I was delighted to come across this Brain Pickings article in which Maria Popova mentions how the Brownings’ story ‘remains one of the grandest and most beautiful true love stories in the human record’.
Guess now who holds thee?”—”Death,” I said. But there
The silver answer rang—”Not Death, but Love.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, No. I
I admire Elizabeth Browning in many ways. First, for her poetry that is richly allusive and layered with spiritual and philosophical overtones in places and straightforward and full of candour at others, that reveals a poet’s heart that was concerned not only about love and beauty but also sought to speak for the suffering humanity around her. Next, for her strength of character which helped her to survive a suppressed childhood that had rendered her an invalid, by seeking and finding strength in literature. Above all, I admire her as the heroine of one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.
I read her verse novel Aurora Leigh for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it in a week as though in a trance, enchanted with the prose poetry and surprised at the familiarity of the cycle of stages that the protagonists go through – the brash idealism of early youth, the need to own a cause and fight for it, the obstacles they face from the world, the decisions they take impulsively out of their beliefs, the mistakes they must make and the consequences they must face before they come to the Voltarian realisation that the same truth holds good for each of us. For all of us. We must cultivate our garden.
One of the first things that I did after moving to London was to make a pilgrimage to the Marylebone Parish Church, a place that I had dreamed of visiting for several years. I spent some time in the pew, closing my eyes to the hymns and imagining myself in Victorian England, witnessing a secret marriage. Then I found my way to the little chapel that I had gone to visit. The Browning room was much smaller than I expected, littered with toys and baby strollers. Behind an elevated platform, a stained glass window flanked by angels proclaimed that the poets had been married there. Elizabeth and Robert Browning looked down curiously from the walls at the reader who took selfies with them and then proceeded to sit down and read from Aurora Leigh and some of the sonnets from the Portuguese.
Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou’rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Aurora Leigh, Book IX.)
I think that Aurora and Romney Leigh are one of the few perfect couples in literature, two independent thinkers who loved each other and yet set out on separate paths as artist and philanthropist and finally returned to each other in a reconciliation of art and love. The last few passages from Aurora Leigh echo the perfect partnership that the Brownings shared in literature and life.
“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems very low.”
I had long given up all hope of ever finding the perfect man when I finally met him. He told me in gentle, erudite tones that he found ‘re-reading Muriel Spark to be pure gold’.
I murmured that I adored Dame Muriel, trying to control my eyelashes that fluttered as they drank him in. With tired face and messy hair, he was no Rupert Brooke. But he had the widest smile, kindest expression and gentlest voice as made mundane pleasantries sound like poems. Every glance, every gesture, his every word was pure gold.
I wished myself six years back in time when we might have walked into each other on a cold winter morning in another, my part of the world. I wanted to walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell, listening to the birds and talking about Dame Muriel’s fiction – the possibilities bloomed in a vision of pure gold.
I felt neither regret at parting from him, nor longing to turn back once, though I spied him from the corner of my eye and thought that he looked like an angel in a crumpled cerulean shirt, as our eyes met inadvertently for a fraction of a second before I turned away. I had lived a lifetime within those few minutes of pure gold.
He vanished from my thoughts as I talked with my friend afterwards. But later as I walked by the Cherwell, he beamed at me from the dappled autumn sunlight, and I heard him in the whispers of the breeze that caressed my face. Imprints on the mind and heart, impressions of pure gold.
By the banks of the Cherwell, I sat down and wept, more out of joy for having seen him than because I knew that I would never see him again. Those moments were akin to the joy that descends upon a girl when she tries out a diamond tiara that she can ill afford to buy. But those moments were enough, for they were pure gold.
There is always the next life, as my friend Millie would say. In my next life perhaps, on a joyous spring or balmy summer day, I will walk with him along the banks of the Cherwell with the birds singing to us as we talk about the novels of Dame Muriel. From across time and space, I can see that those moments, all of them will be pure gold.
Out of the many wicked and wonderful books of Fay Weldon, I like the collection A Hard Time to be a Father best. It has a number of little gems including one of the wisest short stories that was ever written.
