A Thousand Prayers

Ford Madox Ford remembered Joseph Conrad trying to write in English as they collaborated on a novel:

He used to come in in the mornings and, having climbed the many stairs to my small, dreadful, study, would sit for hours motionless and numb with a completely expressionless face. Every now and then he would say:

I can’t do it. It can’t be done. Je suis foutu!” Then he would launch out into a frightful diatribe against the English language. It was a language for dogs and horses. It was incapable of conveying human thoughts….

He would groan: “No, it’s no use. I’m going to France. I tell you I am going to set up as a French writer. French is a language; it is not a collection of grunted sounds.”

Although Conrad, as Ford remembered, spoke a heavily accented English, once he had a pen in his hand he “could write English with a speed, a volubility and a banal correctness that used to amaze me.” Despite his ease with the written word, Conrad in England remained an outsider and his subjects would always be the exotic and the faraway. Nonetheless, he was deeply alert to the work of his contemporaries, outsiders too, who had made their way into the center of English letters. Conrad’s relationship with Henry James is a sign, in case we needed one, of the sheer brittleness of his position and the susceptibility of his imagination once he had mastered the language and published his first book.

He sent James his second book, An Outcast of the Islands, in 1896 with an elaborately flattering inscription. James admired the book and responded by sending him The Spoils of Poynton, a novel which dealt with English manners. Conrad thought that “the delicacy and tenuity” of James’s novel “was a great sheet of plate glass—you don’t know it’s there till you run against it.” Ford reported the “rapturous and shouting enthusiasm of Conrad over the story,” suggesting that it “must have been the high water mark of Conrad’s enthusiasm for the work of any other writer.”1

Conrad and James met for lunch in February 1897.2 James was fifty-three, Conrad thirty-nine. Immediately after their meeting, Conrad attempted a story which was his most Jamesian in tone and content, almost comically so, and one of his most directly English in manner and background. It seemed briefly as though he was ready to discard his foreign subject matter, his tales of the sea and of foreign adventurers, and try to move into the heart of brightness—a large house in London with not a foreigner in sight, in “the impenetrable and polished discretions of closed doors and curtained windows.”

He worked over and over on this story, called “The Return,” which dealt with the sexual betrayal of a man who enjoyed “the delightful world of crescents and squares.” When Conrad had finished it, he found that no magazine would print it. The story, he wrote, “embittered five months” of his life. He moved from admiring it, to disliking it, to feeling a strange protective pride toward it. It was the story that made him realize that in England he would always be an outsider and his job was to dramatize the lives of the natives of the countries he had known; his editors and readers did not want him to write about the native English in their native land.

In his introduction to Tales of Unrest, where the story first appeared, he called it “a left-handed production.” Thus when he read James’s The Turn of the Screw, serialized in 1898, he knew not to attempt a story with a similar background—a large country house in England with a governess—but the following year to take the form of James’s story and its tone and the central phrase—“Mr. Quint is dead”—and place them in a setting which his readers expected him to dramatize, a place which he could call the heart of darkness. He could write in English if he pleased, but he would best set his story in the Congo.

For many writers who have, in the last decade, taken English as their first language or the language in which they write, their subject matter has remained their country of origin. The writers of the various diasporas bring us news from far away; and they have to deal, as Conrad did, with our expectations that far away will be fascinating and exotic, beyond our wildest dreams, or at least beyond our tamest drawing rooms. It is impossible to imagine what might be the response from publishers or from readers if Daniel Alarcón, whose first book of stories, written in English but set in contemporary Peru, began to describe middle-class middle America, or if Ha Jin, who has set his work in China, were to turn his mind to the golf courses and country clubs of Connecticut, or if Aleksandar Hemon, who also writes in English, were to write a book in which none of the characters came from the former Yugoslavia, or if Panos Karnezis, who writes in English about Greece and lives in England, were to write a book about adultery among the native English in the Home Counties, or if Olga Grushin, whose The Dream Life of Sukhanov was written in English, were to devote a book to the antics of native-born thirty-somethings on the island of Manhattan.

Yiyun Li’s first book of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, written in English, comes with all the shock of contemporary China. Li, who is thirty-three years old, lived there until 1996, when she came to the US. On the first page of the first story, “Extra,” the Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt and Granny Lin will not receive a pension. “‘Bankrupt’ is the wrong word for a state-owned industry,” the story goes on:

Internal reorganization” is what has been kindly omitted in the certificate. And, mind this, Granny Lin’s pension is being withheld only temporarily. For how long, the factory has no further information to offer.

