Tag Archives: novels

Where a woman is both beautiful and wise.

I am re-posting this book review because even I who wrote it am fascinated all over again when I consider the character and the story. I’m sure many of my readers have not read all the book reports I’ve made, and some of you who read this review the first time might not have been interested back then. I might need a reread of Peony myself.

I am so blessed to have met the appealing character of Peony in Pearl S. Buck’s novel about Jews in China. It seems that as early as the 8th century Jewish traders settled in China and their tribe increased through the centuries. Buck thoroughly researched their history and includes many authentic details in this story that tells about their community in the city of K’aifeng in the northern province of Honan. She gives a short intro and timeline of the Jewish presence in China in a preface, and my Kindle edition includes an afterword by Wendy R. Abraham with a thorough history up to about 1990.

The events take place in the middle of the 19th century. At this time the last rabbi died and the Jews were in the final stages of being assimilated into the Chinese culture. One big reason can be summed up in this question that several of the characters ask themselves: “…here [in China], where all are friends to us and receive us eagerly into their blood, what is the reward for remaining apart?”

The story is told from the point of view of the Chinese bondmaid Peony, who belongs to a Jewish household and for her own survival uses all her resources to promote this abandonment of her owners’ practice of their Jewish lifestyle. She and the Young Master of the household grew up as playmates and good friends, and now that they have come of age she works to turn his heart away from the faith that has been passed down from his parents. That may sound bad, but she is honestly playing her part in this drama in which each one tries to follow the most prudent path he can, while at the same time honoring his elders. From the distance of time or in a novel we can see a broad view, but when you are thrust into a role with no script, you can only do your best.

The substance of the Jewish faith portrayed in the novel is somewhat vague. Other than the goals of “remaining separate” and remembering their history, any tenets of faith mentioned were ideas the Chinese neighbors could and did easily agree with. An example of this is in a synagogue mentioned in the story, on whose stones are written “‘The Temple of Purity and Truth,’ and beneath the words are carved the history of the Jews and their Way, and it is there said, ‘The Way has no form or figure, but is made in the image of the Way of Heaven, which is above.'”

The name of the temple is factual, and if the confusing statement about The Way comes from Pearl Buck’s imagination, it is probably based on the truth of what it is like to try to live out a faith tradition that is more history than reality. This experience — or rather, lack of it — is certainly not foreign to many moderns.

I don’t know when I last read such a wonderful work of fiction. It was a page-turner because I could not at all imagine how the plot would flow. The setting in China was the primary strange aspect for me; I don’t think I’ve read any of Buck’s other works set in that country and I’ve been fairly incurious about Asia generally. But recent exposure to the writings of Lin Yutang has made the history and culture of China seem much more accessible and intriguing, and prepared me to enter into this tale.

Peony is a young Chinese girl whose depiction I fully trust, because Pearl S. Buck grew up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and was immersed in that world. She returned as an adult and wrote many books about China and its people, including the most famous one, The Good Earth. Lin Yutang himself was a friend of hers and they seem to have encouraged each other in their writing.

Peony was sold by her mother to the family whom she serves; she has no one else but them in the world. So she sees that it is in her interest to be the very best servant she can be, and she truly loves not only the Young Master but his parents. About the Young Master she thinks, “His heart was centered in himself, and so must hers be centered in him.”

Her love for the family increases as the years go by, even as they come to depend on her in countless ways. That’s o.k., because she always tries to make things work out for their health and welfare. Her own happiness must be found in the context of disappointment, and in relationship with people who take her for granted.

When she is still fairly young she asks the older servant a philosophical question:

Was life sad or happy? She did not mean her life or any one life, but life itself— was it sad or happy? If she but had the answer to that first question, Peony thought, then she would have her guide. If life could and should be happy, if to be alive itself was good, then why should she not try for everything that could be hers? But if, when all was won, life itself was sad, then she must content herself with what she had.

