A Stroll Through Lu Xun Park and the Lu Xun Museum

Ever since our first forays out of our hotel in the days when we first arrived, I’ve been wanting to explore Lu Xun Park some more and visit the Lu Xun Museum.

Lu Xun was an important Chinese writer in the early part of the 20th century who eventually settled in Shanghai. The park is named for him. The museum is not technically inside the park. It’s next to the East gate entrance to the park.

The museum contains hundreds of photos, and exhibits of his writings from various periods of his life. There were a couple of multimedia presentations featuring narration in Mandarin. Since we can’t understand Mandarin, the kids and I skipped those. Though they looked quite interesting.

The way the official sounding text is written about him in the museum and in the prefaces to his books, you would think that Lu Xun was an exemplary member of the Chinese Communist Party. You would be wrong. He  had Leftist sympathies but never joined the Communist Party. Though Mao and the Communists would claim him as one of their own after he died, I’m not sure a man who thought the “cultivation of independent and healthy minds” would make a good Communist. What he did want, above all else, was for the Chinese to reclaim China from the colonial powers. He saw literature as a way to help jumpstart that process.

Near the end of the exhibit area was the small bookstore. The shelves were filled with volumes of books by and about Lu Xun in Chinese. The woman behind the counter saw me and said “English!” and pointed to two shelves with books in English. I picked up a hardcover of the first volume of Lu Xun’s selected writings. There were four volumes. I figured I would buy the first volume which had his fiction, what I’m most interested in, and if I liked it I would go back and pick up another volume or two.

I brought the book to the counter and the woman got up and started talking rapidly. I made out that she was talking about “all four” while she proceeded to lean down and grab the other three books in the set and place them on the counter.

The price was 146 Yuan for the complete English-language four-volume set. Not 14.6 Yuan for one volume or 146 Yuan for one volume. That’s a pretty good deal. As you can see, they also gave me a nice bag to carry all the books.

I hope I like Lu Xun’s writing, because I now have a lot of it. I’ve begun reading the first volume and so far the translations seem good. Anyway, I know have my first souvenir from Shanghai.

The kids were getting hungry and antsy, and Meredith suddenly had to use the potty. So we rushed through the last bit of the exhibits and I took Meredith to use the potty. Meredith was happy. She had the option of a squat toilet or a Western-style toilet. She proudly told me, “I know how  to use a squat toilet!” But she still opted for the Western-style toilet.

We left the museum and found a shop in the park that sold snacks. The kids chose ice cream, which has become their go-to snack. Ice cream bars of many kinds are sold at every convenience store all over Shanghai. The kids can easily look and choose the kind they want.

The area near the shop was like much of the park. Tall old trees had grown high enough and been trimmed to provide almost complete shade to wide bricked areas.

We sat on a bench under a tree, eating our ice cream and watching the people nearby. Men and women of late middle age and retirement age were dancing in the shade of the trees to music with a fast beat, ballroom style. Two men were playing badminton in front of the store where we’d bought our ice cream. Then one of the men talked the saleswoman at the store into playing badminton with the other man. And pretty soon she was hitting the shuttlecock back and forth, too.

There was also a little boy, about three years old, standing on a nearby bench and shouting, “Loawai! Loawai! Loawai!” (“Foreigner! Foreigner! Foreigner!”) and pointing at us.

I like this park. It’s another beautiful sanctuary, like Fuxing Park, amid the inexhaustible cacophony and rush of the city.

More lotus plants. I know. But I like them, especially this time of year when they’re beginning to bud and bloom. It also reminds me of the lake in the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles where Stephanie and I used to live. But the lotus plants are far more abundant here in China than I ever imagined.

There’s a large lake where you can rent boats, and smaller pond where you can rent paddle boats.

Here’s a clock that the kids liked and Henry wanted to pose in front of. It was built to mark the beneficial friendship between Chinese and Japanese kids.

The kids figured out that there was space inside where they could go.

