When I was a child, my mom used to drop me off after school at my grandma’s, where I would sit with her in the living room doing my homework while she watched television, dozing off on a recliner set between a woodstove and a sewing machine. We had an unspoken ritual back then: school ended at 4, so I’d arrive at her place around 4:15; she’d then fix me a quick snack (she used to make sandwiches by emptying out the butts of a bread loaf and filling them with homemade plum jam); and by 4:30 we’d both be in the living room—me scribbling away pensierini on my large-ruled notebook, her eagerly waiting. Timing was essential, in that The Bold and the Beautiful (or simply Beautiful in its Italian adaptation) would start at that time and there was simply no way she’d miss the opening credits. On her bathroom sink she would always have a fresh bar of Palmolive soap, so that her hands’ soapy scent, together with the opening theme of Beautiful, are among my most vivid memories of her. (In Italy we do not call them “soap operas” but telenovele, betraying Latin American cathode-transmitted affiliations that—but this is a guess—may have something to do with non-Protestant, Mediterranean sentimentality, loud voices, and flowery use of hands in conversation.)
In the spring of 2017, I was commissioned to translate into Italian the novel Jia (Family)—the sprawling saga of a rich bourgeois family from the city of Chengdu, set during the turmoil of early republican China, written by the Chinese writer Ba Jin (1904–2005), mainland China’s most beloved modern novelist and patron saint of all literary teenagers in love. This novel is a modern classic that deserves as large a readership as it can get, though when I started to translate it, I found myself battling with the feeling of having to justify my work to readers or, rather, to speak on behalf of Ba Jin himself. While Jia offered a unique cross section of a crucial turning point in Chinese history (that is, the early steps of the republic in the aftermath of the Manchu empire’s demise), the novel was also laced with such sappiness as to make it all but impossible to read for a modern reader weaned on postmodern irony and detachment. As a translator, I felt I was willfully ignoring the elephant of Ba Jin’s sentimentality standing in the middle of the reader’s room, even though this animal was so big that it impeded any kind of movement whatsoever.
Jia came out when my grandma was born; it was serialized between 1931 and 1932, and then collected in a single volume in 1933. By that time, Ba Jin had already been heralded as the voice of his generation—that is, the generation that came of age and lived through China’s zeitgeist-shattering transition toward modernity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jia is a bildungsroman inscribed in a family saga, which tells the story of three vaguely Dostoevskian brothers—Juexin, Juemin, and Juehui—trying to come to terms with an old world falling apart and a new one still in gestation. These characters punctuate a wider spectrum of human types that exemplify different ways of dealing with radically changing times. The two extremes of this spectrum are vividly defined by the stubborn, calcified conservatism of Master Gao on the one hand and by the revolutionary zeal of young Juehui, the (self-styled) “rebel” of the Gao family, on the other. Within it lies a chorus of tragic figures who either cling desperately to the fasts of a bygone era or desperately strive to escape from it. The results of these efforts are often tragic, though this is mostly a tragedy of the young—“a generation bound to suffer, to carry the weight of its country whole”—and especially of the woman. In fact, while the three young, idealistic brothers eventually find their way in the world, their three female counterparts (Mei, Ruijue, and Mingfeng) do not, and their deaths (by disease, childbirth, and suicide) mark more than anything else the unfolding of the novel’s plot. This is a plot that soon unravels into many individual but intertwining strands, each one of them representing a dramatic spin-off of tear-soaked monologues and emotionally hypercharged exchanges about love, life, and the nation, performed among perpetually falling flowers, reflected moons on nocturnal lakes, and forlorn flutes playing distant melodies in the dusk.
Ba Jin’s sentimentality was the real thing, but even so, it took me some time as a critic to un-roll my eyes against the soapier passages of the novel. The examples abound: in one scene, the character of Mei, a young woman who is trapped in an arranged marriage imposed by her family, actually picks up an injured butterfly and pities her inability to fly away; in another, the two brothers Juemin and Juehui, who (the reader is told) lost their mom when they were kids, actually stop at the base of a weeping willow and tear up at the sight of a crow’s nest from which two chicks are desperately peeping for their mother to come back; in yet another one, a servant dies of a broken heart in the middle of a snow-covered street on the night of New Year’s Eve, after seeing his former masters passing by. Eventually, what struck me was the complete absence of irony in these scenes. In Jia, Ba Jin elevates the single-entendre expression of feeling—an outpouring of enthusiasm, sadness, angst, misery—as the chief defining trait of his characters, and he does so with such an earnestness of intention that the reader is given no middle ground whatsoever: either you embrace the feels—the boldness of the bold, the virtuous beauty of the beautiful—or you miss the point completely.
Being myself a scholar of Chinese literature, and as such required by contract to maintain a certain degree of highbrow composure, I do feel slightly uncomfortable in drawing direct comparisons between Jia and soap operas. Ba Jin is no James Clavell, after all, and Family is certainly not like The Thorn Birds (more like Gone with the Wind meets The Brothers Karamazov, I’d say). Still, it seems to me that all these texts (The Bold and the Beautiful included) demand a similar unspoken agreement with their consumers—a provisional suspension of ironic disbelief similar to that of my grandma when she sat in front of the TV. If one decides to play the author’s game and engage the text as the text evidently asks to be engaged, then this barrage of mushy feelings opens up to something else: sentimentalism becomes sentiment, in that the unfiltered outpouring of feeling reveals a purpose that goes beyond self-indulgence. As Roland Barthes wrote in A Lover’s Discourse, “It is no longer the sexual which is indecent, it is the sentimental—censured in the name of what is only in fact another morality.” The purpose of Ba Jin’s Jia is indeed the definition of a new sense of morality, in that the novel voices an attempt to break away from the rigid hierarchies of Confucian tradition and give expression to a new, modern subjectivity in the making. In fact, a shift in the coordinates of morality seems to mark the maturation of Jia’s characters: a new worldview imposes itself upon the remnants of the old, and it does so by giving voice to the subject—the individual—against the faceless authority of tradition. It is not without reason that Juehui, the novel’s hero, often reasserts the value of his own “moral sense” and “rigor . . . which is much stronger than that of the rest of his family.” In Ba Jin, the excess of tears and cries, the always declamatory stance of his heroes, the blatant symbolism of falling flowers, dying butterflies, and forlorn flutes are not staged for their own sake, but rather serve the novel’s radical goal: to emancipate the individual from the apparatuses of control of family, society, and the state through the expression of his or her feelings.
I am not sure that any of this can be applied to the understanding of soap operas and the psychology of their viewers. To be honest, I doubt that my argument in defense of unadulterated sentimentality can make sense of scenes such as Quinn’s kidnapping an amnesia-afflicted Liam, holding him hostage in a cabin, and telling him they’re Adam and Eve; Bill ordering Justin Barber to push Ridge from a helicopter into the Persian Gulf; or Pam tying Donna to a chair and pouring honey on her in hopes that she will be attacked by a bear—all of these bona fide plot twists in The Bold and the Beautiful’s 30-year-long unfolding. I don’t know if my grandma felt emancipated when she watched Beautiful. Maybe she did, and maybe soaps let her experience what she could not live as the daughter of a working-class family living in a hyperconservative town in Northern Italy’s Catholic heart, who started to work as a kid and by the age of 30 had four daughters and son. What is clear to me, though, is that this kind of emotional overload seems at the very least to gesture at a peculiar something else, to relieve a need that lies beyond mere afternoon laziness in front of the TV set.