Granny Lin’s neighbor will, as consolation, offer Granny the first line of a commercial: “There is always a road when you get into the mountain”; and the second line “slips out before Granny realizes it”: “And there is a Toyota wherever there is a road.” Thus in the very first page of her book Yiyun Li establishes her characters’ credentials as consumers rather than comrades.

The idea that Li is dramatizing a society in a state of change is further emphasized by the last job that Granny Lin gets in the story, which is in the Mei-Mei Academy which “takes pride in being among the first private schools in the country.” The story tells us that this is an aspect of the new China:

Private schools, like all private businesses, are sprouting up across the country like bamboo shoots after the first spring rain. Relatives of the Communist Party leaders are being transformed overnight into business owners, their faces appearing on national TV as representatives of the new proletariat entrepreneurs.

Granny Lin, who has been deprived of luxury all her life, is amazed at the life she sees at the academy:

Everything is produced by a small organic farm that serves the president and the premier and their families—so the chef informs Granny Lin…. Granny Lin is stunned by the parents’ wealth, the ease with which they pay the initiation fee of twenty thousand yuan and another twenty thousand for the first year of tuition and room and board…. On Friday afternoons, the parking lot outside the school gate is full of luxury cars. Chauffeurs and nannies come, and sometimes the parents themselves show up. Teachers and dorm mothers stand inside the gate, pointing out to one another who is the daughter-in-law of a power figure in the government and who has appeared in the latest hit movie.

The next story, “After a Life,” catches China on an even greater wave of change. Mr. Su spends his days at the stock exchange:

The stockbrokerage, like most of the brokerage firms in Beijing, rented space from bankrupted state-run factories. The one Mr. Su visited used to manufacture color TVs, a profitable factory until it lost a price war to a monopolizing corporation. The laid-off workers were among the ones who frequented the ground floor of the brokerage, opening accounts with their limited means and hoping for good luck. Others on the floor were retirees, men and women of Mr. Su’s age who dreamed of making their money grow instead of letting the money die in banks, which offered very low interest rates.

At the brokerage office Mr. Su meets Mr. Fong, whose wife had been imprisoned for seven years in a corruption scandal in which she was found to have taken more than 170,000 yuan. Mr Fong, having told his new friend about her sentence,

hit the table with a fist. In a lower voice, he said, “Believe me, Old Su, only the smaller fish pay for the government’s face-lift. The big ones—they just become bigger and fatter.”

Mr. Su nodded. A hundred and seventy thousand yuan was more than he could imagine, but Mr. Fong must be right that it was not a horrific crime.

Recent Chinese history casts dark shadows on the story “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way.” The narrator notices that “the heads of the pair of lions were chopped off by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution as part of the old trash. I sit astride the lioness, fingering the sharp edges left by the axes.” The children’s songs are full of references to President Truman or to Liu Shaoqi, neither of whose names makes any sense to the narrator, who has been brought up within the walls of the Department of Nuclear Industry:

It will…be years later when I know more about Liu Shaoqi: a loyal follower and close colleague of Chairman Mao, he was tortured to death by a group of teenagers when he showed doubt about Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In “The Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha’s mother,

one of the thousands of high school students sent down from Beijing to Inner Mongolia for labor reeducation…in order to join the Party, married a Mongolian herdsman, one of the model interracial marriages that were broadcast across the grassland.

But the largest shadow over the entire book of stories is that of the United States. In “The Princess of Nebraska” Sasha has made her way to the United States; she is, as the story opens, sitting in a McDonald’s in Chicago. She is in the city to have an abortion, having been made pregnant by Yang, a young gay actor cum prostitute in Beijing. Their first date was to see Pretty Woman, “with almost unreadable Chinese subtitles.” After the movie Sasha says of Julia Roberts:

She’s pretty, and funny and so—American…. America is a good place. Everything could happen there. A prostitute becomes a princess; a crow turns into a swan overnight.

Now that she has arrived in America, she envies the crowds in the Chicago streets: “They looked so young and carefree, these Americans,” she thinks. She says to Boshen, who has also been in love with Yang and has accompanied her to have the abortion: “I would trade my place with any one of them.”

