à la recherche des livres perdus

February 20th, 2008

[with apologies to Proust for the awful rip-off of his title]

Not sure I’m going to make it all the way through this, but I like the way Xiao Han starts this off. He’s looking back at the books he read 30 years ago, inspired, in a somewhat oblique way, by friends’ requests for him to recommend “must read” books. He starts with an explanatory note:

雲邊居士按:常有朋友让我给他们或者他 们的孩子推荐必读书,无论网上网下。我很困惑,一则内心里并不觉得有什么必读书——但这不妨碍有“必不读书”;二则,因材施教,还真有一些书可能确是必读 书,不过我觉得自己并没资格开书单。我小时候,父亲给的都是“逼读书”,因为会有一些于小孩可能望而生畏的任务(但也很有乐趣),以我的经验,这些可能是 需要的。好的教育寓教于乐,我觉得家父在这方面的一些经验或许于大家有用,这篇文字也算是给某些朋友一点言不及义的交代。

Writes the scholar residing by the clouds: Friends often ask me to recommend them or their children must-read books, whether online or off. I’m very confused, on the one hand, in my heart I really don’t think there are any must-read books- but this doesn’t prevent the existence of “must-not-read books”; on the other hand, to suit the instruction to the students’ level, their may well be some must-read books. Anyway, I really don’t think I’m qualified to write up a book list. When I was little, what my father gave me was “compelled-to-read books”, because perhaps some had as their mission the inspiration of awe in children (but were still very interesting), perhaps this was necessary for my experience. Good education combines education and entertainment and I think perhaps my father’s experience in this area is useful for us all, and this essay is a frivolous explanation for a few friends.

Then the essay proper, dated 20 February 2008, begins:

哦,那些书,都快三十年了

Wow, those books are nearly thirty years old

萧瀚

Xiao Han

午夜的灯光下,脑子里翻检十年、二十年、以至三十年前读过的一些书,那些留下点印象的,大抵算是所谓对自己有影响的书吧。

Under the midnight lamplight, my brain looks back and checks books that I read 10, 20, up to 30 years ago, those books that left an impression, generally speaking, those books that had what is called an influence on me.

认得几个字的人,从小到大,从生到死,估计难免会受过几本书的影响——许多国人主要受教科书的影响(如果那些玩意儿也叫书的话),老天保佑,无论在我心中还是脑际,教科书≈垃圾,这里说的是书的影响——不是教科书。

Those who can read a few words, from young to old, from their cradles to their graves, probably find it hard to avoid being influenced by a few books- the main influence on many Chinese is textbooks (assuming those things can be called books), and God bless ’em, so long as there’s a brain in my head, textbooks will be rubbish, what we’re talking about here is the influence of books- not textbooks.

《中国古代文学作品选读》(大约是这书 名),共有五册,少年儿童出版社出版,其中含有《诗经》、《山海经》、《唐诗三百首》等历代各种体裁的文学作品,记得小时候大概是三年级九岁,父亲买了这 套书来折磨我,折磨的具体方法是他将书中白话翻译部分用白纸贴上,让我仅仅靠着读注释就读懂,有时候我实在读不懂,就会偷偷地把书拿到灯光下,用强光穿透 贴层,看那些被贴上的部分——呵,作弊,读懂了。其中不少内容是背诵过的,可是我天生记性不好,就是记不住——只有看笑话才能记住,所以至今脑子里尽是些 无用的东西。

A Collection of Chinese Classical Literary Works (the name of the book was something like that), altogether five volumes, published by the Young Children’s Press, and including the Book of Poetry, the Classic of the Mountains and the Seas, and 300 Tang Poems and other examples of every kind of literary work from successive dynasties: I remember, about when I was in the third grade, about nine years old, my father bough this set of books to torment me with, the main form of torture being to cover with white paper the vernacular translations in the books to make me understand the readings relying only on the annotations. Sometimes I really couldn’t understand, and so I would secretly take the book under the lamp and use the strong light to shine through the paper and read the covered up parts- ha, I understood by cheating. Some things I recited, but my natural memory is not good- it’s only by reading jokes I can remember, and so right up till today, all that is in my brain is useless stuff.

Actually, I’m going to stop there. I ran up against a sentence I can make neither head nor tail of. It’s easy enough, for my own reading, to skip over a sentence or two here or there and continue with the rest, but I can’t go leaving a big hole in my translation. The sentence in question is this:

后来之所以动不动就手痒效颦

Well, no, that’s actually only the one clause that’s got me tripped up. I understand the rest of what’s going on in that paragraph (I think): He talks about the 《唐代三大诗人诗选》/Selection of Three Poets of the Tang Dynasty, and how, even though he memorised all the approximately 100 poems in that slim, blue-covered volume probably also published by the Young Children’s Press, he can’t remember any of them today.

