The editing history of The Story of the Stone is a complicated one. The main author of the piece is Cao Xueqin, who claimed to have written a work of 120 chapters. However, after his death, all the versions that could be found were incomplete, made up of only 80 chapters. Two bookseller-scholars, Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan, claimed to have pieced together fragmentary manuscripts and to have bought authentic manuscripts from a street vendor to make up the last forty chapters. Debate about this last part continues even today: does any part of it belong to Cao Xueqin, and if so, how much? Is it a barefaced forgery? An edition or annotation of earlier work, as the later authors claimed?
Whatever it is, the fourth volume of The Story of the Stone has a distinctly different feel to me than the first three had (here you can read my reviews of volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3.) I don’t know whether I noticed because I was told there was a difference in authorship, or whether it’s owing to the different translator (John Minford instead of David Hawkes) or whether there really is objectively a difference. But despite the gripping plot developments — the death of a major character, the loss of Bao-Yu’s magical jade, an important marriage, an ongoing farcical attempt at seduction — I felt there was something missing.
For me, the main difference was in the amount of detail. In the first three volumes, every holiday, every party, every little gathering was described in loving detail: we got to see what people had to eat, what they wore, the music they heard, and heard their laughing conversation. It truly seemed like a “Dream of Golden Days” (an alternate title for The Story of the Stone), someone lovingly remembering the marvelous days of his youth. In this volume, however, an important occasion would take place, and the narrator would end brusquely, “They had festivities and plays with which our narrative does not concern itself.” But… but…
The dialogue was also in a different style (this may be a quirk of the translator) and overall I felt the whole thing was less sprightly, less quick-witted. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it; on the contrary. It’s an amazing example of an early psychological novel, and its complexity, its hints of otherworldliness and unreality and mirror-lives, are truly astonishing. Even with the change in authorship and translation, it’s a wonderful piece, and I can’t wait to finish it. Xue Pan has killed a man and his own life hangs in the balance. Bao-Chai has been married; will she be happy? Will Bao-Yu ever find his jade again, or recover his wits? Will Jing-gui get what’s coming to her? And the clouds of ill luck and foreshadowing of evil are gathering over the Jia family… It’s hard to believe there are only 400 pages left to wrap everything up in. I look forward eagerly to the last installment!