Tuesday, March 27, 2012

494. The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie

 History: This book was published in 1995. 
It is written in the same style as Midnight's Children, and raises issues of individuality and the possibility of hybridity in a world moving toward singularity. The title is taken from the story of Boabdil (Abu Abdullah Muhammed), the last Moorish king of Granada, who is also mentioned frequently in the book. The spot from which Boabdil last looked upon Granada after surrendering it is known as Puerto del Suspiro del Moro ("Pass of the Moor's Sigh"). The mother of the narrator and an artist friend of the mother's each make a painting which they call "The Moor's Last Sigh".
Plot: The Moor's Last Sigh traces four generations of the narrator's family and the ultimate effects upon the narrator. The narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, traces his family's beginnings down through time to his own lifetime. Moraes, who is called "Moor" throughout the book, is an exceptional character, whose physical body ages twice as fast as a normal person's does and also has a deformed hand. The book also focusses heavily on the Moor's relationships with the women in his life, including his mother Aurora, who is a famous national artist; his first female tutor; and his first love, a charismatic, demented sculptress named Uma.
Review: The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. Fourteen ninety-two was the year, too, when the Jews of Spain were offered the choice of baptism or expulsion; and when Columbus, financed by the royal conquerors of the Moor, Ferdinand and Isabella, sailed forth to discover a new route to the East.
From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.
Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.
Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.
In Rushdie’s hands Abraham is little more than a comic-book villain. Aurora, however, is a more complex character, in many ways the emotional center of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”
Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text or texturation over it like gauze.
But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”
Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he is a prodigy, with a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals. Kept apart from other children, he receives his sexual initiation at the hands of an attractive governess and soon discovers he is a born storyteller: telling stories gives him an erection.
Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then—after some complicated stage business involving true and false poison capsules—in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group whose off-duty evenings sound like Brownshirt get-togethers in Munich, with “arm-wrestling and mat-wrestling…[until] lubricated by beer and rum, the assembled company would arrive at a point of sweaty, brawling, raucous, and finally exhausted nakedness.”
Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfill itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.
Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.
Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”
If Rushdie’s Satanic Verses outraged the dour literalists within Islam, then The Moor’s Last Sigh will anger the fascist-populist element within Hindu sectarianism. On Raman Fielding Rushdie lavishes some of his most stinging satirical prose: “In his low cane chair with his great belly slung across his knees like a burglar’s sack, with his frog’s croak of a voice bursting through his fat frog’s lips and his little dart of a tongue licking at the edges of his mouth, with his hooded froggy eyes gazing greedily down upon the little beedi-rolls of money with which his quaking petitioners sought to pacify him,… he was indeed a Frog King.”
The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life.
Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi Uë (her name all vowels, as the Moor’s, in Arabic, is all consonants: would that they had found each other earlier, he thinks). Aoi perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.
The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten. Some of the historical parallels fall flat (Moraes is no Luther: the hounds on his trail are the Spanish police, who suspect a homicide, not the bishops of Hindu orthodoxy, who couldn’t care less what he gets up to in Spain), while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.
Nor is this the worst. As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie, in what sounds very much like propria persona, glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.” With all due respect, one must demur. The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain. (Fleshing out the thesis in this way depends, one must concede, on ignoring the fact that the historical Boabdil was a timorous and indecisive man, dominated by his mother and duped by King Ferdinand of Spain.)
Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigor in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.
Occasionally palimpsesting descends to mere postmodernist frivolousness: “Had I slipped accidentally from one page, one book of life on to another?” Moraes wonders, unable to believe he has been put in a Bombay prison. At other moments, however, Moraes expresses a hunger for the real, for that which is not merely one textual layer upon another, that is the keenest and saddest note in the book: “How,” he asks himself, looking back in bafflement, “trapped as we were…in the fancy-dress, weeping-Arab kitsch of the superficial, could we have penetrated to the full sensual truth of the lost mother below? How could we have lived authentic lives?”
Here Moraes articulates a passionate but fearful attachment to his mother—whom he elsewhere calls “my Nemesis, my foe beyond the grave”—and through her to a “Mother India who loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children, and with whom the children’s passionate conjoining and eternal quarrel stretched long beyond the grave.” This conflicted attachment is a submerged, barely explored element of his makeup.
Moraes’s yearning for authenticity expresses itself most clearly in his dream of peeling off his skin and going into the world naked “like an anatomy illustration from Encyclopedia Britannica…set free from the otherwise inescapable jails of colour, race and clan.” Alas, in Indian country [the joke here is complex: rushdie conflates Indian Indians, whom Columbus set off to find, with American Indians, the Indians he in fact found] there was no room for a man who didn’t want to belong to a tribe, who dreamed…of peeling off his skin and revealing his secret identity—the secret, that is, of the identity of all men—of standing before the war-painted braves to unveil the flayed and naked unity of the flesh.
If this is not a crisis in Rushdie’s thinking—a longing for the pages of history to stop turning, or at least no longer to turn “double-quick,” for the ultimate self to emerge from the parade of fictions of the self—then it is at least a crisis for the Moor persona, the prince in exile, no longer young, confronting the overriding truth uniting mankind: we are all going to die.
Besides palimpsesting, Rushdie also experiments with ekphrasis, the conduct of narration through the description of imaginary works of art. The best-known instances of ekphrasis in Western literature are the descriptions of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad and of the frieze on Keats’s Grecian urn. In Rushdie’s hands ekphrasis becomes a handy device to recall the past and foreshadow the future. The magical tiles in the Cochin synagogue not only tell the story of the Jews in India but foretell the atom bomb. Aurora’s paintings project her son into the past as Boabdil; the entire history of India, from mythic times to the present, is absorbed into a great phantasmagoria on the wall of her bedroom. Scanning it, her father marvels that she has captured “the great swarm of being itself,” but then notes one great lacuna: “God was absent.” Through paintings whose only existence, paradoxically, is in words, the darkly prophetic historical imagination of Aurora dominates the book.
Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, it is disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, we find in the middle section of Rushdie’s novel only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slip (or are slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically.
To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.
It is not easy to counter this defense in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to concentrate our minds let us consider a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies center stage. Then he is dropped from the book. I find the episode unsatisfying; further, I would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only halfheartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.
There are plenty of readers, I am sure, who will disagree—who will enjoy the stories of Adam and other personages who blaze briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expire. Where I see intermittent development they will see prodigality of invention. Such divergences are to be expected: narrative pleasure is a notoriously personal matter. But this ought not to mean that we should refrain from articulating our disappointments or trying to uncover their causes. Some of our expectations may indeed turn out to derive from our own culturally defined preconceptions; nevertheless, “multiculturalism” should not become a card that trumps all other critical cards. There cannot be no universals of the storyteller’s art; otherwise we could not read and enjoy stories across cultural borders.
Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood. Yet in so palimpsested a novel as The Moor’s Last Sigh, why should the popular storytelling media of today not contribute to the textual layering? And are traditional folk tales not full of unmotivated evil anyway?
If we want to read The Moor’s Last Sigh as a postmodern textual romp, however, we must accept the rules of the postmodernist game. The notion of “authenticity” has been one of the first casualties of postmodernism in its deconstructive turn. When Moraes, in prison, wonders whether he is on the wrong page of his own book, he moves into a dimension in which not only he but the walls of his cell consist of no more than words. On this purely textual plane he can no longer be taken seriously when he laments that he is trapped within “colour, caste, sect” and longs for an authentic life outside them. If as self-narrator he wants to escape the inessential determinants of his life, he need only storytell his way out of them.
In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.
Identity, in our times, has become overwhelmingly a matter of group identification: of identifying with and/or being claimed by groups. The problem of identity in this sense has hovered over Rushdie’s head for most of his life. As a British citizen of Indian Muslim ancestry and, since Khomeini’s fatwa, of indeterminate residence, it has become less and less easy for him to claim that he writes about India as an insider. For one thing, he does not live there; for another, the notion of Indianness has become lamentably contested, as The Moor’s Last Sigh shows. Yet in a bitter irony, the religion into which he was born will not let him go.
No wonder, then, that the hero of Midnight’s Children, the book that revolutionized the Indian English novel and brought Rushdie fame, cries out (prophetically, as it emerged): “Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?” “I [want] to be Clark Kent, not any kind of Superman,” laments Moraes in similar vein. Or if not Clark Kent, then simply his own, essential, naked self.
It is in this context, in which Rushdie’s personal life has been overtaken by an increasingly political conception of personal identity, that we should understand the moment when Moraes, moving beyond a by-now-familiar Rushdian celebration of bastardy, mongrelhood, and hybridity, rejects his “anti-Almighty” father Abraham—a father ready to sacrifice him on the altar of his megalomaniac ambitions—and embraces a heritage that has hitherto meant nothing to him: “I find that I’m a Jew.” For not only are Rushdie’s Jews (the Jews of Cochin, the Jews of Spain) powerless, dwindling communities; but to claim, voluntarily, the identity of a Jew, after the Holocaust, is to assert, however symbolically, solidarity with persecuted minorities worldwide.
In a book in which ideas, characters, and situations are invented with such prolific ease, one wishes that Rushdie had pushed the story of Moraes as rediscovered Jew further. “Here I stand,” says Moraes/Luther, at the end of the journey of his life: “Couldn’t’ve done it differently.” What does it mean in real-life terms, in India or in the world, to take a stand on a symbolic Jewishness?
The microscopic scrutiny commentators have devoted to the text of The Satanic Verses, particularly to its offending passages, and the wealth of religious and cultural reference they have uncovered, have demonstrated how superficial a non-Muslim reading of that book must be. Similarly, when it comes to sectarian infighting in India, or to the Bombay social and cultural scene, the non-Indian reader of The Moor’s Last Sigh can have at most an overhearing role: jokes are being made, satiric barbs being fired, which only an Indian, and perhaps only an Indian of a certain social background, will appreciate.
Rushdie came under attack for The Satanic Verses and will no doubt come under attack—from other quarters—for The Moor’s Last Sigh. In the former case he defended himself ably, arguing that readers who smelled blasphemy were oversimplifying and misreading his book. But his defense was not heard: authority to interpret was almost at once wrested from him by factions with political aims of their own. The Satanic Verses thus provided a model illustration of how, in Gayatri Spivak’s words, the “praxis and politics of life” can override a “mere reading” of a book. Let us hope (o tempora! o mores!) that determined foes of The Moor’s Last Sigh will confine their energies to the artefact and let its author be.
A final word. Five centuries after the campaigns of Ferdinand and Isabella swept Islam out of Iberia, the Muslims of southeastern Europe faced genocidal attack. Though the word Bosnia is not so much as breathed (or sighed) in his book, it is inconceivable that the parallel did not cross Rushdie’s mind as he wrote, or will not cross ours.
Opening Line: “I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda’s mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door.”
Closing Line: “I’ll drink some wine; and then, like a latter-day Van Winkle, I’ll lay me down upon this graven stone, lay my head beneath these letters RIP, and close my eyes, according to our family’s old practice of falling asleep in times of trouble, and hope to awaken, renewed and joyful, into a better time.”
Quotes: “How to forgive the world for its beauty, which merely disguises its ugliness; for its gentleness, which merely cloaks its cruelty; for its illusion of continuity, seamlessly, as the night follows the day, so to speak- whereas in reality life is a series of brutal raptures, falling upon your defenseless hands, like the blows of a woodman's axe?”
Rating: Did not read.

493. Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

History: Although most modern editions of Rabelais's work place Pantagruel as the second volume of a series, it was actually published first, around 1532 under the pen name "Alcofribas Nasier", an anagram of Francois Rabelais. Pantagruel was a sequel to an anonymous book entitled The Great Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua.
This early Gargantua text enjoyed great popularity, despite its rather poor construction. The censors stigmatized it as obscene, and in a social climate of increasing religious oppression, it was dealt with suspicion, and contemporaries avoided mentioning it. According to Rabelais, the philosophy of his giant Pantagruel, "Pantagruelism", is rooted in "a certain gaiety of mind pickled in the scorn of fortuitous things".
Rabelais had studied Ancient Greek, and he applied it in inventing hundreds of new words in the text, some of which became part of the French language. Wordplay and risque humor abound in his writing.
Plot: Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais is a collection of five novels describing the life and adventures of the giant Pantagruel. The first book describes his education, the second relates the early life of his father, and the remaining three books follow his adventures while trying to determine whether or not his friend, Panurge, should marry. Gargantua and Pantagruel is an entertaining and comical satire of many aspects of education, religion and life in general.
Grangosier and Gargamelle were expecting a child. During the eleventh month of her pregnancy, Gargamelle ate too many tripes and then played tag on the green. That afternoon, in a green meadow, Gargantua was born from his mother’s left ear. Gargantua was a prodigy and, with his first breath, he began to clamor for drink. To supply him with milk, 17,913 cows were needed. Tailors used 900 ells of linen to make his shirt and 1,105 ells of white broadcloth to make his breeches. Eleven hundred cowhides were used for the soles of his shoes.
In the first book, Pantagruel is so large that his birth causes his mother's death, and after the passing of his early childhood, his father Gargantua sends him to study. After visiting several schools of medicine and law, Pantagruel settles in Paris to pursue his studies. This is where he meets Panurge, who becomes his close friend. Pantagruel proves his wisdom and gains a respectable reputation while residing in Paris.
After the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais revisited and revised his source material. He produced an improved narrative of the life and acts of Pantagruel's father in The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel, commonly known as Gargantua. This volume included one of the most notable parables in Western Philosophy: that of the Abbey of Thélème, which can either be considered a point-for-point critique of the educational practices of the age, or a call to free schooling, or all sorts of notions on human nature.
Rabelais then returned to the story of Pantagruel himself in the last three books. The Third Book of Pantagruel concerns Pantagruel and his friend Panurge, who spend the entire book discussing with many people the question of whether Panurge should marry; the question is unresolved. The book ends with the start of a sea voyage in search of the oracle of the divine bottle to resolve once and for all the question of marriage.
The sea voyage continues for the whole of The Fourth Book of Pantagruel. Pantagruel encounters many exotic and strange characters and societies during this voyage, such as the Shysteroos, who make their living by charging people to beat them up.
The whole book can be seen as a comical retelling of the Odyssey, or of the story of Jason and the Argonauts. In The Fourth Book, perhaps his most satirical, Rabelais criticizes what he perceived as the arrogance and wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the political figures of the time, and popular superstitions, and he addresses several religious, political, linguistic, and philosophical issues.
At the end of The Fifth Book of Pantagruel, which was published posthumously around 1564, the divine bottle is found.
Although some parts of book 5 are truly worthy of Rabelais, the last volume's attribution to him is debatable. Book five was not published until nine years after Rabelais's death and includes much material that is clearly borrowed or of lesser quality than the previous books.
Review: The arsehole is much maligned in modern times. It actually fits very neatly between two buttocks and fulfils a variety of roles - faecal, sexual, melodious, odiferous - as well as providing us with an essential epithet for politicians.
François Rabelais couldn't get enough of arseholes. When the giant Gargantua is born, the midwives can't tell at first if his mother's in labour, or merely evacuating her bowels of the 16 tuns, two gallons and two pints of tripe she's been eating. Another curious meal includes "fine turds, tweak-nose style", "Athenian rump", "shitlets", "collared bullfarts", "stitched bum-stirrings", "dirty-filths", "puffs-up-my-bum" and, for dessert, "shit drench with blossoming turds". Here are some books in a Rabelais library: On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company, On How to Defecate, Fundamental Floggings, The Gut-cavities of the Mendicants, Spanish Pongs, Super-refined, The Backgammon of Belly-bumping Friars and Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers
But the arse isn't all that Rabelais is interested in. Why the sea is salty, how to cook pears in red wine, ironmongery, weaponry, war (he's a little too interested in war), decapitation (ditto), the names of games (including "judge alive, judge dead" and "shitty yew-twigs") and dances, glassware and grapes, history, mythology, archaeology, "foolosophy", scholarship, medicine of course (as a doctor he risked his life to save victims of the plague), anatomy, botany, lechery, law, magic, superstition, religion, servants, aphrodisiacs, wines, astronomy, astrology, tourist sites, even sci-fi. He wants, like any real writer, to explain the whole world to us - comically, satirically, ethically and unethically.
And the world's a messy place. All the big mock-heroic novels that followed Gargantua and Pantagruel - Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Gulliver's Travels, Ulysses - are about mess, they're about slops and slime, encyclopedic in their efforts to encompass humanity in all its bawdy, sexy, chaotic, grungy, skanky, tumultuous and painful reality. They're also very funny. Rabelaisian rabble-rousing is founded on the assumption that the humourless are not yet wise - these novels insist you learn to laugh.
Not for Rabelais the sheepish British notion that to be funny somehow reduces your seriousness as a writer: "You, my good disciples - as well as some other leisured chumps - when reading no further than the titles of certain books of our devising (such as Gargantua, Pantagruel, On the Merits of Codpieces, On Pease-pudding and Bacon, with a Latin Commentary and so on), too readily conclude that nothing is treated inside save jests, idiocies and amusing fictions, seeing that their ... titles ... are normally greeted, without further enquiry, by scoffing and derision. It is not however proper to estimate so frivolously the works of human beings." Of course we like his "idiocies" best, but Rabelais was also a humanist, a moralist, a rebel (in serious trouble with the government and the Sorbonne for much of his life), and a genius.
The chapter titles alone are a delight: "How Grandgousier recognised the miraculous intelligence of Gargantua from his invention of a bum-wiper"; "How lawsuits are born and how they grow to perfection". The characters' names, from Sieur de Slurp-ffart and Seigneur de Grudge-crumb to le Duc de Free-meals and Captain Squit, display the agility of his translator, MA Screech, too. And Monty Python surely benefited from Rabelais's insults: superfluities, stubble-tooths, silly ginger-nuts, shit-the-beds, sneaky smooth-files, fat-guts, pretty puffs, bad-'uns, scruff-'eads, smirkers, teeth-clackers, cow-pat cowherds, and shitty shepherds.
Rabelais mocks a student for over-doing Latinate terminology when describing his debaucheries: "in venereal ecstasy, we inculcate our veretra into the most absconce recesses of the pudenda of those more amicital meretrices". Less fortunate women get "treacherously pubicfumbled-crimpywrinkled". Then there's the fellow who Screech tells us personifies lenten deprivations (versus Rabelais's Mardi Gras stance). Somehow he reminds me of Tony Blair: "His thoughts, like a murmuration of starlings; his conscience, like a sedge of young herons leaving the nest; his deliberations, like a bag of barley; his intellect, like snails slithering out of a bed of strawberries", and "an arsehole, like a crystalline looking-glass".
Narrative, character and plot trip over each other and land in a heap by the end, but Panurge emerges as so central he deserved a whole book named after him. A devious trickster with a coat of many pockets, each filled with useful stuff such as burrs, fleas and unguents, Panurge sews one guy's head back on, enabling him to report on the lousy job-market in Hell: Agamemnon's now "a licker-out of casseroles", Hannibal's an "egg-man", and Pope Calixtus has to barber "women's naughty cracks".
Panurge knows 63 ways of raising money for his needs, yet still he falls into debt, and is admonished by his pal, Pantagruel. Panurge's eloquent defence of debt as the glue that binds everything together should be a comfort to contemporary shoppers. If debt is abolished, he says, the cosmos will be undone, since "Between the elements there will be no mutual sharing of qualities, no alternation, no transmutation ... one will not think itself obliged to the other: it has lent it nothing." In the human body, "the feet would not deign to carry the head". If only Micawber had thought of this!
Panurge decides he wants to get married but dreads being cuckolded. His quest to find out the likelihood of this happening leads to a trip round the world (and fills the last 500 pages of the book) - and he still doesn't know whether to get married or not. This is perhaps not the best moment for a merchant to call him a cuckold. Panurge replies: "If ... I had jiggedy-joggedy-tarty-fartied that O so ... honourable and O so proper wife of yours in such a manner that the erect god of the gardens Priapus ... were ... to remain eternally stuck inside her so that it could never come out but remain there for ever unless you yourself were to tug it out with your teeth, would you do it?" Not an easy question to answer.
The real oddity in Rabelais is the almost total absence of women. He's surprisingly coy, too, about what to call their genitals, settling usually on "thingummy" or private parts - on one troubling occasion, "that monstrous solution of continuity". Screech claims that knocking women was common comic currency at the time (it still is), but couldn't Rabelais have had a bit more fun doing it? Male genitalia inspire raucous irreverent stuff, from a discussion of popes' bollocks ("When this world runs out of bollocks this world will run out of popes") to a strange story of some men who ate so many medlars that they "swelled in length along that member which we call Nature's plough-share, so that theirs became marvelously long, big, plump, fat, verdant and cockscombed in the antique style, so much so that they used them as girdles, wrapping them five or six times round their middles." This "antique style" could come back into fashion.
You might well remark after reading Rabelais that "All my phrenes, metaphrenes and diaphragms are taut and fraught from infunnelizating your words ... into the game-pouch of my understanding." But it's worth it
Opening Line: “I must refer you to the great chronicle of Pantagruel for the knowledge of that genealogy and antiquity of race by which Gargantua is come unto us.”
Closing Line: “And so, farewell!”
Quotes: “Readers, friends, if you turn these pages
Put your prejudice aside,
For, really, there's nothing here that's outrageous,
Nothing sick, or bad — or contagious.
Not that I sit here glowing with pride
For my book: all you'll find is laughter:
That's all the glory my heart is after,
Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you.
I'd rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.”
Rating: Very Funny, however I skimmed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

