Rachel, my torment!

“She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment.”

Did she or did she not poison her husband? This question lies at the heart of the suspenseful and unsettling novel, My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier but the reader is no wiser at the end. No one does ambiguous endings like du Maurier. There are many possibilities and the mind of the reader is manipulated too along with the twists and turns of the plot. Yet, you don’t feel frustrated or cheated of an ending for as a reader you are called to actively engage with the text and draw your own conclusions. In fact, du Maurier’s books are meant to be re- read as our reading personalities develop and evolve too with time. In an earlier blog post, I had written about how my impression of Rebecca changed over the years. I recently re-read My Cousin Rachel and it almost felt like I were reading another story from the one I read in my youth.

The orphaned Philip Ashley has lived since childhood with his older bachelor cousin Ambrose on a grand estate in Cornwall, England in a male only environment where even all the servants are men. He idolizes his cousin and looks up to him as a father figure. On a long sojourn in Italy, to improve his health, Ambrose falls in love with an enigmatic half- English half -Italian woman who happens to be a distant relative and marries her in haste. Philip receives happy letters from him at first, but the tone shifts rapidly from fascination to mistrust and finally to panic implying that his wife Rachel might be trying to harm him. He begs Philip to come rescue him but by the time Philip lands up in Florence, Ambrose has been declared dead from a brain tumor and Rachel has left town with his belongings. Philip is determined to uncover the mysterious circumstances of the death and to take revenge on Rachel but when she unexpectedly turns up later on his doorstep in Cornwall, things take a different turn.

He is disarmed completely by the petite and elegant woman and in no time falls head over heels in love with her. In fact, no one is immune to Cousin Rachel’s charms- neither the servants nor the farmers and not even the dogs. She infiltrates the male bastion with her delightful feminine presence and introduces Continental habits in the mansion like her tisanas or home brewed herbal infusions that she gives as medicinal remedies to the people on the estate. Strangely, Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage which means that Philip will inherit everything when he turns 25. Till then the estate is controlled by Nick Kendall, his godfather and guardian. The lovesick 24 year is anxiously awaiting his birthday so he can bequeath his entire property and the family jewels to the alluring lady in spite of discovering incriminating letters from Ambrose about her financial troubles and his fear that she might be trying to poison him. Well, it could hardly be a coincidence that the boy was born on April Fools’ Day!

Other than Louise, his guardian’s daughter whom he has known since childhood and is expected to marry, Philip has never been close to any woman in his life. Will Philip suffer the same fate as Ambrose? Is Rachel a manipulative gold digger and a murderess or is she an innocent woman who is the victim of the mental instability of her men? Why does she have to be either a demon or an angel? Couldn’t she just be a complex flawed human who had nothing to do with the death of her husband? And what role does the sinister Signor Rainaldi, her close friend and advisor play in her life? Does Philip have reason to be jealous of him?

The story is told through Philip’s point of view in flashback. It is easy to identify with a first person homodiegetic narrator. I remember when I read the book in my youth, I was sympathetic to Philip’s plight and could relate to his obsessive infatuation and impulsiveness. At times I wanted to strangle him for his blind folly as I was on his side and didn’t want him to be ensnared in her trap. I was seeing Rachel through his eyes. But re- reading the book in my middle years, I had a completely different take on the story. How reliable of a narrator is Philip? Aren’t the readers looking at Rachel through the male gaze? This book is about the perceptions or rather misperceptions men create about women.

We could view Rachel as a scheming temptress or as a strong and independent woman who has faced many tragedies in life- she has had an unstable childhood, she has been married twice and has been a victim of domestic violence, she has miscarried a baby and is unable to conceive again, she has lost her husband and has been left with nothing for her in his will. Besides, can we trust Ambrose? His paranoia and delusions could very well be explained by his brain disorder that seems to run on the male side of the family. Philip himself shows the same symptoms which makes him even less of a reliable narrator. Philip has an uncanny resemblance to Ambrose. They are besotted with the same woman and suffer from the same illness in a characteristic Gothic trope of doubling or mirroring.

It is interesting that the book deals with wills, property, transactions, belongings and inheritance. The theme of ownership extends to the control of women too for just as property changes hands, so does Rachel with both men claiming her at different times. Philip refers to her as ” My Cousin Rachel” which is also the title of the book. The possessive adjective reinforces the idea that Rachel is akin to property too. For me this title is as fascinating as that of Rebecca where we have an unnamed narrator who lives in Rebecca’s shadow. Here the protagonist has a name but she is only relevant as belonging to a man. Philip feels that he can own her by giving her things. He is the immature boy who ignores every piece of advice he gets from his well wishers and assumes that handing over the property to her and being intimate with her would seal the relationship.

Yes, things start steaming up soon in Aunt Phoebe’s boudoir and I am not just referring to the tisane.  