“You cannot be happy until you understand that life is sad,” Wang Ma declared. “See me, Little Sister! What dreams I made and how I hoped before I knew that life is sad! After I understood this truth I made no more dreams. I hoped no more. Now I am often happy, because some good things come to me. Expecting nothing, I am glad for anything.”

Getting to know Peony and watching how she matures over the years was pure pleasure. She has good sense and character even as a teenager, and as she responds to the sometimes cataclysmic changes in the household her competence and wisdom grow, often through struggling to overcome her own desires and heartache. Through her we get an idea of how the Jewish religious practices might have appeared to the Chinese, and she also epitomizes many of the best qualities of the Chinese and their outlook on life that I was only recently reading about in Lin Yutang’s books.

For me the Jewish characters in the story were also unpredictable, though they are well-drawn and believable. They are people of their particular time and place, most of them already a unique blend of the Chinese and Hebrew. The patriarch of the family is of mixed-blood, having had the “consolation” of “a rosy, warm little Chinese mother.” This image is contrasted with his own wife who is almost single-handedly trying to preserve their religious tradition, and who causes a Jewish friend to muse, “For a woman to love God too much was not well, he now told himself. She must not love God more than man, for then she made herself man’s conscience, and he was the pursued.”

This theme of women and their power is another element of the story that fascinated me, being myself a woman with power. Of the only son David we read,

His mother, Leah, Peony, Kueilan, these four women who had somehow between them shaped his life were shaping him still. He longed to be free of them all, and yet he knew that no man is ever free of the women who have made him what he is. He sighed and tossed and wished for the day when he could return to the shops and the men there who had nothing to do with his heart and his soul.

In the end it is Peony who has the best and sweetest sort of influence. Her conversation with the father when she is giving him a foot-rub:

Peony knew his thoughts. Nevertheless, she asked, “Why do you sigh, Master?” “Because I do not know what is right,” Ezra replied. She laughed softly at this. “You are always talking of right and wrong,” she said. Now she was pressing the soles of his feet. They were hard and broad, but supple. She went on in her cheerful way. “Yet what is right except that which makes happiness and what is wrong except that which makes sorrow?” “You speak so because you are not confused between Heaven and earth,” he said. “I know I belong to earth,” she said simply.

I’ve tried not to spoil the story by telling too much. One review I read ahead of time said something about the ending being sad, but I didn’t find it so. We find Peony considering her life and that of the people she has served, and wondering if she had been wrong to have a part in closing the book on the Jewish tradition in her city. In keeping with her outlook on life and religion, she concludes that it’s all o.k.:

Long she pondered, and as often happened to her in her great age, the answer came to her. She had not done wrong, for nothing was lost. “Nothing is lost,” she repeated. “[The Jew] lives again and again, among our people,” she mused. “Where there is a bolder brow, a brighter eye, there is one like him; where a voice sings most clearly, there is one; where a line is drawn most cleverly to make a picture clear, a carving strong, there is one; where a statesman stands most honorable, a judge most just, there is one; where a scholar is most learned, there is one; where a woman is both beautiful and wise, there is one. Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil.”

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I revisit my fellow pilgrim.

Kristin Nunnally wifeIt’s been ten years since I posted this review. Since then I have revisited the story itself, and it seemed good to publish again. It’s well worth sharing at least that often.

A big part of the plot is how Kristin’s husband, whom she chose in youthful rebellion, gets involved in an insurrection. That, and his recklessness on the moral level, combine to cause the loss of a heritage that had taken generations to build.

The first time I came to the end of Kristin Lavransdatter I resolved to read it again very soon. The friend of a friend reads the trilogy once a year, and certainly it could stand up to that degree of intimacy; Kristin’s world of Norway in the 14th Century is vast with well-developed characters, complicated politics, and a daily life where the pervasiveness of the church and Christian faith often shows cracks revealing the old pagan traditions as an under layer.

