Qian Zhongshu Should Win the Nobel7 min read

Why the postwar novel Fortress Beseiged deserves a re-read – Brendan O’Kane

Qian Zhongshu is a tough pitch to win the Nobel prize in literature this year. He’s dead, for starters – traditionally an obstacle to many things, including winning Nobel prizes – and his total creative output consists solely of a few essays, several short stories, and a single novel. On the other hand, that novel, Fortress Besieged, seems to me to be the high-water mark of something significant, if hard to explain, so I’m going to make my best case for it being enough to secure Qian’s place in history. The book takes its title from a French proverb, sets its action in the China of the 1930s, and tracks the misfortunes of Fang Hongjian, a feckless, cowardly student returning from Europe with a mail-order doctorate in Chinese from an American university that exists only in the imagination of a crooked Irishman. It may be one of the most cosmopolitan books ever written; certainly it is, as literary critic C. T. Hsia said, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century.

Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998)

We meet the protagonist, Fang Hongjian, in the summer of 1937 as he and his fellow Chinese students return to China aboard a French steamer. He livens up the journey by flirting unsuccessfully with two of the female passengers. In Shanghai, which has just fallen under Japanese occupation, Fang renews his acquaintance with one of the young women, a PhD named Miss Su – and promptly falls for her cousin. He clammily courts both women for a time before working up the nerve to break things off with Miss Su, who has been expecting Fang to propose to her. In retaliation, she destroys any chance he might have with her cousin.

Shanghai proving a downer, Fang takes a teaching job at Sanlü University, a newly established school in China’s interior, but en route there he and his traveling companions continually encounter hassles and hardships. Once at Sanlü, Fang quickly finds that the other teachers are pompous frauds, backstabbers, and brownnosers. (One of them has a doctorate from the same fake university as Fang and is desperate not to be found out.) Circumstances push Fang into the arms of Sun Roujia, a young English teacher. After Fang’s contract is not renewed for a second year, he marries Sun and they return to Shanghai. There, their relationship (never very strong to begin with) collapses under the weight of their unhappiness.

There’s a lot missing from this summary, of course – in particular, the erudition and humor that make Fortress Besieged so unlike any other Chinese novel of the past century. Raised by Confucians and educated by missionaries, Qian studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and drew upon the literary traditions of a half-dozen languages in cracking wise and devising epigrams that have made him legendary to Chinese readers. (Many of these, unfortunately, are blunted in the novel’s sole English translation, a 1970s relic.) He had a keen eye and a sharp pen, and many of his characters still resonate. There’s “Jimmy Zhang,” a Shanghainese comprador who peppers his speech with malaprop English words and insists on being addressed by his English name. There’s Fang Hongjian’s father, a country gentleman who expatiates with classical allusions and hoary clichés. There’s a Cambridge-educated modernist poet who has entitled his unreadable, heavily footnoted magnum opus “Adulterous Smorgasbord,” and a philosopher who claims a personal friendship with Bertrand Russell (“Bertie”) on the strength of a form reply to his fan mail, and tells people that Russell came to him with questions only he could answer. (“This was no idle boast, Heaven knows. Russell had personally asked him when he would be visiting England, and whether or not he had any plans for his visit, and how many lumps of sugar he took in his tea.”) And there’s Fang himself, a gormless fraud and moral coward who at one point tells a lecture audience that the only two Western inventions to have caught on in China are opium and syphilis.

“I talked to Bertie about his marriages and divorces once,” Shenming said. “He said that there’s a saying in English that marriage is like a gilded birdcage. The birds outside want to get in, and the birds inside want to get out, he said, so divorce leads to marriage and marriage leads to divorce and there’s never any end to it.”
“There’s a saying like that in France, too,” Miss Su said. “Only there it’s about a forteresse assiégée – a fortress under siege. The people outside want to storm in, and the people inside are desperate to get out.”

The metaphor (from the French “Le mariage est comme une forteresse assiégée; ceux qui sont dehors veulent y entrer, et ceux qui sont dedans veulent en sortir“) functions on many levels. In Qian’s satire, Fang finds disillusionment and disappointment in wartime Shanghai (full of frauds, phonies, and toadies), the relatively safe interior (where an innkeeper attempts to convince him and his traveling companions that maggots on their dinner are merely “meat sprouts”), the security of an academic career (Sanlü University proves to be a hotbed of petty intrigues), and the prestige of an international education. The image of a fortress under siege also applies to China itself: Fang and his compatriots return to Shanghai just in time to catch the Japanese invasion, and although Qian was much too subtle a writer to foreground the war and occupation – Fang leaves Shanghai to escape a broken heart, not the Japanese – they are a constant presence throughout the novel.

The original cover of ‘Fortress Beseiged’

In Qian’s short story ‘Inspiration,’ the spirit of a recently deceased author is confronted in the afterlife by the shades of characters from his novels who charge him with murder and theft for having robbed them of life in his works. It would be hard to make either charge stick in Qian’s case – but as memorable as the characters that populate the first sections of the book are, there’s a definite change of tone about two-thirds of the way through Fortress Besieged, when the focus shifts to Fang Hongjian and Sun Roujia’s unhappy marriage. Here wit gives way to greatness, as the wisecracks and epigrams take a backseat to a heartbreakingly sensitive depiction of a failing relationship. 

Qian never completed another novel. The manuscript of a second book, Baihe Xin (literally Lily Heart, inspired by the French expression cœur d’artichaut), was lost when he and his family moved to Beijing in the summer of 1949, and Fortress Besieged remained out of print on both the mainland and Taiwan until the early 1980s. Qian turned his energies to classical scholarship instead, culminating in the monumental Limited Views, a critical overview in Literary Chinese of China’s classical literary tradition viewed through the lens of Qian’s polyglot bibliophilia. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen someone name-check Susan Sontag in the language of Confucius.) Qian professed to have left his career as a novelist behind him, but a 1985 essay written by his wife, the playwright and translator Yang Jiang, suggests otherwise:

“After Fortress Besieged was reprinted, I asked if he wouldn’t be interested in writing another novel.”
“The interest is there,” he replied, “but my powers have waned over the years. To want to write, when there is no chance of writing, is a lingering regret – but to write something that isn’t any good, once one does have the chance, can only end in remorse. The former at least leaves some room for self-deception; the latter is what the Spanish call ‘el momento de la verdad’ [the moment of truth], and it leaves no room for self-deception, escape, or mercy. Better regret than remorse.”

They don’t give Nobel prizes to dead people; they don’t give Nobel prizes to people who only wrote one novel; and they don’t give Nobel prizes for counterfactuals. Fortress Besieged will have to stand on its own merits, a monument to what might have been. ∎

This first piece appeared in LARB in October 2013, and is republished this Nobel season with permission.