Second Best Moments.

A couple of years ago, in this LH thread, Ian recommended Frank Kuppner‘s book Second Best Moments in Chinese History, saying “Everything Kuppner writes is gorgeous. He uses an idiom of surreal wistfulness that might have distant forebears in a few other British writers, but essentially didn’t exist until he invented it”; I recently got a copy for my birthday (thanks, Songdog!), and I’m here to tell you it’s just as good as Ian said. Here‘s a brief review by Darian Leader (“How much lighter life seemed when one could at last acknowledge that ‘Life is a dinner party without a host./ And, frequently, without a dinner party either'”), and here are a few quatrains so you can see what kind of thing it is:

The bureaucrat sighs as he adds up another column.
Who can possibly still be riding so many horses?
He sighs again, and glances down from his low pavilion.
A royal dog is staring at him insolently.

It is said that the great poet often used to fall drunk here,
In this unpleasantly small walled garden.
And, furthermore, that he often used to wake up here,
In this unpleasantly small walled garden.

A marvellous peak – a second marvellous peak –
A foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –
A second foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –
A third foot trembling at the edge of a chasm –

Pensively, the Immortal begins to climb down the lacquer tree.
Hmm. The immediate danger seems to have blown over.
Somehow, he had assumed that this was an uninhabited planet.
He will really need to plan his journeys more carefully in future.

The palace dog is feeling a little confused this morning.
It was fed late, and fed by the wrong person.
The wrong person set it free in the wrong garden.
And still no-one has come to fetch it back.

The bureaucrat sighs as he adds up another column.
Who can possibly still be riding so many horses?
This is just as boring as his previous life was.
Why did he ask to be sent back to what he already knew?

It may not be your thing, but if it is, you’ll be glad to know where you can find 501 of those little gems.


  1. Glad to have introduced him to you!

    I should take my fanboy praise down a gear and admit that it’s mainly Kuppner’s patented Kuppneresque quatrains that are gorgeous. He’s used other vehicles such as mock dialogues, stream-of-consciousness prose, an entire book (Arioflotga) made up of an alphabetic listing of first lines of lost poems, etc. These have their moments, but only moments. I haven’t read any of his novels yet.

  2. Sometimes I read something and think: wow this is so translatable it’s practically begging to be. This is one of those times.

    Then I recall the unfinished projects, the unfinished thesis, the book, the code, and sigh.

  3. I’ve finally finished the book (I’ve been nibbling at it over the months), and I just want to record one cavil: in the last couple of sections, he starts tossing in rhymes for reasons mysterious to me. E.g.:

    One must be careful where one treads in Paradise.
    An infinite number of the lesser Gods
    Are smaller than the least noticeable flowers;
    But still they preserve a few dreadful godlike powers.

    For two consecutive days the fire rages;
    Devouring the palace in successive stages.
    Stairway after stairway crumbles and falls.
    Corpses tumble out from behind collapsing walls.

    I mean, yes, classical Chinese poetry rhymes in the original, but trying to preserve the rhymes is almost always a bad idea (for evidence, see any translation that does so), and more importantly, what is the point of bringing rhymes into a pattern that has been working successfully without them? It jars the reader (at least this reader) and dampens the carefully created effect. But that only affects a minority of the poems even in the last sections, and the book as a whole is wonderfully enjoyable.

  4. Oh, I don’t know. Consider Witter Bynner’s translation of Daodejing 33:

    Knowledge studies others,
    Wisdom is self-known;
    Muscle masters brothers,
    Self-mastery is bone;
    Content need never borrow,
    Ambition wanders blind:
    Vitality cleaves to the marrow
    Leaving death behind.

    Note that content has final stress.

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