Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for February, 2012

A One Way Ticket To Wilderness – Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 25, 2012

A thing of beauty is a joy forever – this observation is equally relevant in the context of beautiful prose as it is relevant anywhere else. Good writing lives and grips a generation or two and once the context of the setting wanes, the prose starts to lose its sheen. It will start to acquire the hue of a “has-been” similar to the well preserved ruins of a once great civilization. On the contrary, great writing effortlessly transcends multiple generations and yet continues to retain its grip and haunting charm on its readers. Readers, despite passage of time, find new meanings that continue to remain relevant to them. There is an element of permanence associated with it. One feels involuntarily impelled to introduce such writings to subsequent generations as something valuable and sacred with a fervent hope that they too will get to see the same signs of greatness that one has witnessed in it. Into this category of great writing, I would unhesitatingly include Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild”. This is a book that I have read at different stages in my life and every time I found it to have an undiminished freshness, vitality, vigour, energy and relevance

At its core, “The Call of the Wild”, is the story of a transformative journey of Buck, a domesticated dog from Santa Clara valley in California ending up in the northern wildernesses of Klondike region in Canada, with the cleverness, killing instinct and cunningness of an untamed wild beast. The transformation is educative in the ways of the wild not just for Buck but also for the reader. London endows Buck with convincing intellect of a human being and yet retains the true nature of its being in an atmosphere which is primal, harsh and punishing. There is an unfettered freedom and abandon with which this landscape is described by London.

 London’s narration of Buck’s change from a neophyte follower into a confident leader of his dog pack and gradually extending his leadership over the wild wolf packs is a joy to read. It is in describing this change that London’s prose bristles with energy and insight that is memorable and memorability is an essential mark of greatness. Here is a passage which demonstrates this:

 There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move

London is said to have lived the life of his stories, traveling in harsh climes far and wide and mingling with men whose life was full of danger and adventure. He is an extraordinary observer of the landscape around him and to the brilliant descriptions of external beauty; he also effortlessly melds his own highly refined thoughts which make his prose remarkable. In writing fiction that is vigorous and virile, London can be counted among the greatest of the greats – a true master. But that to my mind is not where the greatness of London’s writing lies. The aspect that heightens the appeal of London’s writing is the underlying and unstated thought revolving around the enticing allure of the wilderness and the primal nature of the wild. He makes the atmospherics of the cold north come alive seeing beyond what is visible

 Given the burden of our day to day living in this increasingly complex world of technology, urbanization and strife, there are times – not infrequently – when one feels like escaping into something which is far more natural, original and pristine. It is in the escape of Buck from the constraints and mores of a human civilization into a state of unrestrained existence of wilderness lies a vicarious escape for all men and women which is viscerally liberating  and that to me is the greatness of this wonderful book

 An all-time classic !


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The Road – Jack London

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 19, 2012





A journey can be a fragment of hell – Bruce Chatwin

I have always admired the writing of Jack London for its vigorous and virile prose, brilliant narration of life and struggles in the wild where men, women and animals armed with tenacity and courage pit themselves against hostile natural conditions with unpredictable outcomes. I also think that London has written some of the greatest novels and short stories that have ever been penned. So much so, that I think London’s “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” should be mandatory reading for every child and adult. His short story “A Piece of Steak” covering the travails of an ageing boxer and the brutal dynamics in the boxing ring stretching to an eternal ten rounds remains my all-time favourite. I like the story for its starkness, sadness and allusion to a universal human condition and its derivative wisdom. Therefore, it came as a pleasant surprise when I came across his novel “The Road” which is first class travel writing dealing with his life as a hobo, which from the perspectives of a genre, is far removed from his usual writing. Besides being an absorbing read, it is also probably one of the most authentic records of the lives of hobos in America and Canada in early 19th century

Brushing aside suggestions that he was driven by a need to study human beings, London attributes his hobo-life to a primal wanderlust and his inability to handle the monotony of routine in quotidian life:

I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a Ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to

Jack London is taken in by the charms of a hobo life from the word go. The constant uncertainty and the life on edge for hobos appeared to have had a great appeal which drove him to make this lucid observation:

Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is protean — an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment.  He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance

A rich hobo is a contradiction in terms. The need for compulsive travel and constant indigence forced hobos to the fringes of society. Begging, trespassing and sometimes stealing made them a vulnerable lot. It is this vulnerability that was exploited by the machinery of law and order. London details this sordid state of affairs of hobos in the chapters “Pinched” and “The Pen” with a vividness that is graphic, horrifying yet impressive.

