Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for January, 2009

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 24, 2009

I always imagined Paradise to be a kind of library  — Jorge Luis Borges

It is my belief that when all other forms of entertainment begin to sap the mind, “reading” and “writing” will continue to stand up as the last bastions of recourse. Even between these two – reading is more democratic and accessible as compared to writing – for the latter demands a level of innate talent which is undemocratic in its distribution. What are the pleasures of reading? Why is it important? What does it do to us? What is the inherent journey of a progressive reader? and most importantly after reading what? –  these are some of the questions that are asked and answered in this wonderfully superb book “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett

The uncommon reader here is none other than Queen Elizabeth of England and the book is about her exhilarating journey as a motivated self discoverer in the world of letters. In the process she comes to like and to build learned opinions about the works of some of the greatest and gifted writers including – Balzac, Turgenev, Proust, Hardy, Trollope, Henry James, Austen, Forester, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie…..  and many more. Written with love, compassion, a brilliantly refined sense of conversation and tongue in cheek humour, the book among others also takes a dig at the place of monarchy in the British system and the way it interfaces with the parliamentary politics.

However of greater value to me were the brilliant thoughts that Alan Bennett routes through the journeying queen. Consider a couple of them “The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. ….Books did not defer…. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night, when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who has led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised“….. or…..

‘Books are wonderful, aren’t they?’ she said to the vice chancellor, who concurred
‘At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one” …..that if reading softens one up, writing does the reverse. To write you have to be tough, do you not?’

Bennett also raises the most important question.. notwithstanding the pleasures, what should come after or accompany reading? It is here that Bennett appears to suggest that a meaningful and purposeful action that is beneficial to mankind should be the outcome – for reading as the queen realises at one point (and notes in her diary) ‘You don’t put your life into your books. You find it there’ — a truly pregnant thought

If I had my way, I would make this small but outstandingly elegant and joyous book a compulsory read for all children at school – in the hope that the culture of reading assumes a more robust hue than what it is today

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Saturday – Ian McEwan — A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 23, 2009

To deride the hopes of progress is ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind — Sir Peter Brian Medawar – Co-winner of Nobel for Medicine in 1960

In matters of books learned advice can be disproportionately rewarding. A Mrs. H who had kind words for me on my blog advised me to read Ian McEwan‘s “Saturday” and Alan Bennett‘s “The Uncommon Reader“. I am grateful to her for her advise. For I was vacillating in my views about McEwan‘s writing even after having read his two well known books “Amsterdam” and “On Chesil Beach“. For me “Amsterdam” was good style over good substance and “On Chesil Beach” was great substance over a difficult style (I enjoyed both though). It is this variation that left me a little confused. However, McEwan‘s “Saturday” has clearly defogged me — It in my eyes is a culmination of breathtaking style and wonderful substance. I think I am beginning to understand why McEwan is rated so very high on the present literary scene.

Set in London in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “Saturday” is a contemporary story of a unique day of happenings in the life of Henry Perowne –  an accomplished neurosurgeon.  “Forty- eight years old, profoundly asleep at nine thirty on a Friday night – this is modern professional life” – that is how successful he is! Henry is looking forward to his saturday for a good game of squash with his colleague, a visit to his ailing mother, a trip to the rehearsals of his son (Theo) who is an upcoming blues singer and above all an important family reunion which includes a visit from his poetess daughter (Daisy) and father-in-law (John Grammaticus) who is an accomplished man of letters. Daisy is on the verge of publishing her first collection of poems. On the way to his game and to avoid the anti-war marchers, Henry drives through a blocked road only to crash mildly into a BMW. The BMW is being driven by a Baxter and his two hooligan chums – “The car is a five series BMW, a vehicle he associates for no good reason with criminality, drug dealing“. While Henry manages to extricate himself without a major altercation, he also notices that Baxter is a victim of Huntington’s disorder and he also hints of his awareness of the affliction to Baxter along with vague hints of help. As the gaiety of the  family reunion is about to pick up momentum, Baxter makes a forceful entry into Henry’s house with the idea of revenge and holds Henry’s wife, Rosalind at knife point. The harmonious and high achievers family of Perowne is not only an ideal but is in many ways aspirational and it is this blessed thing that gets rattled and tarnished. The descent gets humiliating when Baxter forces Daisy to strip in front of the family and the element of deliberateness adds to the horror. Baxter makes Daisy recite a poem from her collection and is strangely moved by it. He demands proof from Henry of the new techniques for cure of his affliction and in the pretext of showing those proofs, Henry and Theo manage to overpower Baxter and throw him off the staircase injuring Baxter quite seriously. Baxter gets admitted in the same hospital where Henry is employed and Henry successfully operates on him and saves his life. The stripping also reveals that Daisy is on her way to motherhood. Henry is in some ways overcome by a sort of compassion for Baxter and his condition and decides to forgive him…..”It is a dim fate, to be the sort of person who can’t earn a living, or resist another drink, or remember today what he resolved to do yesterday. No amount of social justice will cure or disperse this enfeebled  army haunting the public places of every town. So, what then?… You have to recognise bad luck when you see it, you have to look out for these people. Some you can prise from their addictions, others – all you can do is make them comfortable somehow, minimise their miseries” . More than anything else he and Rosalind look forward to the arrival of a new addition to their family in the form of a grandchild and it is on this hopeful note of reverting to the bliss of a contented family life the turbulent day ends