Philip misinterprets Rachel agreeing to have sex with him as a tacit acceptance of a marriage proposal. Rachel declares that she had sex just to thank him for his generous gift and has no intention of marrying him. When my younger self read the book, my heart broke for the rejected Philip. Historically women have been turned down by men after a sexual encounter. Here it is not a virginal woman but a sheltered and sexually inexperienced man who is initiated into sex and assumes that it would lead to marriage. It is a subversive novel as the tables have been turned completely. Rachel wants to be her own person in a man’s world. She is saying no to the patriarchy by refusing to marry him. She is not evil but a woman who is sexually liberal and revels in the power of her sexuality. Philip chokes her as he is shocked by the rejection and repeats the marriage proposal but Rachel sticks to her guns. The 2018 Roger Michell movie based on the novel and starring Rachel Weisz as Cousin Rachel explores this feminist layer which is only hinted at in the novel.

There are oedipal undertones which add another layer of complexity to the plot. Philip was raised without a mother and as Ambrose’s widowed wife, Rachel is a mother figure to him. The woman who is ten years his senior, nurses him back to health when he is sick and chides him for his silliness. On one occasion, he even thinks that she will hit him. It is a brilliant tour de force on the part of du Maurier to make the reader view Rachel as a femme fatale. Are we not possibly identifying with the narrator and his misogynistic views? Sally Beauman, in the foreword to the Virago edition, makes a profound observation:

Is Rachel pure or impure, is she innocent or guilty? This question, fascinating though du Maurier makes it, is an authorial sleight of hand: it disguises the far more interesting issue of male culpability.” In other words, while the question of whether or not Rachel has been poisoning men is certainly a driving force of the book, by the end you realize there’s another, more important question that’s been there all along: who is actually doing the “poisoning?”

Will Rachel’s sexual power become her undoing?I am not giving away the ending for those who haven’t read the book but as soon as I finished the last chapter, I went back and read the first. The haunting and ominous first line of the novel is also the last line: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” We have come full circle as Philip is still tormented by the same question. “No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” 

What a fascinating psychological thriller where in true Gothic style, the emotions of the characters mirror the landscape…the emotionally charged atmosphere indoors reflects the menacing and mercurial English weather outside. Every gesture haunts be it the seductive sweep of a gown, the slow pinning up of hair or a teary averted gaze. The book is a slow burn suspense with excellent foreshadowing and a sense of impending doom- it simmers like the tisane Rachel brews. It is no coincidence that tea brewing is associated with witches and feminine power. Rachel is the bewitching woman who casts a spell on those around her and concocts strange potions or er.. poison. I just had to brew my own tisana to recreate the mood as I was reading. My blend had rosehips, hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint and orange peel. And no, there were no laburnum seeds in it.

    

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

The Virgin Nursing The Child-Pompeo Batoni- Circa 1760- 1780

I recently came across a raw and powerful poem on the internet which describes Mary’s experience of breastfeeding the Infant Jesus to illustrate how women are unfairly excluded from the pulpit. The poem was penned by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who belongs to the evangelical group ‘Churches of Christ’ which prevents women from occupying positions of authority in the church and even from actively participating in worship services. The poem went viral as it struck a chord with many women all over the world. And I am one of those women:

A Christmas Poem
by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

The poem illustrates the absurdity of preventing women from occupying the pulpit. A woman is barred from priesthood because of her biology but it is her biology that makes her experience more meaningful and personal. A woman who had the visceral and moving experience of giving birth to the Lord would surely understand what faith is all about. And Mary, who experiences the discomfort and fatigue of childbirth and nursing, represents all women. Although Kaitlin Shetler describes an experience with a particular church, the exclusion of women from positions of religious authority is an issue that crosses over denominations and religions.

Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women’s ordination is a controversial issue in Buddhist communities too. There is also a misogynistic belief that a woman is polluting because of her body. Menstrual taboos of Hinduism result in male only religious spaces and male specific religious duties. Traditionally, it is only a male priest who has had the right to conduct weddings and religious functions. Often the only reason cited is that there is no precedent and that it is divinely ordained. But the truth of the matter is that these are man made restrictions which have distorted the original teachings of all the major religions and reflect the oppressive structures of patriarchy. Many Hindu women are challenging the traditional notions of priesthood and some have begun officiating at ceremonies. Muslim women have also been fighting for the right to be appointed as imams. We have a growing number of women of all faiths who refuse to be held back from the full expression of their spirituality and are fighting for gender equity in religious matters.

I was struck by the description of the nursing Madonna in the poem. It made me wonder why we hardly see images of Mary breastfeeding in art and that led me to conduct some research on the topic. After all, those were days before formula use and we would not have survived as a species without this natural function. I discovered that the motif of Maria Lactans or the Nursing Madonna was predominant in religious iconography in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration- Giampietrino- Circa 1500-20
Madonna Litta- Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the work of one of his pupils- 1490

Mother Mary was even associated with lactation miracles. There is a belief that the floor of the Milk Grotto, a chapel in Bethlehem, changed its color to white when a drop of Mary’s milk fell on it. The shrine is visited to this day by women trying to conceive and new mothers who wish to increase the quantity of their milk. There is a lot of artwork dedicated to the lactation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk and abbott. Legend has it that Mary squirted breastmilk into his mouth to reveal herself as the mother of mankind and to either cure him of an eye infection or to grant him spiritual wisdom, depending on the variant of the story. There was nothing scandalous about exposing a breast till the 18th century but later on as the breast became more and more sexualized, people became squeamish about it and the image of the lactating virgin fell out of fashion.

Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano, 1650

Christmas is essentially a story about birth and the bond between a mother and child. Kaitlin Shetler, in this poem, humanizes the divine Virgin Mary who is doing what millions of women have been doing since time immemorial. I felt a connection with Mary and with all women across the world in the simple yet sacred acts of birthing and nurturing. We are part of this ancient sisterhood spanning millennia. And there is a primal priestess in every woman, buried under centuries of oppression, who needs to rightfully reclaim her place.

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis, 1778

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

Classics Club Spin

I’m playing a fun game hosted by The Classics Club. https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/cc-spin-25/ I have to list twenty books of my choice that I have yet to read on my classics list. On Sunday, the 22nd of November ( yes, I wait till the last minute to do anything!), they will pick a number from my spin list and I have to read whatever book falls under that number by 30th January 2021. The books can include favorites and re-reads but also books you find daunting and have been putting off. The idea is to challenge yourself.

So here’s my list in no particular order:

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  4. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  7. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  9. Le Deuxième Sexe ( The Second Sex) by Simone de Beauvoir
  10. The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  11. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  13. Beowulf- Translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
  14. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  15. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  16. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  17. Vanity Fair by William Makepiece Thackeray
  18. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  19. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  20. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Thorn Birds, Lolita, Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary are among the books I have read already but decades ago when I was in college. It would be interesting to revisit any of them from the perspective of an older and wiser person. 🙂 I have read parts of Simone de Beauvoir’s book but at a much younger age and I think I would appreciate it a lot better now. Song of Solomon and Midnight’s Children are relatively recent publications and I suppose they would fall in the category of modern classics. A Hundred Years of Solitude is a book that I have started once or twice but abandoned. It would be worth trying to pick it up again. The third time could be the charm. I included the new translation of Beowulf as my background is in medieval literature and there has to be at least one book from that period that shows up on my list. This translation seems interesting as it is supposedly rendered from a feminist perspective of the work. All the rest are books that I have been meaning to read for a long time and I would be happy wherever the number lands.

What do you think of my list? Are there any on it that you have read and enjoyed? I love classics and at some point I hope to finish reading everything on my list but for now I’m excited to see what I get tomorrow.

Autumn Song (My translation of Verlaine’s Chanson D’Automne)

I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth to experience autumn. So embedded is the season in the local psyche that over time I have become an autumn person. Not only do I revel in the glorious hues of changing foliage and savor the textures, sounds and smells of the season, I also experience the melancholy that goes with the time of the year. I slow down to contemplate and see my own fate and the fate of everyone else around me in the transience of leaves. Autumn is after all the season of melancholia and introspection, a mood captured so poignantly by poets.

As I was walking in the woods around my home in southern New Hampshire the other day, I noticed a pile of dead leaves. It was late autumn and the leaves were a sodden mess, withered, bleached of color, and in a state of decay, considerably different from the vibrant palette on the tree tops just a few weeks ago. I was face to face with my mortality as I picked up a ‘feuille morte’ and thought instinctively of the poem “Chanson d’automne” or ”Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine, one of the leading French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.

I had first studied ” Chanson d’automne” in college and I can still recite it by heart. I had always loved the poem but now with the passing of the years the symbolism resonates more than ever and living in New England makes me understand autumn better. The poem is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 and is part of the “Paysages tristes” or ” Sad landscapes” section of the collection. One interesting fact about this poem is that the BBC used a song recording of it to send secret messages to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming invasion of Normandy during World War 2.

” Chanson d’automne” also happens to be one of the most translated poems of all time. Although it is written in simple French, it is difficult to translate it in English as it is a musical poem. “ De la musique avant toute chose’’ or ” Music before everything else” was after all Verlaine’s mantra and to retain the musicality of the poem along with conveying its melancholy is of utmost importance when rendering it from French into another language. But it is also such a brief and simple poem that it is best to keep the translation almost literal. You can see that translating the poem is no mean task. A lot of the translations extant stray too far from the meaning of the original in order to make the poem lyrical but I didn’t want to dilute the impact made by the French poem. I have tried my best to reconcile the two. So here is the original followed by my humble attempt at translation:

Chanson d’Automne

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

The long sobs 
Of autumn violins
Make my heart throb
With chagrin
And a monotonous
Languor.

All choked up 
And pale, when
The hour sounds,
I remember with a sigh
Days long gone
And I cry.

And I let myself go
With the ill winds that blow
Which carry me
Hither, thither
Similar
To a dead leaf. 

( Translated by Jayshree – Literary Gitane) *

My translation is pretty literal but I have made some accommodations to recreate the plodding rhythm of the original which follows the effect of a violin playing slowly with the use of stylistic techniques like rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration and consonance. I could have translated ‘blessent mon coeur’ as ‘hurt my heart’ but I thought rhyming the word ‘violin’ with a word like ‘chagrin’ along with the use of the rhymes ‘long’, ‘sob’ and ‘throb’ would convey the effect of the pulsating sound of a heart beat and the rhythmic sound of a violin that I was looking for to accentuate the monotony and the melancholy of the lines. Similarly in the second verse I added ‘with a sigh’ to rhyme with ‘cry’ and the words ‘long gone’ to create the musicality with the internal rhyme and consonance. Throughout my translation, I have attempted the techniques of consonance and assonance to make the experience of the poem more auditory. In the concluding lines I was playing with ‘to and fro’ to rhyme with ‘blow’ but settled on ‘hither thither’ as I thought these two consonant sounds would best replace the words “Deçà, delà”.

This poem beautifully illustrates how an interior landscape corresponds with the exterior one. It employs the metaphor of autumn to bemoan a past that is irretrievably lost. It is interesting how it starts with the first person but by the end of the poem, the poet/ speaker becomes a dead object, one with the dead leaf, one with the season. “Autumn Dirge” would have been a more apt title to this poem, in my opinion, than “Autumn Song” but perhaps the poet either wished to be ironical or simply to emphasize the paradox of the sorrow triggered by the desolation of the season along with the calm of resignation and acceptance.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my translation. 🙂

  • Translation cannot be used without the permission of the author- Copyright- Literary Gitane

La Maison de Claudine

The fifteen year old Colette with her long braids…”long enough to lower a bucket down a well.”

It is believed that much of the nostalgia that a book evokes in us is due to the memory of reading it during our childhood or youth- that innocent or seemingly innocent stage of life. When I look back upon my college days, one of my cherished memories is reading Colette and especially her ‘Claudine’ books. My lackluster life is a far cry from the colorful and scandalous life the writer led. Yet I have felt a kinship with her and something about the lyrical and lush sensuousness of her writing has always resonated with me. I seized the opportunity during the pandemic to re-read a comforting Colette from my early years.

La Maison de Claudine published in 1922 and translated as My Mother’s House is not about the fictitious Claudine. Claudine doesn’t even make an appearance in the book despite the French title but as the protagonist- author duo of Claudine-Colette are virtually the same, even their names, interestingly, have become interchangeable. La Maison de Claudine is an autobiographical book about Colette’s childhood in the countryside with a warm and loving family that consisted of her mother and father, her brother, a half brother and a half sister and a host of cats and dogs who are as much a part of the family as the two legged creatures. Colette herself was Minet- Chéri or ‘Little Darling’,the youngest of the brood. 

There is no story as such. The book is a series of vignettes in the form of sentimental musings of Colette’s childhood and picturesque evocations of provincial life in Burgundy. The episodes are not in chronological order. Some are very short episodes and are barely a page or two long. Some of the chapters describe a later stage in her life when she was living in Paris with her second husband and daughter Bel- Gazou.

But most of the episodes are a charming and sensuous depiction of an idyllic childhood in a house overflowing with pets and books. Her father, the captain who lost a leg during the war, is an absent-minded and amusing man who adores his wife and flirts harmlessly with his neighbor saying that he would teach her the meaning of love for six pence and a packet of tobacco. Then there is Juliette, her recluse of a sister lost in her books and daydreams and her quirky and fun loving brothers- Achille the older brother who loves puttering with pieces of cloth and wire and glass tubes and who eventually becomes a doctor, and Leo, the amazing musician who plays by ear the tunes he hears on the street and has a morbid fascination with creating epitaphs for fun. This eccentric domestic domain is presided over imperiously by a formidable woman- – tender and kind yet resolute, strong willed and assertive- her beloved mother Sido. The entire book can be said to be a tribute to this strong and compassionate lady.

Sido is unconventional in many ways. She is far from religious and her irreverence is charming. She insists that the dog attend mass where she herself reads plays of Corneille hidden in the prayer book and dies of boredom if the sermon lasts longer than ten minutes. She retains her maid who is pregnant out of wedlock, ignoring the gossip of her neighbors. Above all she is this nurturing maternal figure, who, on hearing stories of kidnapping in the news, fears that her little Minet- Chéri will be a victim and sneaks her out of her bedroom at night and brings her close to her own bed, prompting the confused little one to shriek in the morning,” Maman! Come quick! I’ve been abducted.” When her estranged daughter Juliette goes into labor next door, she literally feels the pangs of pain as she hears her wail in agony. Even when age takes a toll on her, she is stubbornly independent and is caught chopping wood on a frosty morning in the backyard dressed only in a nightgown or moving a heavy walnut cupboard from the upper story to the ground floor.

I was amused by all the stories of Sido brushing her daughters’ long hair. Both girls had hair that nearly fell to their feet. Minet Chéri had to be woken up half an hour earlier than her schoolmates every morning just to get her hair ready for school. Her two long plaits were like horse whips. And Juliette needs four plaits – two springing from her temples and two from above the nape of her neck. It’s hilarious how Sido complains that her legs hurt just by standing to comb Juliette’s hair. Ah, braiding a daughter’s hair or getting a hair braided by a mother is one of those quotidian activities filled with pain and pleasure at the same time!  

