Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Happy Birthday, Vladimir Nabokov

Happy Birthday to one of my favourite writers, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Within the past half hour I have been scanning my mind, trying to remember where and when I first learnt about him. It was Lolita of course. But was it during the twilight years of questionable prudery in college, or later, through an innocuous Amit Roy reference in his Sunday column Eye on England? I can't remember. But at a certain point in time--during the later half of my first year at the university, and throughout my second year at the university--I was nearly driven into insanity by my desire to read Lolita. I finally found a second-hand book at a little shop I used to frequent during those days. The book was in a dire state with no cover, but I was desperate, and I must have got it at a very negligible price. I remember promising myself that I would buy a new copy eventually (incidentally, I haven't got around to that yet). I read the first paragraph during the drive home and was breathing rapidly. At least I should have.

I had been very ill during the spring of 2011, and it was in bed that I finished Lolita. I remember another incident from that time. At a Gender Studies group, someone had argued how Lolita was essentially a pornographic novel, and that it should be banned. An ex-classmate, who hadn't read Nabokov (and probably still hasn't), but made faux-intellectual (and hence hollow) remarks about his style, brought it to my notice. At that moment, I was drenched in Nabokov's sensuous prose and attacked the person with a wrath that is only incidental to lovers. I argued about the several facets of the novel, how it could be read as a Great American Novel (really, every other day a book is elevated to the hallowed halls of this remarkable abstract paradigm, so why not this book?); how it was a quintessential road novel (one cannot possibly overlook the great journey and checking in and out of dinghy motels that occupies the middle section of the book); and his sensual language. Many people commented on the thread and as is wont in Facebook, a fight among strangers broke out. I quit and returned to the book and let myself be hypnotised by the prose.

Less than two years ago, at a crucial point in my life, I found Nabokov's autobiography Speak Memory at the American Center Library. I carried the book with me for days, reading, rereading, feeling a heaviness, occasionally crying. I had no money to buy the book then, and I eventually had to return the copy to the library. Days later I would be visiting the house I grew up in, for one of the last times before it was to be sold off. In that dismal late autumn-early winter, as I went around the old house whose interiors had irrevocably changed since I had moved away, and where each corner where I had had precious memories had ceased to exist, I tried to recollect Nabokov's words. How must he have felt, how must he have coped: a childhood home lost, a life lived in exile.

Have you ever happened, reader, to feel that subtle sorrow of parting with an unloved abode? The heart does not break, as it does in parting with dear objects. The humid gaze does not wander around holding back a tear, as if it wished to carry away in it a trembling reflection of the abandoned spot; but in the best corner of our hearts we feel pity for the things which we did not bring to life with our breath, which we hardly noticed and are now leaving forever. This already dead inventory will not be resurrected in one's memory . . .

I bought my Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov at the Boi Mela last year. It must have been the only Nabokov at the Penguin stall, because I had scourged all the shelves containing Modern Classics, and orange covers, black covers, and faded yellow covers, and had found nothing else (by him; I'd certainly found many other gems). I have been reading the stories this summer slowly, savouring them two or three a day, and I'm left mesmerized. Have you read the absurdly tragic story 'Lips to Lips'? But you must. One of the reasons of my enduring dissatisfaction with this life is that not too many of my friends and acquaintances have read Vladimir Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have acquired most of Nabokov's ebooks, and one of the reasons I look forward to life and dream impossible dreams is because I hope that one day, when my life has form and meaning, I will acquire them all--Pale Fire, Speak Memory, Pnin--all.

I retire today with these lines of an exiled Russian poet in Berlin who writes this letter, but it never reaches Russia.

Listen: I am ideally happy. My happiness is a kind of challenge. As I wander along the streets and the squares and the paths by the canal, absently sensing the lips of dampness through my worn soles, I carry proudly my ineffable happiness. The centuries will roll by, and school-boys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass; but my happiness, dear, my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal's black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

                                                                                                  ' A Letter that Never Reached Russia'

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Year in Books

For quite some time, I have been managing to squeeze around sixty books per year. So one can imagine my shame, when I turned the pages of my diary a few days ago, and discovered that I'd read only about forty-five books this year. I was ashamed but not surprised: a year riddled with a lot of academic writing, two jobs (both of which entailed teaching a foreign language to children), research applications, haywire personal life, and slipshod travelling, it is quite a surprise that I finished forty-five books after all. Yet, what I lost in numbers, I made up for in quality. 2013 will be special to me because I discovered all my favourite writers, one after the other: Evelyn Waugh (okay, I'd begun reading him in college, but he deserves honorary mention), Nancy Mitford, Rosamond Lehmann, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and it couldn't have been better.