Other than Solzhenitsyn‘s “One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“, I do not know of  many brilliant novels like “Saturday” that are limited to the happenings in a day. It is a dazzling and thoroughly enjoyable novel. Language can be a very seductive implement and McEwan demonstrates that in no uncertain terms. Unlike the other two books of his I read, out here the control is flawless, sustained and definitely elevated. The book has some of the most beautiful passages that I’ve ever read — all depicted as fleeting thoughts of Henry. Henry is bi-polar in his views to war on Iraq and here is what he feels about Saddam “But even despotic kings, even ancient gods, couldn’t always dream the world to their convenience. It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfilment as one, perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. They reach back for what they can’t have. When they reach frustration, the man-slaying tantrum is never far away.” To my mind this is succinct and brilliant at the same time…. or Henry’s views on the perils of air travel … “Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way – deaths per passenger mile – the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there’s a failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way – deaths per journey – the figures aren’t so good. The market could plunge.”

From a style perspective, what is unique and also what I am coming to believe is a trademark of McEwan is his extraordinary ability to look into matters with a clarity so vivid that there is an element of surprise and mild shock as recognition dawns on the reader of the significance of what is being said. McEwan is able to grasp and depict human thoughts so very well that my respect for him as a writer started to take a new hue. Consider the simple but falsified rationale that demagogues everywhere employ …………….” the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of its realisation. If everyone is sure to end up happy for ever, what crime can it be to slaughter a million or two now?” – a superb articulation… or Henry’s views on material progress and its strength to save the world …. “Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is a protection of sort. This commercial well being is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn’t rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails – jobs for a start, and peace and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.”  – the typical bread and circuses argument but so very nicely articluated

The characters are sharply delineated but the coincidence in the plot appears a little stretched. However this never comes in the way of enjoying the book. Henry’s character has an extra independence which other characters don’t have. As I read the book I was left with the feeling that Henry and McEwan make their distinctive voices heard through the book. I especially liked Hnery’s thoughts on fiction ……… ” So far, Daisy’s reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity” ( a very similar thought is expressed vis-a-vis the capacity of music over words by Chekov in his short story “Enemies”) … Or…. “Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping youself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire and old fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling“…. a marvelous opinion which I wholeheartedly agree to

To me one of the signs of mastery of a writer is his/her ability to handle diversity of subjects and be comfortable about it. From the books that I have read so far, I think McEwan has this wonderful ease around the subject he is dealing with. “Saturday” is a superb demonstration of McEwan’s standing as a writer and for anyone interested in a meaningful introduction to McEwan, it can be a nice starting point. I am told McEwan also has written a collections of short stories called “First Love, Last Rites“, “In Between The Sheets”  “The Day Dreamer” – I would definitely want to see how he fares as a short story writer

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The Sea – John Banville — A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 10, 2009

                      Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought — Shelley

It is my belief that of all the human emotions, “Grief”, will probably be the frontrunner in being most amenable for a richer treatment in literary terms than any other emotion. Even after accounting for my limited range of reading, I am yet to come across a book centered around joy and happiness that made for great literature or considered to be a classic in the normal sense of the word. Mythological magnum opuses across cultures, ancient and modern drama, the greatest plays of Shakespeare, Russian, French, English and for that matter any country’s so called great literature – past or contemporary – are centered around some form of human grief or predicaments that lead to grief.  A majority of these works of fiction may have happy endings but the route to that state is primarily through the inevitable stygian doors of grief. But why should it be so? Maybe it has do with the mind of a human being and its workings – especially around desires, expectations and aspirations and a natural tendency to be led to grief on their non fulfilment. In addition, I guess the routes to grief are exponentially diverse as compared to routes to happiness and hence the availability of topics for literary treatment. Maybe it is the recognition of this scheme of things that prompted Tolstoy to open Anna Karenina with those immortal lines – “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – How utterly true!! But why this preamble? I have completed reading John Banville‘s “The Sea” and was absolutely taken in by the brilliant depiction of human memory of grief

