What better pedigree for a book than being a Penguin Modern Classic and the source for a new film by the reliable Ang Lee? I had never heard of Eileen Chang before, but either of those factors alone would have been enough to interest me in it. The zinger is that it’s also only 150 pages and sets a new high in movie tie-in covers. Come to daddy.
Lust, Caution is a collection of five stories, most published in the 1940s when Chang was in her 20s. The title story however was begun in the 1950s and not published until 1979; so what’s another thirty years to wait for this translation? It’s a remarkable tale, a masterpiece of compression, fitting so much into its 35 pages – with even an acceleration of action at the end – that it makes perfect sense for it to become a full-length feature film. It is a story of romance, politics and betrayal, introducing us to Jiazhi (“since the age of twelve or thirteen, she had been no stranger to the admiring male gaze”) who as a member of a revolutionary sect, has been tasked to seduce Mr Yi, a government employee, and lead him to his death.
She felt a kind of chilling premonition of failure, like a long snag in a silk stocking, silently creeping up her body. … She had, in a past life, been an actress; and here she was, still playing a part, but in a drama too secret to make her famous. … In truth, every time she was with Yi, she felt cleansed, as if by a scalding hot bath; for now everything she did was for the cause.
What gives the story its richness is the compact way Chang has of fitting in the characters’ background sometimes in just one sentence, leaving plenty of space for resonance and reader reflection. Mr Yi’s wife, for example, “had a dowager’s fondness for keeping young, pretty women clustered around her – like a galaxy of stars reflecting glory onto the moon around which they circulated.”
And this reminder that people are the same the world over is useful. As the title suggests, Lust, Caution, like the other stories in the collection, is about conflict between differences: temptation and loyalty, women and men, East and West. This is particularly well depicted in the story Great Felicity, about an approaching family wedding. On the one hand, some feel drawn to the ‘superiority’ of Western culture (“He put on his slippers and lay on the couch to rest while he flipped through an old Esquire magazine. The Americans really knew how to advertise their products. … Xiaobo had a degree from America, he was a real scholar”). At the same time, all the usual family conflicts and jealousies remind us of the universality of human nature. In addition, Chang, who lived in the USA from the 1950s until her death, cleverly anticipates Western readers’ expectations when she seems to give us details of authenticity:
In the grand hall, there were great red pillars entwined with green dragons. The walls were of black glass and a black glass altar held a little gold Buddha.
– before subverting it, as we nod comfortably, by adding: “This was the Orient as a little old foreign lady might imagine it.” Ouch.
Chang is especially good at capturing the essence of failure or a disappointed life, taking society not as it should be but as it is (or was), whether pointing out that a character “was still unmarried, and she was beginning to lose her self-confidence. Her little round soul had shattered, and had been repaired with white china,” or another young girl who “had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”
This last is from In the Waiting Room, a merciless but somehow tender portrayal of the gossipy women in the waiting room of a massage clinic (which incidentally provides the only doubtful translation in the whole collection: could a child really have been wearing “split-crotch pants in a tiny floral pattern”? Each story, unusually, has a different translator). Like the other stories, it seems much more modern to our Western eyes than we would expect.
The best tribute I can pay the stories in Lust, Caution is that although Chang’s style took some getting used to, I found myself wanting more and more as there were fewer and fewer left. Thank goodness then that I already have stocked up her collection of novellas, Love in a Fallen City, which is being issued in Penguin Modern Classics along with this volume. Not least, these stories will provide a welcome dose of exoticism as the winter draws in. And who couldn’t use a little of that?