Friday, April 23, 2010

341. Pierre and Jean – Guy DeMaupaussant

History: This book is a naturalist or psycho-realist work written in 1887 .
Plot: Pierre and Jean are the sons of Gérôme Roland, a jeweller who has retired to Le Havre, and his wife Louise. Pierre works as a doctor, and Jean is a lawyer. It recounts the story of a middle-class French family whose lives are changed when Léon Maréchal, a deceased family friend, leaves his inheritance to Jean. The parents are over joyed with the wealth of his brother, and this torments Pierre with jealousy. Added to this, both brothers are courting the same woman, who obviously favors Jean. Pierre does his best to suppress his jealousy but as he talks to his old chemist friend and a casual girlfriend who works as a barmaid their thoughts – that Jean must have been the son of the dead man – eats away at him.
As Pierre struggles to control his fear that the rumours are right and his knowledge that he will appear jealous if he says anything . These terrible emotions provoke to come to the understanding that his mother and Marechal had an affair, and that Jean is Marechal’s son. This investigation sparks violent reactions in Pierre, whose external appearance vis a vis his mother visibly changes.
In his anguish, most notably shown during family meals, he tortures her with allusions to the past that he has now uncovered. His mother is obviously guilty.
Meanwhile, Jean's career and love life improve over the course of the novel while Pierre's life gets significantly worse. Provoked by his brother's accusations of jealousy, Pierre reveals to Jean what he has learned. However, unlike Pierre, Jean offers his mother love and protection after she confesses her love for Marechal and the ten year affair many years ago.
Pierre is still tormented. He decides to take a job as a doctor on an American bound ship. The novel closes with Pierre’s departure on an oceanliner. Thus the novel is organised around the unwelcome appearance of a truth (Jean’s illegitimacy), its suppression for the sake of family continuity and the acquisition of wealth, and the expulsion from the family of the legitimate son.
Review: It gives us one of the best looks at sibling rivalry I have ever seen in a novel. In this it compares well to The Brothers Karamazov.) The brothers have a cordial relationship but there are undercurrents of resentment based on perceptions on each of the brother's parts that their parents preferred the other.
We see growing feelings of resentment in Pierre and we see Jean, who was always somehow in the shadow of his older brother, begin to look down on those around him not in his economic class. We also get a great look at relationships of the parents to each other and to the brothers. Pierre Et James provides us with a brilliant look at a family whose children are no longer children but still somehow less than full adults. We also along the way see how the fishing industry in France worked and we enjoy the brothers' love of sport fishing. We go along as the older brother goes out on the town to places his parents would not care to know about. One of the most interesting bits of knowledge conveyed in the books was an account of the economics of life as a cruise ship doctor in the 1880. There is a beautiful (if there can be beauty is such a thing) description of the steerage area of the cruise ship that is as vivid as anything in Dickens. In that short passage De Maupassant shows he need not take a lower berth to his friend Zola in depicting the life of the poor.
Opening Line: “Tschah!" exclaimed old Roland suddenly, after he had remained motionless for a quarter of an hour, his eyes fixed on the water, while now and again he very slightly lifted his line sunk in the sea.”
Closing Line: “As they were about to turn off from the quay down the Boulevard Francois, his wife once more looked back to cast a last look at the high seas, but she could see nothing now but a puff of gray smoke, so far away, so faint that it looked like a film of haze.”
Quotes: “As it was not yet four o'clock, and he had nothing to do, absolutely nothing, he went to sit in the public gardens; and he remained a long time on a bench, without an idea in his brain, his eyes fixed on the ground, crushed by weariness amounting to distress.
And yet this was how he had been living all these days since his return home, without suffering so acutely from the vacuity of his existence and from inaction. How had he spent his time from rising in the morning till bed-time?”
Rating: Good

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

340. Malone Dies – Samuel Beckett

History: It was first published in 1951, in French, as Malone Meurt, and later translated into English by the author.
The second novel in Beckett's "Trilogy" (beginning with Molloy and ending with The Unnamable), it can be described as the space between wholeness and disintegration, action and total inertia. Along with the other two novels that compose the trilogy, it marked the beginning of Beckett's most significant writing, where the questions of language and the fundamentals of constructing a non-traditional narrative became a central idea in his work. One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel, as with most of his subsequent writing (e.g., Texts for Nothing, Fizzles, and How It Is). Malone Dies can be seen as the point in which Beckett took another direction with his writing, where the bareness of consciousness played a huge part in all his subsequent writings.
Plot: Malone is an old man who lies naked in bed in either asylum or hospital--he is not sure which. Most of his personal effects have been taken from him, though he has retained some, notably his exercise book, brimless hat, and pencil. He alternates between writing his own situation and that of a boy named Sapo. When he reaches the point in the story where Sapo becomes a man, he changes Sapo's name to Macmann, finding Sapo a ludicrous name. Not long after, Malone admits to having killed six men, but seems to think it not a big deal—particularly the last, a total stranger whom he cut across the neck with a razor.
Eventually, Macmann falls over in mud and is taken to an institution called St. John's of God. There he is provided with an attendant nurse—an elderly, thick-lipped woman named Moll, with crosses of bone on either ear representing the two thieves crucified with Jesus on Good Friday, and a crucifix carved on her tooth representing Jesus. The two eventually begin a stumbling sexual affair, but after a while she does not return, and he learns that she has died.
The new nurse is a man named Lemuel, and there is an animosity between the two. Macmann (and sometimes Malone drifts into the first-person) has an issue with a stick that he uses to reach things and Lemuel takes it away.
At the end of the novel, Lemuel is assigned to take his group of five inmates on a trip to a nearby island on the charitable dime of a Lady Pedal. His five inmates are Macmann and four others. They are described by Malone as: a young man, the Saxon ("though he was far from being any such thing"), a small thin man with an umbrella, and a "misshapen giant, bearded." Lemuel requests "excursion soup"--the regularly served broth but with a piece of fat bacon to support the constitution—from the chef at the institution, though after receiving the soup he sucks each piece of bacon of its juice and fat before depositing it back into the soup. Lemuel takes his group out on the terrace where they are greeted by a waggonette driven by a coachman and Lady Pedal, along with two colossi in sailor suits named Ernest and Maurice.
They leave the grounds of St. John's and take a boat to the island to picnic and see Druid remains. Lady Pedal tells Maurice to stay by the dinghy while she and Ernest disembark the boat to look for a picnicking site. The bearded giant refuses to leave the boat, leaving no room for the Saxon to get off in turn. When Lady Pedal and Ernest are out of sight, Lemuel kills Maurice from behind with a hatchet. Ernest comes back for them and Lemuel kills him, too, to the delight of the Saxon. When Lady Pedal sees this, she faints, falls, and breaks a bone in the process. Malone as narrator is not sure which bone, though he ventures Lady Pedal broke her hip. Lemuel makes the others get back in the boat. It is now night and the six float far out in the bay. The novel closes with an image of Lemuel holding his bloodied hatchet up.
Review: The novel follows the stream of consciousness narration of an old man who lies dying in an unnamed room. It is never explicitly revealed of what he is dying or if he’s in a hospital, an asylum, or his home. He relates a tale which may be inspired by (and feature elements of) his own experience, the story of a nondescript man who ends up in the care of an institution populated by eccentric characters including a masochistic careprovider. From the beginning Malone makes it clear that he is resigned to his forthcoming death, speculating as to how long it will take, going through the dates of the theological year with its saints’ days and public holidays, and wishing terrible things in this or the next world to all who have crossed his path. He is not in a hurry to die; boredom is worse, but he has an inventive mind and can think up little stories, even if they are not entirely made up, about people and families, their public and private habits and ways of getting through life, with vignettes that give colour to daily commonplaces that might shock or disturb some readers or listeners, accustomed to very different ways of living, and who might not want to think too much about the unpleasantnesses of life. Sexual descriptions, which might awaken an erotic response if phrased by another, become in Malone’s (or Beckett’s) speculations, either comic or extremely off-putting, comparing, for instance, the single remaining tooth in a sexual partner’s mouth to Christ’s cross. There is comedy and pathos in the situation of Lambert, convinced that pigs will fatten better if kept in permanent darkness, and he remains unconvinced by the repeated experience of always having in the end ‘a weak pig, blind and lean’ to slaughter that he would curse for its ingratitude. The casualness of farmyard killing, even of coddled pets, is brought home to the reader as unconventionally as the sexual descriptions, human activities that might be enjoyed or could lead to disgust.
But the story never comes to an end. It continually spirals off into sub-narratives in which aspects of character and society are illustrated and criticized and the lines between prose and poetry are blurred. Beckett was once again exploring the limits of narrative form and asks his audience to join him on a surreal journey through the haunted landscape of memory and imagination.
In spite of the universality of his themes with their applicability to all cultures and nationalities, and persons of all classes and backgrounds, Samuel Beckett’s work always has an Irish feel and it is rural Ireland that is most often recalled. In reality, of course, the occasion described or the place where it is set might be very different. Beckett has admitted that the situation of Malone is not unlike that of an elderly man with whom he shared for at least a few days, a room hidden in a loft outside Paris in late 1940 when he was wanted by the Gestapo. The man was the Jewish father of Nathalie Sarraute, who shortly after died in that hidden room. In the same way references to places far from his native Dublin crop up in different Beckett works, nearly all of them based on his early life and his wartime experiences. In translating himself or in supervising translations into other languages, even into the American versions of some of his work, there are changes of association and even place names to fit into local resonances and associations. But the feeling of Ireland nevertheless pervades everything, whether written before or after the war. Most of that was, after escaping capture in Paris, spent at Roussillion in the Vaucluse, a mountainous region that he describes accurately enough in many works, but still manages to make sound like the Irish landscape, which tends to be flat with low, rolling hills.
Opening Line: “I should soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.”
Closing Line: “Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never or with his pencil or with his stick or or light light I mean never there he will never
never anything there any more”
Quotes: "Nothing is more real than nothing",
Rating: Awful.

