Posts featuring Balzac

My 2015

Let her short but full life be an example to us readers: make hay (and read books) while the sun shines!

When I think about the best books I read this year, I inevitably think about when and where I read them. Starting in late December of last year, I spent many nights hunched over my desk, reading The Plum in the Golden Vase, the late 16th century Chinese masterpiece about the lecherous, murderous, thoroughly corrupt local magnate Ximen Qing and his six equally infamous wives, alongside David Tod Roy’s now complete five-volume translation (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013). When I finished reading both, it had become a warm Boston spring. The giant Chinese novels of the late Ming and early Qing periods (from the 16th to the late 18th century) are long for a reason: when you spend months in the world of the novel, that world becomes a significant part of your own life, heightening the sensation of microcosm. In the case of The Plum in the Golden Vase, this immersion imperils the soul. The novel reads like a thousands-page long sneer—it depicts a world in which everyone and everything, great and small, is morally compromised, and it seems to delight in its own bleak view of the world. Consequently, it’s a novel that is easy to admire and hard to love. The translation, too, wears on the reader by the end. It is complete and readable, but the occasional awkward, overly literal interpretations that are tolerable in the first volume become irritating by the fifth. “Short-life,” for example, Roy’s literal translation of the late Ming curse duanming, loses its amusing novelty by the thousandth repetition. Yet Roy’s translation is a masterwork for other reasons. Each volume comes with about a hundred-odd pages of footnotes tracing the origin of each and every oblique reference and piece of quoted poetry and prose in the novel. Roy’s scholarly tenacity borders on obsession: in order to get the jargon of Ming-era dominoes just right, Roy consults no less than four extant domino manuals from the Ming and Qing. Working through a massive scholarly apparatus that took over twenty years to construct puts the scant four or five months it takes to read the translation in perspective. There’s careful reading, and then there’s careful reading. READ MORE…