sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 1927
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 68, three hours
[edited version of a class summary]
I particularly appreciated Lu Xun’s collection Wild Grass. I appreciated the variety of forms present in the collection – short story, anecdotes, poems, and even play-forms. The various genres of the pieces were also intriguing – dream sequence, reflection, short-essay, nonsensical dialogues. Indeed, their inclusion within the single collection seems at times the only form of relation between the pieces. However, the narrative voice (active or passive) is a distinctly singular entity and, as such, weaving through the collection, is the ultimate cohesive element.
The metaphoric and figurative language Lu Xun employs I enjoyed chiefly because it reminds me of two authors whose works resonate with me deeply. Firstly, Virginia Woolf. Especially during dream-pieces, Lu Xun’s descriptions are florid but controlled, detailed but accessible. That is, after you’ve read two or three of them. Like Woolf in this regard, Lu Xun embeds a sense of the magical into the mundane and the extraordinary into daily monotony. Secondly, Katherine Mansfield. Lu Xun’s pieces The Kite and The Dog’s Retort are particularly Mansfield-esque especially in their treatment of progression of situation, to trigger, to memory, to story and back, and in their sparse but effective delivery of dialogue followed by interior monologue. There are times, however, where Lu Xun appears to reach crazily beyond the deeply interior, introspective nature of the collection and to its detriment. His short reflection of Christ’s suffering on the cross is sobering, but far beyond the realm of the rest of the collection. Of course, written for a Chinese audience, this piece takes on a more anecdotal, humanising perspective. But as a Western reader, the sudden leap to a take on a narrative so often retold and reworked seems strained.
Finally, The Passer-By reminded me of another writer I admire, Samuel Beckett. As soon as I had read the dramatis personae I instantly felt like I was entering a Waiting for Godot aesthetic – and I was not disappointed. The confounding circular and futile spilling of words between the characters is very similar, as is the lack of true beginning, middle or end. This parallel is surprising to me as Lu Xun is writing this almost three decades before the premiere of Beckett’s play. I suppose the parallel between Woolf and Mansfield is also striking. Though the three are contemporaries, I have been unable to discern whether either the two Western authors knew of Lu Xun or vice versa during this period. The similarity in the three authors’ construction and execution of narrative tid-bits is striking.