An Unending Winter: Ethan Frome

 

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“ Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death….”- Edith Wharton

In my last blog post I had written about Summer, Edith Wharton’s novella set in New England which along with Ethan Frome marks a departure in her writing from her usual subject matter of New York high society. I consider them as companion books as both stories have a lot of parallels. Wharton herself called Summer “hot Ethan”. And I think Ethan Frome could have been named “Winter” as a counterpart to Summer. The similarities don’t end with the setting and the importance of seasonality in the plot. Both novellas depict ill-fated protagonists caught in the throes of forbidden love and the pull they experience between the heart and adhering to the norms of society. They are both succinct stories that pack a punch!

A visitor to the bleak village of Starkfield, MA is fascinated by a crippled farmer in his fifties and is interested in knowing more about him. He questions the locals and finds out that the man, Ethan Frome, was a victim of a sledding accident many years ago. He strikes up an acquaintance with him and spends the night at his house following a snowstorm. This frame story recounted in the first person by the unnamed narrator takes place more than twenty years after the events of the main story. The story of the eponymous protagonist which the narrator pieces together from the account of other villagers and from his own imagination is revealed through flashbacks in the third person. We go back in time to when Frome was a young man in his twenties. Young Ethan wanted to be an engineer and live in a larger town among educated people. Unfortunately he had to abandon his dreams and return to the farm to take care of his injured father and his ailing mother. After his mother’s death, he decided to marry Zenobia Pierce, his cousin who had helped take care of his sick mother as he was lonely and couldn’t imagine living alone. He was only twenty-one and his wife was around twenty-eight at the time of their marriage.

Zeena turns out to be a cantankerous woman and a hypochondriac who suffers from many ailments, real or imagined. Her orphaned cousin Mattie arrives into their cold home and existence like a ray of sunshine. She is the exact antithesis of Zeena- a young woman with a zest for life and a sweet disposition. Needless to say, Ethan begins to fall in love with her and Mattie seems to reciprocate the feelings. The sexual tension between these two people living under the same roof under the watchful eye of Zeena is unbearable. One night when Zeena is away, Mattie and Ethan have dinner alone and Mattie uses Zeena’s favorite wedding present, a pickle dish for the meals. The family cat whose tacit and ubiquitous presence reminds us of Zeena breaks the dish in a symbolic act representing the disintegration of the Frome marriage. On discovering the broken dish, the perceptive and shrewd Zeena decides to send Mattie away and hire a new housekeeper.

What are Ethan’s choices? Should he forget about the puritanical society and its rules and run away with Mattie or should he be devoted to caring for his wife and continue leading a lonely and miserable life? We know that the story will have a sad ending with all the foreshadowing that lends an air of foreboding. Even the gravestones in a cemetery full of Fromes seem to be mocking Ethan’s desire to escape his fate. This sense of impending doom typical in the Whartonian world keeps the readers’ interest alive. I don’t want to reveal the ending and spoil it for future readers. Suffice it to say that there is an unexpected twist that takes you by surprise or rather shock! No one quite does irony like Wharton!

The winter setting is an integral element of the plot affecting the disposition and actions or lack thereof of the characters. Starkfield , the fictional town in rural MA is cold and stark just like its name implies. Ethan Frome seems to be one with the landscape. His emotions are buried just like the town is buried under a deep layer of snow. He “seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.” He is reticent and uncommunicative and even has trouble articulating his feelings for Mattie.

The topography plays an important role in the novella and is itself a character in its own right. I have lived in New England for over twenty years and I only know too well how the weather rules our emotions and determines our behavior. The winter chill seeps into your bones and stays there till the spring thaw. When you talk of the mellowness of autumn, the stillness of winter or the vitality of spring, these are not fanciful poetic tropes but actual truths you feel and live. And you learn to adapt to the vagaries of the seasons. In this context it is interesting to note that Ethan thinks that he probably wouldn’t have married Zeena if it had been spring when his mother had died:

“After the funeral, when he saw Zeena preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter.”

Edith Wharton’s works have profound insights about relationships. Timing is an important factor when you decide whom you are going to marry. Would we choose the same life partner if we had met them under a different set of circumstances, a different year in our lives or even a different season?

