Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories by Eileen Chang

Claire at Kiss a Cloud recently called Eileen Chang’s stories “anti-love” stories, and I think that is an apt description. Eileen Chang, who wrote in the 1940s, captured relationships in her stories, and her perspective is unfailing bitter. These stories do not, for the most part, have happy endings, even when the man and the woman do get together. I loved the insights into Chinese culture, but that said, my favorite story of the collection (“Sealed Off”) was one that was more universal in setting, emotion, and culture. In fact, I loved it and wish to add it to the “great short stories” hall of fame.

I read the copy of Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang, published by NYRB; there are a total of four novellas1 and two stories.

I’ll start with the story that I loved. In “Sealed Off,” a lonely but capable Wu Cuiyuan sits on a bus, utterly bored with life and wishing someone would notice her. Lu Zongzhen, self-important accountant also sits on the bus, criticizing those around him. For unnamed political reasons, the bus is stopped and unable to continue on its route. Lu Zongzhen wants to avoid talking to an acquaintance, so he begins talking to Wu Cuiyuan during the bus stoppage.

“Sealed Off” is a great story for many of the same reasons that I found “The Student,” by Anton Chekhov a great short story almost two years ago. If Chang’s story has any failings it is that it is not quite succinct enough in capturing the two characters. (I wanted it to focus on Cuiyuan a bit more than on the unpleasant man, but I realize it it is unfair of me to want it to be different.) But that said, it captures the moments on the bus so completely and so realistically that at moments I almost doubted that it is fiction. I also loved how it captured the two characters – both Cuiyuan and Zhogzhen – during their conversation. Chang switched back and forth between their thoughts, and in some respects, that made it a more complicated story than Chekhov’s. (Chekhov’s story was three pages; this was fourteen.) Finally, I loved the emotional progress of the story; I thought it was masterfully done. I felt Cuiyuan was the main character in this, and I most liked her tragic emotional realization at the end. I also loved the parallels of the bus being “sealed off” and the characters’ feelings being sealed up. In short, “Sealed Off” pulled me in and got me emotionally involved in the story.

“Love in a Fallen City” was probably my next favorite, although, as a novella, I struggle to place it. I think I struggle with novellas a little. Novellas are a little too short to really sink into, but as stories they are too complicated: they have too much back story, too many characters, and so forth. Nevertheless, I felt I learned a bit about Chinese history and culture, so that made it interesting to me. Sixth Sister, Bai Luisu, has finally been widowed: her abusive husband that she left seven years previous has died. When she meets Fan Luiyuan, a prospective husband for a younger sister, it becomes clear that he and she have struck up a friendship. As she meets with him in Hong Kong, her own position and what she had considered their mutual love is called in to question. She has been used. There are some satisfying twists, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history in Hong Kong. In the end, this story, as with “Sealed Off” was one about dissatisfaction: love only leads to disappointment. Even when you “win,” you lose.

Such was the feeling from the other stories in the volume. “Aloeswood Incense” (a novella) was about a young girl joining her aunt in society, only to be used. “Red Rose, White Rose” (a novella) was about a man’s relationships with his girlfriends, wife, and mistress. “Jasimine Tea” (a story) was about an unsuccessful man’s relationship with the only friend who is nice to him. Each story captures a sense of the overwhelming hopelessness of finding joy in life through relationships.

But that, ironically, is not to say that reading Eileen Chang was depressing. Rather, I loved her straight-forward way of description. I enjoyed the magical way she introduced some of the stories:

First, pour yourself a cup of tea, but be careful – it’s hot! Blow on it gently. In the tea’s curling steam you can see . . . a Hong Kong public bus on a paved road, slowly driving down a hill. (page 79, “Jasmine Tea”)

Although Chang won’t be a favorite for me, I really enjoyed her storytelling style, and I’m glad for the time I got to spend in Hong Kong and Shanghai. This was therefore an appropriate book for inclusion for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Asia.

  1. I read three of them; I skipped the novella “The Golden Cangue” because after starting it about three times, I still could not get into it at all.

Comments

  1. says

    I am very intrigued by the idea of anti-love stories; after reading quite a few mushy love stories, I could use a dose of reality, er I mean pessimism(?) :) Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. says

    I’ve heard so many good things about this book and each time someone blogs about it I think, oh I have to read it and then forget. So thanks for the reminder. I will try very hard to not forget about it again!

  3. says

    I had never heard of Chang prior to Claire’s recent post about her, but after having read your thoughts I’m more intrigued than ever! From the excerpts people have posted, I think I would really like her prose style, and I can definitely get in the mood for some anti-love stories now and again (not that I am anti-love, but sometimes I like a taste of bitterness). :-) Thanks for the reminder!

  4. says

    Sealed Off is my favorite too! As with Red Rose, White Rose. I do think that the beginning of Golden Cangue isn’t very strong. I wish you had continued though because it gets really good further on.

    Her stories are anti-love yes, but I agree that they didn’t come across as depressing or bitter. Just great realistic portrayal of life in Hong Kong and China at the time, and Chinese culture history in general.

    • says

      Mee, I thought they did come across as depressing — but maybe that’s because I’m not familiar yet with Chinese history or the culture in general. I’ll have to read more Chinese books so I can get a better sense of it all.

  5. says

    One of my favorite activities after reading an NYRB book (especially one that really CONFOUNDS me) is to try and determine WHY that book was chosen for republication and to be saved from obscurity by this publishing house. I feel like a lot of their books are ones that I struggle through to read and finish, and then feel quite accomplished for doing so, but then I more enjoy trying to figure out why that book was “saved.”

    • says

      Aarti, well, this one was also published by Penguin classics, so I don’t imagine it will have disappeared into obscurity. But there definitely is a place for it, so I’m very glad to have found it, I think thanks to the Spotlight Series!

  6. says

    After reading Chang’s “Red Rose, White Rose” in Jeffrey Eugenides’ “My Mistress’ Sparrow is Dead”, I got this book (by the way I happen to love the cover), but alas, I still haven’t read it. I do want to read it soon!

    • says

      Eva, I wonder if I’d have loved it more if I’d read it at a different time? My summer reading has been kind of schizophrenic this year… I did like it, but not a favorite.

  7. says

    Rebecca, I’m sorry you weren’t able to get into The Golden Cangue. Mee is right, it does get better. It’s such a wry, smart novella that bites. But then I think all her stories were biting, sort of. Even if this didn’t become a favourite, I’m glad that you at least liked it.

    I agree with you that part of the strength of Sealed Off is the universality that it evokes. I thought it was a stunner, too. Love in a Fallen City, though, is my most favourite. Maybe for personal reasons, as it moved me more than any other piece in the collection. I think you were right in saying that this story will educate you more about Chinese culture and history than most of the other stories (except for Golden Cangue, which was equally educational).

    Having read your thoughts, I’ve come to understand that it can be quite difficult to understand the work of an author whose background is quite unfamiliar with the reader. I used to take for granted that Chinese and Japanese books were universally appealing but now realize that they are appealing to me because I connect with many of the experiences, much the same as you maybe connecting more with American and European than Asian books. Book blogging has opened my eyes to this..

    • says

      claire, I think part of the reason I couldn’t get into Golden Cangue is this summer: I just have a very short reading attention span!

      I think your comments on unfamiliar backgrounds is quite accurate — Japanese and Chinese literature feels somewhat foreign to me when I read it! Which is why I think it’s always good to read a little out of my comfort zone, so I can learn a little bit more bout these cultures!