Max Horden is an art historian who returns to ‘The Cedars’ on the seaside town of Fields –  the place of his childhood as a diversion to overcome the bereavement of his beloved wife Anna. The Cedars is run by Mrs.Vivasour as a transit house. This journey sets in motion a memory recall of his life so far and also a tragic and painful event of his childhood involving his interaction with the Grace family. The Grace family consists of Mr and Mrs Grace (Connie), their twin children Chloe and Myles and their governess Rosie who are on a visit to The Cedars to spend a summer. Max gets infatuated with both the Connie and Chloe and the intimacy between Max and Chloe is noticed by Rosie. Chloe who has an altercation with Rosie on this issue drowns herself in the sea and Myles who tries to save his sister also gets drowned. Till his visit to the The Cedars as a widower, Max lives under the impression that Rosie was responsible for Chloe and Myles death and also of Rosie’s love for Mr.Grace. Towards the end the reader comes to know that Mrs.Vivasour is none other than Rosie. Mrs.Vivasour also explains that she was not responsible for the twins death and that her love was for Mrs. Grace and not Mr.Grace. After a brief illness arising out of a drunken binge during the visit, Max reverts to his life in city with a complete understanding of the events of his childhood and a seeming sense of reconciliation. That in summary is the plot of this book. In many ways this is an ordinary plot, yet I would not hesitate to say that “The Sea” will remain as one of the finest books in contemporary writing that I have read. There are many fine aspects of this book that will remain etched in my mind

Banville comes out as a writer with an extraordinary control on language. In his hands language acquires an indescribable flexibility – flowing, turning, gurgling, curving, effortlessly manoeuvring blind alleys, plumbing into the depths of human mind and feelings – all without sacrificing any aspect of the narrative flow, continuity or coherence and without being showy or pedantic. There is a great beauty in the way thoughts, feelings and situations are laid threadbare and unravelled at a contained pace. Of the many expectations I have from fiction, an essential one is about its function to not only tell a reader what one should and can be but also what one was. In other words it should where possible resurrect long forgotton or dead memories of its readers.  As I was reading through the book there were many thoughts, opinions and feelings that Max Horden recalls which could have been mine unarticulated.  At one point Max says the following “……………………..  Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see that the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness. This is a surprising, not to say a shocking, realisation. Before, I saw myself as something of a buccaneer, facing all-comers with a cutlass in my mouth, but now I am compelled to acknowledge that this was a delusion. To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from sky’s indifferent gaze and the harsh air’s damagings. That is why the past is just such a retreat for me, I go there eagerly rubbing my hands and shaking off the cold present and the colder future. And yet, what existence, really does it have, the past? After all, it is only what the present was, once, the present that is gone, no more than that…..” in many ways, coming from the place, background and time I am from, this more or less accurately sums up my own life so far and maybe an accurate depiction of the life for a many around us. Alternately when Max says” ………….  Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things – new experiences, new emotions – and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be marvellously finished pavilion of the self. And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck” — so very life relevant in my case! 

Banville excels in situation building and razor sharp psychological sketches. Consider the situation when Max has to announce to the reader that Anna has been diagnosed with a debilitating illness and he does it in just one brillaint sentence “In the midst of the imperial progress that was our life together, a grinning losel (a worthless person) had stepped out of the cheering crowd and sketching a parody of a bow had handed my tragic queen the warrant of impeachment” or when Max sums up his own life aspirations and struggles “I was a distinct no one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone” (aren’t a majority of us like this?)….. or Max’s observation on interacting with Myles   ” …     for being alone with Myles was like being in a room which someone has just violently left …..

