Yes, I’m still working my way through The Story of the Stone, though I’m beginning to feel like I’m on the home strait. I’ve been reading for nearly 5 weeks now, which is an age, and I’ve got through about 1,650 pages so far and don’t have a great deal to say about the book itself. The story continues much in the same vein as the first volume: Bao-yu continues to live in the gardens with his various young cousins; he spends much of his time with his maids, loafing around and avoiding his studies; there are arguments and intrigues, many parties, many gifts exchanged, poems written. People live, fight, love. People die. It is life in a microcosm, there are few notable events but lots of inter-relations. Bao-yu’s relationship with Dai-yu is growing, both in intensity and awkwardness. Meanwhile we begin to receive hints that perhaps all is not well with the fortunes of the family – harvests are short and money grows short too.
Rather than focus on the story, I want to take a moment to reflect on the experience of reading this book. More than once I have been reminded of my previous experiences of attempting to read Don Quixote, a book I never finished and could not quite pinpoint the reason why. When I was reading I found the book enjoyable, interesting, yet when I set it aside I didn’t feel any urge to continue. I couldn’t account for it, and eventually gave up entirely. There was nothing at all wrong with the book, I just didn’t need to read it anymore. Towards the end of volume 2 of The Story of the Stone, I started to feel the same way. Perhaps it is the episodic nature of the story, the limited ‘action’ and seemingly trivial details – all the parties, the ‘delicacies’ consumed, the brocade and embroidered robes, the tears, the offences, the little spats and admonishments – which lend a lackadaisical tone to the book and challenge shortened attention spans. Perhaps this is why chunkster books are less prevalent these days. They take patience. Stories develop slowly. We’ve become used to action, points, meaning, developments. But what The Story of the Stone is is a soap opera, perhaps the first of its kind, in which the day to day challenges of an aristocratic family are gently picked over. And perhaps these days such stories are told via TV shows like Meet the Kardashians, but without quite the same level of drama.
Irrespective of this restlessness I continued on, though not before giving myself a little coaching on the need to keep going, to let the story unfold and give it the attention it deserved. And there were hints of something deeper to come. Bao-yu begins to grow dissatisfied with his purposeless life. The family fortunes seem threatened. The cousins are growing up – some are being betrothed or married off, others suffer with delicate health which suggest a premature end. Familiar characters die. And then there’s Wang Xi-feng. I’m not sure if I would have continued if not for Xi-feng. Xi-feng is married to Jia Lian, she is Bao-yu’s cousin by marriage (though referred to as ‘Aunt’ throughout) and she acts as principle housekeeper, purse-keeper and tyranny of servants for both the houses. Xi-feng is quite a character. She is sharp, difficult, tough on the servants, she is avaricious, usurious, grasping and manipulative. Xi-feng’s storylines are the light relief from all the boring parties, the poetry (and I like poetry, but there is sure a lot of it), the refined behaviour. Her storylines are often shocking, her behaviour appalling and yet you find yourself rooting for her because she is simply so entertaining.
I also realised, as I moved more deeply into volume 3, that whilst Bao-yu is the lens, this is largely a story of the lives of girls. Men figure, but they’re often making fools of themselves, being harsh, drunk or seducing the maids. Older women, barring Grandmother Jia, are often behaving pettily or shrewishly. Yet the girls – their lives are cloistered but still rich and they care for each other and Bao-yu ever so carefully. None of the girl’s lives, from the most aristocratic to the lowliest maid, is deemed too small to examine, and they are presented as principled, caring, thoughtful and generally hardworking, whilst also being forthright, honest and often sharp-tongued. Their lives can be harsh, but they get on with it the best they can.
Overall, I’m glad I kept going. I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t gradually slowed my reading and also focused on reading the books I own rather than the books I covet. And as volume 3 drew to a close I sensed a melancholy turn – so much is changing in the lives of the children and I sense that adulthood will strip away that carefree ‘live every day as it comes’ feel that the story has engendered so far. Meanwhile the Jias have become like an extended family to me. People are sharp, witty, vicious, caring, thoughtful, principled, intelligent, reprobate. They come to blows and they do idiotic things. They have wormed their way gently into my affections. I’m looking forward to reading on.