In the end, probably most people’s lives will become the dash between two dates, neither of which is long remembered. Fudan English professor Lu Gusun’s life deserves better treatment, one dares to hope.
I have never met him, but we have sent each other scores of e-mail messages. The phrase “distant intimacy” best describes the kind of relationship we maintained for a number of years.
Letters, whether electronic or handwritten, are curious things, as they can both reveal and conceal the letter-writer, who can allow the soul of his fine thought to be embodied in a fine sentence, or who can inflate words and devalue them, overuse words and exhaust them, abuse words and traumatize them. More often than not, Professor Lu’s letters are revealing, occasionally in a startling manner.
For instance, he writes in one letter: “足下大概可以看出我这人的缺点了：我不是学问家，做教授是misfit了，可能更适宜做个记者什么的（当然不是在这儿)。"
Another instance is his candid opinion of Qian Zhongshu's English (钱钟书的英文). Against the roaring propaganda, he points out to me that Qian's English writing can be "affected" (做作) or "turgid" (浮夸), and that Nabokov's English is far better because his writing is "never stilted." Let me quote him:
"no, Mr Qian is not a Nabokov in many ways. for one thing, his penchant for antiquarianisms is deep-rooted in the peculiarly Chinese divide between 'guwen' and 'baihua'. When transplanted in writings in English, such predilection would make him affected or even turgid at times. N's English may smack of exotic laboriousness because after all English isn't his native language but he is never stilted to me."
The third instance is his doubt about English majors (英语专业的学生). He opines: "non-English majors are oft not only smarter than english-majors. they also work harder, feeling more keenly the importance of english. this is what i had discovered long before the cul rev -- an observation reinforced now."
Since my major is science, I am thankful that he did not regard me as more foolish than I might have been had it been English.
In the London-based Granta magazine (issue #77, spring 2002), Lu Gusun was one of twenty-four authors who offered their thoughts on the subject "What We Think of America." One wishes he could have written more in English, not only as an academic, but also as an essayist. The American writer John Cheever remarked, "A page of good prose remains invincible." Did Professor Lu ever write in his life a page of good English prose or, failing this, a good English passage that would break the hearts and build the minds of future generations? It's a sad question to ask, for the answer is entwined with the unfortunate fact that there is no paper or journal in mainland China in which he could have published such English essays as he had done once in Granta. The freedom of expression may be a minor matter, yet if it existed in China, he might have availed himself of it and developed a major English prose style as graceful and memorable as that of Lionel Trilling or Isaiah Berlin.
Nonetheless, so much did he enjoy reading that his passion for books was palpable in many of his letters to me. The pleasure he drew from books was impractical, intense, and final, as they were his true companions that formed the details of sunset before darkness descended. If living means accepting the loss of one joy after another, then for him the joy of reading must have been the last thing the loss of which he accepted.
May he rest in peace!
Granta #77 (spring 2002)