Banville‘s writing style is unique and with a freshness that a first time reader that I was thrilled at it. There is a drug like and hypnotic quality to his prose.It is my guess that readers will have extreme reactions to his prose — they will either like it for the handling of the language and storytelling or simply discard it as being prolix. I belong to former category

At places the book reminded me of Herman Raucher‘s “The Summer of 42” maybe because of the sea-side setting, a reminscence of adolescence and the identicality of an adolescent’s thoughts around women. The younger Max reminded me of Hermie in a limited way

When it comes to books, I am like a carpet. Many of them walk over me and leave their invisible footprints on my mind. How and what am I going to do with these accumulated marks remains an open question. Maybe, I decide to leave them that way forever. Needless to say that “The Sea” has been a heavy-footed walker with an inherent capacity for a large footprint

A worthy winner of the 2005 Booker prize

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A River Sutra – Gita Mehta – A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 5, 2009

You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body —- C.S.Lewis

The concept of “Unity of Life” appears to be a predominant thought both in Hinduism and Buddhism. While that has been the main theme in Herman Hesse‘s “Sidhartha“, I surprisingly found very similar, albeit fleeting thoughts, in John Steinbeck‘s “Grapes of Wrath” and  Boris Pasternak‘s “Dr.Zhivago” too. Needless to say that there is a huge difference between understanding this concept and actually experiencing it. Experiencing this unity of life is believed to be the central purpose of human existence in both these religions and is expected to lead to emancipation from the wheel of life and rebirth. Hinduism suggests multiple ways to experience this unity of life – ranging from extreme forms of denial of worldly interaction and control of senses to being an absolutely integral part of the world through a normal life (samsara) that most of us experience. Given the inherently difficult nature of this topic, I have known very few books in fiction that have attempted to elaborate it keeping a lay reader in mind. Gita Mehta‘s “A River Sutra” has been one such book I have read in the recent past which deals with this theme and does it quite well too

The narrator – a retired senior bureaucrat retires to a guest house on the banks of river Narmada with the intention of withdrawing from world for a life of contemplation. Much against his wishes the world keeps thrusting itself on him in the form of various people passing through his guest house needing his help briefly or chancing upon him on his daily walks. These people include a jain monk who renounces his position as a wealthy scion to the richest diamond merchant of India, a bewitched company executive who wants to get rid of his enchantment of love and lust, a courtesan who becomes the wife of a bandit to eventually accept her position as his wife with an insight into the true meaning of love, a minstrel who sings the glory of the sacred power of Narmada and her mentor – an eminent archealogist who was a former Naga sadhu –  who renounces renunciation itself for a life in the world, an ugly looking but accomplished singer who calmly accepts her fate of unrequited love. The stories of these people keep reminding narrator of the power of human passions and their relevance in the real scheme of things. The narrator is completely confused and is not able to make sense of the happenings around him. Luckily, he has a good friend in Tariq Mia – a pious Islamic scholar and Imam in a mosque who is a strong believer in Sufism.  It is Tariq Mia who makes an attempt to explain the role of passions and their place in lives of human beings and makes the narrator aware of the need for the relevance of being  this- worldly to reach his goal of realisation. Each of the interactions of the narrator with the characters in the book are presented in the form of a story. Gita Mehta does not make an attempt to bring a happy ending to the travails of the narrator. Like his characters, he too continues to struggle with his journey but with a growing sense of awareness of what emancipation and the unity of life means and involves.

The book has been a refreshing read. Mehta has a very effortless and engaging narrative style and never gets didactic when it comes to explaining the intricate concepts of the thoughts in Indian philosophy. Mehta manages a very interesting portrait of India and its uniqueness in being home to such philosophical concepts and the quest of its people seeking the truth underlying these concepts. In literature, very often, I have noticed that a river is used as a symbol to represent the flow of life and its unity and Mehta brings the mythological context of the river Narmada quite well in the book. As I read through the book, I could not help compare “A River Sutra”  with Hesse‘s “Siddartha” and found a few strong parallels. The first is that of the “seeker – teacher” pair which is almost a prerequisite in Hindu approach to enlightenment/realisation. A teacher guides the seeker towards the necessary knowledge and possibilities of experience of unity of life but in the actual act of experience the seeker is all alone. In “Sidhartha” we have “Govinda – Sidhartha” combine and in “A River Sutra” we have “Tariq Mia – Narrator” combination. In both the books a river plays a central role in mooring the seekers to a place of quite contemplation. Probably the most important commonality is that of the emphasis on “Samsara” being central to achieving the end goal of realisation of unity of life – a concept which is complex, grand and goes beyond the scope of the book. 

I remember reading Mehta‘s “Raj” long ago and it is those memories of her being an interesting writer that prompted me to pick up “A River Sutra” for reading and Mehta has not disappointed me at all

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