First Love – Of the Literary Kind

It has often happened that I read a book by a certain author for the first time and am so impressed that I seek out the rest of the author’s oeuvre only to find that however good the others might be, the first book still seems to be the best among the others.

The Bean Trees was my first Barbara Kingsolver book. It still remains my favourite novel by her, though I later read and loved her other novels including the intense and beautifully written The Poisonwood Bible. I became a fan of Bulbul Sharma after reading her short story collection My Sainted Aunts which is on my shelf of books that are most often re-read. I have read most of her other work but other than the memoir Shaya Tales, found none of them particularly memorable. Her novel The Tailor of Giripul that I preordered and bought as soon as it was released was disappointing. It was overwritten, had a shaky plotline and very little of the warmth, elegance and beauty of My Sainted Aunts.

I have read the complete works of Vikram Seth several times over (except the sentimental ‘An Equal Music’ and the stodgy, prosaic ‘Two Lives’) but none of his books have affected me as much as The Golden Gate which I read first at the age of ten and then again and again and again.

So too, has been my experience with the books of Julian Barnes. I was so enthralled by Flaubert’s Parrot that I had set upon reading everything else written by him. I have enjoyed every book by Barnes that I have read so far, but Flaubert’s Parrot still remains the best of the lot.

The Sense of an ending is a remarkable book which explores key existential questions in depth. The short story collection Pulse paints an intricate picture of human emotions. The estate agent who tries to find love with a Polish waitress and stumbles upon her sad past story, two elderly authors returning from a literary festival reflecting on their early lives and loves, stories which explore marriages from various angles and the dinner party conversations which say little but convey a great deal about the partying friends – each story in the collection provides a deeper insight into the fragile nature of life and relationships.

Talking it Over is centred around three characters of a love triangle – Stuart, Gillian and Oliver who take turns to share their part of the story with the reader. It is one of those books which can be read at various levels – as an easy read on a flight about two friends and their love for one woman, or as a study on friendship, marriage, fidelity and betrayal. The shy, nerdy Stuart falls in love with Gillian and marries her. His friend Oliver who is portrayed as an unscrupulous loafer who had earlier routinely taken advantage of Stuart, falls in love with Gillian on the day of her wedding and begins to woo her aggressively.

While reading this I was reminded of the Basu Chatterjee film Choti si Baat which had a similar storyline, of a timid young man who lacks the courage to express his feelings to the woman he loves and is left watching as an aggressive, smooth talking rival outsmarts him each time. Choti si Baat had the protagonist turning to a kind senior for help who gives him a personality makeover, grooms him into a confident young man and assures the hero and the viewers of a happy ending.

Talking it Over raises several questions on the definitions of friendship, love, marriage, intimacy and betrayal and ends abruptly with many questions unanswered, many threads left open.

In its sequel Love, etc. Barnes returns to the characters after a period of ten years. Some kind of karmic justice has been effected. Stuart is now a prosperous entrepreneur dealing in organic food. Gillian and Oliver have two children, are impoverished and surviving on her income while Oliver is trying to survive a breakdown. In spite of having been through a second marriage and divorce, Stuart is still smarting from the betrayal by his best friend and ex-wife and craves vengeance. Like its predecessor, the book is eminently readable for the beauty of Barnes’s prose, his wit and clever wordplay and perhaps above all, the fickle nature of contemporary relationships and the evolving ideas on the meaning love and marriage in the present day.

I am halfway through Arthur and George which is based on a real life incident, one of the much discussed criminal cases in England in the early twentieth century. Besides providing an insight into the life of an early Indian immigrant to the United Kingdom, the book paints an intimate picture of the celebrated author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his life and writing, and how the creator of so many intriguing mysteries found himself solving a real life crime.

Arthur and George is an excellent book, gripping and like all of Barnes’s books, exceedingly well written. Sir Arthur’s exploration of spiritualism and psychic phenomena add another interesting angle to the book. But to me, Flaubert’s Parrot remains the best among his novels that I have read so far. I hope to read his complete oeuvre someday and wonder if I will like any of his other books better than Flaubert’s parrot.

I have also felt the same way about the books of Kiran Nagarkar and Jeffrey Eugenides – Ravan and Eddie was better than Cuckold, The Virgin Suicides better than Middlesex. But all of those brilliant books call for a separate post.

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