Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for September, 2011

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 20, 2011

History is that certainty produced at the point where imperfections of memory meet inadequacies of documentation

“Memory is life” asserted Saul Bellow. In a given context this statement is incontrovertible.  Memory is not a fixed thing either. It is believed that our memories keep changing according to our life experiences and events. Personal memories create personal histories and an outlook of what we think of ourselves, our lives and also what we think of people and where we peg them in our worldview. We develop near permanent prejudices and judge in ways that may not necessarily be correct and just. But in all this, time does not wait for us. We age carrying our world view with us. Then some new fact emerges from the hidden mists of past colliding with our now fraying memories. Our perspective alters. But we also realise that it is too late for setting right the assumed wrong and we are left with remorse. But remorse is useless at this stage.. it is of no consolation and the ensuing suffering and misery is difficult to handle… that is the conclusion Tony Webster, the narrator in Julian Barnes moving book “The Sense of an Ending” arrives at when he says “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest

The Sense of an Ending” is a deceptively lean but schematically complex book written with a cleverness, dexterity, precision, insight and maturity that goes beyond anything Barnes has written so far. To say this of a writer of Barnes caliber and astonishing oeuvre is indicative of something transcendental in his career as a writer. The last two books of his which I read –‘Nothing to be Frightened Of” and “Lemon Table” deal with death, dying and growing old. In this latest book Barnes adds to these themes other adjuncts like imperfections of memory, its impact on personal histories and history in general, role of suicide, uselessness of remorse and chain of human responsibility and its implications

Tony, Colin, Alex an affable threesome are joined by the brilliant Adrian in school to form a friendly quartet. Once out of school Adrian heads for Cambridge and Tony to Bristol for higher studies. Tony has a brief but intense affair with Veronica which breaks off immediately after a visit by Tony to Veronica’s house in Chislehurst. But before that Veronica gets introduced to Adrian and both fall in love. During the visit to Veronica’s house Tony becomes painfully aware of the class difference between him and veronica’s family. The visit also evokes a feeling of insult in Tony. Under inexplicable circumstances Adrian commits suicide without letting anyone know the reasons. When Mrs. Ford, Veronica’s mother dies, Tony, who is now sixty, receives an inheritance from Mrs. Ford and an intimation of the existence of a diary written by Adrian willed to him but which is held in possession by Veronica who refuses to part with it. Tony tries to re-establish a relationship with Veronica but his friendly overtures are returned with a brusque indifference bordering on rudeness. In one of his meetings with Veronica, Tony chances upon a mentally disturbed person who he assumes to be Veronica’s son. It eventually transpires that this person is the child of Mrs. Ford and Adrian.

Tony as first person omniscient narrator whose back and forth into past with an uncertain memory as his aid is done with a delicately balanced skill and supreme confidence of an accomplished writer. In the process Barnes touches various aspects that are pivotal and crucial to our lives. Consider this treatment of history and views around it:

History isn’t the lies of the victors as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated…or…. What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated’  Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives?

or this extraordinary insight into the way we treat memory and the place we ascribe to it in our lives

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it

However, The Sense of an Ending is essentially about memory and its implications for life. Barnes reserves the finest treatment to this subject with a touch of philosophical grandeur. Consider this

Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It is a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t the log of your journey is much less clear……Or to put it another way. Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because they meant something new was being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

In the recent past, I have read many good books but I can say with confidence that none of them, despite my gratitude to what they gave me, can come close to this superb book

 The Sense of an Ending  is a deeply moving, sad and pensive book on growing, ageing, imperfections of memory and its impact on an individual’s past and implications for the present and future, chain of human responsibility, personal history, limitations of remorse, complexity in human relations all dealt in a wonderfully coherent and intertwined plot.

That it has made to the Booker shortlist is a clear indicator of its prowess.. will it win the prize?… we need to wait and see


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Snowdrops – A.D.Miller

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 13, 2011

That’s what they call them – that’s what they call the bodies that come to light with the thaw. Drunks mostly, and homeless people who give up and lie down in the snow and the odd vanished murder victim. Snowdrops