When I was in Berlin in January and February, quite aptly I bought and read Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Novels. I'd read some Isherwood before and loved him, but reading about his Berlin while in Berlin, was a revelation altogether. Yet, I started reading him towards the last couple of weeks. The beginning of my year, and my early days in Berlin was preoccupied with Ruth Reichl's brilliant Tender at the Bone. My fiascoes at the kitchen, coupled with my addiction to reading had convinced my landlady that Ruth Reichl would be a writer I'd enjoy, and she was right. Tender at the Bone is the first part of her autobiography (I didn't find time to read the second part, Feed Me With Apples), and it elucidates her experiences of growing up in New York after the War, her mother's spiralling into mental illness, and the food that she ate all over the city. Every anecdote was followed by a recipe, and the details were so good that I had to continuously remind myself that Ms Reich is primarily a chef and not a writer. Her experiences of school in Canada, and especially her adventures in France are worth mentioning.

In Berlin, I was stupid enough to believe that I could read while commuting. I blame my abysmal reading figures to the captivating delights of the winter scenes of Berlin outside the U-Bahn window. I tried to catch up on my reading after I returned, by turning my disrupted sleep cycle into veritable reading time. I finished Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited by staying up all night. While each of them deserve special mention, the one I want to talk about is The Pursuit of Love. It is difficult to get Nancy Mitford in India. Hence when I found The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford at very reasonable price, I bought it, regardless of the fact that it is massive, reading it would be cumbersome, and it would be impossible to carry it around. I couldn't have made a better decision. The Pursuit of Love is one book to which I hope to return to over the years, talk about it and cry over it time and time again.

It is only when I discovered that artificial flowers could never replace gillyflowers, that I found my vocation in life: collecting Penguin editions of Brideshead Revisited.

I followed this book with another Mitford, Christmas Pudding, which was hilarious, but certainly not like The Pursuit of Love. Yet my (then) latent literary and research interests made me dig out and read some more inter War literature (at enormous prices, if I may be indelicate enough to add). I read Anita Loos's hilarious and bitingly sarcastic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Rebecca West's haunting The Return of the Soldier, E. M. Delafield's rip-roaring Diary of a Provincial Lady, D. H. Lawrence's middling Aaron's Rod, Richard Aldington's outrageous Death of a Hero, Sylvia Townsend Warner's wonderful Lolly Willowes, Laurie Lee's soulful Cider with Rosie, and Winifred Watson's mediocre Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

BBC's beautiful 2009 adaptation of Emma made me reread the classic, along with Persuasion. And if you thought that I was done with rambling about Evelyn Waugh, you were wrong: this summer I also read Decline and Fall and continuously doubled up with laughter. Consequently I was immensely saddened and humbled while reading May Sinclair's The Life and Death of Harriet Frean. Through the summer I read Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, which had followed The Good Soldier, and as we all waited and prayed for the monsoons, I tucked into Judith Earle (Dusty Answer) and Olivia Curtis (Invitation to the Waltz), and watched my life change before me.

It is quite well to read mid-century erotic French novels with the AC blasting over your head, and that is what I did through the long summer of 2013: Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse followed by A Certain Smile and wrapping up with Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy. An important mention of my reading this year was the discovery (for me) of several Russian children's literary works. Bengal has had a long history with communism, and during those years, many literary works were translated into Bengali from Russian, and was widely popular in Calcutta. There were even Bengali publishing houses in Moscow, or at least that is what my copy of Arkady Gaidar's Chuk and Gek and The Blue Cup tells me. Some people had the (now unavilable) books buried in their houses, and had the wonderful presence of mind to scan them and circulate them widely, and I before I knew it, I'd found wonderful translations of delectable children's works. I hope to explore this area more in the new year.

I read Saramago's Cain during my birthday, and was so overwhelmed that I passed my copy to my teacher, pleading her to read it. She reciprocates my feeling. And after rereading James Herriot's If Only They Could Fly at a hotel room in Varanasi, as autumn rolled in, I ventured into my favourite genre: whodunnit. I have long been an ecstatic fan of Agatha christie (who isn't?), but this year when I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers (and Ngaio Marsh), I decided to read all the Queens of Crimes together. I couldn't keep my word, but there's so much to look forward to. I reread The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Murder on the Links, before moving to the object of my unbridled affection, Lord Peter Wimsey. I started chronologically with Whose Body, then moved on to Clouds of Witness, Unnatural Death, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and shed copious tears with Strong Poison because Lord Peter meets Harriet Vane and falls in love with her (not me!). I have a lot of things to say about Dorothy L. Sayers (all pleasant), and I'll reserve that for a separate post. I read Ngaio Marsh's first A Man Lay Dead, and felt that although the premise was perfect (country-house murder) and the book began with great promise, Ms Marsh muddled up the detecting procedure by heavily involving the suspects in the detection, and suddenly introducing a sub-plot of Russian gangsters. I know that she gets better, so I wouldn't be unkind to her. Which is something I will be to P. D. James's Cover Her Face, which was bland, and after watching and reading about her Death Comes to Pemberley, that is one writer I will not return to again. As far as whodunnits are concerned, one should read Dorothy L. Sayers for the crimes, Agatha Christie for the detection, and Ngaio Marsh for the unwelcome camaraderie between the detective and the suspect. I'm happy to announce that I have also laid my hands on the major works of Gladys Mitchell and the complete works of Josephine Tey, and I will accommodate their names too into my analysis once I've read them.