339. Regeneration – Pat Barker

History: Published in 1991, it is the first of three novels in the Regeneration Trilogy of novels on the First World War. Barker attributes the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist familiar with the writings of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his experiments with nerve regeneration.[
Plot: The novel begins with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an army psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital (a mental institution at the time), reading poet Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration against the continuation of the war. Sassoon’s "wilful defiance of military authority" has led to Sassoon being labelled "shell-shocked", a label which the authorities hope will discredit his views on the continuation of the war. Rivers states that he feels uneasy about Sassoon entering Craiglockhart, doubting that he is shell-shocked; he is uncomfortable about the prospect of sheltering a "conchie".
Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet Robert Graves advises Sassoon to give up his protest against the war; although he shares Sassoon’s feelings he still feels it would be impossible to stop the war. Sassoon had hoped for a court-martial so that his views could be publicly aired, but Graves, thinking that he is helping, manages to persuade a Medical Board that Sassoon should be sent to Craiglockhart instead.
Rivers meets Sassoon and their discussion demonstrates that while Sassoon objects to the sheer horror of the war, he does not have any religious objection to fighting. Rivers warns Sassoon that since his job is to return Sassoon to combat, he cannot therefore claim to remain neutral. This troubles Rivers, as he knows the horrors soldiers suffer when sent back. Sassoon struggles with the idea that he is safe in Craiglockhart while others are dying.
The opening chapters of the novel describe the suffering of soldiers in the hospital. Anderson, a former surgeon, now cannot stand the sight of blood. Burns has been crushed by the war and has terrible hallucinations after being thrown into the air and landing head first in the ruptured stomach of a rotting dead soldier by a shell, which causes him to vomit whenever he eats anything. In one particular scene, Anderson struggles with nightmares about losing a bet to a former comrade, which Rivers is unable to interpret.
Another patient, Prior, suffers from mutism and will only talk to Rivers through the use of a notepad. Prior eventually regains his voice but remains a difficult patient for Rivers as he does not wish to discuss his memories of the war. Prior is visited by his father, an unlikeable man who beat his wife and emotionally abused his son.
The last chapters of the first section of Regeneration deal with the ideas of class. Prior states that there are class distinctions in the British Army even during times of war.
Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, a young man who also writes poetry. He asks Sassoon to sign some copies of his work and Sassoon offers to review Owen's poetry. Sassoon goes off to play golf with Anderson and Prior goes into Edinburgh and meets a girl called Sarah Lumb whose boyfriend was killed at the Battle of Loos. They come close to having sex, but Sarah pushes Prior away at the last minute.
Prior’s absence from Craiglockhart causes him to be confined to the hospital for two weeks as punishment. Rivers admits that it may be a good idea to now try hypnosis on Prior. This hypnosis causes Prior to remember the gruesome death of two soldiers in his platoon.
A new patient, Willard, is examined by Rivers. Willard was injured in a graveyard when, under heavy fire, parts of a gravestone were shot into his buttocks. While there is nothing preventing Willard from walking he insists that there is an injury to his spine.
Sassoon visits the Conservative Club with Rivers, who notices that Sassoon is depressed after learning of the deaths of two close friends. He realizes that it will not be difficult to convince Sassoon to continue fighting but does not want to force Sassoon because Rivers realizes that Sassoon will eventually want to return to the fight on his own.
Later Owen and Sassoon talk in Sassoon’s room. Sassoon gives Owen some poetry to publish in the hospital magazine The Hydra. In exchange for Owen publishing some of his own work Sassoon agrees to mentor Owen on his poetry.
Prior goes into town to meet Sarah and explains why he did not show up for their arranged meeting. They take a train to the seaside and walk along the beach together. Prior explains to Sarah how he has to censor the letters of soldiers before they are sent home. He is eager to return to France as he feels unable to relate to anyone back home – he feels as though only fellow soldiers understand his emotions and experiences. He and Sarah get caught in a storm and later have sex in a bush. On the train back to town Prior has an asthma attack.
Rivers, suffering from exhaustion, is ordered to take three weeks holiday from his work at Craiglockhart. As a storm sounds outside Sassoon and Owen work on poetry together. Rivers' departure resurrects for Sassoon his feelings of abandonment when his father left him, and he realises that Rivers has taken the place of his father.
Part III of the novel begins with Rivers attending church with his family. He contrasts the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac with the war where soldiers are sacrificing each other. This is an allusion to Wilfred Owen's Parable of the Old Man and the Young; Barker makes use of the poem's central metaphor and actually quotes its final line: "And half the seed of Europe, one by one."
Rivers recalls the visits of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, to his family home as a child.
Back at Craiglockhart Sassoon helps Owen draft one of his most famous poems, "Anthem for Doomed Youth."
Sarah accompanies her friend Madge to a local hospital so Madge can visit her fiance who has been wounded. Sarah gets lost and walks into a tent filled with injured amputee soldiers. She is angry at her shocked reaction as well as the fact that society hides these injured soldiers away.
Prior is examined by a medical board. Prior fears that they suspect he is faking illness and want to send him back to war.
Rivers meets with some old friends, Ruth and Henry Head, who discuss Sassoon. Rivers suggests that it is right that Sassoon has the freedom to disagree with the war. However, Rivers realizes that it is his job to make Sassoon return to war. At the end of their conversation Head offers Rivers a top job in London. Although it is a career leap, Rivers is unsure whether he should take it..
Burns, who has since been discharged, invites Rivers to visit him at his seaside home in Suffolk. Rivers expects to talk to Burns' parents about his condition and is surprised to discover that Burns is alone. They spend a few days together with Rivers not bringing up the topic of the war. One night when there is a severe storm Burns walks outside and hides in a tunnel which floods at high tide, suffering flashbacks to his experiences with trench warfare in France. The trauma causes Burns to finally open up and talk about his experiences of war. He describes to Rivers the sheer horror he felt when taking part in the Battle of the Somme and how he hoped he would suffer a minor injury so he could be sent home.
When Rivers returns to Craiglockhart he tells Bryce that he will take the job in London. In another appointment Sassoon has with Rivers, Sassoon describes how he has been having hallucinations of dead friends knocking on his door. Sassoon admits he feels guilty about not serving with his friends and decides he should return to the front. Rivers is pleased with his decision but at the same time worries about what may happen to him there.
Sarah tells her mother, Ada, about her relationship with Billy Prior. Ada scolds her daughter for having sex so soon in a relationship; she reminds Sarah that contraception is not always reliable (repeating a story that every tenth condom is purposely defective) and states that true love between a man and a woman does not exist.
Sassoon meets his friend Graves and tells him of his decision to return to war. Graves lectures Sassoon on the importance of people maintaining their word. Graves then tells Sassoon about a mutual friend, Peter, who has been arrested for prostitution and is being sent to Rivers to "cure" his homosexuality. Graves stresses that he himself is now writing to a girl called Nancy, implying that he is not homosexual. This leaves Sassoon feeling 'like a precipice on a country road.'
The girls at the munitions factory joke that many of the men serving are gay. When Sarah asks why one munitions worker called Betty is not there, Lizzie replies that Betty is in the hospital seriously ill after attempting a home abortion with a coat-hanger.
Sassoon talks to Rivers before he is sent back to France and they discuss Peter and the larger question of the official attitude towards homosexuality. Rivers theorizes that during wartime the authorities are particularly hard on homosexuality, wanting to clearly distinguish between the 'right' kind of love between men (loyalty, brotherhood, team spirit), which is beneficial to soldiers, and the 'wrong' kind (sexual).
The Board meets to review the cases of various soldiers and decide on their fitness for combat. They decide that Prior should have permanent home service due to his asthma. Prior breaks down at this news, fearing that he will be seen as a coward and ashamed that he will not be able to return to war and find out what calibre of soldier he is. Sassoon tires of waiting for his turn to see the Board and leaves to have dinner with friends. Rivers, angry at this flippant behavior, demands an explanation, at which Sassoon apologises and admits that he was afraid. Sassoon assures Rivers that although his views of the war have not changed and he still stands by his "Declaration," he does want to return to France.
Prior and Sarah meet again and admit their love for one another. Sassoon and Owen talk in the Conservative Club about how awful it will be in Craiglockhart for Sassoon without Rivers or Owen there; Owen is deeply affected by his departure.
Rivers spends his last day saying goodbye to patients, then travels to London and meets Dr. Yealland from the National Hospital, who will be his colleague in his new position. Dr. Yealland uses electro-shock therapy to force patients to quickly recover from shell-shock; he believes that some patients do not want to be cured and that pain is the best method of curing these reluctant patients. In a horrifying scene Yealland demonstrates his brutal method of 'treatment' which is vastly different from Rivers' and which makes Rivers question whether he can work with such a man.
Sassoon is released for combat duty and Willard walks again. Anderson is given a staff job. Sassoon comments to Rivers that Owen’s feelings towards Sassoon may be something more than mere hero worship.
Rivers completes his notes, meditating on the effect that Sassoon, and the last few months, have had on him.
Review: Barker stated in an interview that "The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts". She goes on to state that "One of the things that impresses me is that two things happen to soldiers in war: a) they get killed or b) they come back more or less alright. It's really focusing on the people who do come back but don't come back alright, they are either physically disabled or mentally traumatised.”
Barker states that she chose to write about World War I "because it's come to stand in for other wars, as a sort of idealism of the young people in August 1914 in Germany and in England. They really felt this was the start of a better world. And the disillusionment, the horror and the pain followed that. I think because of that it's come to stand for the pain of all wars."
On the role of women in her books Barker states that "In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry; basically, this is the typical feature. And the women in the trilogy are always deeply significant, and whatever they say in whatever language they say it in, it is always meant to be listened to very carefully." Barker points out that the women in the munitions factories were expected to produce weapons to kill thousands, but a woman who attempts to abort her unborn child is criticised.
Opening Line: “I am making a statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war has been deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
Closing Line: “He drew the final page towards him and wrote, “November 26, 1917. Discharged to duty.”
Quotes: “You seem to have a very powerful anti-war neurosis."
Rating: Good.

