Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, August 24, 2009

Two Very Different Ladies That Love Balzac-

I recently read two very different novels worlds apart in their setting, style, and characters but with a common theme.
They both center around women who love the novels of Balzac, whose lives have been radically affected by a reading of his works. One is an English Academic and the other is a Chinese seamstress in the time of Mao's re-edification programs in rural areas of China.

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner(1982-176 pages)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Dai Sijie (2000, 172 pages, trans. from French by Ina Rilke)

Dr Ruth Weiss, the central character in A Start in Life and the little seamstress (that is how she is always designated)
in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress are as different as two women from the same planet can be.

Dr Weiss is a literary academic who lives a very beige colored life. Her only striking feature is
her beautiful red hair. She lives in cramped quarters and is alone a lot. She is very careful and cautious.
Her real life does not begin until she is between the pages of a book or in a library or bookstore. She has published a book called Women in Balzac's Novels and has a second volume in the works. She basically gets paid to read what she wants to read, write about it and talk about it. Before we say, wow this sounds great, we must linger over
the opening sentence of the book: "Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature". I will admit the book had me at that point. I wanted to know why and I wondered if mine was also somehow and I can already see my middle daughter, 13, retreating into a world of books one day.

The little seamstress works for her father, a traveling tailor, in rural China during the period of Mao's re-edification programs. She is young, full of life, pretty and has many suitors. All she has ever read in her life are works approved by people's committees and the sayings of Chairmen Mao. Two late teenage cousins of affluent families have been sent from the city to do very hard work among the peasants in order to re-edify them. Both of the cousins become infatuated with the seamstress and one of them begins an affair with her. The cousins come into to possession
of a magic suitcase full of 19th century novels, Gogol, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville. The biggest treasure in the suitcase is a number of Balzac novels. (All the novels have been translated into Chinese.) The cousins at once set about reading and rereading these works. They are most taken with Balzac, maybe because they have more of his works but we are never told why they like him so much but maybe we can figure it out. One of the cousins decides to read Balzac to the little seamstress. She falls in love with his stories and they shape her life in ways no one can predict in advance. A lot of exciting things happen in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. We get a good feel for life in rural China. We feel like what it is like to go from the life of a son of the most famous dentist in China to hauling manure in the country side as part of a re-edification program from which you have little change of graduation. Unless you are a saint you will really enjoy the revenge enacted on a village headman. Their attempt to make the little seamstress a more refined girl friend back fires on them in a big way. There is a lot to be learned and thought about in this book. We take for granted our ability to read what we want. It made me think again how great the 19th century masters are, to see that they are not just books you have to read in school or because someone says they are good for you. There are also a number of exciting scenes in the book. You always want to know what will happen next. You really feel like you are in rural China.

Dr Ruth Weiss, the central character of A Start in Life, has no suitors at her door, has never done any physical work in her life and for sure has never had an outdoor romantic encounter. She does have beautiful red hair and we are somehow thankful for that. Her life and her appearance is all shades of beige with maybe a tan suede jacket for the cold.
She fits right into the world of libraries and lecture halls. The book is written with great stylistic economy. Sometimes it seems Dr Weiss is a minor character in a 19th century novel. Dr Weiss has her loves and tragedies but she always has Balzac to retreat into. My guess is that as Dr Weiss ages she won't make any big changes in her life but she will always have her Balzac and her increasing refinement will increase her loneliness. As the little seamstress ages she will do things we can never imagine and she cannot either. I do not think she will do a lot more reading in her life, she will be busy and she has already done the reading that will set the course of her life. "She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."

I endorse Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress without reservation. It is a fun easy to read book and the production value of the paperback edition are high.

A Start in Life is an book of exquisite economy. It is what one might call academic fiction.

Dai Sijie has two other books translated into English. He was himself in a re-edification program and resides in France.
Both of his other books deal with reading life issues and I hope to read them by year end 2010.

Anita Brookner has written twenty four novels, one a year since she started writing twenty four years ago at age fifty.
It seems most are about somewhat lonely reflective a bit bookish people. I will read more of them also.

Maybe I need to read some more Balzac also!

Mel u
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Table Talk said...

I haven't read either of these and have a very mixed history with Balzac. I think the latter was down to bad translations as much as anything. In fact I've had problems with translations from the French all round, so if you have any good translators whose work you can recommend, I'd be very grateful. Brookner became too much for me when I tried to read her work in any quantity. I loved 'Hotel du Lac' but then found that she seemed to be recycling the same characters and situations. Perhaps the time has come to go back and see if I can change my opinion.

Paperback Reader said...

What a fabulous review!

I have read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and loved it.

Amateur Reader said...

"She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."

With all the Balzac I have read, I missed that lesson! Very little in Balzac's highly monetized world is beyond price.

Table Talk, Balzac was, often, a clumsy writer, so it may not have been the translation. Still, the Kathleen Raine versions of Lost Illusions and Cousin Bette probably can't be improved much. And the Penguin Eugénie Grandet is anything but clumsy, flawless Balzac.

Verbivore said...

I really enjoyed The Little Chinese Seamstress when I read it a few years ago, and now will have to check out the Brookner novel.

Mel u said...

Balzac wrote very fast and had a team of helpers to work on some of his works with him which may account for the uneven quality of his work. Maybe the little seamstress has learned a lesson the beyond Balzac through him-

Amateur Reader-thank you for helping us with translation suggestions

Table Talk-not sure how many Brookner's in a row I could deal with!

Paperback Reader-have you read any of the author's other works yet?-thanks for your kind remarks

Mel u said...

Verbivore-I am 30 pages into The Keep Sake by Kristy Gunn-I really like it-thanks for the recommendation-I will read her first book Rain soon.

Paperback Reader said...

Mel, I haven't read any more Dai Sijie but would like to. I'll keep an eye out for your reviews in case you manage to read them first.

Rebecca H. said...

Ooh, did my comment go through? I'm not entirely sure. I just wanted to say you make the Brookner novel sound particularly good -- I think I'd really enjoy it!

Suko said...

It's difficult for me to read your review of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress without wanting to add it to my TBR stack, which has now become an insurmountable mountain!

Jessica said...

I have an award for you here:

I hope you don't mind. :)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have not read either of these, but I did enjoy Brookner's latest book: Strangers.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I really enjoyed Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I've read a few Anita Brookner novels and will look out for this one - it sounds interesting!

Mel u said...

Paperback Reader-I just signed up for the Chinese Challenge and will read two more of Dai Sijie's works for it

Dorothy-This was my first Brookner novel-I really enjoyed it a lot and will read others-I think there are 22 more!

Suko-yes my TBR is growing also...

Jessica-thank you very much

Dianne-I will read Strangers when it comes out in paperback

Crafty Green Poet-have you read other works by
Dai Sijie? What would you suggest I read as my second Brookner novel-am looking for another work about a book centered central character like Dr Weiss.