The animals are part of the daily domestic dramas and their feline and canine adventures are as delightful as their names- Toutouque, Pati-Pati, Bâ-tou, Bellaude and Kamaralzaman aka Moumou. Their stories cracked me up although I suspect Colette may have slightly embellished the details for effect. A cat relishes the best strawberries in the garden with all the good taste of a gourmet, and a spider descends from the ceiling in the middle of the night, dangling from a thread to take sips of Sido’s hot chocolate simmering over a little oil lamp on the bedside table. Nonoche, the cat and her daughter Bijou are pregnant at the same time and deliver a day within each other. The daughter cat has a few kittens attached to her breasts but goes to suckle from her mother who has her own set to nurse. There are sad stories too. The neighbor’s cat is grieving her dead kittens and has a lot of milk and the Colette family kitten seeks her abandoning his own distraught mother whose milk dries up. You can tell that Colette has observed animals very closely like many countryside children. These minute details captured so vividly remind me of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

A qui vit aux champs et se sert de ses yeux, tout devient miraculeux et simple. Il y a beau temps que nous trouvions naturel qu’une lice nourrît un jeune chat, qu’une chatte choisît, pour dormir, le dessus de la cage où chantaient des serins verts confiants et qui, parfois, tiraient du bec, au profit de leur nid, quelques poils soyeux de la dormeuse.

“To anyone who lives in the fields and uses his or her eyes, everything becomes miraculous and simple.We had long since felt that it was quite natural that a she-hound would feed a kitten, that a female cat would choose as her sleeping place the top of a cage where trusting green canaries sang, and who sometimes with their beaks pulled out a few silky hairs from the sleeping animal to build their nests.“

Beneath this tranquil surface, there is something simmering that threatens to disturb the harmony. There is a sense of melancholy pervading the air although Colette doesn’t allude to it explicitly. There are hints of financial trouble. I was especially intrigued by the mysterious Juliette and her crowning glory- the girl who is such a bookworm that even when she is sick with typhoid and forbidden to read, she lights matchsticks at night or strains to read clandestinely with nothing but the help of moonlight. Her in laws are not satisfied with her dowry and forbid her from visiting her parents. What secret sorrows lurk behind the thick and dark veil of hair! Who will rescue this Rapunzel from her tower? And why is she referred to repeatedly as an ‘ingrate’ when she is avoiding her parents only because she is afraid of her in laws’ ire? When we write a memoir with the distance of years between us, it affects our objectivity and we tend to gloss over unpleasant or uncomfortable details. Colette doesn’t want to break the spell of those halcyon days of childhood.

We don’t want the spell to break either. Colette summons up a childhood paradise imbued with delight and magic. Yet from the beginning, we are aware of the transience of the house, the garden and the inhabitants. From the very first chapter entitled,” Where are the children?” where Sido is frantically trying to round up the children who are in the garden playing games or hiding on tree tops with their books, we know that they will be leaving the maternal Eden behind. And that eventually their mother will leave them too and they would be left wondering where their mother was just as she was anxious about them.

Maison et jardin vivent encore, je le sais, mais qu’importe si la magie les a quittés, si le secret est perdu qui ouvrait — lumière, odeurs, harmonie d’arbres et d’oiseaux, murmure de voix humaines qu’a déjà suspendu la mort — un monde dont j’ai cessé d’être digne?…

“The house and garden still exist, I know it, but of what use is that if their magic has left them and if their secret has been lost- the secret that once opened up a whole world to me- light, scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?”

The book describes three generations of people who even share names and nicknames. Colette’s full name has her mother’s name Sidonie in it and she took her father’s last name as her first name and passed it on to her own daughter along with her nickname Bel-Gazou. Even though homes and people vanish out of their lives, there is this continuity in retaining the names along with the memories through the generations of this particular family.

And yet, the most amazing part of the book is its universality: it transported me to my own childhood ,which, strangely, was nothing like Colette’s; it made me nostalgic for a place or state of mind that wasn’t even there or perhaps was there in fragments. I used to relate to Minet- Chéri, or the young Colette; now on re-reading the book, I wonder if I have been a mother like Sido to my children in some small way and if I have provided them with enough experiences for sweet reminiscences. All I know is that as they take wing, I am left to lament like her: ” Where are the children?”

* The translations are all mine.

 

The Goat Thief

Language is no bar when it comes to reading good literature provided one has access to excellent translations. I only have to think of all the Russian literature I have devoured without knowing a word of Russian. One area of literature that has remained relatively unexplored till recently is regional writing from India. The market is flooded with works by Indian writers writing in English but the rich range of works in local languages from India has only recently become accessible thanks to dedicated translators who have not only elevated translation to an art but have also made it an industry in its own right.

One such work that I read recently is a collection of short stories entitled The Goat Thief, written by the prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the stories paint a vivid picture of life in the countryside – the slow and languorous passing of the days, the sprawling rice fields under the scorching rays of the sun, mischievous children climbing up palm trees and the petty gossip of the villagers on the ‘pyol’. The everyday events describing family and village life sometimes take a dark and melancholic turn. It doesn’t take much for the ordinary to become ominous, the mundane to transform into the macabre.

In the Preface to this collection of stories, Murugan compares the art of writing a short story to designing a ‘kolam’ or floor art made with rice flour in many Tamil homes. According to him, it could be a simple design with just four dots by hand or a more intricate one but there is a geometrical pattern and if something is amiss, you fix the flaw by perhaps placing a flower on the design and you follow the same method with a story. Though his stories are very vividly described, I thought they were not developed enough. Murugan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension but there is no definite plot and the stories end abruptly. I am usually a fan of ambiguous endings. I don’t need all the loose ends tied up but I need something to work with. There should be some sort of a twist or an open ended conclusion at least. In my opinion, the ‘kolam’ pattern is left incomplete by Murugan in almost all of his stories.

