Book Of A Lifetime: Second Best Moments in Chinese History, By Frank Kuppner


Darian Leader
Friday 11 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Second Best Moments in Chinese History by Frank Kuppner

Some years ago, when artists and writers frequented the Groucho Club, there was much excited late-night chatter about founding The Frank Kuppner Appreciation Society. Stationery would be printed, and the Glaswegian electronics engineer transported first-class to one of London's top hotels, where a reading would be arranged. Sadly, perhaps, the scheme was never realised. It was feared that the author of 'The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women', 'A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty' and 'Second Best Moments in Chinese History' might feel like a performing monkey, obliged to showcase his skills to an audience he cared little for.

His books continued to circulate, passed from hand to hand feverishly, and lines from his verse extracted and adored. How much lighter life seemed when one could at last acknowledge that "Life is a dinner party without a host./ And, frequently, without a dinner party either." And how much richer both religion and language felt when the poet observed that "God is real, but not as we use the word 'real'./ Or, for that matter, as we use the word 'God'."

With a masterful palette ranging from Stoic philosophy to theology, physics and Oriental aesthetics, the reader not only delights in the unlikely concatenations Kuppner orchestrates but also learns something. The constructions and fancies of human knowledge are continually offset against the worldly and the trivial, or a perverse baseline of sexual desire. "'From which we may deduce', said Avalokiteshavara,/ As he was carried feet-first out of the young girl's bedroom,/'That the 54,545 steps towards self-control/ Are not susceptible to short-cuts, really'."

We read of priests, wise men, poets and sages, system building or engaged in spiritual pursuits, who nonetheless keep returning to the brute object of their desire: a naked temple goddess, a neighbour's wife, tattooed buttocks. Animadversions on astrophysics end up with the image of footwear discarded by a bed, a pitcher of wine or some meaningless artefact. "The day after the last day will be of quite staggering beauty/ Rather like the whole Universe waking up in your bed;/ To find itself looking at an imitation antique clock".

This dialectic of the vast and the tiny, and of abstraction and crude desire, is as lively as it is funny. Kuppner uses China as a kind of laboratory, as it includes both the idea of an infinitely precise and focused wisdom and an uncountable mass of people getting on with the drudgery of daily lives. "But if you too lived on a huge stone hurtling through the sky -/ Much of it an explosion - what would you believe?/ What would it be right to believe, in such a predicament?"

Kuppner's poetry invites us to reflect on human knowledge and the ineffable, trivial nature of existence; it is true philosophy. He makes us think about what it means to be alive, and to recognise that "Perhaps life is background music playing in the foreground."

Darian Leader's 'What is Madness?' is published by Hamish Hamilton

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