Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for May, 2013

Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 19, 2013

Ethan FromeIn an article titled “Some Notes on the Novella” written for The New Yorker, author Ian McEwan has the following to say about the art form of novella:

 “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious”

 It is this article that led me to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Set in the imaginary village of Starkfield in the state of Massachusetts and told as a third person narrative, Ethan Frome is the constantly indigent and eponymous hero of the novella who is caught between his querulous sick wife Zenobia and her orphan and helpless destitute cousin Mattie Silver who comes to Ethan’s house to support Zenobia. In Mattie’s attraction and love for him, Ethan sees a way out of his drudgery and cheerless dull life. However, marital jealousy makes Zenobia insist that Mattie leave the farm of Ethan. It is on this journey to the railway station that Ethan and Mattie, in a desperate, reckless and suicidal moment of abandon meet with a serious accident which forces Mattie to revert to the farm with life scarring injuries. There is a strange role reversal where Zenobia becomes the nurse and Mattie the nursed. Thrown together and nowhere to go, the three end up in a sad reclusive life shunning any public contact. The poignancy of the lives is hard to digest. This is brilliantly articulated by Mrs. Hale, the landlady of the narrator when she says:

 “….There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it is a pity she did…… And I say, if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived: and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet and the women have go to hold their tongues”

 What makes this novella a memorable read is Wharton’s ability to capture the stark bleakness of the Massachusetts weather and the despair and emptiness of the lives of the characters against this backdrop. It is full of pathos and moving. Wharton gets under the skin of her characters and captures every small nuance with a command and clarity that is brilliant and impressive. This is more so because Wharton comes from a well to do and prosperous background where exposure to such life situations is rare and the associated sensitivities to depict them rarer still. Julian Barnes in an interview given to Paris Review magazine has the following to say about depicting opposite sex:

 Writers of either gender ought to be able to do the opposite sex—that’s one basic test of competence, after all. Russian male writers—think of Turgenev, Chekhov—seem exceptionally good at women

This competence is amply evident in Wharton’s writing. What really impressed me while reading the book was Wharton’s ability to see things from a male perspective. The dreariness of a hopeless life and the longing for escape to something more joyful and fulfilling is the desperate need of the male protagonist and Wharton captures this wonderfully well despite being a female writer

Overall, a fantastic reading experience

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Notes of a Nobody: A Room with a View

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 17, 2013

Room with a viewThe sudden sound of rhythmic drumming startled me out of my deep sleep.  Even in the half awakened state my mind registered the distinctness of the beat. It was the beat of drums which I used to hear quite frequently as a child at my native place – played by lower caste drummers, heralding the oncoming of a funeral procession. The approaching din of the pulsating beat was a warning signal for the residents to remove any obstacles en-route to make way for a seamless passage of the procession or temporarily halt the activities they were engaged in to turn themselves into curious onlookers. Sometimes, rarely though, these drums were also played to mark a more joyous occasion like a marriage or an animal sacrifice. As we migrated to larger cities we heard them less often. The last I heard them was a couple of years ago when a local toughie contested and won for a minor post in the labyrinthine municipal satrapy of my city. Ironic though, the occasion mingled both joy and sadness – joy for the toughie and his lackeys and sadness for the residents to think of things to come (or not to come)

Along with the awareness of the drum sound also came the awareness of my surroundings. I now remembered I was in a hotel room in temple town of Palani where I had arrived the evening before on our way to the hill station of Kodaikanal. The temple itself is situated on top of a mountain about 1000 feet high. Around this temple, the town spread in all directions for a few kilometers. Beyond the town lay vast swathes of well cultivated lush green orchards growing various seasonal fruits and coconuts. Given its religious significance, Palani attracted a large number of pilgrims from all over the state of Tamilnadu. Summer vacations further accentuated the crowds. Men and women came here with an intention of asking for fulfillment of their desires and also get themselves tonsured as a mark of gratitude for the prayers fulfilled. Smeared with fine sandalwood paste, their heads looked like a scatter of musk melons which are yet to come to a rest. A quick visit to the temple struggling through the milling crowds followed by a tasteless and desultory dinner allowed us to hit the bed early. It is from this deep slumber I was awakened by the drum beat.

