Book name: Six Records of a Floating Life
Author: Shen Fu
Publisher: Penguin (English)
Format: Print, ebook
Publication Date: 1877
Star Rating: 4/5
Although published by Penguin Classics in 1983, Six Records of a Floating Life was written in 1809 when its author was 46.
Although described as six records only the first four chapters are considered genuine, the other two being outed as copies of other works and not by Shen Fu at all.
Accordingly, the Penguin version is split into just four sections.
The story is of the life and times of Shen Fu, so it is directly autobiographical.
It isn't written as a linear chronology but as a series of themed records: 'The Joys of the Wedding Chamber', 'The Pleasures of Leisure', 'The Sorrows of Misfortune' and 'The Delights of Roaming Afar'.
The first chapter is probably the most personal, describing the arranged teenage marriage of Shen Fu and Yün and their subsequent happy life together.
It is full of sadness when they are separated by events such as his study away from home, her lengthy illness and finally her early death. By that time, Yün has given her husband a son and daughter.
The style is unusual in that it refers in passing, apparently quite casually, to some heartbreaking events such as leaving their children behind when going to stay for years with friends because they have fallen out with Shen Fu's parents.
But the pain both felt at these occurrences is always detailed very honestly. In this way the book is a moving portrait of a life full of ups and downs, the challenges of which Shen Fu does not often meet successfully.
It feels like a tightly composed story written by a man for whom life had been quite disappointing and who wanted to be honest about both good and bad but felt pained by loss and wanted to avoid dwelling upon it.
By the time Shen Fu wrote this book he had lost his son at just eighteen years old a few years earlier and his beloved wife had already been dead for six years.
I liked Shen Fu. Much has been made of his unreliable nature, but as the introduction made clear the opportunities available to someone of limited education and means were not great. And his behaviour around courtesans was merely a reflection on the culture in which he lived.
His wife arranges the courtesan for him as a gesture of status, but they can't really afford to keep one and the attempt comes to nothing.
He was resilient and gracious in the face of life's trials. He had a good sense of humour and was thankful when things did go well.
This slim volume isn't quite like any book I've read before. The emotion was entirely sincere, the sadness all-pervading and the simple telling of the tale felt completely natural.
It was fascinating to get a glimpse into life in another culture of two hundred years ago, but more than anything I was left with a powerful sense of the universality of human experience.
It might take a different form, but so many of us could say something profoundly similar about our lives today.
Thank you for reading my review.
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