China’s ‘Shattering Dreams’ Dazzle Pearl Buck Biographer: Books

Hilary Spurling
Hilary Spurling who wrote "Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China." Photographer: Graeme Robertson/Profile Books via Bloomberg

We went to talk about Pearl Buck and wound up discussing boomtowns, sea slugs and euthanasia.

Lunch with biographer Hilary Spurling is like the London streets outside -- full of twists, turns and sudden vistas.

She has just been in Asia to promote the Chinese edition of “Burying the Bones,” a mesmeric look at how Buck’s grim youth in China shaped her classic novel, “The Good Earth.” As Spurling hopscotched around Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and up the Yangtze River, she was electrified by the country’s pell-mell building and rebuilding.

“It’s like a series of dreams that keep shattering,” she says, her dark eyes gleaming. “One minute you pass by, and there’s nothing. The next time you come, it’s the home of half a million people. It’s a whirlwind of destruction. It’s also one of creation.”

With her enthusiasm, gauzy white shirt and Matisse-blue earrings, she looks much younger than her 70 years as we talk in the National Portrait Gallery’s rooftop restaurant. A wall of windows affords us views of Nelson atop his column and the Millennium Wheel. Three menus, graced with pictures of Audrey Hepburn and novelist Aldous Huxley, lay untouched on our plates.

Spurling has helped put Buck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, back on the map after decades of neglect. Why did she choose Buck?

“It was my excuse to write about China,” she says disarmingly.

Strangled Babies

Though the place came before the person, she couldn’t have picked a better subject, she says. The result is a book that indirectly measures how far China has come and what remains to be done. Buck grew up in a missionary family that endured the decades of upheaval that followed the Boxer uprising of 1900. Poverty was endemic, famines common. Newborn girls were routinely strangled, smothered or left out for the dogs, a practice that continues in the countryside today, Spurling says.

“It’s misogynist, but it’s a policy that must have started because of starvation,” she says. “Is it better for a woman to watch her children die when she can’t feed them and bear another she won’t be able to feed? It’s not as simple as we think.”

Spurling contrasts the cruelty of Buck’s days with the unprecedented opportunities available to urban Chinese women born in the 1980s and ‘90s: “The world is their oyster, for now. They have social mobility, prosperity, education.”

Huxley for Lunch

About 30 minutes into our talk, we gesture at the Aldous Huxley on her plate and suggest that perhaps we should order. She hadn’t realized it was a menu.

“It’s a portrait gallery. Just give us a picture!” she declares before settling on the pollock with samphire. Then her face darkens with mischief as her thoughts turn to Chinese banquets, where she ate what was set before her.

“So here are these sea slugs, which are as thick as a child’s arm,” she recalls with a grimace. “The first time I had them, they had the skins on. You know how a slug’s skin is sort of pimply? Well, this huge slug had the same skin. Sort of crisp. Blackish.” The second time, they were skinned and tasted “just like you would suppose slugs would taste.”

Not that she has anything against gastropods.

“Little snails I’ve always liked,” she says. “That may be why I don’t eat them. I kept them as pets when I was a child. I wasn’t allowed pets, so my mother didn’t know.”

Living Forever

Though Spurling dismisses “prophesies of doom” about China, she does foresee the day when the Chinese will face a dilemma already confronting the West.

“They will live forever, as we all live forever,” she says as the lunchtime din in the Portrait Restaurant subsides. “Which is a curse -- both on the people who keep living and the people who will have to pay for keeping and feeding them. Hitler did the human race a bad turn because no one now can think of any form of euthanasia, even for the old people -- and I’m speaking for myself here -- who long for it.”

It’s a gloomy subject for a woman who radiates energy and still savors the thrill of the chase. Reflecting on her research into British novelist Paul Scott, Spurling likens her trade to that of a police detective who pulls up at “a playground after some ghastly shooting spree.”

“You arrive and you draw the conclusion that someone with a gun has been through this place,” she says. “But you’ve still got to prove it. Biography is governed by the rules of evidence.”

Spurling’s next book will look at Anthony Powell, the English writer famed for his novels about high society and bohemia in the mid-20th century. The person, in this case, came before the place.

“It involves no traveling at all,” she says with a hint of resignation. “Just Somerset and Wales, I think.”

“Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China” was originally published by Profile in the U.K. (340 pages, 15 pounds) and by Simon & Schuster in the U.S. as “Pearl Buck in China” ($27). To buy the book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley and Hephzibah Anderson are book critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own. This interview was condensed from a longer conversation.)

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