In Russia…. there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The more grotesque the contours of hell that materializes, the nobler and more well intentioned the initial thoughts appear to be. Nowhere is this more palpable than in the sphere of ideological politics involving people, politicians, governments, countries, geographic regions and of late businesses too. Two and half decades ago glasnost and perestroika were probably the most popular words reflecting a fervent hope and possibility of USSR’s tryst with democracy, free market economic principles, liberty and freedom to its citizens. Looking back one cannot but be disappointed at the path erstwhile USSR has taken – 14 states declared their independence from Russia with periodic internecine skirmishes and hostilities, multi-coloured revolutions have swept the region – yellow, orange, pink to name a few (with some habitual monkey business from US and some European countries), massive criminalization of polity, rise in mafia, crime, drug, alcohol abuse and terrorism, plundering of state resources by few individuals and corporations, cancerous corruption, abuse of democratic processes and above all a brutal and precipitous cheapening of the value of human life and deadening of basic human sensibilities. That appears to be the dark transformational outcome

It is this unsavory environment that forms the backdrop to A.D.Miller’s taut, fascinating, contemporary and brilliantly written novel “Snowdrops”. This book grabbed my attention after it made into Booker’s shortlist knocking out on its way to selection such eminent writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Sebastian Barry

Nick, an Englishman and lawyer is posted in Russia to handle the growing business of his law firm in the country on account of booming oil industry. Outside of his work he gets involved with Masha and Katya – two fraudsters who along with an old lady Tatiana dupe Nick. Nick sees telltale signs of this fraud almost from the beginning yet chooses to float along and aid them in their fraud primarily on account of his lust for Masha. It is on account of this desire for Masha that Nick allows to corrupt himself and employ his legal skills in aiding Tatiana sell her flat with fraudulent paper work. It is a corruption that is gradual, matter of fact and free of any guilt and outrage

Miller does a fabulous job in portraying an environment which is ruthless, hedonist, cruel, indifferent to human suffering, corrupt across strata of society, stultified and decadent. That the once great Russian society with its outstanding contribution to the world of literature, science, space research and a hopeful alternative to US in balancing power has allowed to emasculate itself due to erosion of values and direction is a shocker and it is this accurate depiction that is the highlight of this book.

Ray Bradbury once said “Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures”. Snowdrops to me is one of our modern day treasures and a representative of UK’s ability to throw up brilliant young writing talent with astonishing consistency

A thoroughly enjoyable read and a grim reminder of the fall that societies can witness. Will it win the Booker? Let’s wait and see….

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The Hidden Words

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 11, 2011

The silent ‘ember’ of the word “member”
Glows hidden in the word “remember”
A heaving “train” in a lashing “rain”
Is well embedded in its “strain”
The unruffled “hair” and the breezy “air”
Lie unmoving in the word “chair”
Words hiding in a word we see
But don’t observe; is it for lack of mental capacity?

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Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 4, 2011

 Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? – Beatty to Montag in Fahrenheit 451

There are many writers whom I relegate to an informal category titled “need to tackle in the future” the first time I encounter them. Once shoved into this category they are certain to enter a near permanent state of forgetfulness. Although rare, some do resist to fight back and pop into active consciousness with a dogged tenacity. Through a reference here, a hint there, an unexpected insinuation and accidental coming across they keep themselves alive and prompt me to read them. Ray Bradbury is one among these writers.

Three diverse occurrences and hints prove the point I am referring to above: One:  I had read an interview by Ian McEwan recently in which he mentioned Malcolm Bradbury as the writer who conducted courses in creative writing in East Anglia University which had him as a student. McEwan had a reverential tone when he spoke of Bradbury. It turned out later that I was confusing Malcolm Bradbury with Ray Bradbury. However, both Bradburys remained in my mind.  This was the first prompt. Two:  I accidentally landed with a hardbound edition of his collected short stories containing a 100 of his best stories at a price which was next to nothing. The shop owner; a great lover of books herself was willing to give it away for free urging me to read the stories without fail. Her parting words to me were “You are taking home a joy that is invaluable”. This was a second sign. I am yet to read the stories though. Three: After many lazy starts and failed attempts in getting a book club going, I decided to adopt “if you can’t fight then float” approach and was looking for a good book club to join as an active member. I found the online book club initiated by Sam Jordison of Guardian newspaper suitable for my purposes. And to my surprise Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was nominated as the inaugural choice for members to read and comment. This was not only the third prompt and sign but a definitive tipping point. So here I am, with my impressions of this mildly terrifying, wonderfully poignant but in the end a vastly hopeful and heartwarming book about the centrality of books and literature in our lives and how a few among us will always stand up for the right things despite the personal difficulties and sacrifices they entail

