The Chinese of olden times believed that immortals who misbehaved in Heaven were banished to live out a human life on Earth, where they might be encountered as wild, eccentric persons of extraordinary gifts. The best known of these “banished immortals” was the poet Li Po, who lived A.D. 701-762.
I think Li is known, at least by name, to most educated Americans. His poems have been popular with translators. “Thoughts on a Quiet Night” turns up all over the place — I recently spotted it in one of Patrick O’Brian’s sea romances.
A Floating Life is a mock-autobiography of Li, supposedly dictated by the poet himself to a young provincial scholar as they travel up the Yangtse River by boat in A.D. 758-759. Li is on the way to exile in far Yunnan Province, punishment for his part in a royal prince’s act of treachery two years before. It is a comfortable journey. Li is under guard, but has servants to attend him and is treated as a celebrity at the various places they stop — his poetry was famous in his own lifetime. At the book’s end, his story told, and the boat by now deep in the Yangtse gorges, Li hears that he has been pardoned. Bidding farewell to his amanuensis, he sails back downriver and out of the book.
The novel therefore consists mainly of Li Po talking about his own life, pausing now and then for exchanges with the young scribe who is taking it all down. As well as providing a frame for the main narrative, these latter interludes are used to give brief sketches of Li’s character and some geographical color. In the most striking of them, Li takes the boy on a boat excursion into some lakeside caves hung with stalactites, where he recites the song of the river-merchant’s wife familiar to us from Ezra Pound’s translation. At this point the boy urges Li Po to speak of his time at the Imperial court. Li at first demurs, but allows himself to be persuaded:
“Very well then,” he says, settling back into the cushioned prow, “I will tell you what happened at court. But first we must row out into the sunlight. For this not a story to be told in the dark.”
From here on we are swept up in the great and tragic events surrounding the An Lushan rebellion of 755, which brought the T’ang dynasty crashing to ruin from the very summit of its glory.
In attempting to reconstruct Li’s life and personality, Elegant has faced two problems: the life was dull and the personality elusive. Apart from a two-year stint at court doing literary drudge work — supplying vers d’occasion and “polishing” Imperial documents — Li never had a job. Poetry did not then, any more than now, offer much of a living. He seems to have survived mainly by sponging off relatives and admirers, travelling constantly — probably to avoid overstaying his welcomes. In outward personality he was the more tiresome sort of bohemian: vain and untrustworthy, an irresponsible citizen, a careless friend (once the conventional pieties of “friendship verse” have been discounted), an indifferent husband and a terrible drunk.
Elegant has tackled these problems very resourcefully. He has fleshed out the life with some picaresque (and, so far as I know, entirely imaginary) adventures. During Li’s spell at court Elegant has him involved with Yang Guifei, the concubine popularly blamed for distracting the ninth T’ang emperor from his duties and thus bringing on the catastrophe of 755. This is unhistorical: Li left the capital for good late in 744, while Lady Yang did not show herself openly at court until fall of 745. But Elegant has been no more unscrupulous on this point than legions of Chinese story-tellers — no more, indeed, than Li Po himself, whose statements about his own life are deeply unreliable. If forty generations of Chinese readers have not minded Li Po’s meeting Lady Yang, I do not think Americans should be vexed by it.
The personality presents more of a challenge. It was a contradiction. For all his faults, Li Po seems to have been one of those people — like William Blake — whose genius shines from their eyes. Intelligent and worldly contemporaries took the “banished immortal” tag in all seriousness. The younger poet Tu Fu, a level-headed sort of bloke, was enchanted by Li, and treasured the memory of their brief acquaintance all his life. This kind of charisma is hard to capture, especially across cultures, but I think Elegant has made a very creditable job of it, deploying his own translations of Li’s poems to great effect. A Floating Life is a charming story, skillfully told.