Graham Sanders’s 2011 translation of this memoir (previous translations were called ‘Six Records of a Floating Life’) is a gem. Its author, a Qing dynasty private secretary, was born in 1763, and the book was first published in 1877, after the unfinished manuscript (it includes only four of the titular six records) was discovered in a secondhand bookstore in Suzhou.
Shen Fu calls himself a scholar but, like his father, he failed the civil service examinations, and much of the pathos of the memoir comes from the tension between the life of leisure that he and his wife wish to lead and what they must forego in order to afford it — their literary drinking games, for example, mean they have to pawn their belongings to buy wine, and sometimes they wear such threadbare clothing or scruffy shoes that they don’t think it respectful to call on friends at their workplaces.
Relationships, whether with family members, friends, sworn siblings, potential lovers, community members or monks, are portrayed in all their nuance and social intricacy, but it’s the relationship between Shen Fu and his wife that is most remarkable and moving. In fact, Six Records is in large part a depiction of the deep love and intimacy between Shen Fu and the intelligent, talented, hardworking and forbearing Yun, whom Shen Fu mourns after her death, possibly from ovarian cancer, at only forty-one years of age. Shen Fu’s relationship with Yun makes him something of a feminist for his time; it is intriguing to see their anguish over some gender-based social mores and their attempts to circumnavigate them. It was with great delight that I reached page 59 before it became apparent that the couple did have children — such is Shen Fu’s devotion to narrating his life with Yun.
In his introduction, Sanders beautifully describes the highly innovative narrative structure of ‘layering episodic narratives atop one another':
Each record starts and ends at a different point in his life, yet they all overlap significantly in the time they cover. The narratives proceed chronologically put at different paces, expanding and contracting the time of narration at different points in the plot […] The individual records work together to produce a multilayered collage of Shen Fu’s memories; the very structure of the book mimics the shape and behavior of human memory itself. Our memories are selective, inconsistent, recursive, colored by mood; we both recall and forget as a way of finding reasons and patterns in the welter of chaotic particulars and emotional associations that are left behind in the wake of our daily experiences.
I’ve fallen in love with the representations of Shen Fu and Yun as they live on, centuries after their mortal selves have turned to dust. It’s been something of a tendency of late: last month I fell in love with Ibn Fadlan after reading his tenth-century account of travelling 4,000 kilometres from Baghdad to visit the Bulgar khan on the Volga River in present-day Russia. Also, Six Records is one of those books whose footnotes nudge you onto other intriguing books and details that exquisitely expand your frame of reference.
Sanders’s translation brings you so close to Shen Fu that his delight in his soul mate is your own, his heartbreak, yours too.