Book: Shanghai '37 by Vicki Baum

By all rights ought to be good but isn't

Vicki Baum
Shanghai '37
Oxford University Press, 1986 (originally published in 1939)
ISBN: 0 19 583876 9
Out of print, copies in good condition seem to fetch over $20 as of this writing
619 pages

Abandoned on page 452.

Life in Shanghai in 1937, on the eve of war with Japan, ought to be fascinating. At least I think so. And the premise of Shanghai '37 is promising: various people from various places (some Americans, a Brit, a Russian, some Germans, Chinese people of various backgrounds, and a Japanese man) have ended up in Shanghai for various reasons, and the book follows what they do there in the last few days before the first bomb is dropped and they die in the explosion.

Actually, that's what's in the second half of the book. And that's part of the problem. The first half of the book is the characters' back-stories. We find out how it is that Frank Taylor, the American assistant manager of a photography company has come to have a job in Shanghai. And how Helen Russell, the glamorous wife of an rich, abusive Brit, is a Russian orphan. Fleshing out a character's background is a valuable thing for an author to do. But Ms Baum takes us through their entire life stories. Each of first nine chapters gives us the story of one of the characters from birth until the few days before the beginning of the war in Shanghai. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of the detail isn't. It's interesting to know that financial reverses during the Depression in America caused Frank Taylor to take his job in Shanghai. But knowing the name of the typeface he designed and where he sat when he drew it isn't interesting.

And that's really the problem with the book. Ms Baum doesn't manage to suggest anything. Everything is narrated in painstaking, even excruciating, detail. I abandoned the book in one section in which a Chinese man, Lung Yen, who has fallen on hard times, tries to appear better off than he really is when his son unexpectedly visits Shanghai. Since Lung Yen has only been able to find work as a coolie and is an opium addict, he's poor indeed. Ms Baum takes us through his obsessive calculations regarding how many cents he can spend on suitable clothes for himself and entertainment for his son. There's a touching aspect to that. Or there would be if it were dealt with in a few pages. Instead, it goes on and on.

I'd probably have finished the book if I had started it in the middle. But almost 300 pages of back-story had used up just about all of my patience.

The book was first published In German in 1939 with the title Hotel Shanghai. It was translated by Basil Creighton and published in English in the same year. Despite the praise Mr Creighton gets in H. J. Lethbridge's introduction to the 1986 edition, there are more than a few infelicities in the text.

Posted: Mon - May 31, 2004 at 08:00   Main   Category: