Life Style

Language, love and life as an outsider

In author and film-maker Guo Xiaolu's new novel, A Lover's Discourse, the narrator, a young Chinese woman doing her PhD in London, describes the feeling of "wu yu".

It is a kind of wordlessness, she says, a loss of language that has enveloped her amid the strange sounds and signs of a London in the throes of Brexit. When she writes to a love interest about her "wu yu", he suggests that if she is losing one language, she must be gaining another.

"Why can't I hold on to one language while gaining another at the same time?" she thinks. "Why do I have to lose one first?"

Love, language and the lacunae between the two are themes that run throughout A Lover's Discourse, as they do Guo's first novel in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers, written dictionary-style in broken English in 2007.

In a way, A Lover's Discourse is a continuation of this earlier novel – both are about young Chinese women acclimatising to London and new lovers – just as they are offshoots of Guo's own story.

Guo, 47, led a hardscrabble childhood in China and moved to London in 2002 to study documentary film directing.

"I was 30 years old and I began to write like a child in a second language," she recalls over Skype from her home in London.

She has lived in France, Germany, Switzerland and New York. "All these places surrounded me with foreign languages, a third language, a fourth language, and it created this discourse, almost a disharmony, to think and write in. You could be completely lost. I found that very inspiring."

Guo, who was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, is the author of seven books in Chinese and seven books in English.

She was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2017 memoir Once Upon A Time In The East.

Last year, she was one of the judges for the Booker Prize, which controversially named two winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. "It was an amazing experience," she says, skirting a question on which side of the tie she had been on.

In A Lover's Discourse, the narrator and her partner, an Australian-German landscape architect, live on a canal houseboat to escape the strictures of urban living, although she discovers it is not as glamorously bohemian as it seems. Later, they have a baby and she navigates motherhood while struggling with her own sense of belonging.

The parents of Guo's partner, Australia-born philosophy lecturer Stephen Barker, lived for many years on a boat near Queensland in the Pacific Ocean. She and Professor Barker have a daughter, Moon, seven.

But it is not enough to write based on personal experience, she cautions. "It's also extremely important to have the intellectual capacity to write something you have not lived."

A Lover's Discourse is Guo's spin on French philosopher Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1977). She says she loves Barthes' work, his "off-centre way of thinking".

Barthes is best-known for his "death of the author" theory, which challenges the tradition of privileging the author's biography and intent as the controlling meaning of a text.

Throughout her novel, Guo probes the notions of authorship and authenticity. As part of her PhD research, the narrator goes to the village of Dafen in Guangdong, China, where artisans – mostly self-taught – churn out reproductions of masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and more.

Guo, who has made 11 films, went to Dafen to make her 2018 documentary Five Men And A Caravaggio, which follows a reproduction of Caravaggio's John In The Wilderness from its creation in Dafen to its critiquing in London.

"We're coming into this age where everything's reproduced, copied or interpreted in such different ways, where stuff is being mass-produced and democratised," says Guo, nodding to cultural critic Walter Benjamin's 1935 essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction. "It's a great era to think about what is art."

In the novel, she says, the death of the author corresponds to the rebirth of the individual. "We as individuals should be the authors of our own lives, which means we should refuse a mass-produced concept of commercial life. We should invent our own lives."

Guo's father was an artist, which indelibly imprinted the value of art in her young mind. A state painter and a poet, he spent 15 years in a prison camp in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution. Her mother was a Red Guard and later a factory worker.

Born and raised in Zhejiang province, Guo was given away twice as a child, first to a poor peasant couple in the mountains, then two years later to her grandpRead More – Source