The room I was sleeping in had a large french window which opened into a balcony facing the main temple street. In the midst of the persistently growing din, I opened the window and stepped into the balcony to watch the processional ensemble of which the drummers were a part. There were about eight of them in yellow jerseys and deep blue track pants with bandannas and some sort of waistbands mostly likely improvised from the towels they usually carry with them. As I observed them I realized that they along with drumming were also dancing. The movements had a rhythm which was well synchronized. As the drumming intensity grew so did the vigour of the dancing which included precisely timed pelvic thrusts. There was an indescribable and effortless raunchiness to their movements which I started to suspect was inherited from Bollywood movies. I realized that to watch such rawness on the screen is vastly different from watching it in real life. Screening, I guess, induces a sense of sterility into our sensory impact like an automated defense mechanism. What I began to watch from the balcony began to overwhelm me. The procession which was snaking through the street had a large number of pilgrims in saffron robes. As if by some invisible cue the procession stopped for a while and focused on the drummers. With this attention the temple street quickly transformed itself into a street theater with the drummers as the actors. Seizing this moment, the drummers accelerated the drumming and the attendant dancing without missing a beat. In a mild way it started to get heady. I quickly realized that I had for a brief moment given myself away to these performers. It is in that split second of giving away and getting lost I realized I experienced something I have never experienced before: in front of my eyes was spectacle that had a quality of medieval paganism to it. It was like going back in time four or five hundred years ago into a drunken tribal hamlet which was celebrating an overcoming of a collective calamity with abandon. I started to get a vague sense of what it would be like to be a tribal with all the modern day cultural paraphernalia stripped off. Even that, I realized was an inaccurate description of what I experienced then. For a long while I could not place a finger on the nature of my experience and kept groping for the right word to describe the feeling I had. Much later, as we were driving to the hill station and in a motion induced moment of clarity, it dawned on me that what I experienced was a brief but powerful feeling of being primal. It was a feeling of being fearful, overwhelmed, vulnerable, natural, aggressive and above all fully human in total harmony with nature – all in the same moment of time.

And it was this inexplicable feeling that I experienced from my room with a view

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Notes of a Nobody: On The Margins

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 10, 2013

One of the pleasures of buying second hand books is the opportunity to witness and own the unique scrawls, notes, and underlining that come along with them – gratis. Depending on the occasions, circumstances and the moods of the past owners, they can be expressive, cryptic or enigmatic. The diversity is immense with no specific pattern that is conclusive.

The easily decipherable ones are found in books that are given as presents with the giver hoping and wishing fervently that the receiver of the gift have similar experiences that the giver herself has had in the past as part of her reading experience. One travel book had the following inscription “Here’s a companion for your nights to forget my absence” and signed “T.A”.  I tried hard to guess if the writer was a male or a female but came up croppers. On an Isaac Asimov’s book it was written “Liberating !” underneath it was the name of a famous industrialist’s son who was known for his fascination with books and scholarship. The name was rubber stamped in neat blue alphabets. Another looked like a Christmas present from an old man to his grandson and read: “To Jamie, even when Nana is no more. Merry Christmas!” dated 25.12.78. There was another where the previous owner underlined some arresting sentences and kept writing “whoa!” time and time again. A couple of scrawls were reflective of an attempt at rapprochement. One book carried a cryptic one liner which read: “As a mark of an attempt to build the bridges that have been broken” and signed “P.B.” another said “wishing things would be the same between us once again” signed “Olivia” Then there was one passionate ‘Lord of the Rings” lover who wrote “No lending. Do not even try asking!” In a way all of these scrawls are ordinary giving away a lot of their context and circumstance in the first encounter itself.