338. Amerika – Franz Kafka

History: This book was also known as Der Verschollene or The Man Who Disappeared, the incomplete first novel of author Franz Kafka, published posthumously in 1927.
Plot: The story describes the bizarre wanderings of a seventeen-year-old European emigrant named Karl Rossmann in the United States, who was forced to go to New York to escape the scandal of his seduction by a housemaid. As the ship arrives in America, he becomes friends with a stoker who is about to be dismissed from his job. Karl identifies with the stoker and decides to help him; together they go to see the captain of the ship. In a surreal turn of events, Karl's uncle, Senator Jacob, is in a meeting with the captain. Karl doesn't know that Senator Jacob is his uncle, but Mr. Jacob recognizes him and takes him away from the stoker.
Karl stays with his uncle for some time but is later abandoned by him after making a visit to his uncle's friend without his uncle's full approval. Wandering aimlessly, he becomes friends with two drifters named Robinson and Delamarche. They promise to find him a job, but Karl departs from them on bad terms after he's offered a job by a manageress at Hotel Occidental. He works there as a lift-boy but is fired one day after Robinson shows up drunk at his work asking him for money. Robinson, in turn, gets injured after fighting with some of the lift-boys.
Being dismissed, Karl leaves the hotel with Robinson to Delamarche's place. Once there, a police officer tries to chase him, but he gets away after Delamarche saves him. Delamarche now works for a wealthy lady named Brunelda. She wants to take in Karl as her servant. Karl refuses, but Delamarche physically forces him to stay. He decides to stay but looks for a good opportunity to escape.
One day he sees an advertisement for the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, which is looking for employees. The theatre promises to find employment for everyone and Karl is taken in by this. Karl applies for a job and gets engaged as a "technical worker". He is then sent to Oklahoma by train and is welcomed by the vastness of the valleys.
Review: In 1911 or so, the enigmatic Czech master began work on a novel tentatively called "The Man Who Disappeared" but abandoned it a few years later. After his death, his pal and self-appointed literary executor Max Brod "edited" the manuscript by adding some content of his own, then published the result in 1927.
Milan Kundera argues that we pay too much attention to The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, which the writer wanted burned along with various other fragments, and should instead focus our critical gaze more strictly on the finished work he actually published.
Going further, one could make the case that Kafka is less an effective storyteller, let alone a good novelist. What else do we remember of these stories beyond their initial premise (and their brilliant opening sentences)? Yet how much more do we really need or want?
Still, those haunting images, those unsettling meditations on the miseries of the soul, remain in our minds forever and are Kafka's glory:
Of course, Kafka is, for good or ill, much more than just a writer. He's an emblem, the poster boy of 20th-century alienation. The tubercular, haunted, noise-sensitive genius, living with his parents, working for an insurance company, unhappy in his skin, out of place in the world in every way. "Please look on me as a dream," he once told some sleeping people he had accidentally disturbed. And we do. He seems scarcely human to us, as sensitive and weird in his own way as Michael Jackson. It's always surprising to realize that people in our lifetime knew Kafka, heard him laugh, even went to bed with him. Nabokov thought he once glimpsed the writer on a Berlin streetcar in 1927. Einstein could have met him at a Prague salon they both used to visit.
While The Trial and The Castle are generally viewed as typically "Kafkaesque" -- the mysterious accusation from unknown authorities, the layers of feudal personnel and obfuscation surrounding the unseen but looming Castle -- Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared) is sometimes regarded as simply drolly picaresque. Certainly, it is less stultifying, less enclosed, less ponderous than the other two (Auden once said of Kafka that "in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy"). Parts of Amerika even approach comedy (and remind us that listeners laughed and laughed when Kafka read aloud from his fiction -- this seems almost incomprehensible). For instance, its central section, with Karl Rossmann working as a lift boy at the Hotel Occidental, takes on the pace of silent-movie humor, as things spin out of control after a drunk vomits down the elevator shaft. I can't help wondering if Thomas Mann used that chapter as a source for his own humorous (and very sexy) account of Felix Krull's career as an elevator operator.
This new English version of Amerika replaces the old 1928 standby of Willa and Edwin Muir. Though the husband-and-wife team were splendid translators, they worked from an incomplete text that had been over-edited by Kafka's friend and executor Max Brod (who also gave it the title Amerika; the writer himself always referred to it as Der Verschollene, "The Man Who Disappeared"). What's more, the Muirs aimed for a surface vividness that slightly improves on the plainness of Kakfa's original. Michael Hofmann -- a poet and critic, as well as the much-admired translator of Joseph Roth -- works from the full critical text and has produced what will doubtless become the definitive English version.
The book opens with 16- or 17-year-old Karl Rossmann arriving in America, having been sent abroad "because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him." As his ship sails into New York Harbor, he sees the Statue of Liberty, noting that "the sword in her hand seemed only just to have been raised aloft." Sword? One supposes a mistake, since Kafka never saw the monument. Yet it grows increasingly clear that Karl has landed in a nightmarish new world where everything is slightly off-kilter, skewed and disorienting. A bridge over the Hudson connects New York to Boston.
In the first chapter, published as "The Stoker: A Fragment" (and which Robert Musil found "enchanting"), the German stoker on Karl's ship faces a tribunal of officers when he complains about being bossed around by a Romanian. At the bizarre inquiry, Karl accidentally meets his rich uncle, who comes to dote on him; a few months later, he encounters an American plutocrat who invites him out to his country estate. While there, Karl learns that Uncle Jakob -- offended by his nephew's having accepted the rival businessman's invitation -- has cut him off entirely. So the boy takes to the open road and joins up with a couple of unemployed workers, Robinson and Delamarche, hardly more than tramps. After a quarrel with his companions, Karl next lands the elevator job at the Hotel Occidental and begins a tentative relationship with a former kitchen maid. Alas, Robinson reappears, Karl loses his position, and the two join a bizarre ménage centered on the enormously fat opera singer Brunelda, who can scarcely move on her own. In a final fragment, Karl enlists in the vast and mysterious Theater of Oklahoma, which ominously promises "a place for everyone."
So much for the plot, or rather what remains of it. Beyond its Candide-in-the-New-World quality, Amerika offers variations on Kafka's favorite theme: a son's fraught relationship with his father. In this case, Karl is alternately aided, rejected and manhandled by various father substitutes. More interestingly, perhaps, the novel churns with strange sexual undercurrents, though it's unclear just quite what we're to make of them. Is the uncle's love for his nephew as unnatural as it seems? Why do so many men keep stroking Karl's hand? Why does Karl always find himself in sadomasochistic tussles with women (or men), with much wrestling and entwining of limbs? Is it true that a pat on the cheek from Brunelda carries a thrill like nothing else? There are hints that Karl was intended, eventually, to end up working in a brothel.
Despite the New World venue, Amerika actually does strike ominous "Kafkaesque" notes: the endless corridors of the ship, the strange "trial" of the stoker, the series of empty rooms in Mr. Pollunder's country mansion, the two tramps who recall the comic and sinister "assistants" in The Castle, the cruelty of nameless authorities -- the Head Porter, the Head Waiter -- as they cross-examine the boy over imaginary crimes. In a particularly tantalizing moment, when Karl joins the "greatest theater in the world," he gives the name he's been using on his "last jobs": "Negro." Yet again one yearns for those unwritten portions of the novel. Sounding more than ever like his creator, near the end of all these fragments Karl looks "sadly down at the street, as though it were his own bottomless sadness."
Kafka wrote of his first published book, Meditations: "Ultimately, even with the greatest experience and the greatest keenness, the flaws in these pieces do not reveal themselves at first glance." This isn't true of Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), which is quite evidently a thing of shreds and patches, suggesting at times silent film, theater of the absurd, J.G. Ballard's phantasmagoric Hello, America, sadomasochistic fantasy, Waiting for Godot and Kafka's own later fiction. For like Cervantes, Kafka has become one of those writers whose work we already know, or think we know, even when we haven't read a word of it. His fiction no longer shocks or surprises us: After all, "Kafkaesque" describes the world that every one of us, alas, now lives in. •
Opening Line: “As the seventeen- year –old Karl Rossman, who had been sent to America by his unfortunate parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him, sailed slowly into New York harbour, he suddenly saw the Statue of Liberty, which had already been in view for some time, as though in an intenser sunlight.”
Closing Line: “Broad mountain rivers swept forward in great waves over the craggy base, pushing along thousands of small foamy waves, plunging under the bridges over which the train passed, and coming so close that the breath of their chill made ones face quiver.”
Quotes: “A movement without end, a restlessness transmitted from the restless element to helpless human being and their works!”
Rating: Not Good.