With Virago republishing Angela Thirkell, and the virtual book world agog with excitement, I took great pains to procure High Rising and read it just before Christmas. Although it was funny in parts, I found the racism in the novel absolutely unpardonable. Racist sentiments were so atrocious in certain places, that I'm wondering if I'll read the rest of her works ever again. And thus I travelled a full circle and came back to my massive Nancy Mitford. I'm wrapping up the year with her early novels. I've already finished Highland Fling, which I must admit, I quite liked, despite the writer's vociferous attempts to disown. It was hilarious, and gave a wonderful sketch of the Bright Young Things of the Twenties and Thirties. This strain is carried into her second novel, Wigs on the Green, which I'm reading now, and although the sarcastic tone is doubled up (she satirises Unity and Diana Mitford's reverence for Nazism just before the War broke out), the reader needs quite a lot of prodding to remind him/her that this is indeed by the same writer who wrote The Pursuit of Love. Having read Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels earlier this year makes me intimately acquainted with the family and the times, and at this juncture I'd like to mention Virginia Nicholson, whose Among the Bohemians I hope to return to in the new year, and who gave me a new lease of life with Singled Out

The Google Nexus 7 that I bought in Berlin has been instrumental in my discovering several wonderful books which I would never have had access to because of my location. The Nexus has changed my lives in inconceivable ways, and certainly my reading habit too. Now storing over two thousand books, it tempts me every day to retire from life, travel to a favourite, quiet part of the world, settle down in the house of my dreams, ship all my books from Calcutta to said new house, and spend every day reading. That might even happen soon, who knows? New Year greetings to everyone!

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Invitation to the Waltz ~ Rosamond Lehmann

Ever since I started reading Dusty Answer, Rosamond Lehmann has had an obsessive effect on me. Her lush use of language is so compelling that I have found it difficult to put down her book even after I've finished it. I started reading Invitation to the Waltz the moment the post brought it home, and I have been living in Olivia Curtis's mental world since then, travelling to work while thinking about the ball, making innocuous references to red silk dresses to my students, and wondering about the prospective partners.

In my mind, Rosamond Lehmann dwells in the middle of the spectrum, flanked on both sides by Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. While Dusty Answer would have been exactly the kind of novel Keats would have written, it is nowhere but in Invitation to the Waltz that my contention holds true. No one can write better about dances and balls, and the anxiety accompanying them, than Jane Austen. On the other hand, no one can frame perfect sentences in the stream of conscious frame of mind better than Virginia Woolf. Rosamond Lehmann employs both with marked effect in Invitation to the Waltz. By devoting an entire 232-page novel on the preparation for a dance, and subsequently the dance itself, she comes closest to depicting the sparkling flippancy yet disciplined manoeuvres of Jane Austen's Regency balls. Yet, setting the action at the background of the Great War, and making the narrative flow both from the perspective of Olivia and her elder sister Kate, in a seamless, stream of consciousness manner, she recalls her slightly senior contemporary, Virginia Woolf.

The novel begins with Olivia's waking up to her seventeenth birthday. She feels happiness and tedium in turns, the former for turning seventeen and foraying into adulthood, the latter for articulating gratitude at each birthday wish and acceptance of gifts:

Happiness ran over like the jet from a sudden unexpectedly spurting little wave. [. . .] Oh, but breakfast would be awful, with all the family saying many happy returns; with opening parcels, repeating thank-you with self-conscious strained enthusiasm . . .

A short walk leads her to her dressmaker's, a middle-aged whimsical woman living with her mother and sisters and a repository of gossip. A quick reading makes one wonder if she is one of those million spinsters, left unmarried after the Great War due to the shortage of men, so talked about by stalwarts from Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby to Virginia Nicholson. Miss Robinson's experiences and adventures are certainly not unusual: she had run away from home to train as a dressmaker, but on her father's demise, the matriarch nestled her other sisters close to her and waited for the stray daughter to return to the hearth and look after them. In the return journey home Kate meets Major Skinner, a former colonial officer, who won't be entertained by the genteel families of the English village where he's made his home now, because of certain conspiratorial whispers regarding the misadventures of his wife in India. He longs for the company of young girls, but unfortunately his advances are seen through by the said young girls. After much trepidation, one of Mrs Curtis's godsons has confirmed his presence for the ball, and anticipation over him and the ball itself takes over the intervening time between Olivia's birthday and the ball itself.

The day of the Spencers's ball unfolds in feverish excitement but moves slowly: from the muted breakfast table fiascoes of their guest, to the long shower, and discovery of the ill-fitting dress, to the plaiting and rolling up of the hair, until finally they find themselves standing in front of Lady Spencer. The events at the ball occupy the long drawn climax of the novel, but pass in rather a haze. Olivia eventually has her first dance, and many dances follow. She has a varied range of partners, from the embarrassing, to the downright obnoxious, to the one who forgets about her altogether, and to the blinded war hero. She often retires to the cloak-room to avoid a noxious prospective partner, or to hide the fact from the world at large that she has no one to dance with. The night ends with a very different way than what Olivia or Kate or even the readers had anticipated. Yet there is no shock, no unpleasant revelation. Like the dignified coming-of-age moment at the end of Dusty Answer, Invitation to the Waltz too has a certain hint of maturing in the young girls, and a feeling of alienation.

