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.
I was a squeamish reader as a child. I still am one. I tend to avoid most genre fiction for this reason, besides skipping strong scenes in any book I read, unless when they are essential to the plot, theme, or premise. Several critically acclaimed and well-written books have disturbed me so deeply that I would rather not re-read them, and shudder when I remember reading them– A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, Room, Oryx and Crake, Trainspotting…a long list.
But there are exceptions, and many. Here is a list of my top ten books in this category, books with premises, themes or containing scenes or language that are disturbing, and yet have the power hold most sensitive readers within their lines.
Plot spoilers may lie ahead.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita tops the list. Humbert Humbert, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, is one of the most complex and interesting, if not likeable characters in literature. He cites his aborted romance with Annabelle at the age of twelve, as the reason for his pedophilic tendencies, or love for nymphets, in his words. He comes across as a vile monster during the first part of the novel as he embarks upon the seduction of Lolita, but in the second half, after Lolita manages to flee from him, he emerges a shattered man who seems to realise the enormity of his crime and seems to regret it. Later as Lolita stands before him, no longer a fresh, pre-pubescent girl but a worn out, married woman, barefoot and heavily pregnant, Humber proclaims that he loves her, the kind of love that is ‘at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight’. His guilt and remorse and the murder that he commits soon afterwards pronouncing Lolita as his child creates something like pity in the reader’s mind, which is a testimony to the genius of Nabokov. One of the critical essays on Nabokov speculates that he styled each of his novels to fit the theme. And as Lolita was about seduction, he intended the prose to charm the reader. That theory may well be true, for he had me on the very first page.
- Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami
A surreal retelling of the legend of Oedipus, this novel about fifteen year old Kafka Tamura who allegedly commits both patricide and incest, has in addition to these, a number of disturbing scenes of sexuality and violence including inadvertent abuse of a schoolchild by his teacher and graphic scenes of torture of cats. But the surreal sentences nevertheless flow in a lucid stream (keeping in mind that this is a translation) that the reader willingly floats through the pages, compelled to go anywhere Murakami wants to take them through the text.
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Despite the unusual premise of a couple who deliberately use drugs and radioactive material to produce freak children in order to run their travelling carnival, the themes that come through this strange story are surprisingly conventional – sibling rivalry, the meaning of family, sexual jealousy, the power of autosuggestion and mass hysteria which arises from a cult, etc. Though a number of scenes are bizarre and even repulsive, the narrative is good enough to keep even a squeamish reader turning the pages.
- My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
Though not frequently listed among Dahl’s more popular books, this outrageous novel about Uncle Oswald (who appears in two other of his short stories) is extremely funny. Uncle Oswald chances upon the potent nature of the Sudanese Blister Beetle, armed with a supply of which, he conspires with the beautiful Yasmin to create an illegal sperm bank of the rich and the famous from all around Europe, with a view to selling superior genes in an open market. Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Monet and G B Shaw are among the potential victims whom the pair try to con. In spite of the raunchy premise, the narrative remains decorous and almost innocently hilarious throughout, with a wicked Dahlian twist at the end.
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
This gem of a debut novel which pulls in the reader from the very first sentence, addresses among other things, the serious issue of child abuse. The spunky heroine Taylor Greer is forced to take charge of a Cherokee baby and in a disturbing scene, discovers that the child has been physically abused. The rest of the novel is among other things, about how Taylor heals the child with love and formally adopts her. A confident and energetic heroine, Taylor flits through the novel like a sunbeam. Her funny and yet warm narrative makes it a joy to accompany her on her adventures as she finally comes of age.
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
A number of dark issues lurk within this mammoth novel with its mild premise of arranged marriage in newly Independent India. Between the stories of four elite and educated Indian families with their polished lives steeped in art, literature, family and culture, lie creepy sub-plots of adultery, illegitimacy, debauchery and incest. But to use a metaphor that the author’s alter ego employs to describe the book, the novel is like a huge, spreading banyan tree. The solid trunk, the sturdy roots, the leafy shade of the branches and the birds singing on them capture the reader’s interest much more than the disturbing sub-plots above which recede to the background.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Recently I watched the movie based on the book, which left me underwhelmed. The film was not a patch on the novel which won the Booker and the Best of the Booker prizes. But that was to be expected, considering that the visual imagery conjured up by the book is such a rich experience for any reader, that a film adaptation could never do justice to it. The book has several disturbing scenes including explicit violence and torture (the emasculation of the Midnight’s children being one), but the beauty and strength of the prose is such that the novel plays out vividly in the reader’s mind as the pages are turned, compulsively, till the end where Saleem starts writing his story, mirroring the story of his nation.