Friday, April 9, 2010

337. The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler

History: This book was published in 1953, centered on Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe.
Plot: The novel opens outside a club called The Dancers. We are in late October or early November 1949. Marlowe, whom we presumably know from previous novels, meets a drunk named Terry Lennox, a man with scars on one side of his face. They forge an uneasy friendship over the next few months. Everything changes when Lennox shows up late one night (in June 1950) at Marlowe's place, asking for a ride to the Tijuana airport. Marlowe agrees as long as Lennox doesn't tell him any details of why he's running.
On his return to LA, Marlowe is arrested on suspicion of murder, after having annoyed the police investigating the case with his refusal to cooperate, as an attempt to force him to reveal that he helped Lennox. It is revealed that Lennox's wife was found dead in her pool house, and that she had died before Lennox fled. After three days of antagonizing his interrogators, Marlowe is released when Lennox is (allegedly) found dead of a suicide in Otatoclán with a full written confession by his side. Marlowe gets home to find a cryptic note from Lennox containing a "portrait of Madison" (a $5000 bill).
Marlowe gets a call from a New York publisher named Howard Spencer, asking him to investigate a case. One of his best writers, Roger Wade, has a drinking problem and has been missing for three days. Initially Marlowe refuses, but after Wade's wife, Eileen, also asks for Marlowe's help, he consents. Marlowe ends up finding Wade in a makeshift detox facility in a soon-to-be-abandoned ranch out in the desert. He takes his fee, but the Wades' stories don't match.
The Wades each try to convince Marlowe to stay at their house to keep Roger writing instead of drinking, and though he refuses, he ends up making further trips to the Wades' house at their behest. On one such trip, he finds Wade passed out in the grass with a cut on his head. Later, Roger tries half-heartedly to kill himself, but lets his wife take the gun from him. Mrs. Wade ends up in a sort of trance and attempts to seduce Marlowe, thinking he's a former lover of hers who died ten years earlier in World War II.
As all of this occurs, Marlowe is repeatedly threatened to lay off the Lennox case, first by a Spanish friend of Lennox's named Mendy Menendez, then by Lennox's father-in-law, the police, the Wades' servant (a Chileno named Candy), and Wade's wife. Marlowe also learns that Terry Lennox had previously lived as Paul Marston who was married previously and was probably from England.
Wade calls Marlowe again, asking him to come by to have lunch with him. Wade ends up drinking himself into a stupor, and this time succeeds in killing himself. Mrs. Wade arrives at the house shortly thereafter and accuses Marlowe of killing her husband. Candy initially tries to frame Marlowe, but his claims are undermined in an interrogation.
Marlowe gets a call from Spencer regarding Wade's death and he bullies Spencer into taking him to see Mrs. Wade. Once there, Marlowe grills her on the death of Terry Lennox's wife. Eileen first tries to blame it all on Roger, but Marlowe doesn't buy her story and argues that she killed both Mrs. Lennox and Roger Wade and that Paul Marston (Lennox) was actually her first husband, presumed killed in action with the Special Air Service off the coast of Norway or by the Gestapo. The next morning, Marlowe gets a call that Eileen Wade killed herself, leaving a confession in a note.
Marlowe still refuses to let the story lie. He's assaulted by Menendez, who ends up arrested in a setup arranged by a fellow hood (and erstwhile cop) named Randy Starr, who served with Menendez and Lennox/Marston during the war. Finally, Marlowe gets a visit from a Mexican man who claims to have been there when Lennox was killed in his hotel room. Marlowe listens to his story, and then says that he didn't buy it, because the Mexican man is none other than a post-cosmetic-surgery Terry Lennox.
Review: The Long Goodbye is significant not only as the last book Raymond Chandler wrote but as a personal consummation of craft that brought his detective novels into the realm of distinguished fiction. This isn't a mystery novel, it is a great piece of literature. It is about friendship, love and betrayal. And the plot is complex and satisfying. Marlowe is defeated and in pain, and very, very alone.
Opening Line: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce outside the terrace of The Dancers.”
Closing Line: “Except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”
Quotes: “She opened her mouth like a firebucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. I couldn't hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed.”
Rating: Good.

336. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens

History: Originally published as a serial from 1838 to 1839, it was Dickens' third novel.
Plot: The beginning of the book briefly outlines the history of the Nickelby family. And then we are introduced to Nicholas Nickleby, the hero of the novel. His father has died and left Nicholas and his family penniless. Nicholas is not a typical hero: he can be violent, naïve, and emotional. But he devotes himself primarily to his friends and family and fiercely defies those who wrong the ones he loves. Nicholas Nickleby, his sister Kate, and their mother travel to London — because of the father’s death —. They seek the assistance of Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’s uncle. He seems to care about nothing but money and takes an immediate dislike to the idealistic Nicholas.
Nicholas's younger sister. Kate is a fairly passive character, typical of Dickensian women, but she shares some of her brother’s fortitude and strong will. She and Nicholas are very close.
Mrs. Nickleby, Nicholas and Kate’s mother, who provides much of the novel’s comic relief. The muddleheaded Mrs. Nickleby does not see the true evil her children encounter until it is directly pointed out to her. She is stubborn, prone to long digressions on irrelevant or unimportant topics and unrealistic fantasies, and displays an often vague grasp of what is going on around her.
Ralph places Nicholas as an assistant in Dotheboys Hall, a Yorkshire boarding school, and Kate in a milliner’s shop, coldly splitting them apart.
Kate and Mrs. Nickleby move out of their temporary lodgings with the kind Miss La Creevy, A plump, kindly woman in her fifties, she is a miniature-portrait painter. She is the first friend the Nicklebys make in London, and one of the truest.
Living with the Squeers, Nicholas meets the family. Fanny Squeers is the Squeers’ daughter. She is 23 and is beginning to feel the pressure to find a man to settle down with. She falls in love with Nicholas until he bluntly rebuffs her affections, at which point she begins to hate him. Tilda Price (later Browdie) is her best friend, but the relationship is strained by Fanny’s pride and spitefulness. She is full of bluster and is under severe delusions about her own beauty and station.
Young Wackford Squeers is the Squeers' loutish, piggy son. He is mainly preoccupied with filling his belly as often as he can and bullying his father’s boys, to his father’s great joy.
Mrs. Squeers is even more cruel and less affectionate than her husband to the boys in their care.
Nicholas is skeptical of the one-eyed schoolmaster, Mr. Wackford Squeers, with his appalling lack of knowledge and his gruff treatment of the charges, most of whom are illegitimate or disfigured. Nevertheless, Nicholas dares not question his employer until Squeers starts to beat Smike, a severely limited student whom Nicholas has befriended. Smike is a pathetic figure, perpetually ill and a cripple, who has been in Squeers’ care since he was very young. In a fit of rage, Nicholas strikes Squeers, and Smike is able to make a getaway. Then Nicholas, too, departs, and Mrs. Squeers tends to her husband.
Nicholas runs into John Browdie, a neighbor engaged to a friend of Squeers’s daughter Fanny. John gives Nicholas a bear hug for beating the schoolmaster. Smike and Nicholas take the road back to London. Fanny writes a letter to Ralph Nickleby condemning Nicholas as having ruthlessly attacked both of her parents.
In the meantime, Kate has been taken in by Madame Mantalini and her crew of milliners. Mr. Mantalini (real name Alfred Muntle) is a handsome man, with a fine moustache but foul mouth, who lives off his wife. He is not above stealing from his wife and threatens to dramatically kill himself when he does not get his way. Mrs. Mantalini is much older than her husband and equally prone to dramatics.
Because she is young and pretty, Kate works with Miss Knag in the shop itself, awkwardly helping rich, spoiled, young women try on hats. Miss Knag befriends the young newcomer. When Kate begins her employment with the Mantalinis, Miss Knag is quite kind to her, but when her age is insulted by a disgruntled customer who prefers Kate, she blames Kate and begins to treat her quite shabbily. She takes over the business when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, but fires Kate.
Newman Noggs is secretary to Ralph Nickleby. He was once a businessman of high standing but went bankrupt. He is an alcoholic, and his general good nature and insight into human nature is hidden under a veneer of irrational tics and erratic behaviour. He reads Fanny’s letter and then goes to visit his downstairs neighbors, the Kenwigs. Mr. and Mrs. Kenwigs are dependent on the latter’s wealthy uncle Mr. Lillyvick, a collector of the water rate, a position which gives him great importance among his poor relatives, and everything they do is designed to please him so he will not write their children (including their baby, named Lillyvick) out of his will. Their daughter Morleena, is an awkward child of 7.
Mrs. Kenwigs is obviously expecting another child. The family panders to Uncle Lillyvick, for he holds the key to their salvation, if he chooses to leave his inheritance to their girls, which will provide them with a reliable means of subsistence.
Nicholas visits Noggs and tells him about his encounter with Squeers. Ralph’s anger at Nicholas’s beating of Wackford Squeers leads to a vow to destroy the younger man. Nicholas then searches for new employment, temporarily acting as French tutor to the Kenwigs children.
His mother does not know whether to believe her son or Ralph about Nicholas’s attack of Squeers. However, Kate, who has by now replaced Miss Knag in the milliner’s shop and incited her jealousy, has complete faith in her brother. He and his sister embrace, and he leaves with Smike for Portsmouth to find some means of supporting them all. Along the road, they meet the Crummles theatrical family, headed by Mr. Vincent Crummles and featuring the Crummles sons and daughter, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon, a girl of fifteen who has been playing a ten-year-old for at least five years. Nicholas signs on to write a new piece for the company, for a weekly rate of one pound, and ends up playing Romeo, while Smike joins the troupe as the Apothecary. In the audience, Uncle Lillyvick falls in love with the actress Miss Petowker, and they marry, leaving the Kenwigs without a benefactor.
Madame Mantalini’s business is about to be foreclosed, due to her husband’s profligate ways. When she visits Ralph Nickleby for help, she discovers her husband trying to cash in some outstanding accounts he has stolen from her. She announces her intention to separate from him and says that she has taken steps to put the shop into Miss Knag’s hands, a clever way to keep the shop from devolving to her husband, since a married woman cannot own property. Miss Knag now employs Madame as manager, and Mr. Mantolini is left in the cold. It is revealed that Ralph Nickleby had engineered the foreclosure and then stood ready to advance the money to salvage the shop, at a profitable rate of interest. With Miss Knag in charge, however, Nickleby’s backing will no longer be needed, but Kate is fired.
Ralph has arranged to have Kate act as hostess for a party at his house, where he will entertain several gentlemen with whom he does business. Sir Mulberry Hawk is a lecherous nobleman and money-lender, who has taken Lord Verisopht under his wing. Hawk’s friend, a rich young nobleman. He owes both Ralph and Sir Mulberry vast sums. He becomes infatuated with Kate and is used by Hawk to find her whereabouts. When Nicholas confronts them in a coffeehouse, Lord Frederick sees the error of his ways and breaks with Hawk. Some weeks later, they meet again in a casino in London and get into an altercation, an event which leads to a duel, in which Lord Frederick is killed. He is one of the few characters in the novel to undergo a journey, from a thoughtless, drunken boy to a mature young man who dies redeemed and repentant.
Hawk is one of the most truly evil characters in the novel, he forces himself upon Kate and behaves in a thoroughly abhorrent manner. He is beaten by Nicholas, and swears revenge, but nothing comes of it. His reckoning comes when he kills Lord Frederick in a duel and must flee to France.
