Serve the People!

Way back in 1972, I overheard a kid in my junior high – a strange kid, not really friendly, someone who even at the tender age of eleven or twelve reminded me of my grumpy grandfather – describe the movie, Cabaret, as “pure pornography.”

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(photo from Wikipedia)

Naturally, I resolved to see it that weekend.

I was especially curious because the movie was rated PG and though I’d seen the trailer for it a few times, including the clip showing Liza Minelli lying back on a bed saying, “Doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” nothing at all about the trailer drove me wild with desire. How could it? It was a musical.

Yet I went all the same and when it was finally over, I left the theater intuiting somehow that the whole point of it had sailed clear over my head. In fact, it wasn’t until years later when I read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories which inspired the movie Cabaret that I realized that Michael York’s character was gay, and that the movie was a glitzy glimpse at a “debauched” subculture that was about to get trampled by the encroaching Nazis. (Sorry if in this day and age that somehow turns out to be a spoiler for anyone.)

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(photo from my copy of the book)

Because, dim-witted kid that I was, I was so caught up in sitting in the dark with my popcorn, waiting for all the naughty, juicy stuff, that I missed pretty much everything.

Still feeling a bit burned about having wasted three whole dollars on the stupid movie, I made a beeline for that uptight puritan of a kid when I saw him in school the following Monday. But as I closed in, I realized that to him (and, no doubt, his parents) the movie was pure pornography. It just probably wasn’t to anyone else, least of all me.

Context, I realized then in the most fundamental but unarticulated way, is key.

*   *   *

Serving as a kind of ironic promotional blurb on the back cover of Yan Lianke’s novel, Serve the People, is an excerpt from a report issued by the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau, banning the book itself:

This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the Army, and is overflowing with sex…. Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.

 

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(photo from my copy of the book)

I’m sure the report goes on and on from there. What brought me to the book, however, wasn’t the promise of overflowing sex but another book by Yan Lianke that I’d had the previous pleasure of reading and reviewing, Lenin’s Kisses, the publication of which got Lianke kicked out of the People’s Liberation Army.

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(yep, my copy)

Where Lenin’s Kisses offers an epic look at the volatile balancing act of China’s new-found economic power and clout with its Communist beliefs (in addition to being a bruising, black comedy), Serve the People, is a satirical lark, albeit one that illustrates what happens when the drudgery of a life played out as a cog within the Communist system comes into contact with the utopian experience of love as a revolutionary force.

Pure pornography ensues, right? Not so fast, comrade.

When we first meet twenty-eight-year-old, unhappily married Wu Dawang, he’s been promoted from his position as Sergeant of the Catering Squad (KP duty, basically) in the People’s Liberation Army to General Orderly (private cook and housecleaner) for the Division Commander. No longer forced to live in the barracks with his fellow soldiers, Wu is now allowed to stay in the Commander’s home. In essence, he’s been promoted from field to house slave.

Somewhere age-wise “on the wrong side of 50,” the unnamed Commander, being the steadfastly loyal party member that he is, is always busy and always away from home, leaving his lovely, unhappy, much younger wife, Liu Lian alone and “rattling around” their “Soviet-built military residence,” with no one else for company but Wu.

Take a wild guess what happens next.

At the outset, Lianke seizes every opportunity to make satirical jabs at both the straightjacketed mindset and thunderously joyless tropes of the People’s Party. For instance, when Liu spies on Wu while he works in the garden, the vines she peers through with the Commander’s telescope are “as densely fruitful as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist study meeting.” Wu’s regular housekeeping chores are elsewhere described as “richly revolutionary.”

Unable to contain her desire any longer, Liu one evening after dinner takes a placard that reads, “Serve the People,” and places it on the dining table.

“‘Xiao Wu,’ she said, tucking the diminutive xiao in front of his surname in a casual, blandly affectionate kind of way, ‘whenever this sign’s not in its usual place, it means I need you upstairs for something.’”

Being your basic dupe, Wu has no idea at first what she’s getting at, never suspecting what she could really mean. But eventually, with some “pressure” from Liu, he figures it out.

*   *   *

The phrase “Serve the People” is taken from an actual speech delivered by Mao in 1944 in which he both addressed the importance of cultivating the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of the party while eulogizing a soldier who died in service to the People’s Army. Like many Communist Party slogans, it’s an important one to its members, and possessing a true understanding of its meaning is central to maintaining and proving one’s commitment to the cause.

In this exchange from the book, Wu is grilled on what’s expected of him and what he must always keep in the forefront of his mind.

“‘What is it you must always remember’ the Head of Management had asked, ‘when you start to work for the Commander?’

‘Don’t ask what I shouldn’t ask, don’t do what I shouldn’t do, don’t say what I shouldn’t say,’ he replied.

‘And?’

‘To serve the Division Commander is to Serve the People.’

‘More important even than that,’ the Head of Management added, ‘you must mean what you say, unite theory with practice, and make sure your actions speak as loudly as your words.’