Photo- Kolams of India Website

The stories are well-written and I was struck by the importance Murugan gives to inanimate objects. They are often anxiety provoking and they serve to define or explain the characters. They are endowed with human attributes and sometimes even with supernatural powers. In ‘The Well’, a grown man is having a delightful time swimming with a group of children but the story takes on a sinister turn. The well that ‘held a hoard of miracles within’, the well that was ‘full of compassion’ becomes a death pit. Even the innocent children turn into evil ‘demons’.

In ‘Musical Chairs’, an object becomes a bone of contention between a newly married couple. They have a peculiar attachment to a chair which the husband seems to monopolize and the wife insists on purchasing her own chair. He covets her chair too and what ensues is a battle of wills. In ‘Mirror of Innocence’, the parents and grandmother of a little girl are baffled by her constant sobbing in the middle of the night. She refuses to sleep and rejects all her toys. The parents finally realize that she is asking for a ‘uppu kundaan’ or a salt bowl which they use to scoop sugar. A worthless object becomes a source of agony for the child and her parents who pass a sleepless night. 

Murugan seems to have a strange fascination with excrement. Yes, shit. There are two stories in this collection dealing with the subject. He even penned an entire collection of stories centered around shit entitled Pee Kadaigal ( funnily, the Tamil word for shit is ‘pee’.) or Shit Stories and in the Preface he mentions that the book is often not included or mentioned in the list of books authored by him at literary meetings as people are embarrassed or outraged by the title and theme. I did not find the topic revolting as such but as his descriptions are so striking, I had a hard time controlling the urge to throw up. I could literally see and smell the shit while reading.

In ‘The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl’, a newly married lady is bothered by the foul smell emanating from soggy rice fermenting in the large vat of left over food in the kitchen. Yet she doesn’t reduce the quantity in her cooking in case unexpected guests show up. Her husband solves the problem by pouring the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl. Literally the rice is deposited in shit. The toilet bowl shrieks, screams and howls with hunger pangs every day in anticipation of the left over rice and becomes an insatiably hungry beast. It even assumes the shape of a skull. The lady is so frightened that the toilet or her ‘adversary’ would gobble her up that she doesn’t go to the bathroom when her husband is not home.

Then there is a story entitled ‘Shit’ about five bachelor men who live in a house in a remote suburb enjoying their independence. A horrid stench enters their rooms. The pipe from the toilet to the septic tank had broken in the middle and a shit heap has accumulated at the back of the house.  A sweeper is willing to remove it for 500 rupees but they are annoyed and bargain with him despite his protest: “ I have to put my hand in your shit, sir.” It is heartbreaking to see this man from a lower caste viewed with disgust and treated with derision when he is trying to solve their filthy problem. A tumbler that was a coveted object becomes one of revulsion when handled by the sweeper. This is a powerful story about caste dynamics and the best and the most complete in the collection. Murugan may have a penchant for writing scatalogical stories but unfortunately I don’t fancy reading them despite their brilliance: they are described in such graphic details and are so visually powerful that I could literally feel and smell the shit in a visceral way. My poor olfactory buds were protesting vehemently. Again, in the shit stories, the toilet bowl and the tumbler are objects imbued with symbolic meaning.

Many of the stories have a supernatural element. There is a sense of foreboding in the air. In ‘The Night The Owls Stopped Crying’, the night watchman in a farm house hears that a ghost of a young girl gang raped and killed resides on the property. He believes he senses her presence and starts having conversations with her.  

The stories also capture helplessness and the feeling of being trapped physically. In the title story, ‘The Goat Thief’ when Boopathy, the thief, realizes he is being pursued for stealing a goat, he jumps into a torrent of sewage water-  he is surrounded by all sides by the villagers and escape is impossible. There are thickets of sedge grass and snakes and insects in the water and he gets trapped in a patch of quicksand. His legs are buried deeper and deeper in the mire.

The remaining stories are snapshots of village life in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the account of an old woman entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her great grandson in the summer or the incident when a grown man regresses to his childhood by playing with young children in the well or the story of an old man with a thatched shed who is tormented by jealousy on seeing a younger man build a house with a tiled roof, Murugan brings the bucolic countryside to life on every page.

The stories are evocative and awaken all our senses. They capture the local color very effectively. As an Indian and specifically as a Tamilian, I could relate to a lot of the cultural elements as observed in the behavior of the characters- applying holy ash on the forehead, praying to the local clan Goddess and believing in the power of the evil eye. The stories have a folktale feel to them- I can imagine them being narrated in the village square in front of a banyan tree. The translator has done an excellent job retaining the flavor of the original idiomatic expressions.

The stories were engaging but I felt they could have been developed further. They also did not resonate that much with me as I felt they were a little androcentric. I understand that they are penned from a man’s perspective but I think Murugan could have focused a bit more on the women and their issues. In some of the stories, he hints at the sense of loneliness and displacement felt by newly married women in their new homes. I wish he would have dwelt a little more on that subject. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start with a collection of his short stories. Perumal Murugan is a prolific writer in all genres and most well known for his novels. I should get hold of one of his novels next for I have a feeling that the ‘kolam’ pattern may then turn out to be not just beautiful and intricate, but complete.

 

 

 

 

Olive, Again!