She looked at Olivia lying back on the setee, her eyes black and small with sleep. We won't be able to talk over the dance, exchanging every detail for hours and days. I can't share to-night with her. Olivia's too young. She still belonged among all these dwindled objects -- on that old trivial plane of experience. Poor Olivia! Too hypocritical to ask now, had she enjoyed it? -- having forgotten about her all the evening; having maintained a tranced silence in the taxi coming home.
. . .
She ran over the rough damp turf. I'm left behind, but I don't care. I've got plenty to think about too. Everything crowded into her head at once. Timmy, Marigold, Rollo, Nicola, Archie, Peter, Maurice -- words, looks, movements -- simply extraordinary. Life--- She felt choked. Oh Kate! We won't tell each other . . . She leapt across a mound. Everything's going to begin. [. . .] The rooks flashed sharply, the hare and his shadow swerved in sudden sunlight. In a moment it would be everywhere. Here it was. She ran into it. 

Ms. Lehmann returns to Olivia's story in The Weather in the Streets, and I'm breathlessly waiting to read that next. Virago's half-bitten apple at the top left-hand corner of the cover assures me that it will be available. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

August Reading

Every month when I get my salary, I return home, open my wishlists, and order books. The bill inevitably mounts to half of my salary, regardless of how many books I buy. But August turned out to be an exception. I ordered my books, felt extremely content, divided the money, and patiently prepared myself for the wait until I could lay my hands on the books. The next day I was slightly early to work, and on these occasions I usually while away my time at the big bookstore opposite, looking at titles, making mental notes, and deciding which ones to buy in the near future. As the elevator door opened, I stared dumbfounded at the big signs every where, reading "Discounts. Up to 50% off." I am usually wary of these special discounts at big bookstores; but in India, where books are extremely expensive, it is gradually becoming increasingly difficult to overlook "special offers". So I devoted that day to selecting books from the classics and literary fiction shelves, and came back the next day to buy my selected books (yes, the books I'd selected were still nesting in their respective shelves. This is India, where an air-conditioned bookstore is not a place to buy books, but to cool off with your partner, or as in the case of this particular store located opposite a school, the perfect place for the mommy brigade to chatter while waiting for their darling daughters to be released). Before going to the payment counter, I made another massive check of the shelves to see if I'd missed any book appealing to my taste. I hadn't.

To retire in self-content for the rest of the month, I've decided to click pictures of and write about all the books that I bought this month. I already feel divine.

1. Invitation to the Waltz -- Rosamond Lehmann
When I discovered some time last month that the Virago edition of Dusty Answer was available in India, my happiness knew no bounds. Ms Lehmann's sensuous language has made me addicted to her writing, and at the very beginning of this month, I went and bought Invitation to the Waltz. It is of course no surprise that I have finished reading it already, and am absolutely moved by it. I do hope to devote a considerable length of time and space writing about it, but until then stare at this picture I took this morning, of my copy of the book beside Jean-Baptiste Corot's 1866 painting Agostina. No there is absolutely no relation between the book and the painting. Obviously.

2. Jules et Jim -- Henri-Pierre Roché

I try to pacify my excited heart every time I see the cover of Jules et Jim. I think I love Jean Moreau as much as I love the movie, and our affair has lasted so many years now! Do I even need to say, that I wanted to read the book ever since I watched the movie during my university years? It had been roosting in my wishlist this long, and I would sadly watch the escalating prices before staring at my empty wallet. Le tourbillion. The sudden whimsical reducing of prices meant that I could now read about pre-War Paris and the usual friendship of a French and an Austrian boy, and their entanglements with a passionate French-English girl from my very own copy.

Jim: Either it's raining, or I'm dreaming.
Catherine: Maybe it's both.

3. Lark Rise to Candleford -- Flora Thompson

 My association with Flora Thompson's Lark Rise
to Candleford precedes even Cider with Rosie, to a time when I was reading Stella Gibbons and J. L. Carr. Being able to finally hold the book puts an end to a year-long craving for nostalgic stories and pre-War simplicity of life. I don't especially like book covers with pictures of their corresponding film or tv series, but with this book, my options were limited. Nevertheless, I do not particularly mind. Perhaps one day I'll watch the BBC adaptation.

4. The Way of All Flesh -- Samuel Butler

 I do not think Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh has anything to do at all with Renoir's painting (Pierre-A. Renoir, Studie, 1890). But of course I wouldn't know. I haven't read the book yet, and I'm extremely ashamed to admit that. Well, in my defence, I can say that I have been meaning to read the book since my first year of English hons., and that the book being immediately unavailable in College Street (our go-to place for books in the last decade), and this being a time before e-retailers invaded the subcontinent, my plans to read Samuel Butler got deferred until an unspecified time in the future. But now I can, and I will.

