What constitutes a classic? And how do you recognize one? Current orthodoxy holds that there’s no such thing, only works that contemporary society feels a need for — economic, ideological and so forth. But there’s another view, namely that certain human creations do stand out by reason of their intrinsic qualities, and that these works retain their eminence over the years irrespective of our passing fashions.
Even so, the second of my initial questions remains easier to answer than the first. Some of the key characteristics to watch out for might be breadth of vision and technical sophistication, plus a refusal to buckle under to the demands of easy reading. But it’s not necessarily a characteristic of the finest works that they make no concessions at all to the reader — many of the greatest books go out of their way to lure and trap us with their magic and charisma.
Wang Anyi’s (王安憶) The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (長恨歌) aims unambiguously for the status of literature from the very beginning, where the spirit of Shanghai is summoned up over some 20 headily evocative pages. This extended eulogy deserves to be printed as a prose-poem in its own right. Surely she can’t keep this up any longer, you think, as one passionate, rapturous groundswell mixing memory and desire follows another. But she can, and does, and on and on she goes, to cumulatively marvelous effect.
Published in Chinese to huge acclaim in 1995, this fine masterpiece has now arrived in an English version. It tells the story of heroine Wang Qiyao (王琦瑤), one embodiment at least of the city’s recent history. She progresses through a series of lovers but fails to establish a permanent relationship with any of them.
First she’s taken up by a photographer, Mr Cheng, and through him wins third place in a beauty contest in 1946. She then becomes the concubine of a powerful entrepreneur called Director Li. After he’s killed in an air crash she moves briefly into the countryside where she meets a poetic but impressionable youth, Deuce. She quickly returns to the big city, however, and, realizing her beauty will one day fade, trains as a nurse.
Next to fall under her spell is Sasha who, with his Russian mother, is “a half-breed child of the revolution.” Then comes Kang Mingxun, the son of a rich factory-owner. By now it’s 1960 and, though famine stalks the land elsewhere in China, Shanghai continues to revel in its egg custard, deep-fried twisted dough sticks and salted pork, and even its filet mignon and pork-chops with onions.
Wang gives birth to a daughter, Weiwei, and the story then jumps 15 years to Weiwei’s adolescence. By now Wang has become a symbol of the Shanghai of old, and is appropriately enough courted by a young fogy called Old Color who, though still in his 20s, is an addict of retro fashion of all kinds. Also onto the scene comes one Long Legs, a kind of aristocratic bohemian with a taste for currency exchange on the black market. As disco begins to dominate the dancehalls, life starts to darken for Wang Qiyao until a final encounter with Long Legs proves more than even she had bargained for.
This is no moralizing tale of the downward progress of a sex-addict, but instead the representation of a kind of modern Everywoman. We are none of us permanent residents in this world, the author implies, but instead are “ephemeral but recurring.” And a life of this kind illustrates that fact far better than a tale of a happy and faithful wife ever could.