The Golden Lotus, aka, The Plum in the Golden Vase, aka Jin Ping Mei.
I can’t remember where I read about this book, but the minute that I did, I knew that I had to read it. And it hasn’t disappointed, though it’s charms are difficult to explain or put into words.
The book is infamous for descriptions of “physical love” (sex? can we say sex?), but if you’re looking for a titallating read, ninety percent of the internet will do the job much better.
Written in the early seventeenth or late sixteenth century, it takes place centuries earlier, during the notable corrupt Song Dynasty. The main characters are also notably corrupt, led by the wealthy, dissolute, cowardly and not notably bright Ximen Qing.
At the end of volume one, Qing has five wives, one regular mistress (married to one of his employees, who is more or less willing to trade cuckolding for gainful employment), and two servants (one of each sex) with him he sometimes cavorts. And he likes to visit brothels a lot.
At least one of his wives (the deliciously evil and lascivious Jinglian) killed her husband so she could marry Qing and another let not one, but two husbands be falsely accused so that she might be free to marry him.
So we’re not talking sympathetic characters, but it’s still wonderfully compelling and I’m not sure I understand why. Certainly, this vast and different world is endlessly fascinating. The structure is naturalistic and episodic. There’s no traditional plot: time passes and people have sex, waste money, bribe officials, and generally behave like trust fund babies. The part of me raised on the nineteenth century novel is invariably waiting for the author’s moral hand to press down on the scales and give everyone their comeuppance, but would that be for the best? Certainly, I’m not correct to be viewing things through the wrong lens (though it could still happen).
In any case, as soon as I finish Guermantes Way (next up in my Proust re-read), I’ll dive into volume 2.