Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 1, 2015

Ennui: A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Heart of Darkness

Number9dream Thousand acresTraindreams

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A tribute to Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 8, 2012

In moments of anguish, I ask myself: what is the purpose of man’s need for permanence and what his duty to posterity is?

Well, Ray Bradbury gave me the answer with his writing: Dipped in immense amount of love, fun, affection and generosity he made our world a more joyous, pleasant, rich and optimistic place to live in

Like many other writers whom I have discovered late in life, I came to know of Ray Bradbury and his books through the book section of The Guardian. The first book of his I read was Fahrenheit 451. Instinctively, I knew that here was a great and important writer whose book I was reading. Then followed his collection of short stories “The Illustrated Man” and the fabulous collection of essays on the craft of writing in his “Zen in the art of writing” and an odd story here and there from his abundant output of short stories. From the word go, I was completely captivated by the imaginative quality, zest and the extraordinary richness that he brought to the art of storytelling. Somebody once said that the world is at least 51% in favour of us and that is why we are able to live. And into those 51% favours, I unhesitatingly count the joys of reading Ray Bradbury’s books, stories and essays.

I believe that one should read with calm but mad abandon till about 55, then choose about 200 books from what one has already read and begin re-reading them till one dies. At least that is what I am planning to do.  Into that precious list of mine, I will have the fattest volume of Ray Bradbury’s short stories included

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray set down a tough yardstick for measuring a writer when he wrote

“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”

Ray not only did touch life but he very often enlivened it. Thank you Ray. May your soul rest in peace

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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 Book That Changed My Life

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 8, 2011

    I am a book lover. Yet, I do not believe that books change people’s lives in a major way. Life is too powerful, too strong, too unpredictable and too fickle to be changed by books. Life experiences are far more potent change agents than books. However, what books can certainly do and do reasonably well is temper certain fundamental negative instincts in us and that too in lucky circumstances. Even where there is tempering, it happens at a glacial pace. Human beings need time and more importantly take time to change. Dramatic makeover is a facile possibility in the realms of fiction and not real life. Most of the times a human being is already on the path of reformation or mellowing down and through co-incidence he or she may come across a book or a set of books which reinforce, refine and articulate his reformative thought processes and shore up the courage to persist on that path

I cringe when I read articles especially in business magazines under the title “The Book That Changed My Life” and the writer typically a CEO or a senior business leader glibly pointing to a Jim Collins title like “Good To Great” or “Built To Last” or Lou Gerstner’s “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” or worse still Tom Peter’s “In Search Of Excellence”. My immediate reaction is to write a brief but polite letter to the person and the editor who allowed the publishing of the article with a one line terse message which says – “It is time you grew up buddies”. Business books may make you a better professional but it feels sad to see people to think that better professionals are better human beings. This applies to all professional books

And that brings to the important point: What sort of books changes one’s life? Well… that to me is a million dollar question and the answer to which I will always be interested to know

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The Creation – E.O.Wilson

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 3, 2011

Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature – E.O. Wilson

My introduction to the work of E.O.Wilson came through an essay of Tom Wolfe in his book “Hooking Up” – which I ignored then. Then came his “Ant Hill” which won the Pulitzer for fiction. I could vaguely connect these events but left it at that. Not till I flipped through Margaret Atwood’s essay titled “The Homer of Ants” covering the work and life of Wilson in NY Review of Books, did I start to realize the importance of his work. Even at this stage, I had only made a mental note that I need to read his books but marked it as a future activity. The proverbial last straw on the camel’s back came when I saw Wilson’s inspiring and riveting speech delivered as part of TED acceptance prize. It is this speech that prompted me to read his lucidly written “The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The book is a scholar’s urgent cautioning to his fellow human beings on the deleterious impact mankind is having on various eco systems of the world in specific and the overall biosphere in general. Prof. Wilson squarely puts the responsibility of this degradation on human beings and in doing so brings out a philosopher’s touch to characterization of the state of human beings when he says:

“A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival…………we are the giant meteorite of our time, having begun the sixth mass extinction of Phanerozoic history”

Prof. Wilson takes the reader gently through the paradigm where ordinary people are increasingly becoming aware of the impact of changes in environment yet insists that the triumvirate of reasons relating to ignorance of the environment, inadequate science education and bewildering growth of biology are preventing a wide spread awareness and active participation in preservation efforts. Prof. Wilson believes that the two forces that can bring a significant shift for the better are the twin forces of religion and the transfer of stewardship of earth’s biodiversity to ordinary people, their education and encouragement for their active participation. In fact, Prof. Wilson argues that religion is not doing enough to ensure preservation of biodiversity a high moral priority and hence structures the whole book as a series of letters to an unknown Pastor who is the proxy for Church

Long ago, I remember reading an essay by Prof. Lynn White Jr. of Harvard titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” where he very cogently argues that the Judeo-Christian religious temperament and belief that human beings are superior to all the living creatures on earth had sown the seeds for our current day ecological crisis. I believe that there is a germ of truth in this. For example, Jainism has been the most vocal of Indian religions that emphasized the concept of co-existence of all animal forms with a lion’s share of the responsibility of maintaining harmony of the immediate eco-system on man. This is a thread that I think is worth exploring in this book and does not even get a mention. Prof. Wilson also laments about the harmful impact of over-fishing on our seas and its contribution to extinction of fish species. I felt that a careful analysis of vegetarianism as practiced in some parts of the world deserved a mention in the book

Notwithstanding these two perceived gaps, “The Creation” is a deeply moving book written by a scholar who is wise, compassionate, hopeful, anxious and an expert in the field of biology.