‘Please reassure the Commander that I will speak as I think, and act as I speak, that I will be both Red and Expert.’”

Though Lianke has a bit of fun pointing out the ridiculousness of all the slogans, he also makes it clear that they’re really nothing to joke about.

*   *   *

Once the affair begins, the phrase “Serve the People” takes on an entirely new if obvious charge. As if to accommodate this change, Lianke’s voice, which opens the book in a broad satirical mode, modulates to a more direct and sensual one as he details the brief and doomed florescence of Wu and Liu’s fling.  The sex he describes is neither graphic nor blatantly sensational or even particularly overflowing (at least to the decadent sensibilities of this running dog of capitalism), but I did feel it bore the occasional taint of an all too familiar, idealized, male-dominant sex fantasy – something that seems to be sadly universal, east or west.

What did stand out for me – and what I’m guessing really infuriated the censors of the book – was the three-day blow-out Lianke stages in which Wu and Liu lock themselves in the Commander’s house and challenge each other to see who’s truly the most counter-revolutionary. Between bouts of fighting and “serving the people,” Wu and Liu storm through the place, tearing up and defacing posters of Chairman Mao, destroying banners with party slogans printed on them, even taking two mugs “emblazoned with Mao quotations and portraits,” and throwing them into the bidet.

Within the context of such a controlling and punitive culture, this is radical material in every sense of the word and, reading that section, I could only imagine what is must have felt like for Lianke to actually put that scenario on the page and then push to get it published. Clearly he must have known that he was going to run into trouble for it – and yet he did it anyway.

How liberating it must have felt to ask what he shouldn’t ask, do what he shouldn’t do, and say what he shouldn’t say. And yet, what other choice did he have if he wanted to continue to live with himself?

Where love/lust is a revolutionary force for Wu and Liu, it would seem that intolerance of political hypocrisy and oppression serves as that force for Lianke. He’s a rebel.

Do yourself a favor, pick up one of his books, and read him.

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(photo of Yan Lianke from Time Out Shanghai)

Some People

Until recently, the first thing that I remembered was that railway accident in Southern Russia.

Now that’s an opening line.

But in keeping with the mercurial nature of the book that follows – Some People, by Harold Nicolson – it turns out to be untrue.  After a “curiously vivid” description involving a stalled train on a frozen Russian steppe in the middle of the night, its engine “upwardly belching sparks,” a fire crackling in a burning carriage at the back, and a bundled baby Harold handed down from a window to a sea of waiting hands, the adult Harold discovers, on sharing this memory with his mother, that he’s manufactured it. That while there was a fire on the train, it occurred mid-afternoon on a spring day, and that Harold, at a mere eighteen months, had slept contentedly through the incident. His “cherished mental possession” of the first thing he remembered becomes, as he puts it, “the first of my illusions.”Image

Picture from http://www.somervillepubliclibrary.org

From this startling introduction, Nicolson enters into a gallery of nine sketches of various people from his life who, while not profoundly influential, were certainly memorable. There’s his long-suffering governess, Miss Plimsoll. There’s his not-altogether-bright acquaintance from his pre-Oxford days, J.D. Marstock.  There are Lambert Orme and the Marquis Jacques de Chaumont, literary friends of Nicolson’s from Oxford who he feels compelled to present side by side, not to create a mere study in contrasts but because “Orme and Chaumont complete each other as a piece of buhl is completed by a piece of counterbuhl.” Rounding out the rest of the book are, among others, an acquaintance, Neville Titmarsh, saddled with the regrettably unavoidable nickname, “Titty”; a problematic publicist, Professor Eugen Malone; and a tragicomic, alcoholic valet, Arketall.

Yet nearly all of them, Nicolson confesses, are either composites of other people he’s known or outright fictional creations (except for Lambert Orme, who is a camouflaged Ronald Firbank.)

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Picture of Ronald Firbank from Wikipedia

Which makes Some People, if not strictly memoir or fiction, what then?

To me, it’s a genuinely funny, at times off-putting, always exquisitely written book. An amusement. Or, as Nicolson puts it much more elegantly, “Some People is a study of the influence of the trivial upon the formation of character and the conduct of affairs.”

True to his word, there’s almost nothing “consequential” in these stories. Victories are small and usually petty. Defeats are slight and quickly forgotten. There are no big lessons learned, no life-changing moments. Historic figures – Churchill, Mussolini, the poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio, and the composer Maurice Ravel whom Nicolson dispatches in one line as “a miffy little man,” – all rise up from these pages and leave little trace in their wake.

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Maurice Ravel – A miffy little man. Picture from http://www.biography.com

But the reason to seek it out and read it, the redeeming charm of the book, resides in the surface of Nicolson’s supple prose, which is in abundant evidence on every page.

