Thursday, 10 June 2010
Pearl S Buck
I thought I would re-read my bookshelves, prior to a much needed cull. Keepers or charity shop? Please help me decide. Most of the books are beloved old friends, some are new, and some are waiting to be tasted. Some need to GO.
I am convinced that one day I will be found buried under the toppling pile of books on my bedside table, but tant pis, there are worse ways to go. I blame it on my mother. She was a true bibliophile, teaching me to read when I was four, begging me with tears in her eyes that “It would be so much fun!” She was right. It was.
Some of her books I inherited (apart from the Dickens which she adored and I had, and have, an aversion to) So, I thought I’d start with some of her old friends.
Pearl S Buck has gone out of fashion, and yet she was a prolific and popular author, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. I adored her books when I was younger as they did that thing that novels should do: Immerse you in another world, a world of which to start with you know nothing but soon becomes a familiar setting with a wealth of detail that stays ingrained for years to come. Buck’s world was China. And in her books the art of transporting one to a time and place that you have never visited is enthralling. She wrote an epic and rich novel combining the broad brush stroke with a fine eye for detail.
I now know the gruesome facts of foot binding (the toes were broken with the big toe pointing up towards the ankle and the other toes crunched underneath) with acrobats and kite flyers performing to provide a distraction from the bloody business. Of concubines swallowing opium and hurling themselves down wells, of thin fish gruel for breakfast, of embroidered silk, of peony planting, of the dangers of bandits and childbirth, the temptation of teahouses and the vast empire that was old China. The glee that I felt when I pounced on these exotic details when I was young didn’t lessen as I re-read them later in life. And who couldn’t love a delicate, trembling hair ornament in the shape of a jade moth?
In The Pavilion of Women, Madame Wu is the head. She rules her estates, her children, her servants and her husband with an icy detachment, and decides, when she is 40, she has done enough and deserves some’ me time’. So, she buys a country girl for her husband as a concubine (to lessen the disappointment of having her peerless presence in his bed) and retires from his courtyard to another to study her books, plant her orchids and contemplate life. This, of course, doesn’t happen.
The unthinkable happens. She falls in love. With a foreign priest that she has employed to teach one of her sons to speak and read English to improve business. With sweeping changes happening to her country mirroring the changes in her household, her life becomes a turmoil of emotions.
How she resolves all of this, and still remains the loved and respected head of the Wu clan makes for a memorable visit to another time and place.
Positively swooning stuff. Keep?
Radio 4 chose a biography of Buck as Book at Bedtime and I rushed (well, clicked on Amazon) to buy it. BuryingThe Bones by Hilary Spurling And I hesitate now, because it told me so much about Pearl S Buck that it left me wondering of sometimes it’s better not to know too much about an author that you have admired. Her life as a child of a miserable missionary father in China was grim. Her married life little better it seemed, and the last stage of her life (described as resembling the main character from one of her books The Last Empress where she surrounded herself with ‘catamites’ and had ladies-in-waiting , would grant audiences to people sitting in a carved throne like chair) and with her family squabbling over her fortune left me wishing that she had stayed in the realms of my mind as a silk enrobed mistress of story telling.