History and legend brilliantly combine in this bawdy "autobiographical" account of the life of famed rabble-rousing Chinese versemaker Li Po. A Floating Life is a magnificent portrayal of a critical time in China's history and the life of a literary legend. Nearly 1,300 years after the fact, Simon Elegant's scrupulously researched novel captures the essence of the eccentric bard of spontaneous verse in full splendor and bravado.
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Floating Life based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Reviewed by Randy Farnsworth, author of ¿A Stand Yet Taken¿. As a longtime student of Chinese history, I was intrigued when I came across this book. Chinese history, particularly ancient China, has always fascinated me, and this novel didn¿t let me down. However, it started out a bit slow, and after 20 pages or so, I almost put it aside for something more interesting. The topic may not appear too exciting at first ¿ the life story of a poet in eighth-century China ¿ and it does have a slow start, but A Floating Life is actually a fun book and quite exciting at times. Li Po is a real person, and has had a great influence even to this day. When my Chinese-born wife saw what I was reading, she immediately quoted some of Li Po¿s poetry and told me how he was always drunk. Simon Elegant takes some liberties with the story, but this is a novel after all, not a history book, so don¿t expect everything to be totally accurate. The writing style is interesting: Simon Elegant uses present tense, third-person omniscience for the ¿present¿ time of the story, where Li Po is interacting with a young student who has agreed to write down the poet¿s story in return for instruction in the classic arts. Elegant then switches to past tense, first person limited viewpoint as Li Po relates his adventures. The reader is taken back and forth between the present and past and in a few places it¿s somewhat awkward, causing me to stop and figure out where in the timeline I was. But most of the transitions are smooth, and the present story fits in well with the past, especially as the two stories meet in the end. As Elegant tries to convey a sense of setting and background, he describes with elegant (sorry :-) ) details the life, customs and culture of the time he is writing about. At first I thought he was really going overboard, just trying to show off his knowledge of the era with all the minute facts he could include, whether or not they added to the story. But the problem with my complaint is, they really do add to the story and hurl the reader back in time to Imperial China. The book isn¿t perfect, though, as no book is, and if you¿re not into historical novels in general and Chinese history in particular, you may not find this too interesting. For example, Elegant spends a whole page or more just describing what the emperor served for dinner. I enjoyed reading that; it reminded me of some fancy banquets I attended while living in Asia. But some readers would just scan through that in an effort to get to the real story. Also, I still don¿t see the need for any author to offend the reader with vulgar language. We all know that some people talk like that in real life, but we don¿t need to read it. It really adds absolutely nothing to the book and in reality, detracts from it. That said, however, I appreciate the fact that Elegant doesn¿t dwell too long on sex and violence. He lets us know that the world of Li Po was a violent place and briefly mentions some of the brutality, but doesn¿t disgust the reader with a play-by-play. Ditto on the sex scenes. Lastly, I don¿t know if Elegant has downloaded a dictionary into his brain or what, but he sure uses some obscure language in places. I didn¿t mind that, but I had to keep a dictionary handy to look up some of the words.
¿A Foating Life¿ was my introduction to Simon Elegant, though I had read some poetry by Li Po, not a lot, but enough to remember who he was. The stories Li Po tells Wang Lung are fanciful, but in this often dreamlike episodic tale, we accept them, not as literal truth, but as Li Po¿s version of his life. Does he believe the story of riding on the eagleas it floats in the sky? Probably, years of drinking could have that affect on him. Does Wang Lung? He is the dutiful scribe, writing what his master tells him to write. I imagine a young, alert boy who has enough sense to know when not to contradict. While dictating his autobiography, Li Po was indeed floating on a boat. His life also floated, according to the novel. Where there was hardship, he rose above it to float on the surface, not get swallowed by it. He floated from place to place, never settling for long. Life carries Li Po along. Li Po floats from one thing to another as the impulses, like currents, lead him. The novel gives the reader an insight into Chinese culture of the time. There were religious tensions between the Confucians, Buddhists and Taoist. The nature of public servants appears to be the same regardless of time and country, they still build empires for themselves. The rich and powerful controlled the world, and the ambitious had to follow their rules. Li Po¿s character as he comes in contact with this world is both his greatness and his downfall. Dialogue in a historic novel always jolts me; this is fiction, not history. No historian could possibly know what was said in conversation. Simon Elegant¿s dialogue is often quite stylized, as with Wang Lung replying ¿Yes master¿. It sets the tone and mood. Why does Li Po dictate his life to Wang Lung instead of writing it down himself? It may seem a rather transparent device to have the story told, yet it has the advantage that Li Po can use his life as an example of good or bad to teach Wang Lung, and it gives the author the chance to make Li Po reflect on his own life. By including a character like Hsueh Tao, transposed from anther time, Elegant takes liberties with history. But what¿s a good novel without a bit of romance? I enjoyed the novel. While parts of the novel showed great poverty and suffering, it is far from depressing. While Li Po endured great hardships but he is a survivor. Even if he is now reaching the end of his life, he has had a good life, quite long for his time, and full of adventure. He may have been apprenticed to a Pig Boy, but his life has been so much more fortunate. Will Wang Lung learn all the lessons Li Po tried to teach him, or enough to pass his examinations? Who knows?