When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way…You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything.– Olive, Again

Oh Godfrey, our crotchety and cantankerous Olive is back and it is a pleasure to visit this old friend again, who, in the interim, has become even older and a tad wiser. Olive Kitteridge left us with a widowed Olive, estranged from her only son Christopher and enjoying a budding friendship with fellow senior citizen, Jack Kennison. You can read my blog post on Olive Kitteridge here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/olive-kitteridge/

The dreary quotidian life of this retired high school math teacher resumes in this new book, Olive, Again which I wouldn’t call a sequel but a continuation for it picks up where Olive Kitteridge left and has the same flavor as its predecessor. The only difference is that the considerably older Olive suffers a lot more loneliness now and is faced with the frightening and impending prospect of death. She is still the same old opinionated and outspoken Olive who has retained most of her ‘oliveness’ but seems just a little more mellowed by life.

The structure of the new book is pretty much the same like the previous one- a series of stories or rather snapshots of life of the residents of the fictitious seaside town of Crosby, Maine, pivoting around the protagonist Olive, who, at times, only makes a passing appearance. These interconnected vignettes depict the ordinary lives of ordinary people who go about their humdrum lives and routines with aplomb but struggle and hide their sadness behind masks. In the course of the book, Olive Kitteridge ages from her seventies well into her eighties, becomes widowed twice and moves to an assisted living facility.

What do you do when life throws curveballs at you? The stories are about people struggling with alcoholism, infidelity, suicide, illness and the painful complexity of relationships. To add to those problems are the inevitable indignities of aging- from the nuisance and embarrassment of incontinence and buying adult diapers furtively to facing a decline in faculties and physical mobility and dealing with the ensuing isolation and depression. When Olive consoles Cindy Combs who is battling cancer, she says: “You know, Cindy, if you should be dying, if you do die, the truth is—we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth.” It’s not a matter of if but a question of when and what we can do to live our last days with as much dignity as possible.

Olive marries Jack, a former professor at Harvard who was kicked out on allegations of sexual assault. Along with the humiliation, he is now grappling with guilt for having cheated on his deceased wife. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander too. He is suddenly faced with the crushing realization that his wife cheated on him too. Olive herself admits that she had an ‘almost affair’ while married to Henry. Whether they cheated or were tempted to cheat, they still love and miss their former spouses. And that’s the beauty of the novel-it addresses all the grey areas and paradoxes of life. Olive and Jack are both grieving their spouses and come together in their loneliness. It is never too late to love even if age has taken a toll on their bodies- even if Jack admits that being with Olive was like ”kissing a barnacle covered whale” and even if he is mortified by his own expanding and very conspicuous girth.

Both Olive and Jack try to repair their fractured relationships with their children. The homophobic Jack comes to terms with his daughter’s sexual orientation. In “The Motherless Child”, Christopher visits Olive with his wife Annabelle and four children, in an attempt at reconciliation. Olive tries her best despite some uneasy moments and is frustrated that the grandchildren are not warming up to her. She overhears Ann call her a narcissist. Ann has recently lost her mother and Olive wonders if she herself raised a motherless child. She has become more self aware and introspective and confronts her own imperfections. Yet when she is hospitalized later, Christopher visits her so frequently that the doctor remarks that she must have been a very good mother to him, leaving Olive confused and unconvinced.

Olive has the capacity to make you laugh and to break your heart too. At a ‘stupid” baby shower where she shows up without a gift and is annoyed by the tacky modern rituals of youngsters, she helps a woman deliver her baby in the back of her own car. Olive visits Cindy Combs who is suffering from cancer and craves company. No one visits her out of awkwardness or fear. But Olive shows up and is there for her. In “Heart”, she suffers a heart attack and befriends two of the nurse’s aides who take care of her; Halima a Somali girl who lives in the nearby town of Shirley Falls where Somali refugees have settled and experience xenophobia and Betty, a Trump supporter who gets on her nerves. Olive is very kind to Halima and in spite of her political differences with Betty, she feels compassion for her when she hears that she has carried a torch secretly for Jerry Skyler all her life and wonders “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.” And even Olive felt this love for Betty despite the bumper sticker on her truck.

In the end it all comes down to the power of connection- feeling heard and emotionally supported by another human being.When life doesn’t make sense, these bonds give a meaning and purpose to it. And sometimes you make the discovery that there are kindred spirits. Cindy Combs and Olive realize that they both have a similar appreciation for the February light in the winter sky. In “Helped”, Suzanne Larkins is adapting to the death of her father and is plagued with guilt over an affair she had. Her mother who is suffering from dementia makes a devastating revelation. She reaches out to her family lawyer Bernie Green in a moment of tenderness and they discover they have a lot in common. In “The Poet”, Olive has lunch with a former student Andrea L’Rieux who has become the Poet Laureate and who depicts Olive and her loneliness in a poem. Even if it is not a flattering image, Olive recognizes that:  “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.”  

   After being widowed again, in her assisted living facility she befriends Isabelle Daigneault, a character from one of her previous novels, Amy and Isabelle and it is touching when the two ladies come up with a schedule of checking on each other twice a day to make sure they have not fallen dead or fainted in their rooms. Characters from other novels like The Burgess Boys put in appearances reinforcing the idea of a community of familiar people, that not only Olive bumps into in town but that the reader encounters again like a long lost friend.