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
An inspired tribute to the gothic novel and specifically Jane Eyre, this is a story which contains many stories within its framework, narrated by a mysterious author who wants to tell the truth after a lifetime of writing bestselling fiction. There are plenty of disturbing scenes involving violence, incestuous passion, addiction, mental illness and torture, but the essence of the book right from the beginning is the celebration of the love of fiction. That, and the powerful narrative made this reader stay on the page, even after the happy ending, mesmerised by the words.
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The story of five teenage girls who are smothered by their parents, fall into depression and kill themselves one after the other (no spoilers here, it is given away in the title) is perhaps meant to be disturbing. However, the strong characterization, sense of place and setting and above all, the strength and beauty of the narrative voice (first person plural) makes this a compelling read, both in terms of structural form as well as content.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian novel set in a time period where firemen burn libraries, the majority of people live in a vacuous state of mind that is kept going by mindless television soaps and the few who dare to read, think or question are branded rebels and forced to choose between conformance or annihilation. Living in this scary world, the protagonist Guy Montag goes from being a fireman to one of the group of people who fight to preserve the written word. This remarkable book written more than fifty years ago has made some chillingly accurate predictions about the future of the human race. A disturbing read at many levels, it is balanced though, by the promise of hope and redemption.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another, such as how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Vikram Seth’s poem ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards – Shakespeare and Seth through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
‘To be, or not to be: that is the question:’
Hamlet ponders whether to live or to die, thereby ending the suffering caused by ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and listing ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ such as ‘the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s ‘contumely, The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurn’ he fervently wishes to end it all.
But uncertainty of the afterlife stops him.
‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause:’
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;’
In the poem ‘Switching Off’ by Vikram Seth, the poet-narrator believes that ‘this life is all there is’ and chooses to be not so much for fear of the afterlife, than the hope that things may get better someday, concern for his family and idle curiosity about the happenings on earth, among other things.
‘There are no fears of undiscovered countries
Or bournes from which no traveller returns
To one who knows this life is all there is;
So when he feels it has become oppressive,
The effort of drawing breath exhausts and strains him
And dispriz’d love, and whips and scorns etcetera
Have mangled him, why does he not switch off?
Perhaps the thought that, having once been happy
(and stirred by the analogy of life
Being a wheel) he will be again be so;
Or some imagined, as yet unseen sight,
Like Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky
For which he’d have to wait till ’86;
Or else objective curiosity:
Who will be President in ten years’ time?
Who’ll win the hockey in the Olympic Games?
And then his family: although he knows
When dead there’s no remorse, he cannot bear
` That they, remaining, feel he did not love them –
It is such things that hold him to the earth
And not the dread of something after death.’
From Mappings by Vikram Seth
In an earlier version of The Reengineers, the character Siddharth responds to both the bards in his poem ‘Inertia’.
What prevents one from switching off –
Reluctance to leave the entities that’ one
Has grown to know and love?
Or fear of the unknown after death?
So the bards sang. But the flowing breath
Surely might continue to remain
Dynamic owing to inertia
Than any fear of physical, mental or spiritual pain?
For a depressed person neither cares about the world in which he lives in, nor is he worried about the afterlife. Most of the time, all he wants to do is to keep breathing to stop his body from going as numb as his mind.
Inertia kept Siddharth alive when he was depressed. That was until he found A. Chatterjee’s poems, which kept him alive for a while before he finally woke up from the darkness of depression to the light and warmth of life. The Reengineers narrates the story of how he did it, crossing over from the cold, dark country of depression to a fulfilling life.
One of the many pleasures of reading poetry is to recognise the echo of a poet’s voice in another poet’s work. A reflection of ideas, an influenced style or similar references to things, places or events. It is a joy to discover such connections between books and authors.
Two poems by Rupert Brooke and Elizabeth Jennings, written several decades apart reflect the same thought, in two unique voices.
‘Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.’
From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
‘And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.’
From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones when he says,
‘I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still’
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
Love may have eluded these beloved poets when they penned these lines, but their songs and thereby their thoughts continue to flow across time and space and find responding echoes in many a reader’s mind.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘The Gardener’, evoking a spring morning perhaps a hundred years ago,
‘Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence? I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds. Open your doors and look abroad.From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.’
A poet reaches out to the reader with a greater level of intimacy than any other kind of writer.
Today I am grateful for poets, for the gift of their poetry. For Rupert and Jennings and Seth and Tagore, and also for Bharati and T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden and Tennyson and Pushkin and Rumi and Kabir and Maya Angelou and Gillian Clarke and Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope and many, many other blessed songbirds of language.
Bards who belong to all the world like air, and sunlight, and springtime, and stars in the sky. They belong to all, and they are mine.
On November 12th, I suddenly remembered that it was exactly three years since the momentous Hay Festival. So grateful for the blessings of books and poetry and the vibrant, beautiful memories.
