This Sunday, the latest BBC literary adaptation, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, starts in the UK. I can’t wait. Even the slight disappointment of the recent The Luminaries – another favourite doorstop book of mine – doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm. A Suitable Boy is such a beautiful, complete world of a book.
So why is this worth an entry on a blog about China and Chinese literature? Because while A Suitable Boy usually seems to be compared with War and Peace and Middlemarch Vikram Seth is on record as saying the ‘real inspiration’ behind it was The Dream of the Red Chamber.
The Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone, (which I will just refer to as HLM from its Chinese name – Hong Lou Meng) is both the wellspring and the deepest pool of my love of Chinese literature. One day I hope to have the time to do justice to it and write about just how, why and how much I love it. But for now, just know that I picked it up almost at random in a London bookshop as a teenager who didn’t read much, and it has been a friend for life that I read every few years and love even more every time.
Before I read A Suitable Boy the Vikram Seth works I knew best were his readable and fluent translations of Tang poets Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei, and his original poetry The Humble Administrator’s Garden which, as you can tell from the collection title named after one of Suzhou’s most famous gardens, is highly indebted to classical Chinese poetry. Seth clearly knows and is greatly influenced by Chinese poetry.
It is tantalising for Seth to name HLM as a main influence, and I have not found anywhere where he expands on this statement, or any examples of comparisons between the books. What was it about HLM that inspired him? Which elements? Which characters? I would love to know more.
In the absence of any firm evidence, or Mr Seth getting in touch (hello!), here are some skin-deep thoughts about the two books. I would love to go deeper, particularly into the characters and their development, if I had the time.
Let’s start with the obvious similarity – these are two hefty, hefty books. A Suitable Boy is about 600,000 words long, similar to War and Peace and Les Miserables but not quite HLM’s c.850,000 (depending on the translation – I am a Hawkes devotee). It’s hardly a slim paperback. A Suitable Boy is published in one volume; English versions of HLM are usually in several, with the Penguin Classics across five volumes.
Where the two differ is the inner structure. HLM is divided into 120 chapters; each one is an easy read within a sitting. A Suitable Boy has only 19 parts of hugely varying lengths made up of short chapters.
And the chapters give us a more important similarity that does seem to be a direct inspiration – the lines at the start of each chapter giving a lyrical clue to what is about to unfold. The direct inspiration is clear, although Seth’s are both fewer and more ambiguous (not naming characters, for instance, unlike HLM). Seth’s verses often have the internal symmetry of Chinese verse; his verses are pentameter while Cao’s are parallel eight-character (usually 3-2-3) sentences.
A baby kicks; a bloodshot Raja yowls.
A young man speeds downhill; a father growls.A Suitable Boy, Part 6
秦可卿死封龙禁尉 Qin-shi posthumously acquires the status of a Noble Dame
王熙凤协理宁国府 And Xi-feng takes on the management of a neighbouring establishmentThe Story of the Stone (Hawkes), Chapter 13
Poetry is not just the narrators’ skill; it recurs through both texts too as a way that characters interact and bond with each other. Both authors seamlessly modify their poetic voices to suit the characters and the narrative needs, and the ubiquity of poetry feels essential to both worlds. These are poets’ books.
Thematically, though, there is one major difference that seeps into the texts’ styles. Religion is a key theme of A Suitable Boy, but as a tool driving the romantic narrative – unless I’ve overlooked something more fundamental, which is very possible. HLM is a story of romantic love, but also quite explicitly explores the transitory nature of material things, inspired by Daoist and Buddhist teachings, and the duality of truth and fantasy. This leads to the more fantastic elements, like the cursed Mirror for the Romantic or Baoyu’s jade. A Suitable Boy may have its head in the clouds, but it is in an entirely earthly realm.
These fantastic elements of HLM also manifest in the setting – the Land of Illusion, which Baoyu visits, and the framing saga of the Stone unused by the goddess Nuwa. The main narrative takes place in an unspecified time, which we assume is the late 18th century when it was written, and unfolds over a long period as the Jia family’s prestige falls. The Jia’s Rongguo household, and the large Prospect Garden within it built in chapter 16, is the setting for the vast majority of the book.
A Suitable Boy, on the other hand takes place in a very specific time – 1951 in India, predominantly the fictional town of Brahmpur but with visits to Kolkata, Lucknow, Delhi and smaller towns and cities. Brahmpur is its Prospect Garden, the fictional heart of the story, but the overall canvas is much larger. The key setting for HLM is its specific place, and for A Suitable Boy its specific time – both of which form and drive the characters’ motivations.
In both books these settings are sources of optimism – for A Suitable Boy it is the newly independent India, for HLM Prospect Garden which is built to receive the eldest daughter’s visit, now a royal consort, in which the young characters have an enormous amount of fun. As well as poetry, both books are full of parties, plays and music. In HLM the optimism fades as the Jia family declines (but with the small hope of the child Qiaojie); it is less obvious in A Suitable Boy but there is some creeping doubt sown in the text about the new India. Perhaps we need to wait for the (apparently imminent) sequel A Suitable Girl to find out more.
One of the most intriguing passages in A Suitable Boy is the lengthy section in a remote village, which gives context to the political subplots exploring Hindu-Muslim conflict and the end of the Zamindari system, while developing several minor characters. When reading this, you realise you are following the (deep breath) main character’s sister’s husband’s brother’s lover’s younger sister’s Urdu teacher’s family. We are so, so far removed physically from the main narrative of a woman, Lata, choosing a suitor.
Like A Suitable Boy, there is one central character in HLM – this time a boy, Baoyu – and much of the narrative hinges on which female cousin he will marry. Like Lata, he is deeply romantic but not consistently enthusiastic at the prospect. But it also shares the enormous cast of deep, rounded and internally consistent characters, some of whom take us on unexpected tangents – I think of Jiang Yuhan, Granny Liu and Xue Pan. Most obviously this happens at the start of HLM, where we start (after meeting the Stone and various religious figures) with Zhen Shiyin, who is also several steps (through Lucky, Jia Yucun, Lin Ruhai and Lin Daiyu) removed from the main story. It is not until page 100 (in the Hawkes version) that we meet Baoyu (while Lata is in the first and last lines of A Suitable Boy). It is the breadth of characters that make the books – they remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s comments on Anthony Trollope (another favourite of mine), that his characters are
just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of.
The rich, life-like tapestries of characters are no surprise considering both books have semi-autobiographical elements. The life of Cao Xueqin is sufficiently contentious to form continuous debate amongst scholars but the rise and fall of the Jia family echoes what is known of Cao’s family. Seth’s father worked for a Czech shoe company, as does his character Haresh, indicating that he happily drew on his own experiences.
So here’s nervously hoping that A Suitable Boy on TV can do justice to the text. And BBC, if you’re reading this – while there may be many, many versions in Chinese, perhaps you might fancy trying your hand at a lavish Dream of the Red Chamber next?