Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pauline A. Chen

Pauline A. Chen earned her B.A. in classics from Harvard, her J.D. from Yale Law School, and her Ph.D. in East Asian studies from Princeton. She has taught Chinese language, literature, and film at the University of Minnesota and Oberlin College.

Chen's new novel is The Red Chamber.

Last month I asked the author what she was reading.  Her reply:
I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table. For many years, I read only classic novels, but I fell in love with Ondaatje’s writing after seeing the film The English Patient, and then reading the novel on which it was based. Ondaatje is the heir of Virginia Woolf’s shifting multipersonal narration, but while her prose is gnarled and dense, each of his sentences is beautifully spare and balanced. Also an accomplished poet, Ondaatje’s precision in language and ear for rhythm are exceptional. He has the talent of choosing the perfect detail to make a scene or character seem specific and real: Hana playing hopscotch by candlelight, Marie-Neige “gathering her senses into almost clarity” after falling asleep over a book. In China this is called “painting the pupil of the dragon,” that is, the adding the final detail that brings a painting to life. (Interestingly, Ondaatje alludes to a related tradition, Netra Mangala, the painting of the Buddha’s eyes, in Anil’s Ghost.)

The Cat’s Table shows the originality of vision and imagination that distinguishes all of his novels, but it was not one of my favorites of his books. Despite the beauty of the language, the emotions feel slightly muted. Many of his novels intertwine the stories of individuals with larger historic events: World War II, the civil war in Sri Lanka, the growth of Toronto as an immigrant city. Perhaps because the scope of this book was more narrowly personal, I felt that it lacked the expansiveness and resonance of his best work.
Visit Pauline A. Chen's website.

Also see: Alternate opening lines: The Red Chamber.

--Marshal Zeringue