However, best one I found was on a second hand copy of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” which read: “…… not an original enunciation of…. but a brilliant articulation of…. “. On the first glance, I found it cryptic. However, as I read this superb book, I started to understand what the previous owner’s scrawl meant. Siddhartha is one of the finest books ever written by a westerner for a common reader, dealing with the essence of Advaita school of philosophy. The eponymous hero’s dogged quest for enlightenment, the concept of samsara and its entanglements, the pain of breaking out from it and the ultimate realization of the Truth are portrayed in a language that scintillates with simplicity. The articulation of the central tenet of this profound and wonderful perspective on the essence of human life without depending on the need for words like God, Heaven and Hell is outstanding and brilliant. But the philosophy itself is not a creation of Hesse. It was already there and he articulated it in a way that is incomparable.

As much as I marvel at Hesse’s great creation, I also marvel at the brevity of the one liner on the margins

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Notes of a Nobody: From Chaos to Chaos: Worlds Explored and Unexplored

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 5, 2013

BookshelfI could not have told you then, and I can’t tell you now, whether those books really corrupted him. I think they only corroborated him, without quite giving him the confidence of his convictions ………… Joe Allston in Wallace Stegner’s “All The Little Live Things”

When it was small there was order. Then it grew and chaos set in. It grew further and there was complete chaos

Reorganizing ones book collection resembles a journey into a forgotten fairy land. It brings back to life memories and reminders of: kept and unkept commitments of what one intended to read, the fires of literary ambitions kindled, sustained and quenched, forgotten pleasures now interred in the graveyard of time, disappointments lived, expectations belied, surprises encountered, dead feelings of wonderment, brushes with greatness, growing recognition of the awe of the written word, simultaneous trajectories of the flaming tongues of taste and preferences, long faded thoughts whose remnant fossils are the neat scrawls of words on the margins of the books that have been read or abandoned mid-way, acknowledgment of great writerly abilities saluted by the graphitic marks of a lead pencil, of places lived and moved from, bookshops frequented, gratuitous advice and suggestions received, guilt of books unreturned and umbrage at books lent that never got returned, worlds explored and waiting to be explored.

The work of redesigning the order can never be a disciplined and smooth endeavour. There are many unexpected and self inflicted interruptions. Standing in the pool of books lying on the floor around me one hot Sunday morning, my eyes spotted E.F.Schumacher’s prescient classic “Small is Beautiful”, the first book I bought with my first salary. I still remember hastening to the book shop, paying the said sum and holding it between my palms as if it were a throbbing living being. It was a mixed feeling of newly found freedom, independence and a mingled sense of joy and apprehension for the unknown world in my hand whose exploration was imminent and inevitable. Along with that book I also bought James Herriot’s “All Things Wise and Wonderful” and “All Creatures Great and Small” as a tribute to my father who was a vet. It was after I read the books that I made the resolution that before I kick the bucket I will once visit Yorkshire – a resolution that I almost fulfilled. These initial purchases were succeeded by many other following no specific order or pattern. It was a madness I indulged in without a method till it was interrupted by an interlude of higher studies. Post higher studies brought a greater financial flexibility and it fueled the habit with a new vigour. The next phase of collecting and hoarding books began clearly outpacing my ability and energy to read

The second phase of collection was inaugurated with a complete collection of the works of Somerset Maugham. A pearly white set of 16 books including four volumes of the master’s short stories which even to this day remain one of my favourites. There is an indescribable completeness to the way he tells his stories. Then came a two year trip to Switzerland where books in English were a shortage. All that was available was one full shelf of books by writers in English at Oerlikon bibiliothek. I fell on them with hunger and my awareness of other writers with great talent started to grow. I also became aware of Indian writers writing in English. I read Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” and marveled at a brown man’s ability to get into the skin of a white man and tell a fantastic love story. I was impressed with Vikram Chandra’s ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain” for its narrative sprawl. I started to read the spy thrillers of John Le Carre which were more than spy thrillers – they were also about the inner workings of the minds of men placed in special and difficult circumstances. Somewhere along came the literary section of The New York Times with outstanding reviews of latest books which started to guide me through my choice of books – a few English but mostly American. Supply they say creates its own demand and lack of supply also works in a similar way. Book buying became very limited but did not die out. When I relocated to Bangalore in India, I managed to lug my limited collection along with me. The need for exclusive space for books and the contours of a personal library started to take shape. While at Bangalore, I managed to find a couple of excellent second hand book shops and started to frequent them on a fortnightly basis. The online bookshops were to yet to fall in place to fuel the neophyte book junkie lurking in me.  Books by Orwell, Graham Greene, Chekov, O.Henry, Dickens, Naipaul, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Stephen King, R.K.Narayan and assorted collections of short stories started to add to my collection. This was just the beginning and more was yet to come. Once again I had to relocate abroad on work and this time to….. UK.

