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BLOG: Difficult, different reading can expand your mind a bit

'Dream of the Red Chamber'

I've been reading a couple of, not obscure, but esoteric books in the past couple of months — "Murphy" by Samuel Beckett, published in 1938, and "Dream of the Red Chamber" by Cao Xueqin, written sometime in the 18th century in China and published first in manuscript copies until its first printing in 1791.

Beckett's work was difficult for me, in theme, allusion and vocabulary. It was his first published novel, and he wrote it in English, while much of his later work, like "Waiting for Godot," he wrote in French. Beckett was Irish but lived in Paris most of his life. He knew and admired James Joyce, and "Murphy" has a bit of the feeling of "Ulysses," in the difficulty of its language and its playfulness. But "Murphy" has a suffusing bleakness that "Ulysses" lacks, thankfully. 

On rare occasions, it's fun to read something mostly beyond your understanding. I couldn't grasp or appreciate much of "Murphy," but I felt it push a little at the walls of my mind. I didn't bother to look up the words I didn't know, except in a few cases, and each time, as with Joyce, I found the word perfectly fit its context. But with the Irish lingo, the French and Latin and the words I had never before seen, I would have spent many hours diving into the dictionary and probably given up rather than try to understand each sentence. 

"Murphy" has no plot to speak of. It is an exploration of one man's psyche and a description of the several other characters who, for a time, revolve around him like planets. It's a very annoying book, and I almost put it down after a few pages. But it's also fascinating in its originality, as Beckett focuses on tiny aspects of Murphy's perception that, you would think, no one could possibly care about, and undertakes to make them matter.

"Dream of the Red Chamber" is really not obscure or esoteric, except from my point of view as an American unfamiliar with Chinese literature. It is considered one of the greatest Chinese novels, and a whole field of study — Redology — has been devoted to it. It's an odd book, at least for my American sensibilities — at first, it seems so superficial, as it dwells on the intrigues and the small pleasures and disappointments in a couple of large, wealthy households comprising matriarchs, powerful men and women and a whole lot of servants, including maids and concubines.

Working out who is who in "Dream" was a task far beyond my capabilities. Not only is it difficult to keep straight the unfamiliar Chinese names of the huge cast of characters, but many of characters are also called something else, a nickname, and many of the nicknames are very similar — like Lao Tai Tai and Tai-Tai. Is that the same person? I'm not sure. But, as with the vocabulary in "Murphy," I just kept reading, making no effort to figure out who was being talked about and often not even knowing if the character was a man or a woman. 

But, as the chapters progressed, certain main characters stood out, and the stakes rose. By the end of the novel, a lot of terrible things have taken place — young women throwing themselves into wells or cutting their own throats over romantic disappointment or embarrassing misunderstandings, a father savagely beating his son — and the scheming and lying and adolescent crushes have become compelling, because the characters take them so seriously. 

Right at the end of "Dream," I picked up a pulpy 400-page early Ian Rankin novel about an assassin, "Bleeding Hearts," for some reason, maybe to escape the claustrophobic world of two Chinese families with too little to do. It is exactly what you'd expect, a bullet-ridden romp that Rankin probably whipped off in less than six months, which could have benefited from the attentions of a strict editor. Almost at the end of it now, I'm ready to go back and finish "Dream of a Red Chamber."   

Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at



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