Here’s a fraction of his deliciously descriptive breakdown of Lambert Orme’s awkward person:

He had a peculiar way of speaking: his sentences came in little splashing pounces; and then from time to time he would hang onto a word as if to steady himself: he would say “simplytooshattering FOR words” the phrase being a slither with a wild clutch at the banister of “for.” He was very shy.

This is a digression about his friend, Titty:

“That man over there,” Titty whispered, “is Baron Aeranthal, the Austrian Ambassador. He’s tremendously clever.” “He doesn’t look it,” I answered, gazing at that heavy, hapless face. “Well, I may be wrong,” said Titty who was always occupying positions which he at once evacuated, “perhaps he isn’t clever….” He was singularly incapable of coordinating his thoughts. They were as otiose and purposeless as tourists stranded between two trains at Dortmund. They just showed themselves, walked about a bit, and went.

On disguising his ignorance about music:

I am not, as I have said, very aware of music, but I can tell when a man plays badly. I have learnt that mere rapidity of motion or that gambit about crossing the hands are not, as tests of excellence, very reliable: the only sure test for the ignorant is the pianist’s treatment of the single note. The bad pianist will just put one finger on that single note as if it were a simple thing to do: the good pianist, who, during the involved passages, will have leant back idly letting his square hands browse miraculously on the keyboard, will suddenly be galvanized into passion at the approach of the single note. His whole body will become rigid with the intensity of his concentration: he will lean close down over the key-board, his trembling forefinger outstretched, and then he will flick at that note with his forefinger, as if a dentist extracting a dying nerve. When that happens I fling myself back in my chair. “Dieu,” I explain, “comme il joue bien. Quel doigté!”

*   *   *

Nicolson, the son of a diplomat, began his own career as a diplomat at the age of 23, and served the British government for twenty years before resigning in 1929. Soon after, he became an MP in the House of Commons and then rode out a varied political existence for himself for the next fifteen years before dropping out altogether to concentrate on his writing. (You can find a more thorough description of his various careers here.) Though Some People was written before Nicolson retired from the Foreign Office, there is in the atmosphere of his observations an uncritical lament for the crumbling British colonial empire. The diplomatic life ahead of him was to be his grand adventure, his endless romance. In the lone “completely factual” chapter about a teacher of his, Jeanne de Hénaut, who was teaching him French and prepping him for the diplomatic way of life, he describes his early starry-eyed and inexperienced view of his chosen profession:

… the models of what we should, and after all could, become were kept constantly before us: they had been men fashioned in our shape, leading the lives we led, sitting at the very table that we then surrounded. And now they were gods: nay, more, they were in the Foreign Office. Of course we were impressed: we had never, somehow, seen ourselves and our impending careers from so cosmic an angle: and with this sudden realisation of our privilege came a fiery sense of responsibility towards ourselves, towards our country, towards Europe, towards posterity…

What he’s not saying – but what runs throughout the book sotto voce – is that it wasn’t turning out to be all he’d hoped it would be.

And with idealized notions like that, how could it have been otherwise?

*   *   *

I bought my copy of Some People from Abebooks, thinking I would be getting the 1957 Vintage paperback edition with the not terribly ambitious cover designed by Milton Glaser.

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Turns out my wife had a copy of the book I was looking for…

What I received instead was this:

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The blurb on the front vaguely promises a sex-drenched saga:

A scintillating, shocking set of people in a glamorous era.

While the one on the back isn’t any better, accuracy-wise:

It was a time when people made their own rules for life and love.

Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Popular Library was primarily a pulp house, and what their blurbs are obliquely referring to – and no doubt hoping to cash in on – was the legend of Nicolson’s bisexuality and his “open marriage” to Vita Sackville-West, lover of Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, among others. (Harold and Vita’s own tortuous, adulterous history can be found in a tersely comprehensive form here.)

Exhausting, isn’t it?

None of this is of course mentioned in Some People, though by the time it was published in 1927, Harold and Vita had been married for fourteen years. Perhaps more to the point, John Lehman, in his 1975 book, Virginia Woolf and Her World, states that “… by 1922, the marriage, except as a deep and lasting companionship, appears to have already been over.”

But why should he say anything about it? Isn’t it a kind of right we have to not tell everything? Isn’t it, in fact, sometimes better not to?

On a final note, Some People, set as it is in the milieu of the upper classes, does harbor occasional attitudes and assumptions that are, shall we say, less than egalitarian. Nicolson was an elitist down to his marrow and does little to disguise the fact. All I can really muster up in his defense was that he was a product of his time. Was he smart enough to know better? Absolutely. Did he work toward broadening his mind about those outside of his class? Absolutely not. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. Still, while I offer that as a caveat, I hope it won’t also serve as a deterrent. Some People isn’t “great literature.” Nicolson himself thought of it as “a lightweight book,” according to his son, Nigel, in his book, Portrait of a Marriage, which looks at Harold and Vita’s mutually agreed-upon arrangement. Yet for all those marks against it, I’d recommend seeking it out. There’s not a boring sentence in it.