As tiring and frustrating as traveling with kids can be, it’s moments like this when they make me laugh. They see the world differently than us adults. Just as Meredith made a slide out of that section of steps at Yue Miao in Hangzhou, so they found a place in Lu Xun park where only they could fit.

Chinese Paparazzi Count: 2


Artists Outside of Their Art

Is it necessary to like an artist in order to enjoy her work?

This question gets asked from time to time, and I’ve been thinking about it since my recent post on V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comments regarding women writers. Then, over the weekend, I read a piece about David Mamet’s now highly publicized conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative. He has a book out with his collected thoughts on his newly-adopted political philosophy.

In an interview with the Financial Times (courtesy of Slate) Mamet says the following about Sarah Palin.

“I am crazy about her,” he answers immediately. “Would she make a good candidate for president? I don’t know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to.”

These are not the words of a credible political thinker. I would have thought the writer of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Wag the Dog had a better Bullshit Detector. (If it pleases you, for a takedown of Mamet and his career, go here.)

I don’t fault Mamet for changing his political views. Like everyone else, he’s free to do that. It doesn’t change the quality of his plays or his insights into what makes for good screenwriting. (For an example of the latter, read his memo on screenwriting that made the rounds of the Internet awhile back.)

I can name on one hand the number of artists and writers whose lives I have read about in biographies or memoirs: Hunter S. Thompson, Nelson Algren, Georgia O’Keefe, Keith Richards, and Steven Adler. An odd collection now that I look at it.

O’Keefe was a fascinating woman who had a long productive career, and is one of my country’s great artists. Thompson was a brilliant writer who stopped writing interesting things after about 1975 (with the exception of his Nixon obit) and seems to have had a long parade of enablers for his bizarre behavior long after it wore out its welcome. Richards stumbles through life and still doesn’t understand the damage his heroin habit did to himself, his family, and his band The Rolling Stones. Adler, poor bastard, appears more the victim of a very crappy childhood and not very loyal friends in his band Guns n’ Roses, and still lacks insight into his own life and how he came to be the person he is.

Nelson Algren, one of my literary heroes, lived an interesting life, wrote some great books and stories, and then, hounded by the FBI who took away his passport for his Communist sympathies, seemed to give up when it came to literature. He is the one writer who taught me the importance of sympathy for your characters. Few writers are able to see and present the world through their downbeat characters the way Algren did in his story collection The Neon Wilderness and The Man With the Golden Arm. Perhaps because he was such a flawed human being himself. He had a famous relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, but refused to learn French. He had a gambling problem that was never dealt with in any meaningful way. After A Walk on the Wild Side, he continued to write rather well, but devoid of the ambition that drove him to write his earlier works. There are few things sadder than seeing how a literary talent lost the desire to make literature.

None of what I learned about the lives of these artists dimmed my appreciation for the music of the Rolling Stones and Guns n’ Roses, the savage brilliance of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the warmth of paintings such as Poppy or Dark Mesa and Pink Sky, or the muscular beauty of the prose in Chicago: City on the Make.

I don’t care what Mamet’s uninformed thoughts are on politics. If he was an insightful political thinker, then it would be a different story. (I did not read his political writings when he was a liberal.) I’ll still appreciate his movies and plays.

This is all to say that just because an artist is excellent at her art it does not mean she can’t be a dreadful human being, a bad political pundit, or clueless activist. And that’s okay. Art is all about about rendering the varieties of our shared human existence; its strengths, frailties, virtues, and prejudices. It’s unreasonable for us as fans to expect an artist to rise above her own humanity as a requirement for us to be allowed to enjoy her art.

“Bad” Writers

Over at Salon.com, Laura Miller has an essay titled, “When bad people write great books.” Thanks to V.S. Naipaul having yet another public bout of assholery, the Literary World is concerned once more with the age old question, “Is it okay to like or even love an asshole’s art?”