We feel sorry for all three characters who are trapped in Starkfield- for Ethan and Mattie who are in love with each other but know they can’t be together. We don’t even judge them for harboring adulterous feelings as we can understand their loneliness and desperation especially as Zeena is portrayed as a querulous woman. Although the writer is a woman , the narrator is male and he seems to be more sympathetic to Ethan. The cold and barren landscape mirrors Zeena’s condition too. The Fromes have no children and there is a scene where Ethan undresses hurriedly and turns off the light so he doesn’t have to see Zeena lying in bed next to him. Their marriage is probably a sexless union. I feel sorry for Zeena too as her ailments are a cry for attention from a neglectful husband. Instead of hypochondria, she may in fact be suffering from factitious disorder or Munchausen Syndrome, a condition in which people feign illness to elicit sympathy.

I enjoyed reading Ethan Frome and Summer and recommend reading the two together as companion books. Both novels portray characters trapped in enclosed spaces with a desire to escape the ennui of provincial life but their attempt to do so goes horribly awry. What wasted and unfulfilled lives! What a wretched existence! If I could add one concluding sentence to these depressing novellas, it would be this: And they lived unhappily ever after.

I have read four books by Wharton and I can’t wait to delve into the rest of her vast oeuvre. The lady is a literary genius.

 

 

 

 

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As Summer Fades To Fall

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“I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Lately I’ve been on an Edith Wharton reading spree. Let me begin by saying that she is now one of my favorite novelists. I’m just discovering her and I’m enthralled! Her stories are rich, complex and thought-provoking and her style of writing is poetic and exquisite. Where was she all these years of my life? Alas! The years I could have spent drowning in her delicious prose are now irretrievably lost. She is most known for The Age of Innocence, her brilliant masterpiece about the upper class milieu of New York city during the Gilded Age. This summer I read two of her novellas, Summer and Ethan Frome, which are quite different in tone. Beautiful and achingly sad, they are both set in New England to the rhythm of its seasons and deal with the middle and working classes and not the usual elite echelons of society depicted in Wharton’s other works.

Summer is the coming of age story of Charity Royall, an 18 year old naïve and uneducated girl, set in North Dormer, a fictitious town in Massachusetts. When still a small child, Charity was brought down from the “mountain” ( a region in the Berkshires) and raised by Mr.Royall the lawyer and his wife who are prominent citizens of the town. The mountain is inhabited by dissolute people living in squalor and depravity and the town residents don’t mingle with them. The prudish and gossipy town people never make Charity forget her dubious roots. Interestingly, the Royalls raise her but do not legally adopt her. Her name Charity reflects the fact that a great favor was bestowed on her by her benefactors. After the death of his wife, Mr. Royall’s feelings become romantic towards his charge and he even proposes to her. You wonder why he decided to raise her. Honestly, I found him to be quite creepy and disgusting. More on that later.

Charity is a feisty and impetuous girl who wants to earn money in order to escape her stifling provincial environment. She manages to wheedle her way into getting a job as a town librarian in spite of having no interest in books. In walks the charming Lucius Harney, in her dull and boring life. He is a young architect who has come from NYC to study old houses in the area. He represents everything Charity lacks in her confined life.- freedom, youth, adventure, breeding and wealth. The two are irresistibly drawn to each other and have a whirlwind romance. At the time of its publication in 1917, Summer created a sensation for its eroticism. By today’s standards there is nothing remotely erotic about this novel. The two youngsters exchange a kiss while the July 4th fireworks are set off in the nearby town of Nettleton. That’s about as far as the action goes. However the theme of the sexual awakening of a young woman was bold for its times. Charity and Lucius succumb to the passion of first love made more ardent by the summer heat so evocatively described by Wharton. There is a sense of foreboding and we know this torrid sexual interlude will be as evanescent as the New England summer. Charity knows that she has no future with Lucius as he belongs to a higher social class but she still carries on with the affair and lives for the moment:

She had given him all that she had-but what was it compared to the other gifts life held for him? She understood now the case of girls like herself to whom this kind of thing happened. They gave all they had, but their all was not enough; it could not buy more than a few moments….