Ones views on nature will not remain the same after reading this wonderfully lucid book

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The Vagrant Mood – Somerset Maugham

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 18, 2011

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life – Somerset Maugham

 Somerset Maugham has remained one of my favourite writers. While I’ve read his novels “Cakes and Ale“, “Up at the Villa“, “Moon and Six Pence“, “Razor’s Edge” and “Summing Up” with relish, I’ve always remained partial in my liking to his short stories. I would not hesitate to include his short story “The Rain” as one of the greatest ever penned by any author – living or dead. I remember bargaining like hell with a tired, hassled and exasperated Parsee gentleman in Mumbai (the building had a wonderful name – “Smoker’s Corner”), to buy a complete collection of Maugham‘s works – a glossy set of paperbacks which I retain with me till date. This collection of mine is special to me for two reasons. Firstly, it marked a serious initiation into book collection and the liberating habit of reading. Secondly, I bought this set with my first income and it in a way set the tone for my spending habits till the end of my bachelor days. Despite the passage of two decades and a wider exposure to a variety of writers and writing, he is one author whose books I can pick up for reading at any point in time without qualms. It is with a sense of nostalgia that I chose his book “The Vagrant Mood” for reading recently.

The Vagrant Mood” is a delectable collection of six essays written in a luxuriously ruminative mood. Maugham brings his extraordinary powers of observation, rich experience of life in letters, original views on art and aesthetics and wonderful narrative powers to bear fruit in these essays which are full of insight, information, erudition and entertainment. The essays are Augustus, Zurbaran, The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story, After Reading Burke, Reflections on a Certain Aspects of a Book and Some Novelists I Have Known.

Even among these Augustus was a little out of context for me and Reflections on Certain Aspects of a Book, was a little difficult to understand. However, I will hasten to add that this does not diminish even an iota of the artistic merit of this wonderful essay. It deserves to be reread at a different point in time and with an enhanced awareness of aesthetics

In the essay Zurbaran, Maugham outlines the life, time and work of the now forgotten Spanish painter Zurbaran. It is a well-balanced and delightful account. Maugham tells the reader why he thinks that the artistic apotheosis in Zurbaran’s work lies in his much lesser known paintings where he reached a state of rapture transcending his innate limitations which he did not in his otherwise well-known commissioned paintings with religious motives and themes. What makes this essay an engaging read are Maugham’s view on a variety of aspects of the art of painting. Consider for example his views on beauty:

Beauty is a grave word. It is a word of high import. It is used lightly now – of the weather, of a smile, of a frock or the fit of a shoe, of a bracelet, of a garden, of a syllogism; beautiful serves as a synonym for good or pretty or pleasing or nice or engaging or interesting. But beauty is none of these. It is much more. It is very rare. It is a force. It is an enravishment. It is not a figure of speech when people say it takes their breath away; in some cases it may give you the same suffocating shock as when you dive into ice-cold water….. the impact of beauty is to make you feel greater than you are, so that for a moment you seem to walk on air; and the exhilarating and release are such that nothing in the world matters anymore.

Maugham believed that every artist has a right to be evaluated by his best work and not every output of his and this thought is wonderfully articulated when he opines that:

The artist has no need to carry heavy baggage to find his way to posterity. A few pictures, a book or two, suffice. The artist’s function is to create beauty, though not, I believe, the mainspring of his productiveness, and not, as some think, to reveal truth: if it were, a syllogism would be more significant than a sonnet

In doing so Maugham also throws light on some aspects of the relationship between a painter and his model which I found quite interesting

Portraiture, and Zurbaran was pre-eminently a painter of portraits, is to some extent a collaboration between a painter and his sitter; the sitter must give something; there is something in him which excites the painter’s sensibilities sufficiently to enable him to portray somewhat more than his model’s outward seeming. The painter must have a faculty resembling the novelist’s by virtue of which he can slip into the skin of the character he creates and think their thoughts and feel their feelings….