But America is also a place to which people disappear. In “Love in the Marketplace,” Tu has gone there, marrying Min as a way of getting her a visa, but instead of coming home to Sansan, as he had promised, he has stayed in America with Min. In “Son,” Han has gone there too, and now has returned to Beijing to visit his mother. He sits in the new Starbucks waiting for her while she goes to church. But when he goes to an Internet café and tries to connect to gay chat rooms “where he usually spends his evenings in America, flirting with other men and putting on different personalities for different IDs he owns,” he finds that “the Internet police have blocked such sites in China.”

In the title story Yiyun Li offers Mr. Shi, who is visiting his daughter in America, a thought that must have preoccupied the author herself as she wrote this book in English: “A foreign country gives one foreign thoughts.” Earlier in the story Mr. Shi’s daughter has insisted also that a new language “makes you a new person.” Li, in writing about Chinese people in English, and giving them English dialogue, has deprived herself of an often essential tool of the fiction writer, the use of flavor in the way her characters speak. Her dialogue has to be neutral for the reader to believe in it. This may in fact have involved the lifting of a burden from her, allowing her greater freedom to explore matters which concern her much more deeply than mere sociology or politics or variations around the local, or the vast changes which are happening in her country. It may have helped to make her stories more concentrated in their psychological sympathy and starkness.

Most of the time, she manages a great simplicity and ease in her style. It is marred a few times by the use of a pure American term rather than an utterly neutral one in the dialogue and the narrative, such as a daughter using the word “whatever” in an argument with her mother, or words such as “semester,” “sophomore,” and “dorm,” which move the moment from China, where we imagine we are, to the United States, whose language is being too openly and too specifically borrowed for the subtlety and sureness Li needs for her delicate creations.

For other writers who have chosen to write about a different society than their own or in another language, part of the impulse lies in the removal of what can be the terrible burden, the easy banality, of local or national flavor. In Ireland figures such as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde found immense relief in not having to deal with the variety of linguistic experience in their native country, just as later writers like Samuel Beckett and John Banville did everything they could to remove the sense of the merely local from their work, seeking in other settings, or in Beckett’s case in another language, greater austerity and great freedom.

Yiyun Li’s book is also fascinating in the way it bows to accepted forms. She is utterly at home in the short story as shaped by Chekhov and Maupassant, in the tones currently used by William Trevor and Alice Munro. Her own talent is to deal with people who have no obvious power or importance, who have been disappointed in small ways which Li manages to make seem heart-wrenching and full of strange resonance. She is, like those whose influence she has so carefully adapted to her own talent, a writer of great but quiet ambition. How she deals with change and innovation in contemporary China is really an incidental matter, despite its considerable interest. What concerns her most is the large matter of love, in all its twists and turns, and time itself, and how little we reckon with it, and disappointment in all its strange variations, and levels of deep emotion and attachment buried in silence and misunderstanding.

It is strange how the placidity in her method and her respectful use of traditional forms and tones have been of so little use to Russian writers in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It might be too easy to suggest that the slow, gradual, and ambiguous arrival of capitalism in China is mirrored in this book’s very use of form, and that the brutal, abrupt, and seismic shifts in Russian society have caused a less traditional and noisier form of contemporary writing in Russia. Nonetheless, the connections are there to be made.

They are made very clearly by Victor Erofeyev in his eloquent introduction to The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, published in 1995. “The literature of the twentieth century fin de siècle has exhausted all the collectivist possibilities,” he wrote.

It breaks into pieces, abandons shared values for marginal values, the canonical for the apocryphal…. The new Russian literature has called absolutely everything into question: love, children, faith, the Church, culture, beauty, nobility of character, motherhood, and even the wisdom of the common people…. More recently it had called the “Boring West” into question as well.

Erofeyev was overseeing his own generation’s rejection of Bazarov’s expression of hope in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons: “Man is good; conditions are bad.” And Gorky’s proclamation “Man—that sounds proud!” just as the ideas of human nobility in the work of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn that offered a resistance to tyranny were to be mocked mercilessly by writers in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was demonstrating that the “philosophy of hope” at the heart of Russian literature was being summarily annihilated by its writers.

In the new freedom, there are no good fathers; even the literary ones and their sense of hope and their use of form had to be killed and mocked. “Beauty yields to expressive pictures of ugliness,” Erofeyev wrote, and his selection of work by his contemporaries showed that

beautiful forms give way to deformity. A mocking, shocking, épatant aesthetics is developed. There is a heightened interest in “dirty” words, in obscene language as a detonator of a text. The new literature fluctuates between “black” despair and a totally cynical indifference.

