit in my study and five days earlier there lived the spirit of a reverential moment: two different things. I sacrifice to the spirit of Heaven as befits a rich man and strive to please the spirit of that venerable moment. A peasant, a beggar can’t do that; there are other spirits for them. The finest, softest paper must be used; inks of deepest red and black have been made ready for the brush. And now I write the characters. Their purpose is not to inform, although of course they also serve to inform; round pictures rife with connotations, resonating to the works of the sages, beautiful in themselves, beautiful in juxtaposition. These pictures are themselves little souls, and the paper partakes of them.

literarymindandthecarvingofdragonsFrom the oak-paneled Weimar conventionalities of The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, “Calligrams” takes its readers by the trembling hand and leaps straight off a cliff into the abyss, and surely both the intimidation and the allure of that abyss is perfectly epitomized in the Wen-hsin tiao-lung, The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons, a teeming critical compendium of ancient Chinese literature by the scholar and self-professed bookworm, Liu Hsieh, who lived from AD 465 to 522, only a century after St. Augustine and writing very much in the same omnium gatherum mind-frame as the latter’s City of God, equally striving to encompass not just a school or angle but all known earlier writings on his chosen subject. For St. Augustine, that subject was organized religion; for Liu Hsieh, it’s the entire breadth of literature – its rules and forms.

Indeed, his book begins with the bald assertion: “The Literary mind is that which strives after literary forms,” and as we’re quite rightly informed in this “Calligrams” volume’s unsigned Introduction (since the Internet Age is genetically inimical to unsigned anythings, I’m inclined to think this is the work of the book’s translator, the late Vincent Yu-Chung Shih), Liu Hsieh’s authorial voice speaks right at the heart of his subject: “He occupies himself almost exclusively with what is purely literary.”

Purely literary might sound accessible enough, but there are scarcely twenty paragraphs in this book – expertly translated and presented though it is – that will strike non-Sinologists as accessible enough; on every page, we’re back to mysterious old God-accursed Grendel. Our Casaubon of an author breaks his book into many subject headings like Ming-shih (poetical exegesis), Hsi I (war proclamations and their import), Lei Pei (stone inscriptions for the dead), and Cheng-wei (“Emendations of Apocrypha,” as this translation has it), and inside the separate compartments of these discussions, Liu Hsieh is at once authoritative and amiable, as when he’s discussing Chang-chu, the logistics of sentences and paragraphs:

Thus one may achieve literary beauty in form and organic unity in content, and the piece from beginning to end will be such a tightly knit composition that its different parts will be to each other like flower to calyx. For words, if they lost their appropriate companions, would be isolated without friends; and feelings and ideas, when set down out of order, would float around forever with no place to rest. Therefore, in constructing sentences, one must avoid reversing the proper order of words; and in forming paragraphs, one must pay attention to the order in which the ideas are treated. This is the principle in dealing with feelings and ideas, a common goal of wen and pi.

But readers unfamiliar with that wen and pi might find themselves flipping frantically from one page to another (disastrously, this volume has no glossary) trying to get back to the place where such terms were first identified, and there are plenty of such terms, from wu (“a term standing for the external or physical world”) to erh-mu (“ears and eyes, a synecdoche referring to sense perceptions”) to wu-tsang (“five viscera”) to ching-shen (“Spirit or imagination, the counterpart of the five viscera”). Even the most artistic mind (Ch’iao-hsin) may find itself reeling in short order, especially given the fact all of the Liu Hsieh’s illustrating examples are drawn from writers even less known to Western readers than he is himself. Putting The Literary Mind & The Carving of Dragons front and center in its first trio of offerings to the buying public was a defiantly foolhardy gesture on the part of “Calligrams” and its series editor Eliot Weinberger; it’s the most authentic and therefore the most welcome entrant in this trio, but even in the strongholds of Cambridge, Massachusetts, it will leave many well-intentioned ersatz multiculturalists scratching their heads.

ChineseRhyme-ProseFar more reassuring for those readers – and perhaps all other readers – to move to that more familiar territory of the mildly literarily pretentious, the slim volume of poetry: in this case, the brilliant, argument-starting book Chinese Rhyme-Poems, a collection of verse spanning nearly a thousand years, all done in the form known as fu, a complicated and extremely evocative amalgam of verse and prose, and all translated by the formidable teacher and linguist Burton Watson, here with a new and spirited Preface by Lucas Klein, in which we hear the master’s voice defending his sometimes idiosyncratic approach to his work: “The reader should perhaps be reminded that when he reads these early Chinese works in translation, he is at many points reading not an incontrovertible rendering of the meaning of the original, but only one of a variety of tentative interpretations.”

Watson’s own interpretations are uniformly stunning; it’s an absolute treasure to have this volume back in print. He tackles some of the most famous examples of the fu form, including arguably the most-anthologized single poem of the type, “The Owl” by Chia Yi (201-169 BC), and at every turn he makes simple, intelligent decisions on how best to bring across (the literal province of translation) the rich atmospherics of the originals, as in this section of “The Snow” by Hsieh Hui-lien (AD 397-433), in which Watson sees how the author is shaping his pacing and word-choices to simulate the swirls and eddies of a heavy snowfall in much the same way Catullus would use his pacing and word-choices to simulate the ardent breathings of his lovers. You can feel the sudden storm surround you:

Wreathing vapor to vapor, piling up mists,
Hiding the sun, engulfing its red rays,
Sleet is the first to come hissing down,
Followed by thicker and thicker flurries of snow;
See them darting, scattering, mingling, turning,
Blanketing, blinding, dense and dark,
Softly seething, bobbing, gliding,
Faster and faster falling now,
Endless wings that beat and flutter,
Swirling till they come to rest in drifts.
At first they light on roof tiles, crowning the ridgepole;
In the end they force the blinds apart, slither through cracks;
Where earlier they sidled nimbly over porch and verandah,
Now they whirl and tumble by curtain and mat.

This pretty new series has started with a canny trio: the familiar, the exotic, and the consolingly beautiful. The enormous expanse of literature “from and on” China guarantees a near-infinite succession of such combinations, a bounty that should – the point might be stressed – preclude the necessity of ever getting around to the interminable worker-bee novels of writers like Pearl Buck (and God save us all from a reprint of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil – “hardly once in a thousand years do we happen upon an understanding critic,” says Liu Hsieh, but even once in a thousand years is too often for some books). But Jin Ping Mei? The Water Margin? Perhaps a gorgeous new edition of Wu Ching-tzu’s towering novel The Scholars? Those would be Calligrams to anticipate with what one of Liu Hsieh’s favorite authors might call a “bird-fluttering heart.”

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.