My own initial discovery, in the translation from Norwegian into English by Charles Archer, seemed to provide a mere introduction, partly because I was reading too fast, eager to see how the heroine’s life turned out. There were so many people involved, as I noticed midway, I started taking notes on how they were related to the protagonists, knowing that it would help me understand their significance. My plan was to take even more extensive notes from the outset on my next reading.

That was more than ten years ago, and by the time I got to my second reading this year I was willing to try the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, touted by pretty much everyone as a better one, in that it does not involve the unnecessary–and, to some people, stilted and cumbersome–older English words and syntax. I had rather appreciated the language, as a reminder that Kristin’s world was not much like my own, no matter how similar some of her womanly and just plain human concerns resembled those of people everywhere down through the ages.

This time, I was reading in bed, lying down before sleep, or at the gym on the treadmill, so my smart plan to take notes wasn’t feasible. I had to make my second tour through the novel as I’ve been admonished to travel through a foreign country, fully expecting and planning that it won’t be the last time I visit. They say that is the only way to make yourself relax enough to enjoy and retain what you do manage to see and encounter.

And I did see new and different things this time through. There are many books I truly want to read more than once, but not many novels have I actually gone back to again, so this kind of rereading was not a familiar exercise. As I came to remembered parts of the Kristin tale I was surprised to see that they didn’t take up as many pages as I thought they would need. Many sub-plots and attributes of Kristin’s family and friends were as good as new to me; evidently I missed them completely before.

As infused with a sacramental faith as the medieval world of these books is, I’m sure they influenced me on my path to Orthodoxy. Now that my own perceptions and beliefs are being forged into something more like the tradition that was Kristin’s foundation, I think I am better able to appreciate some parts of the story. The deathbed scenes were striking, for the way the Christian reverence for the body, and the repentant hearts of the Christians, were displayed. I’d like to write more on how they compare with descriptions of similar scenes in the Islamic culture of The Cairo Trilogy.

For a few pages near the end of this recent reading I found myself thinking that I was getting boreSigrid Undsetd with medieval Norway, or at least, that I didn’t want to spend time on a third reading when there are so many other books still to be known. That feeling didn’t last long, because by the time I came to the last pages I knew that I still have a lot to gain from acquaintance with the themes in this amazing epic by Sigrid Undset. It’s a glory to God that one human mind can create a complex and rich world like that of Kristin, peopled with characters whose drama reflects our own struggles to love God and repent of our besetting sins. Image Journal included the novel in its list of 100 best books of the 20th century that “manifest a genuine engagement with the Judeo-Christian heritage of faith.”

The Nunnally translation has extensive notes on the history and politics of that era in Norway, and some real historical characters come into play in the fictionalized account. Wikipedia’s entry on the novel lists many of the characters; I think I’ll print it out and use it for an outline on which to build my notes, those notes that I am still hoping to make on one of my revisits. I’m eager to return again and again to a place where my faith and thankfulness are encouraged as I make friends with fellow pilgrims.

They were melting under the influence.

“A thread of sweet sound was spun into the night.” Rose and Richard Quin attend a party at which he charms the hostess in many ways, not least by playing his flute in the summer-house.

“Above us the sweet hollow voice rose and fell, doubled back on itself and glided forward, ubiquitous, tracing a pattern among the stars and another within us, behind our breast-bones,” and Rose finds herself thinking about the boy standing next to her, that if he wished she would marry him, though she had planned up to this point never to marry. “There was no need for an exceptional destiny.”

“My brother’s music was proclaiming that there would be a huge vacuum in the universe, a hole that would swallow all, if we did not fill it with something that the notes defined with a clarity forbidden to words.”

But then she begins to listen to Richard Quin, “with the special knowledge that came of being his sister, and I was astonished by the simplicity of the strangers. They were melting under the influence of a tenderness which they believed to be in his performance, but was not there. They were inventing it because they needed it. The music promised sweetness which was for himself alone. He ached with a desire to be in another place than this, where he would find that sweetness. If he felt concern whether they found this same delight for themselves, it left no trace in the sounds he made. And he felt no such concern; from this and that, over the years, I knew he did not.