If Dickens sometimes behaved badly, Naipaul is unquestionably a bad man, notorious for his floridly abusive relationships and bigoted ideas. Does this diminish his work? Naipaul’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste, but the grace of his prose and the power of his early books, especially “A Bend in the River,” is hard to deny; I admired much of that novel even as I gritted my teeth over its blinkered depiction of Africans. “A House for Mr. Biswas” is a veritable touchstone for New Yorker critic James Wood, a tough crowd if there ever was one.

Miller goes on to list a few more writers who had major flaws. Literature and the arts are filled with people who did miserable things to other human beings, but were brilliant successes at producing lasting art. Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. Hemingway was a notorious misogynist. While drunk, William Faulkner is reputed to have told his daughter, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s child.” Not to equate all of these actions (Polanski’s being by far the worst because it was criminal), but none of this bad behavior lessens the quality or power of movies like Chinatown or novels like The Sun Also Rises or As I Lay Dying.

A professor in undergrad once told me that it was often the case that the best thing about an artist was in fact their art. It’s a notion that has stayed with me all these years and one that proves to be the case most often.

Regardless of what a jerk Naipaul is, I still have a A House for Mr. Biswas on my TBR pile. It’s been on there for quite some time, years actually, and so I’m not sure when I’ll finally get a round to reading it. When I do, unfortunately, I’m sure I won’t quite be able to push out of my head the thought that Naipaul is a detestable human being.

What Kind of Reader Am I?

“Avid” is an adjective I would use to answer my own question. However, “unfocused” is another.

I am always feeling that I have not read enough books. Recently, I vowed that this year I would teach myself more about the novel as an art form by reading some of the books that represent Big Gaping Holes in my Literary Education. They are,

Don Quixote
Tristram Shandy
Jane Eyre
Mrs. Dalloway
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Recognitions
Gravity’s Rainbow
Infinite Jest

I have no idea whether I will be able to get through them all this year.

Jane Eyre I was supposed to have read in high school. I skimmed it, and remember little of it to this day other than Rochester’s wife being in the attic. Oh, and George C. Scott was miscast in the movie version we saw in class, a movie I slept through as I was tired from working nights at a hot dog stand.

The one I’m least enthused about tackling is the Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and was unimpressed by it. Also, I have been turned off to Pynchon by his cult-like devoted fans. For them, reading Pynchon is some sort of workout and puzzle-challenge. So I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow without consulting any of the many web sites maintained by the fanatically devoted. I was all set to read it a few years ago and then Against the Day appeared and the Internet was filled with the orgiastic panegyrics to every piece of Pynchon prose, and so I was turned off again.

I attempted to read Infinite Jest shortly after it came out. I was bored 60-80 pages into it by all the, what seemed to me at the time, neurotic yammering about how he swore he was not ever going to smoke pot again and this was, he swore to himself, the last bag of pot he would by from the last dealer he would contact, a dealer who was given instructions to never sell to him again blah, blah, blah. I have the sneaking suspicion I was wrong. So I’m going to give it another go, now that I am an older, more mature, and patient reader.

Portrait of the Artist has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly two decades. It’s in a volume that includes Joyce’s Dubliners and Chamber Music. I have read Dubliners and some of the poems in Chamber Music. Joyce was a so-so poet. Though the bastard had a first-rate tenor singing voice and an amazing facility for languages. I think he knew how to speak nine of them or more. How one human being can be so talented…

Speaking of Joyce, I have read also Ulysses and would like to read it again at some point in the not-too-distant future. Especially since I’m reading Sylvia Beach’s memoir Shakespeare and Company: The Story of An American Bookshop in Paris.

Also, thanks to Beach’s memoir I now want to read Djuna Barnes Nightwood and Ladies Almanack. Not sure when I’ll get hold of those volumes and make time to read them.

This is what happens to me. I lay out a plan for the next few books to read and then I go and get sidetracked, and the plan gets abandoned. When it comes to books, my curiosity tends to get the best of me and my reading proceeds from one digression to another. The result is that I’ve read widely but not systematically. (And not enough poetry either. Poetry is a whole other story.) I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. Meanwhile, I have a friend who is returning from her trip to India with a copy of Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, another book I’m keen to read, especially in light of all the recent hoopla over Eat, Pray, Love.