The inevitable happens and Charity is pregnant. In Wharton’s world, people behave according to their station in life and if they step out of their boundaries, their outcome can be very tragic. What choices does Charity have? Lucius is now engaged to Annabel Balch, his social equal and is not aware of the pregnancy. Nor does Charity reveal it to him as she knows it will be to no avail. Does she keep the baby or abort it? Will she return to the mountain and be with her own ilk? Or will she accept the proposal of marriage by the seedy Mr. Royall who once tried to force himself into her room? In many ways the theme of the jilted unwed mother is a timeless one and Charity’s predicament anticipates the issues many modern women face.

SPOILER FOLLOWS

Charity has a disastrous visit with a mean and mercenary lady abortionist and ultimately decides to keep the baby. She seeks one last escape to the mountain only to see her mother’s dead body and is promptly rescued again by Mr. Royall who brings her down to the village and to reality. He takes advantage of her helplessness when he realizes she’s pregnant with Lucius’ child. She is left with no choice but to accept the proposal of marriage from a man who once accused her of being a whore. Of course the irony is that it is Mr. Royall who has the habit of frequenting prostitutes but that doesn’t smear his reputation in town. She is the whore for enjoying an evening in town with her boyfriend but he is not labeled as a whoremonger. The hypocrisy and double standards of society are still the same in many ways. The story changes quickly from romance to reality and from reality to full-blown horror.

The plot takes a horrific turn when Mr. Royall succeeds in getting what he wants.  We know that he lusted after Charity who tried her best to repel his advances. It’s quite sickening to think that someone who is a father figure and has raised her since the time she was a child would suddenly develop sexual feelings for her. How much more appalling would be the thought that she could even be his biological daughter? We know that Charity was born of an unknown woman from the mountain, a place known for its promiscuity. Royall claims that she had been given to him by her father, a man whom he had convicted of manslaughter after her mother had refused to raise her. He had once accused Charity of being a promiscuous woman like her mother. You wonder if he had had a relationship with her mother as he had a habit of visiting prostitutes. There are hints of incest throughout the story. In spite of the contempt Charity has for Royall, she also feels a strange affinity to him “as if she had his blood in her veins”. Whether he is the adoptive or real father, his incestuous impulses are revolting.

The novel ends with the image of Mr. Royall sleeping on a rocking chair on their wedding night. We have a feeling that this is going to be a marriage devoid of passion.  Some readers have interpreted it as the best outcome for Charity and have made Mr. Royall out to be a hero for saving her name and reputation and providing a future for her and her baby. I found the story to be dark and depressing. Charity is broken, beaten down by life and has lost her spunk. Her romantic illusions are shattered as she settles for a loveless marriage. The wild promiscuous woman has been tamed. Her wings have been clipped. “ For an instant the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was only the lift of a broken wing.” Charity tried to rebel against a patriarchal society represented by the self-absorbed Lucius and the controlling Mr. Royall but failed miserably. Nothing has changed for the girl who so desperately craved independence. She continues living in the same town with the same residents, in the same house with the same guardian and with the same last name.

END OF SPOILER

I was thinking about Summer long after I finished the last sentence. What is left unsaid by the author can haunt us forever. I spent considerable time thinking about the characters and wondering what my own choices would have been in their situation. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence making her the first woman to get the recognition. She was also nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. I wish she had received the honor, for in my opinion, if anyone deserved the Nobel Prize, it was Edith Wharton. All I can say is this is simply literature at its best.

 

The Remains of the Day

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I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.

Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married, and ostensibly, to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.

The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.

But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.

Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.

There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.

“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”

Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a propensity for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- at that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.

Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out while conversing with a stranger on a bench by the pier in Weymouth:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”

All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.

The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.

This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?

Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.