5. Brave New World -- Aldous Huxley

I simply do not have any excuse for not having read Huxley's Brave New World until now, despite having an MA in English literature, and pretending to profess avowed interest in early twentieth century literature. I have finally bought the book, and I will read it, and engage in intellectually-stimulating conversation with my friend who wrote a paper on it for her Master's thesis. Hope springs eternal.

6. Down and Out in Paris and London -- George Orwell

I am a great admirer of Orwell's prose style ever since I read his Animal Farm in middle-school. Of course, at that point of time I wasn't particularly aware of and alive to different kinds of prose style, but I'm glad that my unexplainable hunch about a certain writer has survived thirteen years of haphazard, voracious reading. I loved 1984 for different reasons, and I have exceedingly admired his journalistic pieces, and excerpts from books like Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier. Hence when I spotted this beautiful Penguin Modern Classics copy of Down and out in Paris and London with a 5% discount resting on it, it wasn't much of a struggle to pick it up and take it in my arms. It is the book that I started reading yesterday, while waiting for some people, and the dismal rains and the prospect of a long wait couldn't spoil the sheer pleasure of reading about (albeit a poverty stricken) life in a poor Paris quarter. Orwell is not a particularly cheerful man, but his prose has that right balance to portray grim realities with a touch of light-heartedness.

7. The Brothers Karamazov -- Fyodor Dostoevsky 

I couldn't possibly have anything special or original to say about this particular acquisition. Roughly a month ago, I could't find my copy of The Brothers Karamazov in the Russian section of my bookshelf. I'm not sure if it's my imagination that vividly conjures up the black cover of my (supposedly) Wordsworth Classic, or if I really owned the book and misplaced it somehow (highly unlikely). Hence, on spotting this discounted Bantam Classics copy of the book, I picked it up.

8. Zorba the Greek -- Nikos Kazantzakis

My surprise at spotting this book at the bookstore knew no bounds, because I had been looking for it for years, but it wasn't available any where. A university professor has waxed eloquent about this book while teaching us Aristotle (I think), and since then it had featured prominently in my wishlist. Of course I can't wait to begin.

9. The Canterville Ghost, The Happy Prince and Other Stories -- Oscar Wilde

I read The Canterville Ghost in class III and have loved it ever since, even more than The Happy Prince, which I read much later. Of course my love for Oscar Wilde knows no bounds, and I wish not to publicise it, for fear it will be lost among the thousands of men and women who recite his lines and kiss his grave in Pere Lachaise. Anyway, I have a collected edition of his plays, and had always found it difficult to procure The Canterville Ghost separately. No wonder this book struck me as extremely handy. It has The Happy Prince and other Tales, A House of Pomegranates, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and other Stories, and of course The Canterville Ghost.

10. A Hero of Our Time -- Mikhail Lermontov

I will not pretend to show off. I learned about Lermontov only in that book by Kundera, and realised that he was a very important Russian writer. Obviously having concentrated on the late nineteenth and twentieth century greats make me ignore the Romantics. On discovering this book at the bookshop, I hastened to right the wrong.

11. Barchester Towers -- Anthony Trollope 

I have a feeling that Renoir (Pierre-A. Renoir, Landschaft, 1890) and Manet (Edouard Manet, Beim ,,Pere Lathuille'', 1879) do not overtly have anything to do with Trollope's book. I picked up Barchester Towers without asking any questions especially because my appetite had been whetted by the reading habits and eloquent posts of the numerous book blogs that I follow. In recent history, most of these wonderful people have been reading and writing and recommending a reread of Trollope, so much so that I decided to go back to my favourite literary period and procure one of its most prolific writers. I love the cover of my copy, and I absolutely adore this picture.

12. The Thirty-Nine Steps -- John Buchan

Seen the Robert Donat movie? Liked it? I loved it. Unlike most people, I am partial to Hitchcock's movies before he migrated to Hollywood, and Robert Donat's wonderful voice and the mesmerising Scottish landscape made me want to read the original work on which the film is based. My copy of the book is inexpensive, but highly prized.

13. Diamonds are Forever -- Ian Fleming

I had bought a second-hand copy of Dr. No in my first or second year of college, but alas I haven't read it yet. I am more attuned to Agatha Christie's brand of whodunnit, and spy novels rather intimidate me. Yet I loved the Le Carres I've read, and my recent watching of Skyfall has restored my faith in the James Bond cannon. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this Penguin Modern classics edition of Diamonds are Forever at an extremely affordable rate. If it was a sign that I should read more Ian Fleming in the future, I promptly acquiesced.

