Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for November, 2011

An Unintended Beauty

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 29, 2011

Writers in one sense resemble intrepid explorers and frontiersmen. Explorers discovered unknown lands while writers among others discovered and continue to discover newer word associations. Consider this sentence by Ray Bradbury from his classic story “The Fog Horn

“I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the “sadness of eternity” and the briefness of life”

Briefness of life – I can understand. But sadness of eternity – that beats me. How does one know that eternity is sad? Probably one does not, till one has read this sentence. On a closer look, the association sounds a tad doubtful  and everything in our know appears to suggest the opposite i.e. that eternity is not sad. The desire for fame and legacy are also desires for eternity and permanence. The well springs of human passion resulting in the expending of blood, sweat, toil and tears is for most of the times driven by the need for leaving a mark, a something to be remembered by and a generic hope for an extended existence beyond mortal life. Probably the most sought after thing in this world – an afterlife in heaven – also has a dimension of eternity deeply embedded in it. If eternity is sad then by a convoluted logic heaven may eventually not be a happy place to live in – and going by convention appears inverted. This then leads me to ask the question: is the word association used by Bradbury an appropriate one?

For all the thoughts I have, Bradbury makes this word association appear natural, effortless, easy, beautiful and extremely pleasing. The words sit so well in one another’s company as if they were age old pals full of harmony with no friction what so ever. I guess the genesis of this beauty lies not in reason but in aesthetics which in any case is beyond reason

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Stories from The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 29, 2011

2011 will go down as my year of knowing many fantastic writers I have never heard or read before. Foremost among them is Ray Bradbury. He is – I am coming to realize – a writer of extraordinary talent, range and prolificity. Novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism, plays, movie scripts and an odd poem here and there – his output is staggering. But above all he is an absolute pleasure to read. Here is a collection of his short stories viz. “The Illustrated Man” which I have read recently

The setting of his stories in this collection whether it is a noiseless and indifferent space, the alien landscape of Mars, time travel into past from future or our own but morphed earth is a beguiling façade, a ploy and a master writer’s technique to bring a necessary isolation and consequently an intense focus to the diverse human predicaments that are being observed, discussed and portrayed

Here are a few from the collection which I liked quite a lot and which I would not hesitate to read again. There is a beauty, effortlessness and a larger theme in the storytelling technique that Bradbury adopts

The Fire Balloons: As human beings we develop points of view which even in the most universal contexts are narrowly anthropocentric. This kind of thinking puts us on an unwitting path of presumptions. We assume that we have a monopoly on issues related to ethics, sin, soul, righteousness and puff up unwittingly. A group of church pastors travel to Mars to redeem the inhabitants – who appear as irradiant blue flames – by introducing the concept of sin, soul and God. It turns out that these inhabitants are evolved souls who have already reached a state of nirvana and bliss and do not need any instruments, processes and symbols of earthly spirituality. The revelation of this advanced state of evolution comes to the pastors in one long gentle monologue from one of the blue flames and there is an enjoyable touch of eastern and Zen like quality to this story. The conclusion of the earthlings is a pleasant shocker:

No he thought, we couldn’t build a church for the likes of you. You’re beauty yourself. What church could compete with the fireworks of the pure soul?

Probably the best story in the collection for the grandness of its philosophical bent and the simplicity of narration

The Long Rain: I always maintained that the greatest evocation of the feeling of rain was done by Maugham in his story “The Rain” – that is till I read this story of Ray Bradbury. The sheer verbal energy that Bradbury brings to a landscape battered by rain is superbly done in this story. Man’s need for safety against rain and the need for regular sunlight and how the weak hearted give up is brilliantly narrated. The story opens with this torrent of flawless words:

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and streaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping in the eyes, an undertow in the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped

Mildly frightening but thoroughly enjoyable

The Last Night Of the World: The job of a writer among others is to constantly point and remind us who we are as human beings, what is that makes us and what ticks us – the result could be a picture or a snapshot of the complex diversity that defines us. Bradbury does this extremely well in this story by demonstrating how we have become creatures of habit.

A couple is in the know that the world is coming to end at midnight. Yet they continue with the regular chores of a normal day including the trivial act of turning off the running tap in the kitchen even while the imminent and impending doomsday cataclysm is staring right into their faces. There is a wonderful sense of pathos and summing up that Bradbury brings to his characters through this simple yet powerful dialogue

“We haven’t been too bad, have we?”

“No, nor enormously good. I suppose that’s the trouble – we haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things”

In some ways, isn’t this our state too?

 Kaleidoscope: A good question to ask is: How do we sum up our lives in the face of impending death? But a better question would be: Ideally what should the desirable summary be while summing up our life while facing death? This is a wonderful story of a group of astronauts on a failed and wrecked spaceship drifting apart from one another in the vastness of space in different directions to their unavoidable doom and talking to one another about life, death, living, memories on a weakening communication system. Misery, it is said, loves company but misery also brings out our inherent meanness and generosity to the fore in these last moments. This aspect is wonderfully portrayed in this story. Consider this snippet:

Lespere had lived a good full life, and it made him a different man now, and he, Hollis, had been as good as dead for many years. They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were kinds of death, their kinds of death would be as different as night from day. The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?

