Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for December, 2008

Re-reading Christmas Carol

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 30, 2008

There is something in the air of Christmas and New Year eve which makes me pensive, generous and full of strange melancholy. Over the last ten years, I have spent six Christmas and New Year eves across various countries in Europe and the feeling has remained the same. The notes I have jotted down about the season seem to have a consistency that reflects either of two things — that I am impervious to feeling anything new outside a narrow band of feelings or that the evocative capabilities of an impending Christmas and New year eve have remained consistent. I was curious to see how Christmas season was dealt in literature and thought that the time was appropriate to revisit that eternal classic “Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Christmas Carol” is the story of redemptive journey of Ebenezar Scrooge aided by the Ghosts of John Marley –  Scrooge’s former business partner and the three Christmas ghosts of Past, Present and Future. The journey in time covers the life of Scrooge and his own gradual descent into a despicable avarice and stinginess and the subsequent climbing out of the same through a change in heart.  As I interpreted, Dickens builds the change in Scrooge on two motives. First – there is a general desire to embrace all that is positive in being a good human — i.e. being kind, generous, sensitive and caring. The second motive is that of a fear of being ill judged by posterity for his actions on earth when alive. In general, it is this second motive that I always find puzzling in human beings — I mean, when one is dead why be worried about how others judge one posthumously? Personally, I dont think this second motive in any form or kind will drive a change in my behaviour or motivate me to embrace a transformation. The first motive is sufficient enough for me. I found two aspects of the novel quite appealing. Firstly, all human redemptions have a great sense of pain, sadness and lack of ready acceptance associated with them. The agonies of this predicament I find difficult to bear as a reader. Thankfully, Dickens keeps this to a minimum and brings a quick transformation in Scrooge. The second is that there are absolutely no religious overtones associated with Christmas… it is just that Christmas is used as an auspicious occasion to urge people to be what they ought to be in a society. Dickens could have used any other non descriptive day of the year and still delivered the much needed moralistic message.

Why I cant say but my re-reading of this classic after a gap of nearly two and half decades did not move me the way it moved when I read it as an adolescent. Maybe this is a warning sign of stratified cynicism that I need to shed for my own good. Having said that, there is no denying that “Christmas Carol” is still a very touching, heart warming and uniquely moralistic novel and one gets a close glimpse of Dickens’s masterly capabilities as a writer whether it be the language he employs, the characterisation or the outstanding story telling. That the word “Scrooge” has been an etymological contribution of Dickens is one of numerous proofs of his extraordinary capabilities as a writer

Afterword: I was given to understand that besides “Christmas Carol“, Dickens had written four other books viz. “Chimes“, “The Cricket on the Hearth“, “The Battle of Life” and “The Haunted Man” dealing with the theme of Christmas and New Year spirit. I hope to read and write my impressions about these four very soon before the freshness of the new year wears off and life’s humdrum takes over

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In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin – A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 15, 2008

An effective remedy for a restless mind and an itchy sole appears to be travel. And if that restlessness and itch occur to a writer of Bruce Chatwin‘s caliber, the consequent travel writing is simply scintillating. I have come to develop an awed sense of respect for him. In the past I had read and written my impressions about his “What Am I Doing Here” and “The Viceroy of Ouidah“. But nothing prepared me for his “In Patagonia” – An absolute delight of travel writing that one can lay hands on. I am gradually leaning towards a belief that it may be the best travel book that I read so far and more importantly Chatwin is probably the best travel writer ever. When it comes to travel writing he is simply nonpareil. In one of my previous postings, I had opined that travel writing is neither about travel nor about places but about people and their histories. Chatwin more than proves that assertion in “In Patagonia

Patagonia is the border region between Argentina and Chile in the southern part of South America extending all the way down south. Like its unique place in South America, Patagonia occupies a unique and obsessive place in Chatwin‘s mind – driven by childhood myths of existence of fantastic pre historic beasts. It is through this place that Chatwin travels on foot and thumbing rides where possible. Chatwin meets a variety of people – natives, generations of settlers – Welsh, Scottish, English, German, missionaries, ex- revolutionaries, officials and in the process gradually unravels glimpses of the strange and fascinating history and the political landscape of the place. Especially those glimpses of history that are closely related to the forays of empire building by Europe and the political landscape which was given birth to as part of experimentation of the ideas of west in newer climes. After I was done with reading the book, I tried to run it over in my mind and while doing so I felt that I have personally come back from an adventerous trip to a very strange and unusual place which has left me with an amorphous feel for its history, geography, culture and people

Through the book Chatwin weaves magic with intoxicating prose  which is supplemented with wide research. There is an indescribably healthy leanness to his prose. With very minimal words he describes a scene even while bringing forth its utmost essence — almost like well shot masterly photographs. Consider a few of his descriptions  – “The train started with two whistles and a jerk. Ostriches bounded off the track as we passed, their feather billowing like smoke. The mountains were grey, flickering in the heat haze. Sometimes a truck smeared a cloud dust along the horizon“…. …..or…………… “She smiled , her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark auburn. Her legs were a mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had tatters  of an extraordinary beauty” ……. or…..”Ranged round the walls was an aviary of stuffed birds. Their red-painted throats screeched at their preserver with terrible silence“. This brilliance with observations and words is one of the many aspects of Chatwin‘s writing that makes me believe that he probably is the best of travel writers despite his very limited output. May be it is this that prompted Salman Rushdie to coin the term “Chatwinisque”

Chatwin meets an Argentinian poet who says “Patagonia!” ……. ” She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.’  Not having visited, while I can’t say the same for the place… I can definitely say that for the book. For anyone who wants to get a first hand experience of Bruce Chatwin,  “In Patagonia” can be a definitive choice. A wonderful read worth having in ones collection

Afterword: There is a preponderence of Brits in travel writing. They appear to outclass any country both in quantity and quality terms. Is it one of the many vestiges of empire building?