492. The Graduate – Charles Webb

History: This book was written in 1963 by Charles Webb, who wrote it shortly after graduating from Williams College. It was adapted into the highly successful 1967 movie The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols and with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Webb has stated he never felt comfortable with the attention the movie brought him because he felt it distracted from his status as a serious artist. He did not receive any royalties from the film and has stated he is glad it happened that way.
On the episode of the AMC television show Movies That Shook the World devoted to the film adaptation, Webb revealed the identity of the real-life inspiration for Mrs. Robinson: Jane Erickson (exact spelling unknown), the wife of an associate of Webb's father. However, that was the extent of any similarity with the novel; Webb denied having a relationship with her.
Plot: After returning to his parent's home after graduation, Braddock ponders his future and finds himself in a state of confusion and depression. It seems the only thing that really rallies him is the attention of Mrs. Robinson, the bored attractive wife of his father's law partner, who makes a play for Benjamin who responds in kind. What the affair lacks in passion, it makes up for in intensity.
The affair with Mrs. Robinson continues until Benjamin discovers the Robinsons' beautiful daughter Elaine, with whom he falls promptly in love. Driven to a fit of jealousy, Mrs. Robinson will have none of it, and she tells her daughter of her affair with Benjamin in an attempt to separate the two. Undeterred however, Benjamin pursues Elaine, even though she becomes involved with somebody else. He pursues her all the way to the altar, in fact.
Review: If the straightest places are where the weirdest things happen, then the American suburbs in the postwar period have good reason to fascinate artists. From Cheever, Updike, Roth and Yates, to David Lynch and Sam Mendes's American Beauty, the American ideal has also embodied the American nightmare. As John Cheever put it: "Why, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?"
There are few characters in postwar fiction as disappointed as Benjamin. A brilliant and successful student with "everything", as they say, ahead of him, one day in the early 1960s he returns home from college to find that nothing has meaning for him; he no longer wants what he is supposed to want. Who, in those changing times, should he become when his only desire is to flounder in his father's swimming pool on a rubber ring? But Benjamin is not entirely good for nothing. It is his good luck that someone does sense his dissatisfaction, and does want him. This is the wife of his father's business partner, the fabulous Mrs Robinson, who has been observing him closely.
The son of a doctor, Charles Webb was born in San Francisco in 1939 and was brought up in affluent Pasadena. At the age of 24 he wrote and published The Graduate, which received mostly indifferent reviews. It was picked by up Mike Nichols in 1967 and made into a film which took £100m at the box office, though Webb had sold the rights for £20,000. Since then he has published seven more novels, some featuring characters from The Graduate.
There were many young, disillusioned heroes being studied in the early 60s, Meursault in Camus's The Outsider, McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Like them, Benjamin is not a revolutionary; he doesn't want to make a new, more free or equitable society. That was to come: in the mid-60s the American scene would brighten wonderfully before it darkened again. No, Benjamin merely wants to inform those around him that he hates the world they have made; it bores him, is stupid, and he cannot find a place in it. Like Melville's Bartleby, he would just "prefer not to".
This semi-teenage rite of passage baffles Benjamin as much as it baffles his parents. We see and hear the incomprehension in his very language, which is dull and inexpressive, as if he doesn't really inhabit the words he uses; like everything else around him, language appears to not quite belong to him and there isn't much he can make of it. Most of his speech consists of questions, few of which are answered, or even answerable.
But the triumph of the book, as of the film, is Mrs Robinson. If one essential quality of a good writer is the ability to make memorable characters who appear to transcend the work they appear in, then Mrs Robinson is one of the great monstrous creations of our time. Well-off, middle-aged, alcoholic, bitter, disillusioned, perverse and yet to be rescued by feminism, her situation is far worse than Benjamin's.
Nonetheless, she is the book's only potent character, a smooth, confident seductress, using Benjamin for sex while he is her more or less passive object. That, presumably, is how she likes them. Mrs Robinson, we know, will never consider her lover to be her equal. For her Benjamin is only of use if he is "just a kid", and she always addresses him – with enraging superiority – in the firm terms of a mother to a child. "That's enough," she often says to him, suppressing his curiosity with her constant scolding.
The couple may be able to make love, but as Benjamin points out, they cannot speak to one another. Their attempts at conversation are comically awkward and stilted, as if they are virgins at dialogue. Yet there is some progress even here, as he continues to question her. Having inducted him into the secrets of sex, she does eventually let him into a more complex and painful secret, the truth about marriage as habit, safety and passionless comfort. She neither hates nor loves her husband, and that seems to be all there is to it. Once more numbness is preferable to unhappiness, frustration or worse, the madness of fury. This sentimental education by an older, experienced woman is, in the end, a pedagogy of disillusionment and failure.
When Benjamin decides he wants to break away from Mrs Robinson to begin the relationship with her daughter Elaine which the two families want so much – it is almost an arranged marriage – things turn nasty. The mother may not have much use for Benjamin herself, but she cannot let her daughter have him. Cleverly, she never lets him know why, thus banishing Benjamin into a whirlpool of self-doubt and bewilderment. Mrs Robinson would be happy to destroy Benjamin, and soon becomes a vengeful maternal succubus, the cold, strict prohibitive mother who punishes for no reason apart from her own pleasure. Later she accuses Benjamin of raping her when it was, in a sense, the other way round. If the young American male goes on the road, it may be the mother he is escaping.
Benjamin's father finally intervenes, as he has to, and his solution is to threaten to pass Benjamin on to someone else: a psychiatrist. In the absence of other authorities, it is the white-coated contemporary expert, the psychiatrist, who is appealed to. Already invested with considerable power, the mind doctor might be "the one who knows". Certainly the father doesn't know what to do; the mother doesn't; Mrs Robinson doesn't, and the boy admits that he is lost.
A visit to the psychiatrist is the fate of that other young dissident, Holden Caulfeld in The Catcher in the Rye, who tells his story to a therapist; likewise poor Portnoy with Dr Spielvogel, who famously says at the end of the book: "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" Presumably the doctor will be able to straighten these boys out, rendering them normal by removing unnecessary eccentricities and individuality, an ideal of psychiatry which terrified Freud and is exemplified by A Clockwork Orange.
In the end Benjamin does act, doing both a conventional and rebellious thing by running away with Elaine, the one person forbidden him by Mrs Robinson. He has decided to become a teacher, thus fulfilling his family's wishes, though he takes the long way round, making into a choice that which was originally the will of others.
Charles Webb's The Graduate has long been eclipsed by the film (and its soundtrack), but in its deadpan quiet stylishness it is easily its equal, being that most rare and valuable thing, a serious comic novel which both exemplifies its time and continues to speak to us.
Opening Line: “Benjamin Braddock graduated from a small Eastern college on a day in June.”
Closing Line: “The bus began to move.”
Quotes: "Mrs Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"
Rating: Good but the movie is better.

491. Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon

History: This book was published in 1997. Mason and Dixon were engaged by Lord Baltimore and Mr. Penn to settle the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Their survey, begun in 1763 wanted only thirty-six miles of completion when stopped by Indian opposition in November 1767. Mason and Dixon's line was long famous as separating the slave from the free States.
Plot: The novel's scope takes in aspects of established Colonial American history including the call of the West, the often ignored histories of women, Native Americans, and slaves, plus excursions into geomancy, Deism, a hollow Earth, and — perhaps — alien abduction. The novel also contains philosophical discussions and parables of automata/robots, the afterlife, slavery, feng shui and others. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Nevil Maskelyne, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Harrison's marine chronometer all make appearances. Pynchon provides an intricate conspiracy theory involving Jesuits and their Chinese converts, which may or may not be occurring within the nested and ultimately inexact narrative structure.
Rather than a mistake or flaw on Pynchon's part, this narrative structure is constructed to be inexact in a (perhaps paradoxically) precise fashion; it demonstrates the fragility, rather than the secure foundations, of any historical record, and indeed, history itself. The Cherrycoke narrative shifts internally from one point of view to another, often relating events from the view of people Cherrycoke has never met. His story shifts its emphasis based on which members of his family are in the room — veering toward the adventure-heroic when the young twin boys are listening, veering away from the homoerotic at the insistence of more prudish (and richer) relatives. Also, a parallel story read by two cousins, an erotic 'captured by Indians' narrative, works its way into the main thread of Cherrycoke's story, further blurring and finally obliterating the line between objective history and subjectivity — what "really happened" is nothing more than a construction of several narrators, perhaps one of whom directly is the author.
Pynchon employs the spelling, grammar, and syntax of an actual late 18th century document, further emphasizing the novel's intended anachronism.
Review: The protagonists are the Englishmen Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomers and surveyors, helping first to measure the distance to the Sun and then to translate lines on a map of the American colonies into lines on the ground. The resulting Mason-Dixon line subsequently divided the "free" North from the slave states of the South. That is another story, though. This one is set in a world where the mechanical is still outshone by the fantastical. Astronomers admit to each other that they used to do zodiac charts, like masseurs confiding that they performed additional services; the clocks used to measure the transits of Venus gossip among themselves about the rudeness of native clocks in foreign parts.
Science is pulling itself away from poetry, though. When the Moon next appears, notes Mason in a field report, "she will have resum'd her Deity"; he leaves this in because he knows his superior Maskelyne will edit it out.
Opening Line: “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,- the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar, - the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all their snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.”
Closing Line: “We’ll fish there. And you too.”
Quotes: " ... Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,—who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish'd, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.... "
Rating: Too difficult to understand.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

490. Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell

History: This book was first published 1936.
Orwell wrote the book in 1934 and 1935 when he was living at various locations near Hampstead in London, and drew on his experiences in these and the preceding few years.
The Aspidistra is a hardy, long-living plant that is used as a house plant in England. It was especially popular in the Victorian era, in large part because it could not only tolerate weak sunlight but also could tolerate the poor indoor air quality that resulted from the use of oil lamps and, later, coal gas lamps. They had fallen out of favour by the 20th century, not coincidentally paralleling the advent of electric lighting. Their use had been so widespread among the middle class that they had become a music hall joke appearing in songs such as "Biggest Aspidistra in the World", of which Gracie Fields made a recording.
Plot: Gordon Comstock has 'declared war' on what he sees as an 'overarching dependence' on money by leaving a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company called 'New Albion'—at which he shows great dexterity—and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. Coming from a respectable family background in which the inherited wealth has now become dissipated, Gordon resents having to work for a living. The 'war' (and the poetry), however, aren't going particularly well and, under the stress of his 'self-imposed exile' from affluence, Gordon has become absurd, petty and deeply neurotic.
Comstock lives in a bedsit in London and earns enough to live, without luxuries, in a small bookshop owned by a Scot, McKechnie. He works intermittently at a magnum opus describing a day in London he plans to call London Pleasures; meanwhile, his only published work, a slim volume of poetry entitled Mice, collects dust on the remainder shelf. He is simultaneously content with his meagre existence and also disdainful of it. He lives without financial ambition and the need for a 'good job,' but his living conditions are uncomfortable and his job is boring.
Comstock is 'obsessed' by what he sees as a pervasion of money (the 'Money God', as he calls it) behind social relationships, feeling sure that women would find him more attractive if he were better off. At the beginning of the novel, he senses that his girlfriend Rosemary (whom he met at The Albion, and who continues to work there), is dissatisfied with him because of his poverty. An example of his financial embarrassment is when he is desperate for a pint of beer at his local pub, but has run out of pocket money and is ashamed to cadge a drink off his fellow lodger Flaxman.
One of Comstock's last remaining friends, Philip Ravelston, a Marxist who publishes a magazine called Antichrist, agrees with Comstock in principle, but is comfortably well-off himself and this causes strains when the practical miseries of Comstock's life become apparent. He does, however, endeavour to publish some of Comstock's work and his efforts had resulted in Mice being published via one of his publisher contacts (unbeknownst to Comstock).
Gordon and Rosemary have little time together—she works late and lives in a women's hostel, and his 'bitch of a landlady' forbids female visitors to her tenants. Then one evening, having headed southward and having been thinking about women, - this women business in general, and Rosemary in particular, - he happens to see Rosemary in a street market. Rosemary won't have sex with him but she wants to spend a Sunday with him, right out in the country, near Burnham Beeches. At their parting, as he takes the tram from Tottenham Court Road back to his bedsit, he is happy and feels that somehow it is agreed between them that Rosemary is going to be his mistress. However, what is intended to be a pleasant day out away from London's grime turns into a disaster when, though hungry, they opt to pass by a 'rather low-looking' pub, and can then not find another pub, and are forced to eat an unappetizing lunch at a fancy, overpriced hotel instead. Gordon has to pay the bill with all the money he had set aside for their jaunt and worries about having to borrow money from Rosemary. At the critical moment when he is about to take her virginity, she raises the issue of contraception and his interest flags. He rails at her; "Money again, you see! [-] You say you can't have a baby. You mean you daren't; because you'd lose your job and I've got no money and all of us would starve."