Last night your faded memory came to me
As in the wilderness spring comes quietly,
As, slowly, in the desert moves the breeze,
As to a sick man, without cause, comes peace
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated by Vikram Seth
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
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.
Often one comes across the influence of one writer in another’s book. I am not referring to the likes of the uncanny resemblance of a key paragraph in a certain Indian pop novel to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Rather to the way in which one writer’s work unconsciously reflects the influence of another. This can be a reflection of ideas, the writing style or references to specific things, places or events. It is a pleasure to discover such innate connections between books and authors.
One example is the idea of how love reaches the intended person many years later which is beautifully portrayed by Elizabeth Jennings and Rupert Brooke in their respective poems Delay and Fafaia that were written several decades apart.
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
~ From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.
~ From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones.
“I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still”
~ From Time Zones by Vikram Seth
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert Brooke’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
~ From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
I do not know what the word Fafaia means, do you? Google for once has not been able to answer this. It is perhaps an archaic exclamation, like ‘prithee’ or ‘fie’. Whatever it means, it sounds nice.
About writing styles, the gentle influence of Wodehouse comes through in the prose of too many authors. I have come across quite a few pale imitations of Wodehouse in random short stories in magazines and journals. Have also felt a subtle influence of Wodehouse in some well known literary novels but the finest tribute to the maestro that I have ever come across is in Srividya Natarajan’s hilarious satire No Onions nor Garlic. The setting and the characters in this book are are quintessentially South Indian and there is a wonderful sense of place of Madras, but the seemingly effortless style of writing and the pure humour that spills over from every page gives one the feeling of having read an author is who is as good as Wodehouse at his best.
Another book that has been a strong influence on a contemporary bestseller is The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. When asked about the similarity between her book and the first Harry Potter, Mrs. Ibbotson is said to have observed that she would ‘like to shake her (Rowling) by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers’. What a lovely thing to say.
There is indeed a subtle influence of The Secret of Platform 13 that can be felt in the Harry Potter books, especially the Philosopher’s Stone. There are several similarities between the two books. The protagonist is separated from his parents and brought up in a different household by indifferent, even abusive guardians. The
couple who adopt the boy hero have a child of their own who is a pampered, selfish brat, while the hero is treated like a servant and turns out to be a sensible, sensitive child who is finally restored to his rightful place.
But other than this basic, classic plot, there are other aspects like the character of Raymond Trottle in The Secret of Platform 13 who is definitely an early inspiration for Dudley Dursley right from his pudgy appearance to his tantrums over a knickerbocker glory, the triplet nurses of Prince Ben who are named after flowers one of them being Lily, a mysterious opening in a railway platform, the magical creatures who pass back and forth through it between the real world and the magical world to which it opens and the ghosts who interact with the human characters including a grey lady. The scene where Raymond’s whereabouts are traced through the sewers reminds one of the haunts of moaning Myrtle and the realms of the mer-people in the Goblet of Fire.
However, none of the above similarities can be considered as plagiarism – rather it is a subtle overlapping of the imaginations of two very talented authors. Which in turn gives a delicious sense of deja vu to the reader – like a traveller coming across something vaguely familiar while visiting an entirely new place.
I was so enthralled by Flaubert’s Parrot that I immediately ordered some more of Julian Barnes’ books and am slowly working my way through the rest of his oeuvre. I started on The Sense of an Ending with some caution, for very few Booker winning novels that I have read have lived up to the hype. (The Finkler Question sat half read on my desk for many months before it was moved to the back of the bookshelf. Sooner or later, it will be given away.)
The Sense of an Ending was a joy to read, though the subject was anything but delightful. After finishing the book, I googled my way into the Booker forums where readers avidly discussed the whodunnit with several theories of their own, and read some of the comments with almost as much pleasure as the book itself.
Spoilers ahead – discussions abound on whether Junior Adrian was Veronica’s child or Sarah’s, was Adrian Veronica’s long lost brother, why did Adrian kill himself, was it merely out of guilt for having had an affair with his girlfriend’s mother or was it the impact of something darker, like the stigma of incest committed unknowingly. The algebraic equations explaining the complicated relationships between the main characters and the vague conclusion do not take away the depth of the philosophical questions examined in the book, nor do they diminish the consistent beauty of the prose.
The conclusion was not so much affecting as the last few pages of the first part, which lays bare the stark realities of existence, transforming the protagonist from a precocious teenager into a bored middle aged man who can only reflect on the days of his early youth, having sleepwalked through the rest of his less than remarkable life.
This is one of the more disturbing hypotheses on the meaning of life. Philip Larkin said as much in This be the Verse. Rupert Brooke wrote it in Sonnet Reversed. And perhaps this is what Vikram Seth meant when he wrote that ‘That this is all there is, that this is so’. Only this moment can be claimed as one’s own.