Kate soon discovers that she is the evening’s entertainment, when Sir Mulberry Hawk tries to seduce her. Ralph sees her to a carriage and realizes the terrible mistake he has made. He admonishes Hawk, but the latter aptly points out that Nickleby would have turned a blind eye had Lord Frederick Verisopht fancied the girl.
In the meantime, Nicholas and Smike participate in a fantastically modified happy ending to Romeo and Juliet, in which, miraculously, almost everyone survives.
Kate briefly holds a position as a lady’s companion to Mrs. Whittleby. Julia Wittiterly is a hypochondriac who acts as if a feather would knock her over, but she has a fierce temper when she does not get her way. Mr. Wittiterly flatters his wife and toadies to her every whim. They are oblivious to the degradation Kate is submitted to under their noses. Kate once again has to fight off the unwelcome advances of Hawk, as she accompanies her mistress to the opera. When Kate takes her complaint to her uncle, he asks her to endure the advances a little longer, until they find “another entertainment,” in order not to spoil his relationship with them. She is horrified, but Noggs gives her the empathy she needs and sends for Nicholas.
Nicholas heads for London the moment he gets the news, bringing Smike. Coincidentally, the pair arrives in a London coffeehouse only to overhear Hawk and Verisopht talking about Kate. A fight ensues, and Nicholas nearly kills Hawk with a horsewhip.
The next day, Nicholas meets the charitable Mr. Charles and Mr. Ned Cheeryble, Charles and Ned Cheeryble: Twin brothers, wealthy merchants who are as magnanimous as they are jovial. They give Nicholas a job and provide for his family, and become key figures in the turning about of the happy ending. They enlist Nicholas to help a young, destitute girl, Madeline Bray, whose ailing father has squandered the family fortune. Nicholas has already met her when he goes to confront Nickleby for mistreating his sister, and he is in love. In the meantime, Smike has been caught by Squeers, while wandering around London. Squeers locks him up, but John Browdie, in town on his wedding trip, frees the hapless boy.
In a coffee room, Nicholas thanks Browdie for saving Smike and meets the Cheeryble’s amiable nephew, Frank Cheeryble, who will fall in love with Kate. Nicholas then visits the Kenwigs, whose latest child has arrived. Nicholas breaks the “good” news that Uncle Lillyvick has married an actress, which prompts resentment from Mr. Kenwigs for his “defrauded, swindled infants.” Nicholas tells Noggs of his love for Madeline Bray, and Noggs very soon discovers a way to help both Nicholas and Madeline, when he overhears Ralph Nickleby plotting with Arthur Gride, an elderly miser and associate of Ralph. He pretends to be in love with Madeline, but is only interested in her inheritance. A coward and a boot-licker, he is a thoroughly unlikeable character.
Ralph promises to forgive Bray’s debts if he gives up his daughter to marry Gride. Nickleby stands to profit in the transaction because Gride has promised to leave his inheritance to Ralph.
Nicholas thoroughly protests this marriage, and visits Madeline, her father, and Gride to convince them of the wrongness of the union. However, to no avail, the marriage is to take place that morning.
Madeline’s father, formerly a gentleman. He is an extremely selfish man who has wasted his wife’s fortune and is dying in a debtor’s prison, oweing vast sums of money to both Ralph and Gride. He fools himself that he is acting for the benefit of his daughter by agreeing to her marriage with Gride, but when he realizes what he has done, he dies of grief before the marriage goes through, freeing Madeline from her obligations.
Madeline lives with the Nickleby’s at this point. Smike falls in love with Kate, but his heart is broken when she falls in love with Frank Cheeryble, Ned and Charles’ nephew by their late sister, is just as open-hearted as his uncles. He shares Nicholas’s streak of anger when his sense of chivalry is roused.
After Smike contracts (tuberculosis) and Nicholas takes him to his old home in the country for rest. However, he dies here, and is buried under a great tree with Nicholas’ father. Before he dies, he sees the man who took care of him before he was taken to Squears school. Nicholas thinks it is a hallucination.
Squeers is involved in the destroying of legal documents, one is a will that says Madeline is the inheritor of a large fortune. Brooker, the mysterious figure who appears several times during the novel, we eventually find out that he was formerly Ralph’s clerk. He was responsible for bringing Ralph’s son (Smike) to Dotheboys Hall. An ex-convict, he returns to extort money from Ralph with the information his son is alive. When that fails, he goes to Noggs, and eventually brings his story to light.
Ralph hangs himself after learning that Smike is the son he thought he had sent away to the country years ago. Nicholas and Madeline get married, and Kate and Frank get married, and they have lots of children who think of their dead cousin Smike often.
Review: The social axe that Dickens had to grind in this story is man's injustice to children. Modern readers my feel that his depiction of Dotheboys Academy is too melodramatic. Alas, unfortunately, it was all too real. Charles Dickens helped create a world where we can't believe that such things happen. Dickens even tell us in an introduction that several Yorkshire schoolmasters were sure that Wackford Squeers was based on them and threatened legal action.
There are no unintersting characters in Dickens. Each one is almost a charicature. This book contains some of his funniest characters. I love Dickens not because of his rather obvious plots, or main characters – Nicholas Nickleby, like Pip Pirrip and David Copperfield, is interesting only when he suffers, once he is all gentlemanned up and prosperous, interest quickly wanes – but because his minor characters, always absurd, comical and not a little grotesque, are sketched with verve, vim and gusto.
In Nicholas Nickleby, we have an entire range, from Wackford Squeers and his squeery family, Miss Snevellicci's papa who, when drunk, goes from dignified to quarrelsome to amorous in a flash, the numerous Kenwigs and their uncle Mr Lillyvick, the collector of water rates, and his wife, the late Miss Henrietta Petowker, Tim Linkinwater, Newman Noggs, Mr and Mrs Wittertily and their page Alphonse, of whom Dickens says "if there were ever an Alphonse who carried plain Bill in his face and figure, that page was the boy", Mrs Alfred Mantalini, a milliner who changed her name after realising that her husband's singularly prosaic name of Muntle, being an English name, would be the ruin of her milliner's establishment, her spouse, Mr Mantalini, a demned fine gentlemen, demmit, with a thousand and one terms of endearments (my cup of happiness' sweetener, the essential juice of my pineapple, a demd enchanting, bewitching, engrossing, captivating little Venus), Mrs Nickleby and her baffling conversations, and the entire Crummles entourage.
Opening Line: “There once lived in a sequestered part of the county Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby; a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.”
Closing Line: Through all the spring and summer-time, garlands of freash flowers, wreathed by infant hands, rested on the stone; and, when the children came to change them lest they should wither and be pleasant to him no longer, their eyes filled with tears, and they spoke low and softly of their poor dead cousin.”
Quotes: 'Will she call me "Sir"?' cried Mantalini. 'Me who dote upon her with the demdest ardour! She, who coils her fascinations round me like a pure angelic rattlesnake! It will be all up with my feelings; she will throw me into a demd state.'
'Can I live to be mistrusted?' cried her husband. 'Have I cut my heart into a demd extraordinary number of little pieces, and given them all away, one after another, to the same little engrossing demnition captivater, and can I live to be suspected by her? Demmit, no I can't.'
"Love... is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination: which has a long memory, and will thrive, for a considerable time, on very slight and sparing food."
"Dreams are the bright creatures of poem and legend, who sport on earth in the night season, and melt away in the first beam of the sun, which lights grim care and stern reality on their daily pilgrimage through the world.”
Rating: Excellent.

335. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

History: First published in 1995, the book exposes the changes in Indian society from independence in 1947 to the Emergency called by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mistry is generally critical of P. M. Gandhi in the book. Interestingly, however, Gandhi is never referred to by name by any of the characters, and is instead called simply "the prime minister". The characters, from diverse backgrounds, are all brought together by economic forces changing India.
Plot: At the beginning of the book, the two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, are on their way to the flat of Dina Dalal via a train. While on the train, they meet a college student named Maneck Kohlah, who coincidentally is also on his way to the flat of Dina Dalal to be a boarder. They become friends and go to Dina's flat together. Dina hires Ishvar and Om for piecework, and agrees to let Maneck stay with her. Dina then reflects on her past and how she was brought to her current situation.
Dina grew up in a wealthy family. Her father was a medical doctor who died when she was twelve. Her mother was withdrawn and unable to take care of Dina after her father's death, so the job fell to Nusswan, Dina's brother. Nusswan was rather abusive to Dina, sticking her with all the housework, forcing her to do all the cooking, cleaning, and drop out of school, and hitting her when she misbehaved. Dina rebelled against Nusswan and his prospective suitors for her when she became of age, and found her own husband, Rustom Dalal, at a concert hall. Nusswan and his wife Ruby were happy to get Dina out of their hair and let her marry Rustom and move to his flat. Dina and Rustom lived happily for three years until Rustom died on their third wedding anniversary, after being hit by a bus while on his bicycle. Dina became a tailor under the guidance of Rustom's surrogate parents to avoid having to move in with Nusswan . After twenty years her eyesight gave out from complicated embroidery and she was once again jobless. She eventually met a lady from a company called Au Revoir Exports (Mrs. Gupta), who would buy ready-made dresses in Au Revoir patterns. She agrees to let Dina sew the patterns and she will buy the dresses and pay Dina. But since Dina has very poor eyesight, she decides to hire tailors. She also decides to have a paying guest to generate more income for her rent.
The tailors rent their own sewing machines, and come to Dina's flat each day for nearly two weeks before the first round of dresses is completed. The three get along fairly well, but Dina and Omprakash don't see eye to eye all the time. Omprakash is angry that Dina is a middle-man and he wants to sew for Au Revoir directly. Dina locks the tailors in her flat from the outside so that they will not find out what company they are sewing for and thus cut her out of the picture, and sets off to Au Revoir Exports for the lady, Mrs. Gupta, to buy the dresses. Om and Ishvar remain enclosed in the flat and the author reveals their past and how they came to the current situation.
Ishvar's father, Dukhi Mochi, lived in a village and was of the Hindu Chamaar caste, and being an "untouchable," was forced to do unseemly work for the upper castes and suffered much caste violence. He despised his lifestyle and when he had two sons, Ishvarband Narayan, he sent them off to be apprenticed at the shop of a Muslimbtailor in the next town named Ashraf Chacha. Ashraf Chacha taught Ishvar and Narayan to be top-notch tailors. When Ishvar was about seventeen, there was terrible violence in the country against Muslims. Muslims were slaughtered and their homes and shops were burned to the ground. Ishvar and Narayan save Ashraf Chacha and his family when a mob arrives by claiming that the shop is theirs. Ashraf is saved and indebted to Ishvar and Narayan. Ishvar stays on with Ashraf Chacha as an assistant even as he grows up, not returning to live in the village, although he often visits. Narayan returns to the village and opens a tailor shop for the lower castes, which is highly successful. He eventually builds a house instead of a hut and has a son named Omprakash and two daughters. Narayan does not work for the upper castes and avoids them. However when the time comes to vote, he is angry that the votes are fixed by a powerful upper classman. The lower castes just give their fingerprints as proof of voting, and the upper castes fill in the ballots as they like. Narayan is angry and confronts the upperclassman, Thakur Dharamsi, who fixes the votes. Thakur becomes angry and has Narayan and his accomplices tortured, killed and displayed to the lower castes. Thakur also wants to punish the whole family, so he has Narayan's father, mother, wife, and children and whole family tied up in their house, then sets the house on fire, burning all of them to death. However, Ishvar and his nephew Om were at the shop of Ashraf Chacha, in the next town, and therefore safe. They hear of the murders and try to involve the police, but bribed by Thakur, they do not help. A pre-made clothing shop opens in their town, so they are forced to move to Mumbai to find work. They hear of Dina Dalal through an old but disloyal friend of Ashraf Chacha named Nawaz who lives in the city. Nawaz is mostly inconsiderate but he suddenly becomes helpful when he realizes that connecting Ishvar and Om with Dina will give them their own place to stay and relinquish his neglected responsibility of hospitality.
The tailors and Dina have arrived at a working arrangement when Maneck moves in a month later. Maneck befriends Omprakash and Ishvar, which Dina dislikes because she feels they are lower class. But the way Maneck was raised, he doesn't care about the classes and remains friends with them despite Dina's displeasure. Dina likes Om and especially Ishvar, but doesn't necessarily consider them equals. As Maneck goes to school one day, the author in turn reveals his past.
Maneck was born in a mountain village to two loving parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kohlah. His father owned a store that had been in the family for generations. The store sold household necessities and manufactured the locally popular soda, Kohlah Cola. Maneck spent his days going to school, helping at the store, and going on walks with his father. When he was in the fourth standard, Maneck was sent to boarding school to help his education, much to his dismay. After this, his relationship with his parents deteriorates because he does not wish to be separated from them and feels betrayed. On a break from school, he is left alone to care for the shop for two days when his parents attend a wedding, and he rearranges some of the displays because he feels that the shop could use some pizzazz. He is extremely proud of his ideas and eager for his father's positive reaction. But when his father returns and finds the shop different, he yells at Maneck and is angry that the shop is not how he left it. Maneck loses much respect for his father and begins to shut himself off from his family. His parents only want the best for him, such as an education, and they are willing to send him away if that is what it takes, so they send him to a college and pick his major, refrigeration and air-conditioning, for him.
Maneck goes to college and stays at the student hostel. When he first arrives he is exhausted and settles on the bed. In the middle of the night he feels something crawling up his leg and discovers an infestation of cockroaches. His room turns out to be filled with vermin and he tries to kill all of them by stomping on them. A neighbor hears the noise and helps by giving him pesticide spray. Maneck becomes friends with this neighbor, Avinash, who is also the student president. Avinash teaches Maneck chess and they play together often. The hostel conditions they live in are poor and the food is nearly inedible. When a vegetarian discovers meat in his soup, the students are disgusted and they almost attack the cafeteria workers. The students eventually are inspired and Avinash leads them in an uprising against the Institution for better conditions. He becomes involved in political events, for which Maneck has little interest, and their friendship is no longer a priority for Avinash. They start seeing each other quite infrequently. But when the Emergency is declared in India, political activists had to go into hiding in order to be safe, Avinash included. Maneck, no longer having friends in the student hostel, has his mother arrange a different living situation for him, and he moves in with Dina Dalal, but he still has Avinash's chess set, because he can't return it.
Dina and the tailors' business runs fairly smoothly for almost a year, but effects of the Emergency bother them often. The shantytown where the tailors live is knocked down in a government "beautification" program, and the residents are uncompensated and forced to move into the streets. Later Ishvar and Om are rounded up by a police beggar raid and are sold to a labor camp. After two months in the camp, they bribe their way out with the help of the Beggarmaster, a kind of pimp for beggars. Ishvar and Om are lucky and Dina decides to let them stay with her. The tailors and Dina find trouble from the landlord, because she is not supposed to be running a business from her flat. She pretends that Ishvar is her husband and Om their son and also get protection from the Beggarmaster.
Ishvar and Om return to their village to find a wife for Omprakash, who is now 18. Maneck returns home, finished with his first year in college (he has received a certificate but not a degree), but has stiff relations with his family and finds that his father's business is failing due to the invasion of cheap commercial sodas. He takes a lucrative job in the Middle East to escape the conditions.
Dina being alone now, and her protector the Beggarmaster having being murdered, has no protection from the landlord who wants to break her apartment's rent control and charge more rent, so she is evicted. Dina is forced to again live with her brother, Nusswan, to her utter dismay and embarrassment.
Omprakash and Ishvar return to their old town to find that Ashraf Chacha is an elderly man whose wife died and daughters were all married off. He barely survives with his tailoring business but is safe from mob violence because there is little Muslim persecution. He gives them a place to stay while they search for marriage prospects for Om. While they walk around the village, they run into the upper-caste Thakur Dharamsi. Omprakash recognizes him and spits in his direction. Thakur in turn recognizes Om, and decides to somehow pay Om back for his disrespect of an upper caste member. When Ashraf Chacha, Ishvar, and Om are in the village, they run into herders from the Family Planning Centre. At the Family Planning Centre, the government gives free vasectomies and tubectomies in an effort to control population. They are supposedly optional, but encouraged, and each Centre has a certain quota to fill or they are not paid. The Centre in this city did not fill its quota, so they took random people from the street and forced them into a truck that drove them to the Family Planning Centre. Ishvar and Om resist, because Ishvar wants Om to have a family once he is married. However they are beaten into the truck, including Ashraf Chacha. But since Ashraf Chacha is so old, he is gravely injured by the beating and later dies on the street. Ishvar and Omprakash weep in the truck and beg to escape the forced sterilization, but the surgery takes place. As they lie in an outside tent recovering with other victims, Thakur Dharamsi comes by to be sure that the Centre's quota has been filled. He sees Om recovering and whispers something to a doctor. The doctor, horrified, nonetheless takes Om back to surgery and cuts off his testicles. They encounter no more trouble from Thakur, now that he has had revenge by making Om a eunuch. Ishvar's legs become infected due to the vasectomy and must be amputated. However, Ishvar and Om have nowhere to go now that Ashraf Chacha has died. His son-in-law sells his house and they are forced to leave town.
Eight years later, Maneck returns home for the first time from his Middle East job for his father's funeral. He has been unhappy there as well. He tries to hail a taxi to the train station from the airport, but most taxi drivers refuse to take him because of the dangerous riots going on. He finally manages to convince a taxi driver to take him for double the normal fee. The taxi driver tells him that the riots going on are targeting Sikhs, a religious minority. Like the Muslim riots of long ago, they are burning their houses, chopping up the men and boys, raping the women and girls, and destroying their places of worship. The driver himself is a Sikh, and desperately needs the money. Maneck is repulsed by the violence and angry that there is nothing he can do. He returns home and goes to the funeral, but can't bring himself to truly miss his father, only the father of his young childhood.
While at home he reads old newspapers that his father has kept for some reason. In one he sees a picture of three teenage girls who hanged themselves from a ceiling fan. He is saddened by the picture and reads from the article that the three girls hanged themselves because their parents could not afford dowries for them to get married, and didn't want to shame their family by being unmarried their whole lives. The parents of the three daughters are heart-broken, but the article says that this is not the first time they have experienced heartache. They had a son, Avinash, a former student who advocated for fair politicians and better public conditions. He was found dead by railroad tracks, apparently having fallen off a train, but his injuries were suspicious and did not seem inflicted by his supposed cause of death. Maneck already knew of Avinash's death, but is astounded at suffering the family went through. He runs out into the rain storm that was occurring and later decides to visit Dina in the city.
He visits the city and visits Dina at her brother's house, and they catch up. He is pleased to see her and happy that she remembered him. She feels the same, as since she met Maneck she regarded him as a son. She gives Maneck Avinash's chess set that he accidentally left behind, and Maneck feels like he lost Avinash all over again. Maneck asks about Ishvar and Om, and Dina tells him that they have become beggars, and Ishvar lost his legs. Maneck is appalled, because he can't believe that the spirited tailors he knew would ever stop working and stoop so low as to become beggars. He can't understand how his friend Om would let himself down, and he excuses himself from Dina and promises to visit soon, upset from the news. As he leaves, he encounters Om and Ishvar on the street. The two former tailors are nearly unrecognizable because of their filth, and don't appear to recall him. They say "Salaam" to him, but he doesn't know what to say and walks on.
It turned out that Om and Ishvar were on their way to visit Dina. They are still friends, and she gives them meals and money when the house is empty. They visit her nearly every day. Dina and the beggars discuss their lives and how Maneck has changed from a pleasant and friendly college student to a distant refrigeration specialist. Om and Ishvar leave as Ruby returns, promising to visit after the weekend. Dina washes up their plates and clears up all evidence of their visit, and returns the plates to the cupboard, where they are to be used later by Nusswan and Ruby.
Maneck goes to the train station, his world shattered. He walks out on the tracks as an express train approaches the station. The author said, "Maneck's last thought was that he still had Avinash's chessmen."
Review: Initially distrustful of one another, Dina, Maneck, Ishvar, and Om gradually build loving, familial bonds and learn together "to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair" in a society suddenly turned inhumanly cruel and corrupt.
This book brings us face to face with the brutalities of which such supposedly progressive governments as Indira Ghandi's are capable, and depicts just how intolerable life in these societies can be. It amply demonstrates that native rule is no panacea for the ills of the Third World and helps us to understand why refugees from these countries continue to seek a better life in America, long after their colonial masters have left them, seemingly, in control of their own fates. In the end it is ideas--such as freedom; and equality under the law; and opportunity--which really matter and which provide the setting in which people, such as those so lovingly portrayed here, can maintain their balance and realize their dreams. Though it takes place in a time of political upheaval and chaos, A Fine Balance is not a political diatribe. Instead, it is a beautiful and compassionate portrait of the resiliency of the human spirit when faced with death, despair, and unconscionable suffering.
Opening Line: “The morning express, bloated with passengers, slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as if to resume full speed.”
Closing Line: “Then she dried her hands, and decided to take a nap before she started the evening meal.”
Quotes: “What sense did the world make? Where was God, the Bloody Fool? Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet? He would have been sacked long ago if He were managing a corporation, the things he allowed to happen.”
“The road towards self-reliance could not lie through the past.”
Rating: Superb.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