Having sent a poem to an American publication, Gordon suddenly receives from them a cheque worth ten pounds—a considerable sum for him at the time. He intends to set aside half for his sister Julia, who has always been there to lend him money and support. He treats Rosemary and Ravelston to dinner, which begins well, but the evening deteriorates as it proceeds. Gordon, drunk, tries to force himself upon Rosemary but she angrily rebukes him and leaves. Gordon continues drinking, drags Ravelston with him to visit a pair of prostitutes, and ends up broke and in a police cell the next morning. He is guilt-ridden over the thought of being unable to pay his sister back the money he owes her, because his £5 note is gone, given to, or stolen by, one of the tarts.
Ravelston pays Gordon's fine after a brief appearance before the magistrate, but a reporter hears about the case, and writes about it in the local paper. The ensuing publicity results in Gordon losing his job at the bookshop, and, consequently, his relatively 'comfortable' lifestyle. As Gordon searches for another job, his life deteriorates, and his poetry stagnates. After living with his friend Ravelston and his girlfriend Hermione during his time of unemployment, Gordon ends up working at another book shop and cheap twopenny lending library, this time in Lambeth, owned by the sinister Mr. Cheeseman, for an even smaller wage of 30 shillings a week. This is 10 shillings less than he was earning before, but Gordon is satisfied; "The job would do. There was no trouble about a job like this; no room for ambition, no effort, no hope." Determined to sink to the lowest level of society Gordon takes a furnished bed-sitting-room in a filthy alley parallel to Lambeth Cut. Julie and Rosemary, "in feminine league against him", both seek to get Gordon to go back to his 'good' job at the New Albion advertising agency.
Rosemary, having avoided Gordon for some time, suddenly comes to visit him one day at his dismal lodgings. Despite his terrible poverty and shabbiness, they make love but it is without any emotion or passion. Later, Rosemary drops in one day unexpectedly at the library, having not been in touch with Gordon for some time, and tells him that she is pregnant. Gordon is presented with the choice between leaving Rosemary to a life of social shame at the hands of her family—since both of them reject the idea of an abortion—or marrying her and returning to a life of respectability by taking back the job he once so deplored at the New Albion with its £4 weekly salary.
He chooses Rosemary and respectability and then experiences a feeling of relief at having abandoned his anti-money principles with such comparative ease. After two years of abject failure and poverty, he throws his poetic work London Pleasures down a drain, marries Rosemary, resumes his advertising career, and plunges into a campaign to promote a new product to prevent foot odour. In his lonely walks around mean streets, aspidistras seem to appear in every lower-middle class window. As the book closes, Gordon wins an argument with Rosemary to install an aspidistra in their new small but comfortable flat off the Edgware Road.
Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell's third novel published in 1936, is a savagely satirical portrait of the literary life. Orwell chronicles the struggles of Gordon Comstock, who gives up a successful job in an advertising - "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket" - to become an unsuccessful poet, taking refuge by day in a failing bookshop as he descends into genteel poverty.
The aspidistra of the book's title comes from the pot plants to be found on every window sill which, for Comstock, symbolise all that is wrong with the "mingy, lower-class decency" he is desperate to escape.
Orwell was himself a struggling writer working part-time in a Hampstead bookshop. His journeys around England and beyond - chronicled in Down and Out in London and Paris - do often resemble Comstock's circumstances and attitude. But the facts of Orwell's own life were rather different - considerably more sociable and quickly becoming more successful - to Comstock's.
The novel is perhaps a better guide to Orwell's intellectual development than it is autobiographical. It is the novel in which Orwell is most directly influenced by one of his heroes George Gissing, the late Victorian novelist whose New Grub Street remains the seminal description of literary failure. In his later essay on Gissing, Orwell describes the quintessential flavour of Gissing's world - "the grime, the stupidity, the ugliness, the sex-starvation, the furtive debauchery, the vulgarity, the bad manners, the censoriousness" - which sums up the world Orwell sought to capture and to criticise in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Comstock can also be seen as something of a predecessor of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s - though Comstock was, if anything, angrier still. Christopher Hitchens' recent book Orwell's Victory offers an illuminating comparison of of the many parallels between Orwell's novel and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which did much to define postwar British fiction, although the two books are markedly different in tone and it is Orwell's comic essay 'Confessions of a Book Reviewer' which resembles the comic spirit of the Amis novel.
The book received mixed reviews. Cyril Connolly complained that the book's obsession with money prevented it being considered a work of art. The Daily Mail praised the novel's vigour but was unconvinced by its demolition of middle England: "among the aspidistra, Mr Orwell seems to lose the plot". The misfortunes did not end there. Many of the first print run of 3,000 were lost in a bombing raid in the early years of world war two.
Orwell refused to allow either Keep the Aspidistra Flying or his first novel, the considerably weaker A Clergyman's Daughter, to be reprinted in his lifetime. His dislike of his early novels arose from his incredibly strong sense that he would always be a literary failure, which enabled him to empathise so strongly with his creations like Comstock.
Orwell's six novels make just a small part of his nearly two million published words. Many critics, including biographer Bernard Crick, see Orwell's claim to literary greatness resting much more upon his talents as an essayist - on everything from Politics and the English Language to the perfect cup of tea - than on his novels. Yet while Orwell's first four novels are not nearly so completely realised as their more famous successors Animal Farm and 1984, they offer many important insights into the development of the most important English novelist of ideas of the last century.
Opening Line: “The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon — Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already — lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb.”
Closing Line: “Well, once again things were happening in the Comstock family.”
Quotes: “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”
Rating: Could not read.

489. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

History: This novel first appeared as a twenty-two-part weekly serial from September 1854 to January 1855 in the magazine Household Words. It was published as a book, in two volumes, in 1855.
Plot: Gaskell's heroine, Margaret Hale, grows up with her affluent aunt, and her spoiled cousin, Edith, in London. When she is eighteen she returns to her parents in a country parish town in the south, an idealic place that she loves. Because of theological doubts, the Rev. Mr. Hale gives up his living as a Church of England priest. He, his wife, and their daughter, Margaret, leave the idyllic village of Helstone, in Hampshire in the South, and move to Milton, an industrial town in the North. For most of her youth Margaret, now eighteen or nineteen, has been brought up in London by her wealthy Aunt Shaw; she has rejoined her parents only after the marriage of her vivacious but shallow cousin Edith to Captain Lennox. The captain's brother, Henry, a rising barrister, had asked for Margaret's hand but, regarding him as just a friend, she declined his offer.
Settling in smoky Milton, the Hale women are troubled by urban dirt and commercial go-getting. Mr. Hale now works as a tutor. His favourite pupil is the important manufacturer, Mr. Thornton. Staying to tea, Thornton debates with the naive, "humanistic" Hales about the condition of the working class, strikes, and the other mill owners. Margaret sees Thornton as coarse and unfeeling but also as admirable in the way he's made his way up from poverty. He sees her as haughty but lovely and intelligent.
Margaret begins to warm up to Milton when she befriends Nicholas Higgins, a factory worker, and his consumptive daughter Bessy, who is about Margaret’s age. Margaret visits the family as often as she can, but her own mother is becoming seriously ill, too.
Although Thornton has tried to get his mother to like and visit the Hales, there is no love lost between them. Mrs. Thornton sees Margaret as haughty, and feels exceptionally possessive toward her son. When a mob of striking workers threaten violence on Thornton and his factory--he has brought in cheap Irish workers to break the strike--Margaret encourages him to go down and appease the mob. He does so, and is in great danger. Realizing this, she puts herself between Thornton and the mob and is struck down by a hurled stone. Soldiers arrive and the mob disperses. While carrying Margaret indoors, Thornton realizes that he has fallen in love with her.
After his mother convinces him that Margaret cares for him, Thornton asks her to marry him. She declines, insisting that she would have intervened to save any man threatened by a mob. When Mrs. Thornton learns that her son has been rejected by Margaret, she hates her all the more. But when the dying Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Thornton to look after Margaret, she promises to intervene if Margaret is about to make a mistake.
Margaret’s brother, Frederick, who is wanted for his part in a morally justifiable naval mutiny, secretly visits their dying mother. When Margaret takes him to the train station on his return to London, Thornton sees them and supposes Frederick to be Margaret’s lover. On the train platform, a man called Leonards recognizes Frederick. Leonards served with Frederick but did not mutiny and now wants to hand Frederick in to get a reward. Frederick pushes Leonards over the platform a few feet onto the tracks, then jumps into the train. Leonards dies shortly after. When Margaret is questioned by the police about the scuffle on the platform, she lies, saying she wasn’t there. As the magistrate overseeing the investigation into Leonards's death, Thornton knows of Margaret’s lie but covers up for her. Margaret begins to realize she has feelings towards him.
Bessy dies. Her father Nicholas gets a job with Thornton, who, mainly to avoid seeing Margaret, has stopped his tutorials with Mr. Hale. In the meantime, Mr. Bell, Thornton’s landlord and an old friend of Hale's from Oxford, comes to visit the Hales in Milton, and Hale repays the visit by going to Bell in Oxford. There, suddenly, he dies.
Aunt Shaw and Captain Lennox are summoned to take Margaret back to London. Shortly after a visit with Margaret to Helstone, Bell also dies, leaving his considerable property to Margaret.
Thornton suffers grave financial losses: the market fluctuates, and his timing, and luck, have been bad. He comes to London to confer with the lawyer, Lennox, about his next move. He has found out from Higgins that Margaret was protecting her brother, Frederick, at the train station. Frederick is now safely back in Spain.
Finally alone together, Thornton and Margaret admit their love for one another. Her inherited money will save the mill and the jobs of the mill workers.
Review: It’s been said that with Pride and Prejudice Austen created the quintessential love story, a template for all love stories to follow. North and South follows it almost to the letter. The prejudiced Heroine, the enamored Hero, two rejected marriage proposals (one being the snubbing of the hero’s declaration of love) a familial tragedy that affects the heroine’s sensibilities towards the hero…heck, we even have a Lady Catherinesque dressing down of Margaret by the mother of the hero.
Opening Line: 'Edith!' said Margaret, gently, 'Edith!'
Closing Line: 'Hush!' said Margaret, 'or I shall try and show you your mother's
indignant tones as she says, "That woman!"'
Quotes: “Not good enough! Don't mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.”
Rating: Very Good.

488. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

 History: This book was first published in November 1924. Mann started writing what was to become The Magic Mountain in 1912. It began as a much shorter narrative, which revisited in a comic manner aspects of Death in Venice, a novella that he was then preparing for publication. The newer work reflected his experiences and impressions during a period when his wife, who was suffering from a lung complaint, was confined to Dr Friedrich Jessen's Waldsanatorium in Davos, Switzerland for several months. In May and June 1912 he paid her a visit and became acquainted with the team of doctors who were treating her in this cosmopolitan institution. According to Mann, in the afterword that was later included in the English translation, this stay became the foundation of the opening chapter of the completed novel.
The outbreak of the First World War interrupted work on the book. The conflict and its aftermath led the author to undertake a major re-examination of European bourgeois society, including the sources of the willful, perverse destructiveness displayed by much of civilised humanity. He was also drawn to speculate about more general questions surrounding personal attitudes to life, health, illness, sexuality and mortality. Given this, Mann felt compelled to radically revise and expand the pre-war text before completing it in 1924.
Plot: The narrative opens in the decade before World War I. We are introduced to the central protagonist of the story, Hans Castorp, the only child of a Hamburg merchant family who, following the early death of his parents, has been brought up by his grandfather and subsequently by an uncle named James Tienappel. We encounter him when he is in his early 20s, about to take up a shipbuilding career in Hamburg, his home town. Just before beginning this professional career Castorp undertakes a journey to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, who is seeking a cure in a sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. In the opening chapter, Hans is symbolically transported away from the familiar life and mundane obligations he has known, in what he later learns to call "the flatlands", to the rarefied mountain air and introspective little world of the sanatorium.
Castorp's departure from the sanatorium is repeatedly delayed by his failing health. What at first appears to be a minor bronchial infection with slight fever is diagnosed by the sanatorium's chief doctor and director, Hofrat. Behrens, as symptoms of tuberculosis. Hans is persuaded by Behrens to stay until his health improves.
During his extended stay, Castorp meets and learns from a variety of characters, who together represent a microcosm of pre-war Europe. These include the secular humanist and encyclopedist Lodovico Settembrini (a student of Giosuè Carducci), the totalitarian Jew-turned-Jesuit Leo Naphta, the Dionysian Dutch Mynheer Peeperkorn, and his romantic interest Madame Clavdia Chauchat.
In the end, Castorp remains in the morbid atmosphere of the sanatorium for seven years. At the conclusion of the novel, the war begins, Castorp volunteers for the military, and his possible, or probable, demise upon the battlefield is portended.
Review: That Thomas Mann has fallen out of fashion is no real surprise. As with many eminently readable authors, it is simply that Mann’s books are of a type no longer widely appreciated, and only very rarely produced anymore. He does not fit into the curriculum. Full appreciation requires at least a layman’s familiarity with a wide breadth of classical and historical allusions. Sadly, such qualities probably serve to disqualify Mann from his rightful place in the modern pantheon—these days, allegory and allusion remain in currency only through their occasional appearance as ironic relics.
Traditionally, critical reappraisals begin with the re conceptualization of the artist in question, a recoloring of their signature virtues to fit modern notions of truth and beauty. Mann resists any such updating. He is, as much as can be imagined, a creature of history, and more so The Magic Mountain is an artifact of one particular moment in history. It does not provide a mirror for the modern mentality, except to say that in its broad scope and unerring rigor we see the degraded state of our own ideological interactions.
As has been repeated, The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas. Between its covers there is a multitude of ideas both large and small, as well as the interaction of ideas with ideology and the intersection of passion and precision.
The Magic Mountain can be read both as a classic example of the European bildungsroman – a "novel of education" or "novel of formation" – and as a sly parody of this genre. Many formal elements of this type of fiction are present: like the protagonist of a typical bildungsroman, the immature Castorp leaves his home and learns about art, culture, politics, human frailty and love. Also embedded within this vast novel are extended reflections on the experience of time, music, nationalism, sociological issues and changes in the natural world. Hans Castorp’s stay in the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain thus provides him with a panoramic view of pre-war European civilization and its discontents.
Thomas Mann’s description of the subjective experience of serious illness and the gradual process of medical institutionalisation are of interest in themselves, as are his allusions to the irrational forces within the human psyche at a time when Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming prominent. These themes relate to the development of Castorp's character over the time span covered by the novel, a point that the author himself underlined. In his discussion of the work, written in English, published in the Atlantic in 1953 Mann states that "what [Hans] came to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health . . . ."
At the core of this complex work is an encyclopaedic survey of the ideas and debates associated with modernity. Mann acknowledged his debt to the skeptical insights of Friedrich Nietzsche concerning modern humanity and embodied this in the novel in the arguments between the characters. Throughout the book the author employs the discussion with and between Settembrini, Naphta and the medical staff to introduce the impressionable Castorp to a wide spectrum of competing ideologies about responses to the Age of Enlightenment. However, whereas the classical bildungsroman would conclude by having "formed" Castorp into a mature member of society, with his own world view and greater self-knowledge, The Magic Mountain ends as it has to for "life's delicate child" as a simultaneously anonymous and communal conscript, one of millions, under fire on some battlefield of World War I.
The novel stretches a full seven years—seven years during which young Hans Castorp, fresh from university and ready to begin his commission as a civil engineer, is unexpectedly derailed while visiting his cousin Joachim at the Sanatorium Berghof. Joachim is undergoing an indefinite stay while recovering from tuberculosis. During what was designed to be a brief three-week visit, Castorp is himself diagnosed and prescribed to stay—which he does, for the long duration.
If Castorp is presented to the reader as a cipher, it is not because he lacks in convincing psychology, but merely that he represents a forgotten archetype almost wholly alien to the American character. Castorp is the conscientious and methodical student, well aware of his own ignorance and unwilling to be considered callow, an empty vessel as yet unfilled. As he falls into the orbits of the Italian pedant and scholar Settembrini (undoubtedly named for the Italian radical Luigi Settembrini, who maintained that literature “is as the very soul of the nation, seeking, in opposition to medieval mysticism, reality, freedom, independence of reason, truth and beauty”), and subsequently the German pedagogue Naphta (naphtha is a Persian word for “volatile, flammable liquid”), he is slowly filled, not so much with pure knowledge as the awareness and elaboration of dichotomy. Much as the Hegelian dialectic finds synthesis through opposing thesis and antithesis, Settembrini’s brittle, redeeming humanism and Naphta’s verdant, overripe, and essentially decayed romanticism form the two poles between which Castorp’s spiritual and intellectual struggles are contextualized. Here we see not just Castorp’s gradual awakening but the whole spectrum of European—and particularly German—thought in the years leading up to the First World War. The conflict between “cold” rationality and “hot” passion—for the sake of simplicity, between French civilization, as represented by Voltaire and Emile Zola, and German classicism and German romance, represented by the ultimate Dionysian impulses of Wagner and Goethe—eventually came to define Germany’s disastrous ideological ruin.
In the context of the broad metaphysical struggles that form the heart of the book, The Magic Mountain is also, in an indirect manner, deeply autobiographical. Mann became estranged from his brother, Heinrich, during the First World War as a result of Heinrich’s general castigation of the war and outspoken support of the French intellectual character. Thomas became incensed and was inspired during the war years to produce a reactionary philosophical tract entitled Reflections of an Unpolitical Man, directly opposed to the notions of Western European “civilization” in favor of Germanic “romance”. But the Reflections were published in 1918. By the time The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, Mann had seen the folly of Germany’s martial ambitions, and had reconciled with his brother on both a personal and political level. Although Mann is careful to paint both sides of his debate as deeply flawed, there is no doubt that ultimately the forces of life and progress must back the rational humanist against the passionate reactionary.
From 1928 until the early 1980s, the only legal English translations of much of Mann’s work were those of Helen Lowe-Porter. For the fifty years during which Lowe-Porter’s work enjoyed a monopoly, bilingual scholars and critics grumbled that not only were her translations exceedingly sloppy, but in many places stunningly inaccurate. (For an excellent examination of this, please see David Luke’s introduction to the 1988 Bantam Classic edition of Death in Venice.) When Lowe-Porter’s exclusive copyright finally lapsed, a multitude of scholars leapt into the breach. John E. Woods’s translation, published by Knopf in 1995 and here presented as the latest addition to Random House’s venerable Everyman’s Library collection, carries the weight of authority that will help establish it as the new standard.
Opening Line: “An ordinary young man was on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graubunden.”
Closing Line: “And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round – will love someday rise up out of this, too?”
Quotes: “It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death.”
Rating: Could not read.

