The scope of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone is surprisingly slight for a novel in five volumes, deploying length in the service of detail rather than depth. The reader’s eye is held so close to the action that the bridges between the pavilions in the mansion’s garden seem more and more to separate whole worlds rather than lovers and cousins. But this is an illusion.
Why so much close-up? I kept wishing for a wider angle, until seeing that for these people such concerns are life-and-death: if a misdirected invitation will bring on an illness, it’s worth ensuring it’s properly addressed, in the right envelope, sent with an appropriate maid, at an auspicious moment, and delivered with the requisite kowtow. Anyway, haven’t I been known to spend whole minutes over a text? Xueqin gives as much attention to the triviality of human lives as I do.
The family at the centre of the novel is grand, not imperial. Something less than a revolution could bring it down. For all its stasis, the novel hums with the risk of some future change, meaning that once more the stakes are high. After all, if your life were unrecognisable, whose would it be?