Happy Birthday, Fay Weldon. (Sep 22)
“I called this story ‘Falling in Love in Helsinki’, not ‘out of love’ because although it’s true I fell out of love with Andreas, out of love with love (which is a real blight), somehow I fell into love with life. Or with God, call it what you will, there in that chapel. Anyway, sufficiently enamoured of just the sheer dignity of creation to realise I shouldn’t offend it the way I had been doing. I think everything’s going to be all right now . . . As for GUP, the Great Universal Paradox, that’s real enough. What I marvel at now is how happy so many of us manage to be, so much of the time, in spite of it.”
Falling in Love in Helsinki: A Hard Time to be a Father by Fay Weldon.
“Bloody men are like bloody buses —
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.”
― Wendy Cope, Serious Concerns
The world needs more poets like Wendy Cope. While I am all for the avant-garde experimentalists who write in obscure paragraphs of footnotes reflecting morosely on the ideas that weigh down their verse, many of my favourite poets tend to rhyme, at least most of the time. But I love reading Wendy Cope more for the humour that bubbles above her rhymes, that often masks sad and wise observations on life.
This link came up in my twitter feed in honour of her birthday:
One of the many joys of being single is the ability to empathise with and laugh at her poems on the single life like A Christmas Poem. The brisk, dismissive tone is both funny and poignant, far more than the sentimentality in Flowers or The Orange. And yet, the ‘head does its best but the heart is the boss’, says Cope (Waterloo Bridge).
“Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,
I’ve just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.”
― Wendy Cope, Being Boring
Her poems are anything but.
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
“Depression is the illness of post-postmodernism“, says Professor Patricia Waugh. A quote which suits the characters in the genre, and sometimes their writers as well…
I really enjoyed listening to this lecture.
“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”
― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
In the past few months, more than once I have been filled with regret on not having read Murdoch much earlier in life, on not having read her first before I fell in love with the scintillating wit and wisdom of Muriel Spark as an impressionable teenager. Still, better late than never.
“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco
Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.
“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose
“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.
“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.
In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.
As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.
‘the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true.’
― Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses
Amy Tan is well known for her novels about mother-daughter relationships. I had not read about this when I first picked up The Hundred Secret Senses a few years ago and so did not have a preconceived notion of what to expect from the book. However, I was so enchanted when I finished it that I ordered all her other novels the very next day, and read through them in the next few weeks with a great deal of pleasure. I remember writing a short review stating that THSS reminded me all over again as to why some of us call literature our religion.
‘I know what love is. It’s a trick on the brain, the adrenal glands releasing endorphins. It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.’
The Hundred Secret Senses
The Hundred Secret senses remains my favourite novel by Tan. A compelling book that pulls the reader in from the very first page, it narrates the story of Olivia and her Chinese born half sister Kwan who has yin eyes that help her to see ghosts. Olivia is half affectionate, half condescending to Kwan – she tolerates her endless questions and finds her stories about
ghosts and past lives mildly entertaining. But when Olivia, her estranged husband Simon and Kwan take a trip to Kwan’s village in China and get lost while exploring the ruins outside the village, the real stories connecting Olivia and Kwan across lifetimes are revealed in a chain of events from the past and the present that culminate in a gripping, haunting climax. The reader comes away with the feeling of having used a hundred secret senses to assimilate the ideas and stories within the novel.
“It was a distorted form of inverse logic: If hopes never come true, then hope for what you don’t want.”
The Hundred Secret Senses
Said to be among the most popular of her books, The Joy Luck Club interconnects stories of four Chinese women immigrants in San Francisco and their struggles to keep their culture and their stories alive in their children. I found it less compelling than Tan’s full-length novels. As in most of her other work, the position of women in Chinese society of that period and intense mother-daughter relationships of tiger mothers who wield absolute control over their daughters are some of the major themes that go into building the plot structure.
“’Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’”
― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
The Bonesetter’s Daughter returns to the mother-daughter theme across generations and evokes the importance of names and the need to preserve stories, and the significance of writing and its links to memory, between the characters of Ruth Young, her widowed mother LuLing and LuLing’s mysterious past with Precious Auntie. One can almost imagine the ink flowing from the author’s pen in a ceaseless stream as the stories flow back and forth across the present and the past, connecting a contemporary narrative with fragments of history, of the characters as well as the period. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a similar novel but one which I found difficult to read for the graphic scenes and extreme situations of abuse and domestic violence.
