TLS Reviews: Stranded and The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
October 21 10
I have two reviews in the current issue of the TLS. One is of a new edition of En Rade by Huysmans. The title has variously been translated in the past as Becalmed or A Haven; this time it is (I think more appropriately) rendered, in Brendan King’s very accurate translation, as Stranded.
Perhaps more than other young men I knew who went to study painting in Paris, I became for a while obsessed with J.-K. Huysmans’s À Rebours. One of the reasons this was a solitary pursuit was perhaps that when I began art college in the late 1980s, Symbolism was a very dirty word. The obverse of its appealing dark side, the one found, for example, in Redon’s "Noirs", was a terrible tendency to the saccharine, to a world of advertising-sexy sphinxes and women who floated about meaningfully in their nightgowns: it was neo-Classical, but seemed to lack the classics’ vigour, their heft and decisiveness. Gustave Moreau, one of Symbolism’s greatest painters, was perhaps also one of the most revered teachers of his age – yet hardly any of his students (who included Matisse and Rouault) assumed something of his style.
If À Rebours is in many ways the perfect work of its kind, En Rade must be the other side of the coin, a work which piles the symbols on so high and so deep they can hardly be sifted for meaning, and the result is a sense of aimlessness. I argue in my review that while one can try to find significance in Jacques’ long dream of travelling with his wife on the surface of the moon, the simple setting of the story in a castle that has been almost entirely recaptured by nature makes a far greater and more menacing statement about the perceived stability of society. I suggest, too, that a more interpretive translation might have been kinder to the reader, but to be fair, that’s only a guess.
I still have a special place in my heart for these works: one of my prize possessions is a first-edition copy (in a language I hardly read, printed in a Gothic script I can’t in any case make out) of Meyrink’s Der Golem. But like Der Golem and The Man Who Was Born Again (by Busson), En Rade is something of a novelty item, more interesting for its historical context than as a work of art.
The other review is of The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu, a novel which starts with an interesting premise (about bilingual aphasia, in this case of a Chinese man losing his ability to speak anything but half-remembered English) but which, like many books that can be said to have a premise, fails to find much to do with it. The book is above all marred by excessive and unnecessary editorialising. “Show, don’t tell” might be a hackneyed workshop formula, but The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai demonstrates that it became one for a reason.
Meanwhile, the plot is full of abortive story lines, the climax rather flat, and, worst of all for a book about language, the prose is over-wrought and dull: smoke always rises in tendrils, eyes are generally compared to water, people stop in their tracks, and so on. These clichés are laid on fairly thick, and while Xu manages to slip some very nice language in, as well, phrases that feel as if they have been found in experience and in nature rather than in the pages of a book, the real thing is hard to spot when it has to fight for attention with so much pre-manufactured writing.