 Interestingly London attributes his growth as a writer and the sharpening of his writerly skills to this phase of life as a hobo:    

The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneously — and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or crabbed, generous or miserly, good natured or cantankerous, Jew or Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub…..After all, art is only consummate artfulness, and artfulness saves many a story

London’s appetite for distance transcends the ordinary. Starting from the east coast in the US all the way to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada through the harsh climes of Canada and then by sea to Sanfrancisco on the west coast of the US and back to east coast is a travel from one end of the continent to the other through two countries. This inordinately long sojourn and the associated exposure to thousands of fellow hobos has given London an opportunity to observe and absorb the mores, travails, behaviours, idiosyncrasies, lingua-franca and the vulnerabilities of hobos in detail. The telling detail in which London documents all of these makes ‘The Road” an authentic record of the hobo world

There are times in our lives when we too are overcome by wanderlust, a need for a wild romp and a desire to travel with a sense of abandon. For lack of courage and a bunch of genuine constraints, we are not able to cater to these impulses. In situations like these it is advisable to settle for next better alternatives which take the form of knowing and reading other fortunate people’s experiences who managed to satisfy these impulses of wanderlust. It is in providing these vicarious experiences that Jack London’s “The Road” is not only a great read but also a loyal servant in carrying out the duty of all good literature.

 A genuine classic in the genre of travel writing

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The Big Rock Candy Mountain – A Hobo’s Hymn to an Eldorado

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 18, 2012

Hoboing is an American phenomenon driven by wanderlust and economic conditions. Hobos and railroading are inseparable. In the play ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams, the all powerful “Big Daddy” tells his son ‘Bricks” about the love his hobo father heaped on him despite being penniless and how he is forced to bury his father by a railway line. Some great writers like Jack London, James Michener, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Louis L’amour are said to have lived the lives of hobos for a period of time. Jack London, in specific has written a fantastic travelogue “The Road” describing his life as a hobo. It is one of the finest pieces of travel writing I have read so far.

I’ve first heard the classic hobo song “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” while watching Cohen brother’s movie “O Brother Where Art Though“.  It is a heartwarmingly poetic articulation of an ideal world desired by a wandering hobo. The hobo’s needs and asks are pretty simple: handouts on bushes, cigarette trees, lakes of stew and whiskey, box cars that allow them to tramp, no long hand of the law, no jails, no work, life in open air and simple comforts of life. The movie carries a rendition of the song by Hary McClintock which etches itself in the mind. An enormously appealing and joyful piece of writing replete with childlike simplicity, desire and a mild touch of sadness. The sadness arises on account of the impossibility of the desire and the element of gullibility of the hobo to pin his hope on the existence of a paradise of his imagination. A true hymn to an imagined Eldorado

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As I grew up…….

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 10, 2012

Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? – Julian Barnes in “The Sense of an Ending”

“What is coming over Laliah? His flowing beard, saffron cap and those black beads, is he converting into an Osho disciple? asked S
“Well, conversion is a strong word. He is following Osho. I thought everyone knew it. It has been more than a year and half now. He has been to the Pune commune twice already. His belief seems to be growing” replied R
“But R tell me this; this Osho thing; is it only simple mounting and unmounting or is there something spiritual to it?” 