UK is to books what Afghanistan is to drugs, guns and violence. As a country it is a veritable fountainhead from which gushes forth a culture which is centered on books, writing and writers. Despite the constant laments of a declining reading culture, UK continues to produce books and writers of an astonishing merit in an abundance which leads one to suspect that this orchestrated lament is a collective ruse to protect a national secret which enables them produce the highest per capita of writing talent in the world. In UK, I discovered high quality second hand bookshops, spring cleaning and charity sales, churchyard sales and Oxfam bookshops which became the happy hunting grounds for a maturing book junkie. I was thrilled to discover British writing talent like Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, William Trevor, Martin Amis, Penelope Lively, Philip Pullman, Muriel Spark, Hillary Mantel, A.S.Byatt, Alan Hollinghurst, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Beryl Brainbridge, John Banville, J.G.Ballard, Alan Bennett, David Mitchell and Iris Murdoch. These are just a few of them. There are many other books which I collected for their one off bravura performances. I have two distinct memories from this frenzied phase of book collection. The first was one of being awakened to the pleasures of travel writing. Nobody in my view can match the English in their ability to write books in this genre of a quality that they can. Chatwin, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor and (early books of) Dalrymple shine as examples. The second was a feeling of urgency to cover what UK had to offer and cross over to the other side of Atlantic. Ignorance gives courage and I am a living example of that. Forget UK, I could not get out of London City to my dismay.

I started to follow Booker prize carefully and that led me to Pulitzer and National Book awards in the US and also to the Nobel prize for literature. A wonderful speculation if Philip Roth would get a Nobel and the accusation of one of the members of Nobel committee that American literature is narrow and self centered led me to explore some American writers. My awareness of American writers like Bellow, Stegner, Sontag, Styron, Updike, Welty, Cheever, Wilder, Parker, McCarthy, Jane Smiley, Kingsolver, Andrea Barrett, Carver, Mailer, O’Hara, John Irving, Proulx, Chandler, Le Guin, Bradbury, Faulkner and Hemingway started to grow. It also led me to some of their early icons like Poe, Hawthorne, London, Twain and Irving. It did not take me long to prove that Canada is the neighbor of US and I also started to collect books of writers like Alice Munro and Margret Atwood. In the meanwhile, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Paris Review and New York Review of Books have joined NYTimes in smashing, shaping, forging and forming my view of writers and writing

In general, expanding awareness of the world literary landscape also expanded my collection. While returning to India after my stint in the UK, I realized that the biggest part of my home shipment consisted of books. I unintentionally ended up thoroughly disappointing the customs chaps when they opened carton after carton in front of me in their warehouses to discover only neatly piled stacks of books.

By the time I returned, the ordering of books online started to catch up in India in a big way. I saw many folks around me using this means. The gradual death of friendly neighbourhood bookshops started to play out in front of my eyes. The frustration of driving in the city also reduced inhibitions to ordering books online. Books have now firmly assumed an important role in my personal support system and the need to organize them well also led me to a bigger apartment. The more I read and the more I wanted to read. The hunger for the well written word continues to remain aflame and grow in its intensity resulting in an inflow of more books into the house.

I kept adding chaos to chaos till I felt a need to bring an order to it. After many false starts in streamlining the collection and in one of those rare moments when temporarily my mind went over matter did I realize that I was standing in a pool of books around me. Then the courage gave up and I hurriedly stacked all the books back into the shelves abandoning rationale mid way. It was a new chaos I managed to create populated with books explored and many more waiting to be explored

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