My mother left me with a box of books recently, refugees from her campaign to downsize her library. My job was to keep what I wanted and resettle the rest with friends or used book stores. About half way to the bottom of the box, I pulled out a 1956 edition of a novel by Pearl Buck called Imperial Woman, a fictionalized biography of the last Dowager Empress of China, and found myself having one of those pleasing little memories of the not-quite-nostalgia species. Of course I will keep this book. Not that I am likely ever to read it again. Its the cover that does it for me. I made it. I was in seventh grade. I had chosen this book from my parent’s shelf for an English assignment that involved constructing a slip cover on the back of which I was to write a summary. For the front, I drew a a rather kitchy picture of a Chinese woman wearing a kind of empire/kimono hybrid, pale blue with a pink floral print and decollete, a fuchsia cape, a gold hair-piece with danglies, and holding on her extended wrist some conflation of a nightingale and a peacock. As far as I can remember, this image matches no such description of the book’s titular character, but was a product my raging fourteen-year-old sentimentality piqued by Asian – or, at that time, “oriental” – exoticism. For the summary I all but plagiarized the notes from the record jacket of Evita (My mother had been hired to play violin in the pick-up orchestra for the touring show’s Denver stop, so we’d been listening to this quite a lot.) because there were certain boad-stroke parallels between the two stories about low-class girls who, through looks, wiles, and all-around ruthlessness, ascend to their respective pinnacles of power. It was from this book that I learned what a eunuch is.
And so I came to Pearl Buck idiosyncratically: this book first, before ninth grade when Miss Grossman assigned the obligatory The Good Earth. Which is to say, I have read fifty percent more of her works than anyone I know. Anyone, that is, who has read any of her at all. She must be read still; our local Barns & Noble always carries about three of her novels, and recently I saw on its shelves, bizarrely, The Story Bible, apparently famous for its straightforward, “no-interpretation” retelling of Bible stories. She is, so the preface to Peony tells me, the most translated of all American authors. Really?
A few years ago a friend’s book group chose to read The Good Earth. This surprised me a bit. I tend to lump The Good Earth together with The Lord of the Flies, perhaps unfairly to both, as a sort of literary vaccine given to resentful sixteen-year-olds in danger of liking books. (The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl might round out this list of books, read hardly at all in later life, but regularly resorted to by red-eyed high school English teachers, not for their depth or their ranking in the echelons of the language, but because they are short enough, and unfussy enough that they might just go down, like peas hidden under pepperoni and cheese.)
Myself? I enjoyed reading The Good Earth for wacky Miss Grossman’s class. The second half of the book hovers on the edge of memory in a kind of hazy, jade-lit interior, built to hold Wang Lung’s hard won but nonetheless corrupting wealth. Indelible, though, is the episode early in the book in which O-lan, his wife, takes a break from her stupefying work in the fields to have a baby. Was it in the shade of a tree? Out of doors in any case, and alone. I seem to recall much worrisome discussion of breast milk production. Such images fasten themselves tick-like to an adolescent imagination. Idly turning the pages of Imperial Woman, I remember being fascinated by Tzu Hsi’s palaces, her silky ladies in waiting, the fat baby emperor bathed in milk, the oily eunuchs, the grisly power plays and intrigue, her resistance to modernization, and her sense of kinship with Queen Victoria. It would make an outstanding mini-series.
I wonder how these books would strike me now. To arrive at any kind of authentic response to them I would have to factor out two significant and conflicting variables: First, there is the cloud of sentiment that engulfs a book read when young. Any book read with one’s wits about one will accrue a little of the local zeitgeist in which it was read. My wits, at that time, were being renovated to accommodate the coursing of new emotions in unruly degrees, to say nothing of erotic awakenings. I’ve always caught romanticism a bit too easily and at the time I met Pearl Buck’s oddly archaic books my immune system was virtually useless against it. Her China was so sublimely elsewhere, her morality tales so bracingly more sober than the comedy unfolding around me – to which I felt in every way unequal – that I didn’t so much read them as believe in them. So, to re-read, say, Imperial Woman now, as an adult, would be to read with a long-faced ghost looking over my shoulder.
Second, there is what I know now of Pearl Buck’s reputation. She is widely regarded as one of the most laughable blunders of the Nobel committee, which in 1938 awarded her the prize “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” People have been fussing about her ever since. How was it that she was given a place that could have gone to James Joyce? (Wait till you read, in my next post, what Robert Frost had to say about her win.) And why does the citation include that word “truly”, as if those descriptions might be misconstrued as not epic, or not quite, without it? Reading one of her books, I would be forever assessing whether or not my response squares with this broadly held opinion.
There is much to be learned about what we read for and why from the example of Pearl S. Buck. Much, too, about the mysterious machinations that drive the Nobel Prize. In my next post I will be sharing with you the voices of her supporters as well as her detractors and why I think both have the wrong idea about her. Until then, I leave you with this little curiosity I found while skulking about on some of the more deserted avenues of the web. It is a YouTube audio file of an actress reading roughly the first two pages of the first chapter of Imperial Woman, that book whose now-faded cover prompted me to write all this nonsense. We are so rarely read to anymore. I suggest you sample this at night, after you crawl under the covers. You can turn out your light, or leave it on if you wish, but put your head on your pillow and let the narrative take you were it will.