This stark reference to sex in dry mechanical terms mentioned so off-handedly jolted me. I controlled my instinct to turn and look at S. I continued to look with a pretended interest the gardener who was watering the fruit laden guava trees. If I had looked at S as a reaction to his statement, it would have been a disaster for I would have given myself away. As a child of ten, the world expected me to be unaware of the contours of sex. It was this belief in my innocence that appears to have given confidence to S to say what he said to my father in my presence. My assumed innocence to them was a protective cover against which their conversation was expected to bounce off without affecting me in any way like a rain drop on a buffalo. It has been more than three decades since this conversation took place on a hot summer evening in the well-tended lawn of S whose family we were visiting that day. Father, S and I were sitting in his lawns while mother and sister were inside with the lady of the house

 Three decades? Yes, three decades and from the dark swamps of my memory this snippet of a conversation came to the fore suddenly without any hint. It was as if this memory was a hot air balloon whose strings have snapped allowing it to rise unhurriedly into the sky. There was no special reason or suggestive trigger for this recall. It just bobbed up from somewhere unknowingly. I was not ashamed then nor am I ashamed now to write about this conversation. It was not just the exact words that I remember. Attached to the memory of the words there was also a memory of a distinct feeling: the feeling of a subtle fear. It was the fear of facing the bigger world, the assumptions people will make about me at every stage of life and the taboo things that I will learn about even before society grants me its silent permission to go ahead. But why now? I really do not know. How many such memory bubbles will I encounter as I go along? Who knows? Forgotten memories and forgotten feelings hitting me once in a while like large meteors in space that crash into planets at the most unexpected times reminding me of my long gone past and life. How prescient Saul Bellow was when he said that memory is life !

Do all men and women go through this? I am not so sure. Well maybe they do. They too all grow… as I grew up

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 5, 2012

Memorable portrayals of teachers as transformative agents are plenty in fiction. Mr.Antolini in “The Catcher In The Rye”, Mr. Hector in Alan Bennett’s “History Boys” and Ricky Braithwaite in ‘To Sir With Love” are some examples that come to my mind. Contrarian views on the role teachers play have been very few. Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a memorable stand-out on the contrarian side. This small novel which brought Muriel Spark widespread recognition is deceptively small, darkly comic, with a fairly involved plot carrying impressive character portrayal, brilliant atmospherics and some striking conversations. Even among these, the character of Miss Brodie whom Spark chisels gradually through the course of the novel is unforgettable. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Miss Brodie is one of the most memorable characters of modern English literature

Miss Brodie is a teacher at Marcia Blaine academy wedded to a set of beliefs and opinions which she makes it her professional duty to inculcate in a select set of her students – the infamous “Brodie set”. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life” is the driving belief with which Miss Brodie works. Her peculiarities, value system and beliefs are also an outcome of her mongrel belief in Calvinism and other denominations of Christian Church with a specific exclusion of Roman Catholicism. Very little is known of Miss Brodie’s past to pin the sources of her beliefs, barring a brief glimpse which she herself offers to her students Sandy and Rose:

 “I am a descendant; do not forget, of Willie Brodie, a man of substance, a cabinet maker and designer of gibbets, a member of the Town Council of Edinburgh and a keeper of two mistresses who bore him five children between them. Blood tells. He played much dice and fighting cocks. Eventually he was wanted man for having robbed the Excise Office – not that he needed money, he was a night burglar only for the sake of the danger in it. Of course, he was arrested abroad and was brought back to Tolbooth prison, but it was a mere chance. He dies cheerfully on a gibbet of his own devising in Seventeen seventy eight”

For any normal person a similar background could be a reason for a mild sense of shame but for Miss Brodie this appears to be a source to derive her pride from. It is in this mental makeup to consider what is inappropriate as appropriate lies the clue for her peculiar idiosyncrasies. Miss Brodie is consistently opinionated and there is a haughty absolutism in the way she views various things around her and expresses in her conversations with her students:

“Who is the greatest Italian painter?
“Leonardo Da Vinci, Miss Brodie”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite               …… or

“Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science… Art and religion first; then philosophy; lastly science. That is the order of the great subjects of life, that’s their order of importance”

