Sunday, January 22, 2017

Racing to the End

The last of four Chinese novels on my reading list, 錢鐘書 Qián Zhōngshū's 圍城 Fortress Besieged, is its author's sole piece of long fiction, he having turned his hand to literary history and criticism after the cultural turmoil of China in the 1950s and beyond.  It is also at once the funniest and most tragic of the ones I read, too.

The novel's title shares its second character with another one of the novels I read—邊城 Border Town.  This generally does just mean "town," and the other character, 圍 wéi, generally means "to surround."  So why are the two titles translated so differently?  Because Qian's title is drawn from a Chinese rendering of a French proverb:
Le mariage est une forteresse assiégée, ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer, ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir.
Roughly translated, that reads, "Marriage is a fortress besieged, which those on the outside want to enter, and those on the inside want to leave."  And that should give you an idea of what the novel is about—but only a little.  Marriage is only one of the themes touched upon in Fortress Besieged, and though it is in the end the dominant one, the first three-quarters of the novel are bursting with other motifs contending for the spotlight.

方鴻漸 Fāng Hóngjiàn is a Chinese-born itinerant international student, spending time at a fair number of schools, but never dedicating himself at any of them.  The start of the novel, in pre-war 1937, finds him at last on his way back to China after his money has run out.  He can hardly return home empty-handed, but with his money mostly spent, he is somewhat at a loss for what to do, until by chance he finds an ad for a correspondence school willing to furnish the necessary credentials—if not the actual education—for a nominal fee.  As it happens, the school is no longer a going concern (even as a for-pay degree mill), the original advertiser having given up after failing to lure any suckers, but an American Irishman living in the same apartment sees an opportunity to make a fast buck.  After a comical exchange in which Fang gets the better of the Irishman in a battle of wits over whose intentions are more insincere, Fang gets his papers and boards a ship for Shanghai.

It is one of the few triumphs for Fang, who spends most of the novel on one end (usually the butt end) of Qian's jokes, whether it's to do with Fang's hunt for a stable university position (on the strength, or lack thereof, of his faked credentials), his talking up of various women on the voyage home or afterward, competitions with other Chinese travellers over whose colloquial English is stronger, or his escape to China's interior from the wartime turmoil in Shanghai.  Ultimately, his tenuous university position as lecturer is not renewed (partly on account of those credentials, partly because of Fang's naiveté), and after rushing into a faute-de-mieux sort of marriage with another lecturer, is forced to return to his hometown with his new bride.  The last chapter is a dazzling depiction of the marriage's dramatic denouement.

Qian's prose is a raucous, rollicking ride with Nabokovian twists and turns, tossing out quick throwaway gags in an offhand measure, as if to show (as Nabokov was wont to do as well) how much cleverer he is than his characters.  And yet it doesn't come off as excessive showboating; indeed, it sustains the novel through to its final conclusion, where he suddenly turns solemn, anguished, and revealing.

The sole translation, executed by Nathan Mao and Jeanne Kelly in 1979—well, that depends on how you like your translations.  This one is copiously researched and endnoted, much like Anthony Yu's translation of Journey to the West, but unlike Yu, Mao and Kelly must contend with a master modern stylist as well, and more often than not, they're simply not up to the task.  There's rarely anything actually wrong with the translation, but Qian's supple prose is alternately rendered sensitively one moment, then woodenly the next.  In my opinion, the uneven tenor of the translation doesn't allow the brilliance of the original to shine through entirely unobscured.  (It's also the only one of the four whose translation is not available in digital format, though that didn't really affect my consideration of it.)

Still, the translation, and its annotations, permit one a rather detailed understanding of the cultural background to Qian's novel, and that's a not inconsiderable benefit, especially for those readers who, like me, didn't grow up in China.  Some people find the incessant endnoting irritating, but not me.  And the translation is essentially always at least competent, giving us a tantalizing hint of the author Qian might have been, if the cultural environment in China had allowed it.

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