I wish I had a better visual frame of reference when it comes to China, particularly WWII-era China. I have a vague idea in mind, but I have no background when it comes to film or even Chinese literature really. Reading books like Little Reunions by Eileen Chang (Xiao tuan yuan translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhan Pan and Martin Merz) always makes me feel not only ambitious but a little proud when I have tackled them, even if I've not fully grasped what Chang was doing. I can tell I am in the presence of a literary master but feel only on the periphery of appreciating and understanding her writing.
Little Reunions is not exactly a hard read, but it is a dense and challenging one thanks to its structure. For me it required perseverance and disciplined daily reading to get through it. It's such a lush, rich read, but I don't think my own mental visual library was sufficient to match it. So very much happened, yet I am not sure I can explain it except in wide overarching swathes. I can generally explain but I think the beauty is in the small details and descriptions. The story is told in these, what for me seems, flashes of memory. She moves from place to place and scene to scene, and while the switches are almost seamless, you almost don't realize time has passed or where she is in her storytelling. There is not really a proper beginning, middle and end as you expect in novels, and the cast of characters is huge. Like a Russian novel the names or honorifics vary, making that eight-page character list very helpful in orienting yourself. One character might be referred to just once or twice and another many times but by more than one name.
A little background--From what I have read Little Reunions is Chang's most autobiographical novel. She was born in Shanghai to an aristocratic family. Her mother was educated abroad and preferred to live there rather than China. Her father, on the other hand, was an opium addict with conservative views that clashed with Eileen. Her literary career began early and she enjoyed great success until the mid-1950s when she fell out of favor with the government. At that point she emigrated to California where she worked as a researcher in Berkeley and continued to write. Little Reunions was written in 1976 and published in China in 2009, but this is the first English translation. Apparently her executors were given a 600-page handwritten manuscript, but I am not sure how much editing was involved to create the final work.
The translator's note mentions the English title of the novel is meant to reflect "Chang's musings on her life". The story centers around Julie, who at the start is a schoolgirl in Hong Kong just before war breaks out. Born in Shanghai, her mother and father have separated. Her mother seems to be out of her life more than in it, and it's obvious that their relationship is fraught with tension. Her father is an opium addict living with his concubine. Julie has been instructed to call them Second Uncle and Second Aunt (Rachel). She has one brother, Julian, who makes numerous appearances yet it feels he is off stage most of the time. The narrative is 'stories' (I'm not sure what to call them since the narrative flows even if the scenes are constantly moving around in time) of her life and of her family and relationships with two men, but in particular her first husband Chih-Yung. She is so often separated from her mother and husband and family, hence the "little reunions" when their lives reconnect again and again.
I have some very vivid images in my mind from this book, and some very visceral responses to her relationships (Chih-Yung mostly had other wives and lovers scattered all over China, and Julie's mother could verge on cruel), yet at the same time this is a story that is also very elusive. It follows Julie over the course of years as she lives in Hong Kong and returns to Shanghai during the war. She goes to school and embarks on a writing career with one of her books even being adapted to a movie. There is a very deep connection with her family and her ancestors. And there is her trials with lovers. The descriptions are amazing, but I feel my attention was focused too much on trying to make sense of the narrative--seeing the trees for the forest sort of situation. Read once for story and then again for the parts that make it up?
It is not, perhaps, the best place to start with her work, but it is certainly very compelling at the same time. I'm going to pick up her short story collection, Love in a Fallen City, next. In a review I read, her writing was compared to that of Eve Babitz Anais Nin and Eileen Myles (I have the first two writers' books on my TBR piles and now will look at Myles as well)--"Chang draws the reader into her inner realm with direct, yet lyrical, prose that allow events, scenery, and characters to mod the story." (Los Angeles Review of Books). That same review mentions a collection of essays by Chang, Written on the Water, that the reviewer calls "something of a blueprint for Little Reunions", so it seems a natural next step (along with the short stories) for me to get into and understand Chang's life and work. The book was a tease into her world, and now I want to know more. Maybe after I am more familiar with her, it will be time to revisit Little Reunions and I will have a firmer mental idea and better visuals for really seeing into her writing. As expected NYRB has started off the year with a very provocative and amazing work.