14. NW -- Zadie Smith 

The high point of my reading life of 2011 was reading Zadie Smith. I was overwhelmed with White Teeth, and I've often wondered if she's had any personal connections with the Bengals or with P. G. Wodehouse. The former for the Bengal and Bengali connection in her first book, and the latter for her impeccable sense of humour. I was extremely disappointed with Autograph Man, and every time Zadie Smith comes up in conversation with friends, we tacitly avoid the mention of that book. On Beauty, however, features prominently, and the fact that it has been inspired by Forster's Howards End makes it even more appealing. Every time The New Yorker publishes her stories, I promptly read them, and NW has featured in my wishlist for a very long time. Little surprise that I bought it the moment I spotted it resting on the Modern Fiction shelf. I can't wait to start reading it.

Fourteen books bought in one month. That's a rather impressive haul. I'm still waiting for Vita Sackville-West's All Passions Spent and James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small to make home with me. Until that happens, I will patiently wait for them while reading Down and Out In Paris and London. And once that is finished, I will start another book.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Cider With Rosie ~ Laurie Lee

I coveted the first part of Laurie Lee's autobiography when I was at the height of my craving for mud-and-slush-novels (which hasn't abated yet, thank you very much). It was only after I got my own personal copy of the trilogy that I learnt that it was his autobiography after all. Cider With Rosie is the first part of Red Sky At Sunrise and talks about Laurie Lee's childhood in the Cotswalds of the twenties. It is a world caught in a time warp, but is about to change. Its lush evocativeness of rural life, precariously poised at the brink of development after the Great War, would be invaded by motor cars, accessible roads, and a generation of young people who would abandon their centuries-old family hearths, and roam the vast expanse of the empire, and the world, in search of new railway lines, and docile women who could look after them. Cider With Rosie is a last nostalgic look to that familiar world before every thing changed.

My copy carried illustrations by John Ward, and I must admit, that reading a book with illustrations again, escalated the already pleasurable experience. Cider With Rosie doesn't follow a linear story-line, but Laurie Lee takes us through his memories one at a time, dwelling on one aspect in each chapter. He has a rather poignant chapter dedicated to his mother, the slightly eccentric woman abandoned by her husband, raising six children half of whom she didn't even beget herself. In the very middle of the book Lee anticipates how his mother would waste away to a lonely old age, and succumb part-senile. He then slowly brings the reader back to where he left off, with his mother tossing sausages over the kitchen fire: still young, and still with a vigour in life.

When she was tired of this, she'd borrow Dorothy's bicycle, though she never quite mastered the machine. Happy enough when the thing was in motion, it was stopping and starting that puzzled her. She had to be launched on her way by running parties of villagers; and to stop she rode into a hedge. With the Stroud Co-op Stores, where she was a registered customer, she had come to a special arrangement. This depended for its success upon a quick ear and timing, and was a beautiful operation to watch. As she coasted downhill towards the shop's main entrance she would let out one of her screams; an assistant, specially briefed, would tear through the shop, out the side door, and catch her in his arms. He had to be both young and nimble, for if he missed her, she piled up by the police-station.

Yet, my favourite chapter was the one titled 'Grannies in the Wainscot', dealing with Granny Trill and Granny Wallon, the neighbours of the Lee family, and at loggerheads with each other. What touched me was the account of these decrepit old ladies, bent with age, trying to make a living in a world where they didn't have any one else to fall back upon. While reading this chapter I was extra conscious of the nonagenarian sleeping in the room next to mine.

It was surely a difficult time to live through, with no electricity, barely enough to eat, bitter cold, when people died easily, and when it was often normal for children not to make through. Yet Laurie Lee's account shines through the adversities, and he portrays the simple joys and the slow but sure transitions in such a beautiful manner, which would eventually earn the ire of people like Stella Gibbons. Yet, Laurie Lee's account does not have so much of the darling buds of May-ness as to be overtly sweet. His accounts of reaching puberty, or the undercurrent of crime and passion in the village are far from innocent. And this is perhaps what gives the book a well-roundedness.

Until near the very end did I think that the title of the book was just a random note on village life: fresh cider made and drunk with another lassie. But of course, I was wrong. 'First Bite at the Apple' not only describes the pangs of growing up, but also talks about his long afternoon with Rosie Burdock.

The day Rosie Burdock decided to take me in hand was a motionless day of summer, creamy, hazy, and amber-coloured, with the beech trees standing in heavy sunlight as though clogged with wild wet honey. . . . Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie's burning cheeks.

Such profound sensuousness can lead to pathos. Every dream comes to an end; every beaker full of the draught of vintage, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim gets drained, and save for the purple-stained mouth, leaves little behind. The increasing number of motor cars on the road were the first sign, and suddenly the great big faraway town of Gloucester wasn't that far anymore. The Squire died, the girls married, the buses ran, the older generation, with their inflected tongues and archaic modes of addresses quietly went to the graves, and

We began to shrug off the valley and look more to the world, where pleasures were more anonymous and tasty. They were coming fast, and we were ready for them. 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day ~ Winifred Watson

Am I the only one in this vast world who found Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day disappointing?