No one wanted to write small, sad, Chekhovian masterpieces about the ironies surrounding love and loyalty in the new regime:

The themes of violence, sadistic aggression, broken lives come to the fore. The number of murders, rapes, perversions, abortions, tortures, the number of scenes depicting various forms of humiliation (the army, prison, young thugs) and sexual deviation, grows apace…. Psychological prose gives way to psychopathological prose.

Erofeyev went through each of the twenty writers he had chosen for his anthology, pointing out the essential break in their work from anything which had come before. In the work of one, “even that sacred image of Russian literature, the image of the mother who lives in the countryside and whose vocation is to be the guardian of the basic values of life, is portrayed…without sympathy.” In the work of another, “Russian literature’s standard figure, the little man, who has to be protected and justified at all costs, turns into a foul, mercenary old crone, crawling through life like an insect in search of food to fill her craw.” Another

created an independent version of fragmentary writing based on counterpoint. The fragments consist of single-sentence, often ridiculous utterances containing various semantic and emotional content and a varying degree of authorial remoteness.

Another makes his texts explode

by means of unexpected leaps in the narrative, obscene language and an extreme thickening of the sexual brew, a text-concentrate whose main ingredients are sexual pathology and extreme violence, including cannibalism and necrophilia.

Erofeyev concluded:

A bright page of evil has been entered into the annals of Russian literature. As a result, the Russian classic novel will never again be a textbook on how to live or a source of ultimate truth. The correctives which have been added are too shocking, too blood-curdling. To give voice to the force of evil, a generation of powerful writers has entered Russian literature.

It is easy to imagine Yiyun Li smiling tolerantly as she cast her calm eye over Erofeyev’s heated declarations and the work of the writers he chose to represent new Russian writing in 1995, and taking down a volume of Chekhov and some of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction and the work of Turgenev, and setting to work to dramatize with a dazzling sympathy and some irony, which the reader will recognize as belonging also to her literary fathers, the lives of mothers whose “vocation is to be the guardian of the basic values of life” and of “the little man” whose life has been shaken by time and by change.

It would be unfair to her talent, which is considerable, to push the claim too far that her style and tone derive precisely from the culture from which she has emerged. Her stories have their own way of combating such easy reduction. Most of them remain unforgettable and do not depend for their power on her depiction of Chinese society in the state of change. Her characters and their lives are too interesting for that; her calm tone in describing them and the wisdom of her watching carry too much expression and emotion to be burdened by politics or sociology.

In the first story, “Extra,” therefore, it is Granny Lin’s loneliness, her cautious need for love, which makes the story remarkable rather than her working in a posh boarding school. Her finding possibilities of love in an arranged marriage and in the protecting of a child in the boarding school is handled with great tact and care. In the next story, which is partly set in a stock exchange, it is Mrs. Su’s love for her handicapped daughter which is remarkable:

Mrs. Su strokes the hair, light brown and baby-soft, on Beibei’s forehead. Beibei is twenty-eight going on twenty-nine; she is so large that it takes both her parents to turn her over and clean her; she screams for hours when she is awake, but for Mrs. Su, it takes a wisp of hair to forget all the imperfections…. It amazes and saddens Mrs. Su that Beibei’s life is so tenacious that it has outlived the love that once made it.

This idea of love not lasting, or love thwarted, or love withheld, or love that governs everything, both creating and destroying, remains Li’s central theme. In “The Arrangement,” Uncle Bing has spent his life taking care of Ruolan’s mother while her father sought his former love. Despite the mother’s illness and her advancing age, Uncle Bing has no interest in having her replaced in his affections by her daughter, who has fallen in love with him. In “The Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha believed she was the first person in Yang’s life “who did not worship him in any way, and he must be following her around because of that. It pleased her.” In the title story Mr. Shi, in America, finds more to discuss with an Iranian woman whom he meets in the park than with the daughter he has come to visit, even though he and the Iranian have hardly any language in common. “He feels disappointed in his daughter, someone he shares a language with but with whom he can no longer share a dear moment.”

Li manages to surround her narrative of love with some astonishing images of foolishness, meanness, indolence, self-delusion, and lack of purpose. In “After a Life,” Mr. Su goes to the brokerage office every day, but he does not invest money:

With an imaginary fund, he had practiced trading, dutifully writing down all the transactions in a notebook; he had bought secondhand books on trading and developed his own theories.