At the beginning of the essay, I was not sure where the reader was being led . However, as I progressed, I was enthralled with the quality of elucidation which is comprehensive and masterly

Maugham was an unabashed admirer of detective fiction. His deep admiration resulted in a voluminous consumption of this genre of fiction. In a classy essay titled “The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story“, Maugham lays down the landscape of detective fiction and explains the transition of this genre from clue driven, inference based fiction to the current hard boiled variety. Maugham refers extensively to the classic essay by Raymond Chandler titled “The Simple Art Of Murder” where Chandler defends the genre of detective fiction and the argues for its place in the world of fiction. Like Chandler, Maugham also has very original views on this genre. He at one place makes an interesting observation that:

Murder is a horrible thing and the murderer takes a great risk. It is hard to make your reader believe that he will take it because the girl he loves has given her affection to somebody else or because a colleague in a bank has been promoted over his head. The stakes he plays for must be high. The author’s business is to persuade you that they are worth playing for

He then goes onto the lay the landscape of a detective story in detail and analyses threadbare each element involved including the plot, the motive, the murder, the tools, the detective, the setting and the ending. Given his admiration, Maugham at one place says:

In short, detective writers are read because of their merits notwithstanding their often obvious defects: the ‘serious’ novelists remain in comparison little read because of their defects notwithstanding their often conspicuous merits

Sherlock Holmes is not admirably mentioned while Chandler and Dashiell Hammet get high praise. He concludes this informative analysis wryly when he mentions:

I cannot see who can succeed Raymond Chandler. I believe the detective story, both the story of pure deduction and the hard-boiled story, is dead. But that will not prevent a multitude of authors from continuing to write such stories, nor will it prevent me from continuing to read them

It is one of the finest essays I read ever and is a role model for any efforts in literary criticism. While Maugham stops at Chandler and Hammet, I am certain there has been innovation in this genre for the environment has changed quite a lot over the last three decades and consequently the writers have newer contexts, tools, motives to use as raw material for story telling

The essay “After Reading Burke” is a comprehensive set of views on the literary quality of Burke’s writing, his personality, life and times.

“Reflections on a Certain Book” is an essay covering the subject of aesthetics in Kant’s seminal work “The Critique of the Power of Judgment”. While discussing Kant’s views on beauty and the communicability of the concept of beauty as portrayed in the book, Maugham offers his own views on the creative process of an artist and the limitations of a fiction writer which I found very original and profound

.. I know from experience something of the process of creation and as a writer of fiction can look upon the question of beauty, which is of course the subject matter of aesthetics, with impartiality. Fiction is an art, but an imperfect one. The great novels of the world may deal with all the passions to which man is subject, discover the depths of his variable and disconsolate soul, analyze human relations, describe a civilization or create immortal characters; it is only by the misuse of the word that beauty can be ascribed to them. We writers of fiction must leave beauty to the poets 

As I mentioned earlier, I found this essay a little intractable and look forward to revisiting this at a different point in time in future with a different frame of mind.

In the essay “Some Novelists I Have Known“, Maugham covers the life, work, personalities, curious tid-bits and lesser known traits of Henry James, H.G.Wells, Arnold Bennet, Elizabeth Russell and Edith Wharton. All of these novelists get fulsome and heartfelt praise but where unavoidable, they get a tough stick on their life’s work and their approach to writing. In bringing this balance, Maugham displays endearing objectivity and an independent mind fearless of speaking straight supported by a deep insight into the craft of writing. HG Wells and Henry James are considered iconic in English literature, however, that does not deter Maugham – for he mauls their inability to breathe life into the characters they create without flinching or getting carried away by their established reputation. Consider what he has to say about Henry James as a writer:

But you cannot describe life convincingly unless you have partaken of it; nor, should your object be different, can you fantasticate upon it (as Balzac and Dickens did) unless you know it first. Something escapes you unless you have been an actor in the tragi-comedy…….Henry James’s fictions are like the cobwebs which a spider may spin in the attic of some old house, intricate, delicate and even beautiful, but which at any moment the housemaid’s boom with brutal common sense may sweep away…………

Yet Maugham had a deep admiration for the writing of Henry James and as a conclusion on James he says the following:

The fact remains that those last novels of his, notwithstanding their unreality, make all other novels, except the very best unreadable

(I once tried reading James’s “What Maise Knew” and left it in between because of the lengthy sentences which appeared eternally winding and never ending. Colm Toibin had a written a biography of sorts on Henry James called “The Master” which was nominated for Booker)

My father was a fan of H.G.Wells and we had a boxed set of key works of Wells at home. I remember reading “The Invisible Man” (After we grew up a little, our physics teacher talking about this book told us why Invisible man had to be mandatorily blind to be invisible) and “First Men on Moon” with varying degrees of joy. Maugham although was a close friend of Wells and an admirer of his work does not hesitate to point the weaknesses in Well’s writing especially about his inability to portray characters who sound realistic for he says:

……..I think that is why his novels are less satisfactory than one would have liked them to be. The people he puts before you are not individuals, but lively and talkative marionettes whose function is to express what he was out to attack or to defend. They do not develop according to their dispositions, but change for the purposes of the theme. It is as though a tadpole did not become a frog, but a squirrel – because you had a cage that you wanted to pop him into

Arnold Bennett’s “Old Wives Tales” comes in for high praise. The novelist Elizabeth Russell comes in for positive acknowledgment while his interaction with Edith Wharton especially her views on detective fiction leave Maugham flummoxed

Reading this book was a joy of sorts for this is the kind of writing that does not tire me at all. I could read it for life-time and still ask for more. Quintessential Maugham!  

An extremely joyous and satisfying read!!

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