One of the first NYRB Classics I heard of—in tandem with John Williams’ Stoner—was Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in a Fallen City. My bibliophilic enabler Aunt Anne sent me this book late last year, and it’s taken me this long to settle down and read it. And, you know, it was awesome.
For purposes of brevity [sorely lacking in my corner of the internet], this post is going to focus on the title novella. Which is, well, one of the best nerve-wracking, most quietly and dignifiedly tense love stories I’ve ever read. It mixes cultural mores of the time [turn of the century] with a classics cat-and-mouse trope. Everyone is at once impeccably mature and flawed.
Liusu is divorced, and family—who tends to highlight her uselessness, given her status—presses her to make herself useful once more. Through marriage, naturally. Enter Fan Liuyuan, rich and educated in Britain, scaring off all the young brides eager to catch him. It’s like [what I hear] Jane Austen [is all about], but certainly more compelling, with a more volatile relationship.
She could hardly believe it, but he rarely so much as touched her hand. She was continually on edge, fearing he would suddenly drop the pretense and launch a surprise attack. But day after day he remained a gentleman; it was like facing a great enemy who stood perfectly still.
How these two interact with each other, all the games, all the strategic teasing and withdrawal of affection, the little props and hints they throw each other, it all rings true, and with such an intense feeling.
One backdrop of their relationship: The woman’s place—“Basically, a woman who was tricked by a man deserved to die, while a woman who tricked a man was a whore. If a woman tried to trick a man but failed and then was tricked by him, that was whoredom twice over. Kill her and you’d only dirty the knife.” Okay. [In another novella, this tidbit: “In China, as elsewhere, the constraints imposed by the traditional moral code were originally constructed for the benefit of women: they made beautiful women even harder to obtain, so their value rose, and ugly women were spared the prospect of never-ending humiliation.” Just amazing, no?]
It’s status, yes, it’s the political climate of the time. But, you know, at the heart of the falling city is this solid love story that has the individuals involved the main source of conflict. Hell, one of the most poignant scenes in the novella, for me: when Fan Liuyuan, after a day of hide-and-seek, calls Liusu from his room, which shares a wall with hers. She picks up the phone and lays the receiver on the bedspread. In the stillness of the room, that most quiet of nights, his voice is so clear:
“Liusu, from your window, can you see the moon?”
She didn’t know why, but suddenly she was sobbing. The moon shone bright and blurry through her tears, silver, with a slightly greenish tint. “In my window,” said Liyuan, “there is a flowering vine that blocks half the view. Maybe it’s a rose. Or maybe not.”
And for a long time, neither talks. That charged scene, that scuttling courtship, an olive branch extended—as close as the two of them could admit that they felt for each other. Oh, I swooned. I pressed the book against my face, squealed, read the passage again, and swooned once more.
Also, in SashaLand, it’s not a love story if no one relents. Ladies and gentlemen, the relenting, in form of one of the best kisses I’ve ever read:
This was the first time he had kissed her, but it didn’t feel like the first time to either of them—they had both imagined it so many times. They’d had many opportunities—the right place, the right moment—he’d thought of it; she had worried it might happen. But they were both such clever people, always planning carefully, that they’d never dared to risk it. Suddenly it was reality, and they were both dazed. Liusu’s head was spinning. She fell back against the mirror, her back tightly pressed to its icy surface. His mouth did not leave hers. He pushed her into the mirror and they seemed to fall into it, into another shadowy world—freezing cold, searing hot, flame of the forest flowers burning all over them.
Thank you, and good night.
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Something personal. I want to scrawl this on creamy paper and hand it over to you. Because, you know, once again I’ve found in literature more of the words that come only as instinct to me at each end of our days together.
Here in this uncertain world, money, property, the permanent things—they’re all unreliable. The only thing she could rely on was the breath in her lungs, and this person who lay sleeping beside her. Suddenly, she crawled over to him, hugging him through his quilt. He reached out from the bedding and grasped her hand. They looked and saw each other, saw each other entirely. It was a mere moment of deep understanding, but it was enough to keep them happy together for a decade or so.