*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066

 

 

 

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

It was a long and excruciating wait for the fans of Arundhati Roy’s fiction, dazzled by The God of Small Things, her Booker prize winning debut novel. It was not a literary hibernation as it is made out to be. Roy had never stopped writing. She was just delving into a different genre. She had turned her attention to people’s movements in India and published articles and books on political topics ranging from environmentalism to government corruption and land rights of tribal communities. And now after a hiatus of twenty years, the publication of her second work of fiction is taking the literary world by storm just like its predecessor. Everyone who has read it has a strong opinion about it. Most people either love it passionately or hate it vehemently. Some have gone as far as  comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez and La Condition Humaine by Malraux.  I fall somewhere in between the two categories of readers and have mixed feelings about it just like I did about The God of Small Things.

Roy’s lush and lyrical prose in The God Of Small Things instantly transported me to the personal and private world of Rahel and Estha’s Ayemenem in Kerala. I soaked myself in all the sights and sounds made alive by her sensuous imagery but the ending ruined it for me ( It’s not a trope I’m comfortable with) although I understand her reasons for concluding the story the way she did. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy of her new fiction at The Old Church in Boston earlier this year where she read an excerpt from her book and participated in a question answer session beginning with a quip :”There is a Hindu nationalist movement in India and I’m talking from the pulpit of a church.”

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The Hindu nationalist movement has been the butt of her criticism and the new novel doesn’t spare it either. In fact the fiction feels in parts like non-fiction. And therein lies the failing of what could have been a powerful work. It’s an ambitious but disjointed novel with a plethora of plots and characters- a kaleidoscope of a huge diverse nation with huge and diverse issues and she seems to have addressed them all- the caste system, Hindu- Muslim rivalry, the Kashmir insurgency , cow vigilantism, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Gujarat riots, the riots of 1984 to name a few.

There are two distinct plots: one, the story of Anjum, an intersex individual born as Aftab and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist presumably modeled after Roy herself. Anjum, is a Hijra ostracized by society for being neither boy nor girl. She eventually retreats from the ‘duniya’ or the outside world to live in Khwabgah ( dream house)  in the company of other hijras. She starts raising a child called Zainab,  has a series of surgeries and revels in her femininity by wearing sequined clothing, flashy jewelry and bold makeup. Eventually she moves out of the khwabgah and constructs a home on a graveyard aptly named as Jannat ( Paradise) Guest House as it becomes a sanctuary for other outcasts living on the fringes of society. One of them is a dalit ( ‘untouchable’ ) who assumes a Muslim identity by changing his name strangely to Sadaam Hussein after his father gets lynched by a crowd who accuses him of killing a cow.

I enjoyed the story of Anjum as it shed light on a community shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Hijras are cross-dressers, intersex and transgender individuals who make up what has recently been recognized as the third sex by the Supreme Court of India. The stereotypical image of a hijra is a somewhat aggressive and intimidating person who accosts you for money at traffic signals. They have been part of the subcontinent long before labels like transgender became de rigueur in the West. They have a paradoxical position in society- they are revered and considered auspicious and are invited to dance at weddings and bestow blessings on the birth of a child but at the same time they are discriminated against and are one of the most marginalized communities in India. The conflict within the hijras who defy binary constructions of gender is a metaphor for the religious struggle and identity crisis within India. As one hijra in the novel tells Anjum: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.” The novel could have been a brilliant one if only Roy had stuck to Anjum’s poignant story.

But the story abruptly shifts to Tilottama and the three men in her life who have all loved her at some point. Tilo, Musa, Naga and Biplab called “Garson Hobart”  have all known each other from their theater days in college. Years later their paths cross again. Garson Hobart is Tilo’s landlord in Delhi and later becomes an officer in the Intelligence bureau. Naga becomes an incendiary journalist. Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets her old flame Musa whose wife Arefa and daughter Miss Jebeen have been killed in a riot. Musa supports the separatist movement in Kashmir with the aim of overthrowing Indian rule. He butts head with the ruthless Major Amrik Singh, the Indian military officer who represents the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir in handling counterinsurgency efforts. The two disparate plots converge when Anjum and Tilo wish to save an abandoned newborn baby, Miss Jebeen the second.