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian world where censorship is rampant, TV has become an ultra-dominant media, majority of the common people have already lost interest in books and literature and the authorities direct their fire service forces to burn down books and homes of people who cherish, store and protect books. In this world lives Guy Montag a regular fire service man with his wife Melissa. Guy is both a perpetrator of the atrocities and an eventual rebel against the regime. His dormant sensibilities are awakened by an incident where an old woman is charred to death trying to protect her burning books and house and his chance meeting with Clarisse – a young girl who rekindles his interest in life, sensitizes him to the state of society and in a tangential way reinforces in him the importance of books and their relevance to human societies. Guy rebels against the system only to find his house made the target by fire service force led by his colleagues and boss Beatty. In his quest for redemption, Guy is guided by a retired professor Faber to whom Guy hands over his savings with the understanding that Faber would initiate printing of books for wider dissemination at a suitable time in future. As part of his escape to safety from persecution of authorities, Guy leaves his city and joins a bunch of renegades who carry books in their heads with the hope that one day they will be able to put them on paper once again and make them available to future generations

The appeal of Fahrenheit 451 lies in multiple aspects and foremost among them is the balanced view that Bradbury brings around the relevance of books to society. He refrains from the facile conclusion that books and literature are ultimate panacea for the ills of our society and their creation and existence automatically guarantees a safety mechanism which prevents mankind from making the mistakes it does. Bradbury believes that at best the intensity and magnitude of the follies may remain in check. Bradbury makes his characters bring forth this balanced view point at various points in time in the book. Here are a few worth considering

Montag: We’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we have so much fun at home that we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumors; the world is starving, but we’re well fed. Is it true the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much? I’ve heard rumors about hate, too, once in a long while over the years. Do you know why? I don’t, that’s sure! Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They might just stop us from making those same damn mistakes!….. God, Millie don’t you see? An hour a day, two hours, with these books, and maybe.….

Faber: You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on the highest cliff to jump off. But we do need a breather. We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years we might pick of smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are, They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal”

Granger: There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we are doing the same thing, over and over, but we have got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly think we just did. We know all the damn silly things we have done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them.

These views are singular and the central message of Fahrenheit 451. Yet Bradbury does not make his views uni-dimensional. He makes this amply clear when he makes Faber advise Montag as follows:

“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore”

Bradbury paints a picture of a dystopian society which is not only prescient but not far off from current day reality. Aspects related to the aggressive industrialization, accelerating proliferation of technologies, periodic war mongering, over bearing presence of media in manufacturing opinions, viewpoints and the power to dumb people down, the alienation of individuals from society, censorship, the penchant for political correctness and the clamour of people for bread and circuses, fun and titillation are portrayed so well that looking at our current day society (especially US and other western nations) one cannot but marvel at Bradbury’s foresight as a writer. On this front, I felt Bradbury scores over even a great writer like George Orwell

Probably the greatest aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is that while being a novel of caution and chastisement it is also simultaneously a wonderfully optimistic book and leaves the reader with a sense of wisdom and awareness of his own duties and responsibilities towards inculcating the habit of reading in people who surround him and in propagating a practical view around the relevance of books to society at large

In judging writers and books Bradbury provides a wonderful yardstick to readers through the words of Faber when he says

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies”

In judging Fahrenheit 451, this same yardstick comes in handy and one can conclude confidently that it is not only a great book but also that Ray Bradbury is a good writer

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Two Poems of AE Houseman

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 3, 2011

The young have a prerogative to be hopeful, to look forward to the future, to be ready with energy to face all the possibilities that destiny dishes out and to drink deep from the riches the world has to offer them. Therefore melancholoy is an unnatural characteristic of them. It does not belong with them, makes an uneasy acquiantance and is an unnatural companion . Yet for its sheer poignancy there is no melancholy like the resigned melancholoy of the young

One poet in my know who has been supremely successful in capturing the melancholoy of youth is AE Houseman. I have first come across Houseman’s writing through a snippet of his poem mentioned in William Woodruffe’s autobiography “Beyond The Nab End“. Ever since,  his collection of poems especially “The Shropshire Lad” has been a favourite of mine and I keep it handy to read it whenever I feel like. His poems are deep and have a way with words – simple, common, rhyming, beautiful and with an ability to produce a sense that is sublime and extremely satisfying.  Had I my way, I would introduce some of his wonderful poems to all (especially young) without fail

Here are two of his fine poems which I like a lot for their simplicity, meaning and effect 

When first my way to fair I took

When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
But where’s the lost young man?

— To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow

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