334. The Heart of the Matter - Graham Greene

History: This novel was published in 1948. During World War II, Greene worked for the Secret Intelligence Service in Sierra Leone, which became the setting for the novel.
Plot: Major Henry Scobie is a long-serving police inspector in a British colonial town on the West Coast of Africa during World War II, responsible for providing both local and wartime security as well as controlling smuggling. He is married to Louise, a solitary woman who loves literature and poetry but struggles to form social relationships. Scobie feels responsible for Louise's happiness, but does not love her, and is unable to love anyone, including himself. They had a daughter, Catherine, who died at school in England several years before. Louise calls Scobie “Ticki,” although it’s apparent that he dislikes the nickname. Louise is a devout Catholic, and for her sake Scobie converted to Catholicism. Although he firmly believes in the teachings of Catholicism, his practice of his faith is largely superficial.
Scobie is passed over, yet again, for a promotion to Commissioner, causing Louise great distress, both for her personal ambition and her hopes that the local British community will begin to accept her. Louise asks Scobie to send her away to South Africa, and then to join her there in a few years when he can retire.
At the same time, a new inspector, named Wilson, arrives in the town. He is priggish and socially inept, and hides his passion for poetry for fear of ostracism from his colleagues. He and Louise strike up a friendship, which Wilson mistakes for love. Wilson rooms with another colleague named Harris, who has created a sport for himself of killing the cockroaches that appear in the apartment each night. He invites Wilson to join him, but in the first match, they end up quarreling over the rules of engagement.
One of Scobie's duties is to lead the inspections of local passenger ships, particularly looking for smuggled diamonds, a needle-in-a-haystack problem that never yields results. A Portuguese ship, the Esperança (the Portuguese word for "hope"), comes into port, and a disgruntled steward reveals the location of a letter hidden in the captain’s quarters. Scobie finds it, and because it is addressed to someone in Germany, he must confiscate it in case it should contain secret codes or other clandestine information. The captain says it’s a letter to his daughter and begs Scobie to forget the incident, offering him a bribe of one hundred pounds when he learns that they share a faith. Scobie declines the bribe and takes the letter, but having opened and read it through (thus breaking the rules) and finding it innocuous, he decides not to submit it to the authorities, and burns it.
Scobie is called to a small inland town to deal with the suicide of the local inspector, a man named Pemberton, who was in his early twenties and left a note implying that his suicide was due to a loan he couldn’t repay. Scobie suspects the involvement of the local agent of a Syrian man named Yusef, a local black marketeer. Yusef denies it, but warns Scobie that the British have sent a new inspector specifically to look for diamonds; Scobie claims this is a hoax and that he doesn't know of any such man. Scobie later dreams that he is in Pemberton's situation, even writing a similar note, but when he awakens, he tells himself that he could never commit suicide, as no cause is worth the eternal damnation that suicide would bring.
Scobie tries to secure a loan from the bank to pay the two hundred pound fee for Louise’s passage, but is turned down. Yusef offers to lend Scobie the money at four percent per annum. Scobie initially declines, but after an incident where he mistakenly thinks Louise is contemplating suicide, he accepts the loan and sends Louise to South Africa. Wilson meets them at the pier and tries to interfere with their parting.
Shortly afterwards, the survivors of a shipwreck begin to arrive after forty days at sea in lifeboats. One young girl dies as Scobie tries to comfort her by pretending to be her father, who was killed in the wreck. A nineteen-year-old woman named Helen Rolt also arrives in bad shape, clutching an album of postage stamps. She was married before the ship left its original port and is now a widow, and her wedding ring is too big for her finger. Scobie feels drawn to her, as much to the cherished album of stamps as to her physical presence.
He soon starts a passionate affair with her, all the time being aware that he is committing a grave sin of adultery. A letter he writes to Helen ends up in Yusef's hands, and the Syrian uses it to blackmail Scobie into sending a package of diamonds for him via the returning Esperança, thus avoiding the authorities.
When Louise unexpectedly returns, Scobie struggles to keep her ignorant of his love affair. But he is unable to renounce Helen, even in the confessional, so the priest tells him to think it over again and postpones absolution. Still, in order to please his wife, Scobie goes to Mass with her and thus receives communion in state of "mortal sin"—one of the gravest sins for a Catholic to commit.
Shortly after he witnesses Yusef's boy delivering a 'gift' to Scobie, Scobie's servant Ali is killed by teenage thieves known as "wharf rats." Scobie had began to doubt Ali's loyalty, and he hinted this distrust to Yusef. We are led to believe that Yusef arranged the death of Ali, although Scobie blames himself for the matter. In the body of his dead servant, Scobie sees the image of God.
Now desperate, he decides to free everyone from himself—even God—so he commits suicide, being aware that this will result in damnation according to the teaching of the Church. But his efforts prove useless in the end. Louise had been not as naive as he had believed, the affair with Helen and the suicide are found out, and his wife is left behind wondering about the mercy and forgiveness of God.
Review: As Graham Greene himself saw it, The Heart of the Matter deals with the issue of pride. He illustrates this theme by describing Scobie, the main character of the book, as "a weak man with good intentions doomed by pride". He further says in the preface, "I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: 'Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn't safe when pity's prowling around.' The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride."
In the introduction he goes on to say that the piece can be seen as a kind of exploration of his experiences in Sierra Leone as an operative for MI6 during World War II, drawing from his experiences almost directly for the work (such as the smuggled Portuguese letter found on a ship, which he did not allow to pass as in the book, but instead radioed up London asking "What was it all for?" to which he never received a response). In the preface of the novel he notes that the story originally came from a desire on his part to write a detective story where the principal character, the villain, is ignorant of who the detective is.
Whatever Greene's writings and personal feelings toward the story (he hated it and idly suggests that an earlier, failed piece whose place was given to The Heart of the Matter may well have been a better work), the themes of failure are threaded strongly throughout. Each character in the novel, be it Scobie or Wilson, fails in their ultimate goals by the end of the book. Scobie's ultimate sacrifice, suicide, fails to bring the expected happiness he imagines it will to his wife and despite the fact that he tries to conceal the secret of his infidelity with that ultimate sin, the reader discovers that his wife had known all along.
Similarly, Wilson, the man who is pursuing an adulterous affair with Scobie's wife, an affair she refuses to participate in, is foiled at the end of the novel when Scobie's wife refuses to give in to his advances even after Scobie's death. Other instances of failure, both subtler and more obvious, can be seen throughout the work, lending it a muted, dark feeling.
The Heart of the Matter is not just about failure, but about the price we all pay for our individualism and the impossibility of truly understanding another person. Each of the characters in the novel operates at tangential purposes which they often think are clear to others, or think are hidden from others, but are in fact not.
As in many of Greene's earlier works this book deals with not just the tension of the individual and the state, but also the conflict of the individual and the church. Scobie throughout the book constantly puts his fears in the voice and context of religion. After his wife returns he has a pathological fear of taking communion while suffering the stain of mortal sin and later agonizes over the choice of suicide in terms of its theological damnation. The conflict is particularly interesting because it is not a conflict of faith, but rather a dispute set in legalistic terms: whether a violation of the laws of faith is justified by the personal sense of duty the character feels; which duty, personal or theological, is in the end primary; and what happens when those laws are broken. This argument is not simply one of whether Scobie is damned to hell, a question Greene himself tired of, but rather of whether what he did was worth anything in the world of the present
Opening Line: "Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork."
Closing Line: "And you may be in the right of it there, too. Father Rank replied."
Quotes: "Well, five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys then." He began to speak the words of Absolution, but the trouble is, Scobie thought, there's nothing to absolve. The words brought no sense of relief because there was nothing to relieve. They were a formula: the Latin words hustled together - a hocus-pocus."
Rating: Good.