“That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”
― Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Saving Fish from Drowning is perhaps my least favourite among the lot. Though it had an intriguing opening and setting of the literal adventure of a jungle trek as well as an omniscient ghostly narrator, the novel somehow did not quite hold together, maybe due to the large number of characters whose voices kept jarring against each other. Likewise I did not enjoy The Valley of Amazement, both the story as well as its premise of a courtesan in Shanghai in the beginning of the twentieth century. It is painful and disturbing to read about the blatant commodification of women, in any period.
“I wanted to capture what language ability tests could never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
My favourite of all among Tan’s books is her memoir The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life which provides a fascinating glimpse into her early life as the child of Chinese immigrants in the United States, her love of literature and growth as a writer.
“In the hands of a different reader, the same story can be a different story.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
Tan’s novels are page-turners which hold layers of wisdom between their lines. They belong to that elusive genre that many authors spend a lifetime trying to reach – of literary fiction that is equally accessible to readers and critics. I deeply admire her as a writer.
Many of my favourite authors have surnames starting with S, not even considering The Bard, who of course, is so much more than just a favourite author. I was halfway through a post on Shaw when I decided to write one instead, on Vikram Seth whose poetry was a great influence during a period of my life, albeit a past life, once upon a time.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another. Like how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Seth’s ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
While Hamlet dreads ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, Seth’s poetic narrator has no such fears for he ‘To one who knows this life is all there is’ and yet chooses to live in the hope of happiness, for objective curiosity and out of filial attachments. (Mappings)
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain”
John Keats, From Ode to a Nightingale
“To cease upon
The midnight under the live-oak
Seems too derisory a joke.
The bottle lies on the ground.
He sleeps. His sleep is sound.”
Vikram Seth, From Ceasing Upon Midnight
Which is better, to cease upon the midnight, or to raise a toast to the moon and fall asleep, laughing at the joke called life? Seth’s translation of Heinrich Heine perhaps has the best answer – “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”.
“All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
An emptiness above–
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all your years.”
― Vikram Seth
These lines evoke R.K. Narayan’s quote, “A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”, and are characteristic of Seth’s early poetry that is poignant, reflective and elegant. I must have read his collected poems (Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight and Three Chinese Poets (Translations from Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei) about twenty times, if not more, during a period of my life which was literally darkened by depression. Above all, I read and re-read the book that many consider as his magnum opus – The Golden Gate.
It is not easy to write about depression even after being cured for years, less easier still to read about the condition when one is depressed. Trying to connect with writing on the subject, I had sought out Sylvia Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar, The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen…their words only rattled my mind that had been rendered fragile and trembling in the darkness. But The Golden Gate saved my life. A few pages into the book and I was laughing aloud for the first time in years. The humour had less to do with it, than relief in the knowledge that everyone shared the feeling of loneliness, universal truth of life. I had very little in common with the protagonists in the book but could relate to their ambitions, idealism, dreams, despair, disillusionment and especially their sense of alienation. I clung tightly to the book as I cried myself to sleep during several of those long, dark years.The verse was a source of comfort, solace, even fleeting moments of happiness.
On his other work, I loved From Heaven Lake and found parts of A Suitable Boy a joy to read. An Equal Music was rather too sentimental (I kept wanting to give the character Michael two tight slaps and ask him to get a life) and Two Lives really needed an editor. The Rivered Earth was so disappointing that it put me off from reading Summer Requiem. I am not even sure if I will pre-order A Suitable Girl. But I remain grateful for what The Golden Gate once did for me, so much that I dedicated my first novel The Reengineers to the poet who wrote it.
A related excerpt from The Reengineers in which I pay my respects:
“The darkness had almost got me for good one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now
think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.
There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out.
Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life…His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.”
I didn’t realise how far I had moved away from the past until last Hilary term when I chose to do a critique of The Golden Gate. I found myself nodding wholeheartedly as my Professor explained how the rhymes in the sonnets were was rather clumsy and how the verse was far clunkier than, for example, Byron. My avant-garde poet classmates had strong views on the book – ‘It was horrible!’ ‘Hated it!’ they said, cheerfully. I surprised myself by agreeing with some, if not all of their critique. For now, I see the book as it is. But I remain grateful for the verse and to the poet who along with many others inspired, consoled, energized and sustained me with words through those years of literal and metaphorical exile.
This series of posts which I began mid-April last year has taken so long but I am determined to finish the series before end of March and do a proper challenge in April, doing a post per day.