Apart from the two plots, we have a dizzying number of secondary characters. To that mix, Roy throws in poems, slogans, songs, letters, entries from dictionaries, quotes and even a Kashmiri English alphabet and an entry from the Reader’s Digest book of English Grammar. She has taken many liberties with the writing style which would never be forgiven in a novice writer. To put it simply, there is more telling than showing. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the penetrating gaze of the omnipresent narrator ( the kind who interrupts the flow of the text with asides in parentheses) whose presence we never forget. Interestingly, there is one section in the book where Tilo remarks on writing a bad novel.  In The God of Small Things, I marveled at Roy’s striking and unexpected metaphors. Here the writing is visceral and raw especially when she depicts the chilling never-ending bloody conflict in Kashmir but we also have passages that are passionate and poetic:

Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the line of control … it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully and then put down their books and implements … they stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new pied pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give ever so slightly, … only then did they allow the rage and the shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The book is fittingly dedicated “To the Unconsoled”, The story begins and ends in a graveyard- the in- between world which seems to be the fate of many in India, hanging precariously between life and death. As Musa says, in India only the dead are living and the living are dead. The necropolis becomes a symbol of hope for the abandoned, the marginalized, the misfits in a country whose wounds are still festering. I found the book to be an engaging read in spite of the flaws. Kashmir is an emotional subject for anyone from the sub- continent. For me it was an eye-opening account of the atrocities but I can imagine it to be a frustrating read for people unfamiliar with the political scene in India as there are too many culture-specific allusions with no explanation.

If Roy had just stuck to the personal plight of Anjum and the story of Tilo and let the characters and the stories speak for themselves, it would have been a compelling read. But the digressions into diatribes about the general political scene in India make it read like a history text book or a didactic political pamphlet. I would have liked to see more of Roy the artist than Roy the activist. Her work is as fascinating, incoherent, chaotic and complex as the democracy she writes about. It makes me wonder then if she flouted rules of structure and narration to mirror the sprawling mess of the country. Her novel can be compared to the beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets she alludes to often. She has threaded together her own carpet made of many interesting and intricate motifs in eye-catching hues but in the end it makes for a very busy pattern.

All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments. 

 

A Trip Down Bougainvillea Lane!

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Happiness is bougainvillea! Is there anything that fills the heart with as much delight as the sight of a brilliant bougainvillea in bloom? This tropical beauty makes such a grand and striking statement that I can even forgive it for having no fragrance whatsoever. To me it is also synonymous with nostalgia as in New England I can only grow it in containers and hope at the most for a few sporadic blooms to console my tropically deprived heart. Alas, my measly plant is nothing like the showy and striking vines that grow profusely in warmer regions of the world. This poem was written spontaneously on a trip to the Cayman Islands where I was greeted with a plethora of bougainvillea in a riot of colors- crimson, magenta, scarlet, blush, yellow, coral, orange, gold, white and cream- cascading down roofs, trailing over pergolas and spilling over fences offering a veritable feast for my eyes and satiety to my soul. The creeper evokes bittersweet memories of a bygone time and maybe even takes on the traits of a bygone beau or belle.

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Beguiling Beauty with an exotic name!
Magenta Goddess
clambering over fences
to greet me
with bright bewitching bracts,
hiding the dainty white blooms
to pose as papery blossoms.

Fluttering on my cheeks like butterfly kisses
as I reach out to admire you
but grazing my thigh with thorns.
At least the queen of flowers sprays me
with a dab of perfume
but Tropical Empress
you are fragrant free

Fragrant free but stirring memories
of scented summers by the sea
of sun -warmed villas
with inviting verandahs
and a nearly forgotten love..
A jolt wakes me
from wistfulness

and there you are again
beckoning me
in the boldest shade of pink
And I, besotted,
reach out to you,
the bruise of your spike
still on my skin.

~ Jayshree ( Literary Gitane)

The Turn of the Screw: A Ghastly Ghost Story

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The first page of The Turn of the Screw originally published in 1898 as a 12 part serialization in Collier’s Weekly.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.

Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.

It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.

The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the

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“He did stand there! -But high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower.”

governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.

The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse

It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.

Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?

Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?

If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay,  The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).

Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?

Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?

Are they sexually abused by the governess?

What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?

Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.

I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her

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“Holding my candle high, till I came within sight of the tall window.”

own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:

We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”

But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.

The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.