When I chanced upon a copy of the book at the library, I picked it up immediately, primarily because I remembered all the wonderful things I had read about it. The fact that the book was published in 1938, roughly during one of my favourite literary ages, also made the choice easier. After reaching home I realised that this was a Persephone classic, complete with pretty illustrations by Mary Thompson, and my heart leapt. To be frank, the beginning of the book did live up to my expectations. Guinevere is a dowdy forty year old governess who is not particularly adept at her job. After many failed positions, she is directed by the employment office to the apartment of Miss Delysia LaFosse. The moment Miss LaFosse opens her door to Miss Pettigrew, the latter's life is thrown headward into excitement. The book covers the events of this one special day in the life of Miss Pettigrew, and the chapters are divided hour-by-hour.  

Yes the book reads wonderfully in the first half. Miss Pettigrew does not get the chance to explain the reason of her presence to Miss LaFosse, but from the very beginning, she finds herself embroiled in the circumstances. It is with immense pleasure that one watches Miss Pettigrew, reserved, conservative, daughter of a clergyman, handle the delicate situations involving Miss LaFosse's many men. Miss Pettigrew lies glibly, drinks, and swears a bit to throw the first two suitors of Miss LaFosse out of her apartment. Unfortunately, the second suitor happened to be Nick, the very owner of the apartment Miss LaFosse lives in. Yet, as the events unfold, I begin to sense a feeling a boredom. Every thing unfolds perfectly for Miss Pettigrew. Miss LaFosse never questions her purpose, keeps on offering her glorious food, Miss Pettigrew holds her liquor perfectly throughout the evening (and that includes devious concoctions by spurned lovers), and of course her figure is just like Miss LaFosse, so that she fits into the latter's clothes perfectly. That's too much perfection in one sentence; so you know when the perfect events are spread out over a few pages, you begin to settle down into an atmosphere of ennui.

Yet, this is not supposed to happen. Many readers have countered that Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day reads like a modern fairy tale. I find this particular tag disturbing because all the fairy tales I read and love have a distinct strain of violence, disturbance, strong action (and so on) through it. This book has none. The day is too perfect; and if there are any hardships that Miss Pettigrew has lived through, it happens in the twilight zone before the events of the novel begin, and are referred to in passing. The goal is almost to show that all the chances and perfections that Miss Pettigrew experiences on this particular day is simply because after having lived through a hard unrewarding life, she deserves it. But let's break the bubble of fuzziness and warmth around a kind character and realise that such wonderful things simply don't happen. They don't happen now, and they especially didn't happen in 1938, when Europe was threatened by a looming war; when England was in turmoil (read your Jessica Mitford), confused over the peers' support for Hitler and the thought of Germany emerging as a major European power posing a threat to the largest empire in the world; when the two-hundred year old servant problem was at its height; the Americans were steadily invading the British drawing rooms in a way different from Hemry James; and when class system and socialism was in a head-on collision. In between all this Miss Pettigrew is made up by Miss Dubarry, the owner of the best beauty parlour in London (and whom she did not know an hour ago), wears Miss LaFosse's dress and jewellery (albeit artificial) and embarks on an all-expenses-paid all-night-trip to a night club in a taxi, simply because she has had a brainwave regarding the abysmal nature of the love lives of these women, and has promised to help them with their cad fiances. Oh, and did I tell you that Miss Pettigrew also finds her love before the end of the evening? A perfect fifty-four year old millionaire who comes from humble origins too, and hence doesn't find faults with her being a nursery governess.

I'm aware I sound caustic. It wasn't my original intention. I'd lie if I said that I didn't enjoy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day at all. I liked it the way one likes a very light read to while away the time on a beach. That wasn't my initial intention with the book, of course. To be sure, I love a resolution of all problems in the end, and I could kill for a happy ending. I love it when good things happen to the main character by divine retribution. Yet in this book, that is all that happens: from the very first page, to the very last line. And all because the matronly lady comes up with clever ways to deal with irate boy friends. That doesn't speak much, does it? By the way, Miss LaFosse is incidentally a night club singer. Oh, where is the gumption of my darling, starving, Sally Bowles? 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hons and Rebels ~ Jessica Mitford

In the years between the wars, the exploits of the Mitford sisters regularly created a stir in the English society. Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the six sisters, wrote her infamous (but brilliant) novels in which she portrayed the deviances and eccentricities of the upper classes through thinly disguised portraits of her extended family and acquaintances. Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the famous fascist, and later unabashedly supported their younger sister Unity Valkyrie (Boud) in her obsession with Hitler. Boud, obsessed with the Nazis, travelled to Germany in the thirties, and openly proclaimed her hatred for the Jews and her admiration for the S.S.. Jessica (Decca) was a communist, which coming from a peer family, in the twenties and thirties raised quite a few eyebrows; and ran away to Spain during the war with her second cousin Esmond Romilly -- passionate communist and the nephew of Winston Churchill -- only a week after being acquainted with him. She eventually settled in the U.S.. The eccentricities of the Mitford family, and the English public's preoccupation with it, is best summed up by the following remark of the matriarch, Lady Redesdale:

"Whenever I read the words 'Peer's Daughter' in a headline", Lady Redesdale once sadly remarked, "I know it's going to be some thing about one of you children."