He goes on to list other books he read as a child and how. For example, his father wouldn’t let him read the children’s edition of Journey to the West, he had to read the original. But it wasn’t till he’d grown up that he recognised the beauty of the original text.

But wait, scanning ahead (yeah, cheating, I know), all of a sudden a couple of foreign names crop up. Now what kind of foreign books could a Chinese kid have been reading nearly 30 years ago?

 

《汤姆索亚历险记》、《哈克贝利 芬历险记》,都是马克吐温的作品,也是老爸逼读书,初一那年读的,情节自是记不得了,只记得他们的勇敢、仗义,还记得汤姆这小屁孩居然知道躲在僻静处强吻 小姑娘,算是恋爱。那时候还写过《汤姆索亚历险记》的读后感,算是平生第一次写书评,还得了个县里的什么少年儿童读书奖,至今喜欢写书评,可能就源于那时 候。

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both by Mark Twain, are also books my Dad forced me to read. I read them when I was in Junior 1 [first year of middle school], but I can’t remember the plot myself, I can only remember their bravery, loyalty, and I remember that little brat Tom suddenly knew to steal a kiss from the girl when they were in a secluded spot, which counted as being in love. I also wrote an essay after reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the first time in my life I wrote a book review and won some prize for young children’s reading in the county. I’ve enjoyed writing book reviews up till this day; perhaps this is why.

I also read those two books as a kid. To be honest, I’m not sure I can remember much more of them than Xiao Han can. It took me several attempts to read Huck Finn, I found the dialect so impenetrable.

And anyway, it’s a good thing I stopped there: skimming is enough for several paragraphs, them being as much lists of authors and/or books, many foreign (and the Chinese versions of foreign names don’t always bear that close a resemblance to the original foreign names- it can be quite a mission figuring out who or what is being referred to sometimes). Still, it is an interesting mix of authors, books and opinions. No, I’m not even going to attempt to translate the whole thing. Some of the foreign books and authors, I just can’t figure out what or who they are. Just going to cut straight to the last paragraph:

虽说转眼过了近三十年,以大学毕业为界 也已16年,可我父亲——那个在我小时候给我确定“逼读书”的托尔斯泰迷、巴尔扎克迷,并未老去——他正在执行去年制定的十年写作计划。这会儿,我环顾书 房四周,灯光下、书柜里,这些老朋友静静地凝视着我,和我父亲一样,他们也没有老去,如此,我也不会老,我想。

Although these thirty years have passed in the blink of an eye, it already being 16 years since I graduated from university, my father- that fan of Tolstoy and Balzac who set me “compelled-to-read books” when I was a child- he is carrying out the ten year reading plan set last year. This time, as I look around the study, under the lamplight, in the book cabinets, these old friends are gazing at me, and just like my father they haven’t aged, and I think, in the same way, I won’t get old.

And I suppose, if I sat down to think about it, I could also compose a long, rambling list of books and authors that have influenced me. But it wasn’t my father who forced me to read; on the contrary, if my parents ever needed to find me, they’d go to my bedroom, and nine times out of ten I’d be happily curled up inside reading a book and dreaming…

 

6 Responses to “à la recherche des livres perdus”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Man, great stuff, Wangbo!

    后来之所以动不动就手痒效颦…I am not too sure what he meant either. There is an idiom, 东施效颦, which means 比喻不了解人家真正长处,而去生搬硬套,结果事与愿违。也泛指机械的模仿者愚蠢可笑。

    http://baike.baidu.com/view/8805.htm

    Maybe the author also writes poems, and that is just a modest/self-deprecating/funny way of saying it.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for that. My wife wasn’t much help, either, she said there’s a lot in Xiao Han’s writing she has trouble figuring out, too, but I think you might be on to something with that explanation, I’m looking into it now.

  3. kmm Says:

    Who is Xiao Han?

  4. wangbo Says:

    The writer of that blog post I translated excerpts of here, his blog is at
    http://blog.sina.com.cn/xhzyt
    Can’t find terribly much information about him on his blog, though.

  5. kmm Says:

    Ah, okay. I was wondering if he was some big name in Chinese blogging. I like what I saw on his site–but I had a bit of trouble with his Chinese (your Chinese must be better than mine if you only had trouble with that one sentence . . .)

  6. wangbo Says:

    I cheated by skimming through a lot of that post…

    I don’t know enough about the Chinese-language blogosphere to know how big a name he may or may not be.