“There was this excuse for his indifference, he had already discharged whatever debt he owed to them. He could speak of what they desired and they could not. Without him they would have been voiceless. With him their need pierced the night like the reply to the ray of a star.

“Yet surely that was not quite right, surely one never discharges one’s full debt to other people. But again that cannot be true, if the payment one makes is large enough. I could not work it out.”

-Rebecca West, This Real Night

What makes Mrs. Quin happy.

gl-1-10-p1060501When Mrs. Quin was a wisp of a girl, the house called China Court was her favorite place to be, though she was only grudgingly allowed to cross the threshold, and that by the back stairs. She grows up and by strange twists and turns becomes the main character, an old lady who dies in her sleep in the first sentence of Rumer Godden’s novel China Court.

“Shouldn’ us pull the blinds down?” asked Mrs. Abel.

“She wouldn’t like it,” said Cecily. “She always says, ‘Don’t shut out the garden.'”

Soon begin flashes back to a younger  and younger Mrs. Quin at various stages of her life. We get to know her through the memories that play in the mind and heart of her in-laws and other people who held powerful positions in the family over the generations. Bits and pieces of stories of a score of relations, their suitors and servants are gradually revealed to the reader in a very realistic way. Haven’t we all had the experience of knowing someone personally for many years before we learn a surprising or even shocking fact about them?

In the case of this novel, we are taken back to the building of this granite house in the mid-19th century, and the first parents who birthed nine children there. Some of that first “Brood” marry unhappily, and some behave very badly, but by the end of the book you see them all, and the following generations peopled with similarly bumbling humans, with varying degrees of understanding. I think this is because of the example of Mrs. Quin, who has the ability to accept happiness when it comes to her, and to keep humble in the awareness of how little can be known, even of the ones we love and communicate with.

Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations….Mr. King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her….Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together, are always separated by Borowis. The children especially are secret….It is better not to ask questions…. “Even if they told you,” says Mrs. Quin, “you would never really know.”

This kindness and compassion for her characters is one way in which Rumer Godden reminds me of author Elizabeth Goudge. Also, as with Goudge, there is the feeling that things will work out in the end, that in kairos, or God’s time, He will gather all the loose ends and broken parts together and even we will see the sense of them. For me, reading China Court was a chance to see a century’s worth of this household’s loves and sorrows with a fraction of that heavenly perspective.

Mrs. Quin had many years’ experience with being treated cruelly, and not getting what she so much wanted. But she early on seemed to learn the wisdom of seeing that she was quite content at present, so why make a fuss about all this water under the bridge? One of the things that always gave our protagonist great satisfaction and rest for her soul was the garden, so I can relate to that major aspect of her character.

A fact of history that didn’t seem to be fair, Mrs. Quin discusses with her daughter-in-law:

“I think that’s sad,” says Barbara.

“Sad and glad,” says Mrs. Quin.

How can something be sad and glad at the same time? For most of the Quin women, it has been like that. “All unhappiness,” says Mrs. Quin, “as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness. But I was usually happy….”

I enjoyed the descriptions of the girls’ Victorian party dresses, and of the old furniture that Mrs. Quin never bothered to re-upholster, and of the teatime ritual: “Two teapots stood ready and warmed; the cups had to be warmed too for, ‘If the tea touches anything cold it loses the aroma.’ Mrs. Quin impresses Tracy with that. ‘Only vandals,’ says Mrs. Quin, ‘put the milk in first.'” Towards the end of the book the serving of tea even brings a brief respite from squabbling among some relations whom Mrs. Quin would likely have relegated to the category of Vandals.

A thread that connects all the parts of the story, shown to us in Mrs. Quin’s bedroom in the first chapter and on the introductory page to each chapter after that, is a medieval Book of Hours. Other old and rare books and an old maid of the Brood who collects them come to play a crucial part in helping Mrs. Quin, in her death, to right many wrongly drifting tendencies in the family and to bring a very satisfying ending.

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