Hons and Rebels is Decca's hilarious and poignant memoir of her family. It is hilarious because it shows the eccentricities and quirks of a peer family from the point of view of one of the members; and it is extremely poignant because it shows the steady decline and break-up of that close-knit family during a tumultuous time in history.

The endless schoolroom talk of "What are we going to do when we grow up?" changed in tone. "I'm going to Germany to meet Hitler", Boud announced. "I'm going to run away and be a communist", I countered. Debo stated confidently that she was going to marry a duke and become a duchess. "One day he'll come along, The Duke I love . . ." she murmured dreamily. Of course, none of us doubted for a minute that we should reach the objectives we had set for ourselves; but perhaps seldom have childhood predictions materialised with greater accuracy.

Lord Redesdale, or the Rt. Hon. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the patriarch, and variously called 'Favre' and 'the Old Sub-Human', has been immortalised by Nancy in The Pursuit of Love as Uncle Matthew; and if Decca's descriptions of him are to be believed, the Old Sub-Human, is every inch a copy of Uncle Matthew (or vice versa). He is conservative, prone to shouting, hates taking the drive to the House of Lords, and doesn't do any thing much otherwise. Lady Redesdale, or Muv has strict views about the upbringing of her brood. She refuses to send her daughters to school, and prides in the fact that she can bring up her six daughters on the income of her chicken farm. She refuses to allow any one to be vaccinated, remarking that it involves "pumping disgusting dead germs into the Good Body", and rigorously believes that any diseases or fractures would be taken care of by the Good Body itself. She wasn't a Jew, but her adherence to Mosaic diet laws closely emulated the ones of an orthodox Jewish household simply because Muv had observed that "Jews never got cancer". Hence the food which the latter thought were unhealthy for consumption (pork, shellfish, rabbit), must indeed be unhealthy.

Asthall, 1921. 
Left to right: Muv, Nancy, Diana, Tom, Pam, Favre
In front: Boud, Decca, Debo

Nancy was one of the Bright Young Things in the twenties. Her friends (including Evelyn Waugh), often came down to their country mansion, Swinbrook, much to the consternation of the elder Mitfords. Decca only passingly refers to Nancy, as one with a sarcastic tongue and acerbic wit. Nancy seemed to spend most of the late thirties running after her younger sisters and trying to rescue them from the devious paths they had chosen for themselves.

Pamela is the one sister who gets the least mention in the book, probably because she had shown little interest in the eccentricities of her other sisters. She had spent a considerable portion of her childhood trying to be a horse, neighing and rocking, but disappointed at the revelation that she could never truly metamorphose into a horse, she turned her attentions to farming.

Tom is the only brother in the all-female household, and if one wonders about the amont of love and affection showered on him, he/she is immediately corrected by Decca:

Tom our only brother, occupied a rather special place in family life. We called him Tuddemy, partly because it was the Boudledidge translation of Tom, partly because we thought it rhymed with 'adultery'. 'Only one brother and six sisters! How you must love him. How spoilt he must be', strangers would say. 'Love him! You mean loathe him', was the standard Honnish answer. Debo, asked by a census-taker what her family consisted of, replied furiously, 'Three Giants, three Dwarfs and one Brute.' The Giants were Nancy, Diana and Unity, all exceptionally tall; the Dwarfs Pam, Debo and me; the Brute, poor Tuddemy. My mother has to this day a cardboard badge on which is carefully lettered: 'League against Tom. Head: Nancy.'

Left to right: Lady Redesdale, Nancy, Diana, Tom, Pam, Lord Redesdale
In front: Unity, Jessica, Deborah

In fact, it is to these hilarious little incidents did I return to time and again while reading the later sections of the book. After Decca was estranged from the family, and her other sisters were embroiled in serious controversies, I thought of the 'Hons', the schoolroom adventures, the eccentric pets, the propaganda against governesses, and the good-natured thoughtlessness of Lady Redesdale. Yet, the later part of the book is special for its own reasons. In Hons and Rebels, Decca writes not just a memoir of her famous family, but also in her own way, pays tribute to and immortalises her first love and first husband, Esmond Romilly. They were eighteen when they met, made a ridiculous plan to run away to Spain during the height of the war using the money from Decca's Running Away Account, and thus began their three years of living in the height of adventure and travel (with very little money).

Esmond and Jessica

It is an uphill task for me to write about the Mitfords and Hons and Rebels without quoting every line from the brilliant book. If it is only one book that you will read this month, let it be this marvellously funny and sad piece of gem. If you cry only once this month, let it be for the brilliant but lost Esmond Romilly; if you reminiscence only once this month, let it be for the lost adventures of girls in that clumsy country house; if you laugh uproariously only once this month, let it be for a group of little girls called 'Hons', named not after the 'Honourables' that they are, but after their pet Hens, which were the mainspring of their personal economy. Oh, before I forget, the H of Hon, of course, is pronounced as in Hen . . .