(What did I think of Eat, Pray, Love? Here’s this non-spiritual person’s Twitter-length summary of the book: “OMG Italian food is delicious! OMG Meditation is really really HARD! zOMG Teh Secks w/Felipe is hawt!!!”)

Anyway, I swear, Don Quixote is next to read.

Reading Roundup (Cranky Edition)

I know I haven’t posted much lately. The holidays seem to have taken over, along with my own writing. But I’ve been doing a lot of reading, even if it’s been aborted, as you’ll see.

Midnight in the Garden of Evil by John Berendt. This book has been sitting in my TBR pile for many years. I think I or my wife was given this book as a gift, while we were living in Chicago. That’s over a decade. Probably a record of some kind. I had rented the movie when it come out on video and found myself confused more than anything. Then a few years ago I read Berendt’s City of Falling Angels (insightful and fascinating take on Venice, Italy) and thought, okay, I really need to read Midnight. So I did and I’m glad I did. It is an excellent piece of nonfiction about the insular, eccentric world of Savannah, Georgia. The only thing that confused me was the time line of events, which Berendt never quite lays out, giving me an untethered feeling throughout my read. Recommended for People Who Like Stories Set in Foreign Locales.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. I had not read this novel since high school. I thought I would give it a re-read. Well, After about 120 pages I gave up. I could not take it. This is bad Twain. The Twain who just rants on, fueled with bile and devoid of humor. And it is repetitive. How many times does the Yankee have to tell us how dumb the people are during Arthur’s time? Recommended for Impatient Angry Old People.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré – Checked it out from the library and read it in two days. Gripping grim look at the battle of spy versus spy during the Cold War shortly after the Berlin Wall was put up. Few books have kept me so enticed into wanting to see where the story was headed. Recommended for Anyone Who Wants a Good Read.

England, England by Julian Barnes. I had very high hopes for this book. Barnes has a strong reputation as a gifted novelist. This was the first time I’d attempted to read anything by him. The premise sounded very promising, about a businessman who sets up a Resort Version of England on the Isle of Wight; an idealized version of England for tourists to experience. Think Epcot Center on a ginormous scale. I stopped reading after the first 100 pages. I expect more out of a 276 page novel than a lot of boring speechifying that’s supposed to saterize sex, corporate culture, postmodernism, etc. No one was doing anything except talking and the talk, except for a few funny moments, was dull dull dull. Recommended for People Who Like Lots and Lots of Telling With Very Little Showing in Their Fiction.

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

On of my favorite writers is getting a library in his hometown. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library will open on December 3.

The 1,100-square-foot library is at the Emelie Building in downtown Indianapolis. Although the library won’t be fully open until the end of January, nearly half of its exhibits will be on display starting Dec. 3.

One exhibit is a gallery of Vonnegut art that includes pieces by the writer, two drawings by Vonnegut fan and “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer and “Star Time,” a 20-ft. timeline of important events in Vonnegut’s life painted by artist Chris King and text written by William Rodney Allen, editor of “Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut.”

Vonnegut’s children are involved with the library, having donated many artifacts. One such artifact is a letter sent by Vonnegut’s father during World War II. The writer didn’t receive the letter because he was in a POW camp in Germany. It wasn’t until after the war the Vonnegut received the letter but he never opened it. So at the request of the writer’s children, the letteri remains unopened in the library today.

One more thing to see in Indianapolis…

Translating from Ideas to Paper

In the New York Times this weekend, writer Michael Cunningham has a wonderful essay called “Found in Translation.” In it he talks about translating from one language to another. But then he talks about a very different kind of translation: the act of writing itself.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The all-encompassing epic you imagine in your head is so difficult to put down on paper. It never lives up to what you imagine and feel.

The only book by Cunningham I’ve read is The Hours and I liked it. Though it’s one of those rare books whose movie version I liked just as much. Both made me want to read Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but sadly I’ve yet to get it to the top of my TBR pile. I keep getting sidetracked onto one thing or another.