Especially for a teacher this trait is an anathema. Miss Brodie simply does not realise this. We find such people in many walks of life. There is a self-imposed purpose and commitment of Miss Brodie to uplift the Brodie set culturally and morally above the rest of the students of the academy. In her own words:

“You girls are my vocation. If I were to receive a proposal of marriage tomorrow from the Lord Lyon King of Arms I would decline it. I am dedicated to you in my prime. Form a single file, now, please, and walk with your heads up, up, like Sybil Thorndike, a woman of noble mien

 .. walking like Sybil, wearing hats at a particular angle, interest in music and art are some indicators of this high-culture which Miss Brodie strives to inculcate in her protégés. This single minded focus to elevate students attains a religious intensity which has its basis in her belief in Calvinism and a mélange of other denominations of church. This shapeless pot-pourri of beliefs lead Miss Brodie to reject the love of Teddy Lloyd – her colleague responsible for teaching art to students and embrace Mr. Lowther – the music teacher who is a Roman catholic – a church denomination she abominates. To compensate Teddy Lloyd for her unrequited love, she encourages her student Rose as a substitute lover and tags her other student Sandy to act as a spy to gather information on the progress. Much against Miss Brodie’s intentions, Teddy has a temporary affair with Sandy and Rose moves on to settle down to a married life. Sandy gets fascinated with Lloyd and gradually starts to explore his mind which remains in love with Miss Brodie and reflects Brodie in every single portrait he creates. Much later this leads Sandy to publish a well-received work of psychology and opt to become a nun. Despite their tutoring and preparation for a higher life by Miss Brodie almost all of the other students of Brodie set settle for very ordinary vocations of life

People like Miss Brodie have a natural tendency to generate their detractors. Miss Mackay, Miss Gaunt are a few among them. As a reader one never knows what of Miss Brodie, Miss Mackay dislikes. Yet it is apparent that there is an intense dislike to the extent of throwing Miss Brodie out of Marcia Blaine academy. Here is a brilliant double tongued dance that she does with the Brodie set politely demeaning Miss Brodie:

 “You are very fortunate in Miss Brodie. I could wish your arithmetic papers been better. I am always impressed by Miss Brodie’s girls one way or another. You will have to work hard at ordinary humble subjects for the qualifying examinations. Miss Brodie is giving you an excellent preparation for your Senior school. Culture cannot compensate for lack of hard knowledge. I am happy to see you are devoted to Miss Brodie. Your loyalty is due to the school rather than to any individual”

As the girls grow in their senior school they increasingly start to find Miss Brodie ridiculous and eccentric and this provokes Sandy to betray her by providing proof to Miss Mackay of Miss Brodie’s active support to Fascism. It is on the grounds of these political misdemeanours and not on the grounds of her being out of step with the rest of the academy or the illicit relationship with Mr. Lowther, that Miss Brodie is forced to retire. Despite her pretensions to high culture, refinement, confidence and haughtiness, Miss Brodie is a sad figure. She is a poor assessor of people around her and walks into her sunset years disgraced and betrayed by her own student (a la Jesus being deceived by his disciple)

 Of the many remembrable eccentricities of Miss Brodie is her habit to remind the reader ad nauseam of her being in her “prime”. The reader never gets to understand exact nature of this prime of hers

 “I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to your full”    or

 “That’s what I mean by your insight,” said Miss Brodie. “I ought to know, because my prime has brought me instinct and insight, both”

Miss Brodie’s “prime” appears to be a hazy façade which justifies her views, beliefs, methods and approaches to violate the acceptable code of conduct

The “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a complex piece of fictional narrative and has multiple facets to it – human idiosyncrasies, professional jealousies, religious attitudes, atmosphere of the 1930s in Scotland, adult- adolescent relationships, sex, growing up and coming into one’s own. Yet the single most striking feature of this writing is Muriel Spark’s wonderful ability in character portrayal. Miss Brodie in my view will be up there in the pantheon of memorable characters brought to life by any author in twentieth century English fiction.

A tautly written novel which is a pleasure to read

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