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Roald Dahl and Children’s Literature

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 10, 2008

My first exposure to Roald Dahl was as an adolescent. He was an accidental find. I remember picking up a collection of his short stories titled “Switch Bitch” from the British library at Hyderabad. The stories were wicked and tantalisingly funny with definitive adult slant and packed with enough erotic punch to dizzy an adolescent. What prompted me to lay my hands on this book of his is still unknown to me.  Although I was mightily impressed with his capacity to tell juicy stories, I somehow never made an effort to read his other stories – barring a couple of them here and there like “Parsons Pleasure” and those two classics “Taste” and “Lamb to Slaughter“.  Dahl existed in my memory as a very entertaining writer but not in a way to evoke serious exploration

Not till I reached a stage where I had to face the uncompromising demands of my children to read bed time stories did I gravitate towards the oeuvre of Roald Dahl. My children in effect have pushed me into a situation where I had no choice but to revisit him seriously. Collectively we have now read ” The Twits“, “The Witches” “The BFG“, “Matilda“, “The Vicar of Nibbleswick “, “James and the Giant Peach” , “Fantastic Mr.Fox“, “The Magic Finger“,  “Esio Trot“.  And as a coincidence, I also happened to watch a program called “The Picture Book” on BBC 4 dealing with the topic of children’s literature. It is in this series that I found a brilliant coverage on Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (illustrations for most of his childrens books have been done by Quentin Blake)

Children’s literature is a strange world to inhabit. For all its seeming simplicity, it to my mind is a complex area. Complexity arises because of the forced need to be simple and imaginative.  Also the distance in the age and make up of the writer (who is an adult) and the reader who is young, curious, unaware,  impressionable and extremely discerning add to the difficulties of writing for children. Try and drag the narrative for a couple of pages with child readers and one gets to realise how difficult it will be to get their attention back to plod through the book. It is this ability to sustain the element of entertainment and appeal, the most challenging aspect of children literature. My initial impressions on reading Dahl were not very favourable, although puzzlingly enough, my kids were in raptures and asking for more. It took time for me to realise that the mistake was in the perspective I was adopting. I was trying to read Dahl‘s books with the eyes of an adult. I was looking for a message – a bigger and grander scheme of things and purpose.  But for my children (and I guess for all other children who read Dahl) it is an avenue for fun, entertainment and high quality adventure.  An opportunity to soar into and dwell in worlds they think exist somewhere outside their cosy homes. Children’s books ought to be read with the eyes of children.  A small volte face in outlook and the unappealing becomes the appealing. That is exactly what appears to have happened to me.

So what is it that is attractive for children in Dahl‘s books ? I think Dahl‘s writing carries with it a combination of interesting apsects. First and foremost is a delectable mixture of ordinary with the fantastic and fantasy — which leads to an element of fun, adventure and expectation. The whole sense of anticipation of what is going to happen next is a constant bait that Dahl uses quite effectively to hook kids on. Then comes the element of the winning underdog – Charlie, Matilda, James, Sophie are all nice examples of this.  Barring Matilda (who has some extraordinary mental faculties) all are normal children who are aware of their physical fraility. In some cases they are disadvantaged in a big way, i.e. they are orphaned – I think this sets the sympathies of the reading children straightaway. In general, lonesome children are the heroes and heroines of Dahl‘s books.  Adults are a mixed bag of extremes – they are either kind and understanding or outright evil and vicious. Maybe children tend to judge a majority of aspects in a two dimensional framework and hence Dahl‘s propensity to portray characters in this vein. But that is how all the fairy tales portray adults

Some of Dahl‘s books for children have a subtle element of terror and immense scope for potential wickedness which I think children find quite thrilling.  As an example, the focused plan of the “The Grand High Witch” to convert the children of England into rats through a magic potion administered through sweetshops owned by witches or the senseless wickedness of the giants to gobble children of England and other countries is scary.  However, I also think children sense even without going to the end of the book that somehow this wickedness will be managed to their satisfaction. With this assured sense of certainty in mind that no harm will come to the heroes and heroines, the curiosity element related to “what next?” and “how will it proceed?” is aroused. Dahl is a master in arousing this curiosity in children. May be that accounts for the universal fan following for him across the world. Dahl‘s control of language is unique and exquisite. There is a wonderfully twisty touch. The raves and rants of the malefactors who populate his books are so extreme that they are set up to slip into a sense of ludicrous quite naturally. Mrs.Trunchbull’s (what a name!) ranting in “Matilda” especially when she addresses children is a clear demonstration of that.  Even very young readers can easily decipher the element of humour there.  Alternately the language of the kind giant in “The BFG” where the commonly spoken english is unendingly twisted with inappropriate substitutions that one cannot but  laugh. Dahl‘s language carries an element of conscious bluster which is not only funny but also very suggestive — the snozcumbers, human beans are not very hard to make out as one reads along.  Added to all of this are the wonderfully funny poems that Dahl introduces in his stories. Rhyming, humorous, sing-song and contextual  – they are an absolute delight to any reader

One of the critical success factors in children’s literature are the illustrations and it is here that most of Dahl‘s books have benefited from the superb contributions of Quentin Blake — Willy Wonka, Trunchbull, Grand High Witch, Matilda, BFG, Sophie, Mr and Mrs.Twit  are a few of the illustrations that one can never forget

The more I read Dahl ( thank God! there is so much more to read), the more I am coming to realise that he is one of the greatest writers of children literature ever.  And as long as there are children and books to read, Dahl will be read. For adults like me who have missed out on his books during our childhoods, reading them to our children is the easiest way of experiencing glimpses of our own forgotton childhood and the joys associated with it

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