487. Black Dogs – Ian McEwan

History: This novel was written in 1992.
Plot: The novel opens as Jeremy, the narrator, introduces himself by describing his childhood as he was living with his older sister, Jean, and her daughter Sally, who is also an orphan in that June neglects her. Jeremy lives in isolation, but is determined and studious, and leaves home as soon as he gets a scholarship, and never returns. He always carries the sense of having abandoned Sally, who goes on to repeat mistakes made by her mother. He meets his wife Jenny, and he finds comfort and solace in his new family, including Jenny’s parents. Jean, the mother-in-law, is an elderly woman when we meet her. She lives in a nursing-home, but this does not mean she has abandoned her identity, beliefs or self-respect. Nor does she allow others to patronise her. She is a likeable character who communicates well with her son-in-law. Bernard, too, is an elderly man who retains his dignity, independence and individuality. Jeremy is working on a biography of her, and conducts a series of interviews in which she tells him stories of her life with and without Bernhard. This involves the black dog story in a small village in France, when, in her early months of pregnancy, she is confronted and attacked by two ferocious black dogs. The dogs had been left overs from dogs that were trained by the Nazi’s to torture.
The second half of the novel focuses on Bernhard, and Jeremy’s trip with him to Berlin to celebrate the destruction of the wall.
At one point, at the Wall’s fall, after June’s death and Bernard’s confession to narrator Jeremy that he checks out young women’s faces for traces of the former beauty of his departed wife, Bernard, old and infirm yet tall of stature and gifted with “senatorial calm” confronts some hoodlum neo-Nazis who are harassing a Turk with a red flag. The Turk gets away but when the street fascists come after intrepid Benard they are cowed into dispersal by a young German beauty who Bernard mentioned earlier was one that reminded him of June. When Jeremy intimates the metaphysical significance that the one he was looking for was the one who saved him despite the material absence of his wife, his comment is, “Yes. Quite a coincidence, I suppose. Now for goodness’ sake Jeremy, get me home!”
As go-between balancing his two subjects Jeremy is the site of a world-historical fight between rationality and religion made personal by its incarnation in June and Bernard. In a humorous scene Jeremy in the French second home of his beloved mother-in-law, senses June warning him of scorpions in the cupboard, thereby avoiding a bite but provoking a vivid, if imaginary, discussion between spiritual avatars of his pseudo parents. “Rationalism is blind faith,” says June’s quasi-ghost; “‘June’s presence’” replies Benard’s quasi-ghost, “was in your mind, and projected by you onto the surroundings. Given our fear of the dead, it’s understandable that you were wary as you stumbled through the house in the darkness…Scorpions,” the entomological hobbyist adds, “are common enough in this part of France.” Later (in the narrative, earlier in the history it narrates) Benard will be captivated with the alien face of a caterpillar in his pregnant newlyweds hour of canine need:
“As he had knelt down, his cheek grazing the path, to stare up close at the head of the leading caterpillar, at a hinged face of inscrutable parts, he had though how we share the planet with creatures as weird and as alien to us as any that could be imagined from outer space. But we give them names and stop seeing them, or their size prevents us from looking. He reminded himself to pass this thought on to June, who even now would be walking back up the path to find him, possibly a little cross.”
She is more than cross, though, she is potentially dead herself at the slavering black jaws of bleeding dogs supposedly trained by the SS to violate interrogated females.
Review: Having lost his parents in an auto accident when he was eight years old, the narrator of McEwan's splendid new novel is fascinated with other people's parents--particularly his remarkable in-laws, indissolubly linked yet estranged and combative almost since their wedding. A man of reason who was once a Communist, Bernard Tremaine cannot understand why his wife, June, rejected political activism for spiritual quest after "an encounter with evil" in the form of two fierce black dogs. McEwan does not so much tell their story as the story of the son-in-law's efforts to understand them better by writing about them. Though Bernard and June represent diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world--two views beautifully and succinctly captured by McEwan--they are not mere vessels of thought but lively, distinctive characters in their own right. As the narrator returns to the French countryside where June fatefully encountered the dogs, the deceptively simple buildup makes her brush with violence all the more shocking.
McEwan examines the conflict between intellect and feeling, as dramatized in one couple's troubled relationship. The narrator is fascinated by his wife's estranged parents, The lives of June and Bernard Tremaine, whose lives epitomize the tug-of-war between political engagement and a private search for ultimate meaning: their ideological and spiritual differences force them apart but never diminish their mutual love. The catalytic event in the Tremaines' lives occurs on their honeymoon in France in 1946. With the characteristic idealism of their generation, both had joined the Communist Party, but June is already becoming disenchanted with its claims. In an encounter with two huge, ferocious dogs--incarnations of the savagely irrational eruptions that recur throughout history--she has an insight that illumines for her the possibility of redemption. Liberally foreshadowed, --the bloodthirsty beasts are used as an overarching metaphor for the presence of evil in the world-- the actual episode with the dogs is not depicted until the book's final section, where its impact requires the reader to take a leap of faith similar to June's. For some this pivotal scene may not be fully convincing. Indeed, McEwan is rather too didactic in the exposition of his theme, so one may expect too much from the novel's dramatic main event. Yet the work is impressive; McEwan's meticulous prose, his shaping of his material to create suspense, and his adept use of specific settings--Poland's Majdanek concentration camp, Berlin during the dismantling of the Wall, a primitive area of the French countryside--produce a haunting fable about the fragility of civilization, always threatened by the cruelty latent in humankind.
Opening Line: “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents”
Closing Line: “They are crossing the shadow line and going deeper, where the sun never reaches, and the amiable drunken mayor will not be sending his men in pursuit, for the dogs are crossing the river in the dead of night and forcing a way up the other side to cross the Causse; and as sleep rolls in they are receding from her, black stains in the gray of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.”
Quotes: “It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turne dout after all - who they married, the date of their death - with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.”`
Rating: Very Good.