The narrator who is hurtling to earth with a feeling of remorse for letting life pass by in petty jealousies and frivolous attitudes consoles himself that he will be useful by becoming ash and spreading over the earth. A wonderfully poignant story which I read many times over for the sheer beauty of its storytelling

The Fox and the Forest: A couple time travel into past to avoid their world which is regimented, controlled, censored and full of war and induced disease. They are hunted back to future by agents of Govt. A moving portrayal of desperation to escape to a state which is civilized, gentle and above all human. There is place in the story where the husband sums up the world he lives which is eerily familiar and has immense resemblance to our current state

And we lived in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and sea into radioactive flames and madness

Two billion or Six Billion – are we any different?

Marionettes Inc.: I hope to meet a man or woman who despite unwavering belief in the institution of marriage would not confess to the occasional constraints and suffocation that marriage imposes on them. Here is a story of two friends in such a predicament and one of them tries to beat it by hiring an identical looking marionette to substitute his place while he plans to proceed on a long awaited holiday. However the marionette has its own evil plans. Inspired, the other friend also proceeds to procure a marionette for substitution but realises to his horror that his wife is already ahead of him in the game… a thoroughly enjoyable tale with a mildly chilling twist in the tale. – while the friends turn out to be gullible the marionette in the former case and the wife in the latter case turn out to be cleverer

No Particular Night or Morning: In general, we have romantic notions of space but space can be bewildering. It unhinges and disorients as it effectively robs one of a sense of dimension, a sense of time, notions of night and day and a feeling of intense isolation. A gruesome tale of a person who begins with enthusiastic love for space but gradually goes mad and ends up committing suicide on a spaceship

The City: A city that has been conquered, ravaged and left to dereliction by humans recoups itself over a period of twenty thousand years organizes itself to seek revenge on its perpetrators.  In ways it is also a parable to remind us how nature can seek revenge for human excesses. There is a movie like quality to this story

The Rocket Man: Industrialization and advancement has induced a strange bewitchment with the work we do. We define ourselves with the kind of work we do and carry on till our end doing so. Here is a poignant story of a man who is a space traveler and finds it hard to stay put on earth despite his family’s need for him only to end perishing in an accident while traveling to sun leaving his family in darkness

The Veldt: Probably the most chilling story of the collection. Two young kids whose parental needs are substituted by their all providing mechanical house plot and do their parents to death to avoid the threat of shutting down the mechanical house they love so much. The portrayal of a clinical indifference with which the children carry out their act is superbly done

Bradbury has written close to five hundred stories. One thing is for certain: I will read all of them from this cornucopia

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Writers On Writing – Part 4

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 19, 2011

Here are some more interesting views on the craft of writing, reading, fiction and literature in general. Barring the last excerpt of Nabokov which I have taken from NewYorker rest all have been sourced from the magazine Paris Review

Interviewer: Is it old-fashioned to think that the purpose of literature is to educate us about life?

Susan Sontag: Well, it does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

 Interviewer: Does literature produce ecstasy?

Susan Sontag: Sure, but less reliably than music and dance; literature has more on its mind. One must be strict with books. I want to read only what I’ll want to reread—the definition of a book worth reading once

Interviewer: Do the novel and short story present different problems to you?

Ray Bradbury: Yes, the problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone. But a novel has all kinds of pitfalls because it takes longer and you are around people, and if you’re not careful you will talk about it. The novel is also hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay erect for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it. Let them be magnetized to it, drawn to it, and then cling to it.

 Interviewer: What do you think of e-books and Amazon’s Kindle?

Ray Bradbury: Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

Interviewer: In the introduction to A Move Abroad you write, “There’s a degree of self-pleasuring in imaginative writing which is not even remotely assimilated by literary theory.” Can you give me an example of that?

 Ian McEwan: The joy is in the surprise. It can be as small as a felicitous coupling of noun and adjective. Or a whole new scene, or the sudden emergence of an unplanned character who simply grows out of a phrase. Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they gave the writer pleasure. A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. This joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Writers crave these moments, these sessions. If I may quote the second page of Atonement, this is the project’s highest point of fulfillment. Nothing else—cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews—will come near it for satisfaction.

Nabokov on the need for re-reading books

When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

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Lost in Transmission

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 16, 2011

Articulation has always been considered a great strength. It is a deemed reflection of a special talent and faculty of the mind. Yet many struggle to transform the occured thought in the mind in its entirety to equivalent words – written or spoken. “Stop beating around the bush” or “Why don’t you tell me the thing directly” or “Come to the point straight”  are some of the common refrains we hear as marks of dissatisfaction with incoherent articulation. Something gets lost in transmission between the mind that thinks and the hand that writes the word or the tongue that shapes the sound. Good poetry manages this loss better than any other form of writing and keeps this fidelity loss to a minimum. Maybe therein lies the inherent power and charm of poetry. Nowhere has this situation been better articulated (in my know) than in the verse of Oliver Wendell Holmes when he writes:

 Our whitest pearl we never find;
Our ripest fruit we never reach;
The flowering moments of the mind
Drop half their petals in our speech

Does this not make a good case for poetry reading on a regular basis? At least I believe it does

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