Book Riot’s take on the best moms in literature.
Should Molly Weasely write a parenting book? She is hardly the perfect mother to her biological children – yelling at them very often and embarrassing them in public. She is far too intense to be likeable, like Mrs. Bennett, Bessie Glass and some of the Tiger mothers in Amy Tan’s novels. Among the other literary mamas mentioned here and elsewhere, Mrs. March is too cloying. Mrs. Murry from A Wrinkle in Time is too perfect. Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor from A Suitable Boy is too much of a doormat to her family, while Mrs. Rupa Mehra from the same book is one interfering bossy woman whom one would hardly care to meet in real life.
It is easier to list the worst moms in literature – Brenda Last, Irene Pollock, Charlotte Haze…
Some of my favourites – Jack’s mother from Room by Emma Donoghue, Em from Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and the delightful Bernadette Fox from Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. One of the best mother characters in fiction is Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, a feisty woman who is an affectionate and caring mother to her adopted daughter Turtle.
This quote below from The Bean Trees shows how Taylor turned out to be a good mother. It is thanks to her own mother Alice, a single woman from a working class background who raised her daughter to become a smart young woman brimming with confidence and self respect.
“There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Which sounds similar to the maternal Aibileen reassuring the child Mae Mobley,
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Literature (and the real world) could do with more Moms like Alice and Aibileen.
I was appalled to read about women novelists being moved out of the novelists category in Wikipedia.
There are several attributes of a book that determine its quality and worth such as the premise, the depth of the ideas presented, the worldview depicted through the book, the beauty of the prose, the plot structure, the readability, the uniqueness of the characters, the personal and social concerns if any that are addressed in the book, the relevance of the book to present times, the impact that it has on the readers among others.
As a reader and as a writer, I am concerned with these and other similar parameters of a book, and not the author’s personal traits, not the least of which is the author’s gender.
It sounds superfluous to say that the gender of a person is irrelevant to their work and their achievements. It is something that I have always tried to avoid. On my first day at work, I resented being labelled as a ‘lady engineer’ and later being called a ‘woman manager’. I have refused invitations to conferences of ‘women writers’.
As a child I had two role models, my aunt who was the vice chancellor of a prestigious medical university and a cousin who had escalated up the corporate ladder in a New York firm to become vice president before he was thirty. I admired the aura of success that surrounded these two people like a halo and the confidence that radiated from their words and actions. I took it for granted that their gender had nothing to do with their achievements which were the results of hard work and ambition. As an engineering student, for a while I believed the professors who said that exemplary performance was enough for a person to rise high in any field.
The illusions began to dissolve when I read a feature in the IEEE magazine in which many successful senior women engineers spoke candidly about the obstacles that they had to overcome in order to obtain an engineering education at a time when their family expected them to run a home and bake cookies, and about their struggles to transcend the glass ceiling that covered their workplace. Almost all the case studies in the article conveyed the same message – Successful women had to struggle much more than their male peers to get ahead in the race. I remember one of them quoting to the effect that in order to be successful in engineering, a man needs to take it up as a career whereas a woman needs to see it as a crusade. Now it seems that the statement holds good not just for engineering but every other field, including literature.
As much as one would like to believe that the quality of literature transcends gender, it is a fact that discrimination against women writers has always been there, everywhere. It led Mary Ann Evans to write as George Eliot and it is perhaps why J K Rowling chose to use her initials rather than her first name on her books. Almost every article on Indian English literature mentions R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao as being among the early pioneers of the field and inevitably go on to talk about Seth and Rushdie but few bother to mention the veteran writer Anita Desai.
Most women can relate to Virginia Woolf’s meditations in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she talks about the status of women as “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history”. Lines that would sound completely familiar to any Indian woman who has grown up in a society where women are theoretically revered as goddesses and openly discriminated against in real life. At the same time, notwithstanding such crude antics like the wikipedia categorisation of women novelists, things are slowly but surely changing for the better.
Focusing on any negative aspect of the world would only serve to amplify it and make it worse. While being aware of the discrimination against women that has prevailed for centuries, I choose to believe that we are on our way to a society where human beings are treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of any of their attributes be it gender, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. It is only a question of time as attitudes slowly change for the better across society.
I just checked wikipedia again and found that new sub categories of American and British ‘men novelists’ have been introduced, in addition to ‘women novelists’. Ridiculous, to say the least. What purpose does this gender segregation serve, other than provide statistical information on how many novelists of a particular nationality were men and how many were women?
The author Shashi Deshpande answered this question in the voice of reason when she asked, “Is Literature a public toilet that we need to have signboards Saying ‘Men’ And ‘Women’?”