In “Love in the Marketplace” Sansan, whose mother sells boiled eggs in the railway station, is infuriated at her mother’s efforts to make the most tasty eggs:

All those people who buy her eggs—strangers that come and go and will not remember this place or her mother’s face even if they remember the taste of the eggs—they will never know that her mother spends more money on the best spices and tea leaves.

In “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way,” Mr. Pang lost his job at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and then was told that there was no record of his ever having been employed there:

Still he goes to work each day, taking the first of each month off to deliver copies of yet another letter to several sections in the Postal Department as well as the city government, appealing for an investigation of his history.

He earns no money. “Working hard as usual,” he says when he comes home.

In the title story, Mr. Shi has never told his family that he was removed from his position as a rocket scientist at the age of thirty-two and

assigned to the lowest position that could happen to someone with his training—he decorated offices for the birthdays of Chairman Mao and the Party; he wheeled the notebooks and paperwork from one research group to the other; in the evening he collected his colleagues’ notebooks and paperwork, logged them in, and locked them in the file cabinet in the presence of two security guards. He maintained his dignity at work, and went home to his wife as a preoccupied and silent rocket scientist.

A writer such as Li, who lives in America or England and writes in English about his or her native country, begins with certain advantages. It is easier to find an audience since, notoriously, many readers and publishers in the English-speaking world are wary of translations. Also, writing in English for a foreign audience leaves writers free to dramatize their own society with openness and without fear. The problems arise, however, from the nature of exile itself as the writer frozen in a particular time becomes unable to watch the odd and nourishing details of social and political change. In Ireland, for example, over the past twenty years, even history itself, once so sturdy and stable and haunting, has begun to shift as a new generation of historians has put forward a new version of the past. Language and tone of voice and accent begin to change too as new prosperity takes over. Old roads fade to new motorways. Peace has broken out. Irish novelists, even ones who do not write directly about social change, could not easily miss what is happening without paying a price.

It is also possible, on the other hand, that the many writers who have come to English over the past ten or fifteen years will actually find the price deeply enabling as they abandon charting their old country and set about working in the great in-between territory, which gave James Joyce, the king of all exiles, Leopold Bloom, which gave Vladimir Nabokov, the dauphin, Humbert Humbert,3 and Joseph Conrad, the grand duke of wanderers, his two novels set in European cities—The Secret Agentand Under Western Eyes. Conrad knew how hard it would be. In May 1907 he wrote to his agent as he was completing The Secret Agent: “Preconceived notions of Conrad as sea writer will stand in the way of its acceptance.” He was also aware of one of the reasons for his growing reputation and the support he received from English writers: “I don’t get in the way of established reputations.”

Ford Madox Ford suggested that Conrad’s editor Edward Garnett guided him away from “the misty problems of the Slav soul.” Conrad became exasperated when English critics suggested he might read better in translation and was a man “without country and language.”4 “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” he wrote to Galsworthy. “Idiocy can no further go.” But he also feared what the Poles thought of him, telling a compatriot that he felt guilty about the country he had left and feared being slighted if he returned. There is a story, possibly untrue, told about him that when asked why he did not extol the fame of Poland in his novels, he raised both arms and replied: “I should lose my public.” His public wanted stories about the sea, and even if he did not actually say he would lose them, it must have come into his mind in the years when he struggled with new material. The ironies surrounding Conrad’s relationship to his languages, new and old, his heritage, and his adopted country will continue to haunt writers who have become part of the vast migrations in recent years to the English-speaking world.

  1. 1

    See my introduction to the Hesperus edition of Conrad’s The Return (2004) and Ian Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 1979).

  2. 2

    Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett: “I had a note from James. Wants me to lunch with him on Thursday next—so there is something to live for—at last!” See Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, p. 203.

  3. 3

    Nabokov described translating his own novel Despair as “a frightful business, looking over one’s insides and trying them on like a glove.” Quoted in The Cambridge Companion to Nabokov, edited by Julian W. Connolly (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 157.

  4. 4

    Robert Lynd reviewed A Set of Six in the Daily News in 1908: “Had he but written in Polish his stories would assuredly have been translated into English and into the other languages of Europe; and the works of Joseph Conrad translated from the Polish would, I am certain, have been a more precious possession on English shelves that the works of Joseph Conrad in the original English, desirable as these are.” See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 648.