Why This Book Should Win: Q&A with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen about The Last Lover
Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
The Last Lover – Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, China
Yale University Press
1. How did you discover Can Xue’s fiction? What led you to want to translate this book?
Prosaically enough, I discovered Can Xue’s writing in the same place that so many others have, in a classroom. I doubt there’s a survey of modern Chinese literature that doesn’t include her short story “Hut on the Mountain.” It was immediately clear she was working at a level of experimentation that was on a different plane than her contemporaries, pushing the boundaries of fiction toward something else entirely.
With The Last Lover, it was less a matter of being led to translate the book than leaping at the opportunity to do so. I met Can Xue through Jonathan Brent, then editorial director of Yale University Press, where I worked as an assistant editor in 2007–08; he shared a sample chapter of my translation with the author and the rest went smoothly enough. What kept me translating was the incredible intricacy of the text: the novel yields new insights even after a dozen readings.
2. Anything that a new reader of Can Xue should know before diving in?
When you asked me to speak with your Contemporary World Literature class earlier this spring, one of the students asked the perfect question: is it better to try to make sense of The Last Lover while reading it, or to wait until the end? Wait to the end, if you can. Can Xue’s style of writing tends to resist immediate attempts at sense-making, but to read her fiction carefully, especially in the longer form of a novel, is to realize that there are intricate patterns and motifs woven through the text.
To the extent that there is an overarching narrative, The Last Lover begins in the West and by its end several characters have journeyed to the East, whether in dreams or in person. The primary setting is an unspecified Country A, which some readers have taken to indicate a generalized Occident, and others to be an image of America. But it’s America in the sense of Kafka’s Amerika, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword. You can see how this might be a sort of commentary. The characters have names drawn from many different languages and cultures, with reversals of first and last names as well. The novel features three central couples—Joe and Maria (who have a son, Daniel), Vincent and Lisa, Reagan and Ida—with each chapter focusing on one of these figures.
A self-reflexive theme of reading follows the character Joe, who fails to separate the world of fiction from the world that surrounds him. Here’s a passage from the book about Joe’s reading:
The next day Joe took off from work. He began reading a book with only one page. The book was clothbound, with a drawing of a tall pine tree on the cover. Inside there was a single thick sheet of paper. This sheet could be unfolded to the length of the desk. The picture on the cover appeared to be of an anthill. The periphery of the anthill was densely written over with a miniature text, visible only under a magnifying glass. And once Joe looked with the glass, he discovered that he didn’t recognize a single word.
Then the book starts flapping around the room, then the room starts shaking, then there is an invasion of doves, etc.
The theme of love, too, pervades the novel, although in many ways The Last Lover explores how people are constantly moving away from each other through space and time, both real and imagined. As the distance between the book’s central couples increases, their communication deepens. These forms of communication from afar seem to echo the novel’s central parable about reading.
Finally, there is an interpolation of national history, namely the recurring reference to the 1930s Long March. Although technically the Long March was a very long tactical retreat, it allowed for the consolidation of the Communist Party at Yan’an; it began as a historical event and became a myth of national origins. Within the novel, several of the characters undergo an inner long march, which takes place in the middle of the night, in a not-quite-dream-state, and is associated with the characters Lisa and Maria. Luding Bridge, the site of a central battle during the Long March, also appears at several key moments.
Of course it’s up to the reader to parse and process these various elements—the journey from West to East, the theme of love and communication at a distance, the personal long march—but I hope that outlining them in this way might give hope to someone approaching Can Xue’s fiction for the first time.
For a reader who prefers a naturalizing or domesticating style, the translation might be difficult. Can Xue refers to her writing as having an inner mechanism, which sounds mysterious, but there is an associative logic that runs through all of her fiction. Since it was important to follow this associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow. This was in the service of leaving the reader in English with the same interpretative leeway as the reader of the original, which is a risky sort of thing. This was the first novel I translated, and in other translations I’ve gone in the other direction, but this specific text seemed to call for an extreme level of fidelity: translate everything; explain nothing.
For example, in the fourth chapter, there is a “so-called greenhouse,” a large empty room with small windows and dim lighting. There are earthen bowls arrayed on the ground with coarse sand and seeds in them. The gardener holds a seed and says, “Look, it’s already burst open, but the shoots inside can’t get out. All the seeds here are in the same condition. The flowers open inside of dreams. … the seeds still keep this shape, neither sprouting nor decaying.” The flowers that bloom from these seeds appear at other places in the novel: the character Lisa looks at a tapestry and “there floated up in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out.” There is a family whose rosebushes bloom year-round, become electrified, and are uprooted by the son, whom his father has dreamed of as a body with a rose for its head. These examples are scattered across the book, available for excavation, but might be lost in the translation if any of the individual elements were disrupted: the bowls, the seeds, the flowers.
3. The Last Lover is the second novel by Can Xue to appear in English. Unlike Five Spice Street, which appeared in English in 2009 but actually dates to 1988, it’s a fairly recent work (2005). How would you distinguish her recent books from the earlier ones? In what ways has her writing changed over the course of her career?
Can Xue is perhaps best known for her mastery of the short story: condensed meditations on a single theme, an expanded metaphor, an unnerving turn of events, a strange interaction. In recent years she has been undertaking more novel-length projects, which, remarkably, maintain the same sort of intensity but at an exponential degree of complexity. To me, it seems that the experiments with longer forms mark a key development in her approach to writing.
4. Could you point out one of your favorite passages in The Last Lover, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
Definitely the last chapter. Toward the end of the novel (spoilers), the character Joe disappears into the world of his stories and his wife discovers this world embodied in a forest of books. As I mentioned before, much of the novel treats of separation. Here, there is a moment of joy in rediscovering family bonds, worked across the literalized metaphor of the forest of books.
That night Maria went to the study because she couldn’t sleep. Although she hadn’t turned on the light, she could see that Joe’s bookcases had turned into a dark forest of books. The books had grown large, one book set next to another vertically on the floor, the pages of the books opening and closing.
Maria touched the enormous book pages with a shaking finger. She touched one after another of the letters protruding from the pages, and those letters jumped slightly, giving off electricity. Suddenly she comprehended the book’s meaning. The book told of an ancient, deserted beach. Someone climbed onto the bank from the sea. Sea birds cried ominously in the air. “That man is Joe,” Maria spoke quietly. Then her finger touched the word “Joe.” “Joe, is it you?” she asked.
Over several decades of uninterrupted reading, her Joe had created this forest. And he hadn’t removed her from it. Once she entered, she blended into this place. In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness? She began to walk from one book to another. Dry leaves made noise under her feet; her feet touched a few small stones; she even heard the song of a nightingale. It was inside the pages of the largest book, singing and then pausing.
There was a dim light in the forest of books, but when Maria looked up she couldn’t see the sky. Was there even a sky? There were grass, stones, a path, and she heard water flowing from a spring. But the air was filled with the fine smell of old books. This was Joe’s story. This story belonged to her, forever. Maria’s heart was full of gratitude. She pricked her ears, awaiting the nightingale’s singing again.
She waited till it sang, but it wasn’t one call, it was many, many calls. One rising as another fell.
The very close of the novel turns quite dark again, ending on an intensely powerful image.