 There are two stories that add a discordant note to the collection. In “Cleaning”, Kayley Callaghan, an eighth grader cleans house for Mrs.  Ringrose and regularly unbuttons her blouse for Mr. Ringrose in exchange for money. There is a hint of pedophilia and I can’t imagine a young girl enjoying doing this for a much older man. In “The End of Civil War Days”, a  daughter reveals to her estranged parents that she is a dominatrix and is going to star in a new documentary. One wonders why Strout felt compelled to add these two stories considerably different in tone from the others and in which Olive hardly plays a role.

The new book is very similar to the first one. Her creator herself exclaims: “That Olive! She continues to surprise me, continues to enrage me, continues to sadden me, and continues to make me love her.” Olive is unabashedly and unapologetically herself- a curmudgeon. The only difference is that “that old bag, ‘that pickle’ is just a little bit softer and reveals a vulnerable side to her. She has positively impacted students who still remember her little nuggets of wisdom. We’ve all encountered Olives. And who knows, maybe we have a bit of her within us too?

There is sadness pervading the whole work with little rays of hope here and there like the sunlight streaming in through the windows which seems to be a cherished leitmotiv in Strout’s works. Life is hard and we can only make it bearable seeking those few evanescent moments of love and connection and reveling in the beauties of nature. The beautiful cover with falling leaves illustrates the impermanence of life. Life is enigmatic and ephemeral just as each passing season in New England and the only thing we can do, to borrow the words of Suzanne Larkin in “Helped’ is “To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”

 

Night Mail

A Still From The 1936 Documentary Film “Night Mail”.

The postal service has been in the news lately in the US, embroiled in political controversy. The discussion made me reminisce about the good old days when the dull post office building was imbued with enchantment and adventure with the comings and goings of letters from near and far and from near and dear ones. I thought of a delightful poem entitled Night Mail written by W.H. Auden in 1936 for a British documentary film of the same name which follows the LMS ( The London, Midland and Scottish Railway) mail train from London to Scotland. The poem is especially charming to me as it combines my love of trains and of letters, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to the Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

This simple rhyming poem describes the journey of The Night Mail train as it leaves London and crosses the border into Scotland. It passes through the countryside of cotton fields, rocky lands and steep slopes almost merging into the landscape, for even the birds and sheep dogs have become used to its presence. From the countryside, it reaches the industrial world of Glasgow ” Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.”. It stands for punctuality and efficiency reaching its destination on time. It carries all sorts of letters from all over the world for all sorts of people who are still asleep, and whether they are having happy dreams or horrid nightmares, they will wake up with the joyous anticipation of receiving news.

I immediately notice that the train is personified as a woman and referred to as ‘she’, emphasizing its emotional impact. I am also struck by the hypnotic rhythm of the poem. Auden paid special attention to the meter to mimic the movement of a train as it moves down the tracks. The pace is steady, builds up to match the acceleration of the train and eventually slows down as it approaches stations. The repetition of words throughout the poem gives the effect of the monotonous chugging along of the train. As the pace picks up, the rhymes become quick and become internal rhymes ( “Letters of thanks, letters from banks.. Letters of joy from girl and boy” ).

The poet has made inventive use of poetic devices like alliteration, enjambment and anaphora. There are many alliterations and in one instance, the poet has employed a poetic technique called ‘sibilance’ as there is a hissing or sibilant quality to the alliteration ( “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder /Snorting noisily as she passes”). The use of ‘enjambment’ or the continuation of a line to another without a punctuation mark ( “In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs / Men long for news.”) helps to achieve a fast pace to emulate the ascent of the racing locomotive as the reader moves on to the next line without pause. ‘Anaphora’ or the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive lines ( “Letters”, ”And”, “Towards” “The” and “Asleep” ) is an effective rhetorical device to emphasize a repetitive and mechanical action.

As you can see, this is a poem that begs to be read aloud. In fact Auden is believed to have written it with the aid of a stopwatch for the film Night Mail. The poem was set to music by Benjamin Britten and was narrated towards the end of the film by John Grierson in a distinctive and almost modern rapper style rendition. These talented men endowed the prosaic documentary about the functioning of the railways with a unique poetic charm. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmciuKsBOi0

In today’s world of digital communication, letter writing seems like an old fashioned practice. I don’t think there is any ping that could compare to the tactile sensation of writing on pretty stationery with a delicate fountain pen and sticking the stamp with your saliva to the envelope. There are so many other joys that go along with epistolary delights– penmanship and philately to name two. But the moment that brings the most happiness is the anticipation of receiving a letter whether followed by elation or disappointment at the news- a fat or thin envelope from a college, a letter of congratulations or rejection, a billet- doux from your beloved or a break up letter, the announcement of a new arrival or a condolence letter. At the end of the day, whether it is a text message on a smartphone or a letter that arrives by mail, it is all about tapping into the human need for connection. “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”


What Maisie Didn’t Know

First published in serial form in 1897, What Maisie Knew is a heartbreaking story of the impact of divorce on a young and sensitive child and a commentary on upper middle class Victorian society and its morality or lack thereof. Right off the bat, I admit that I find Henry James’ dense and digressive style of writing very off-putting. The only reason I made my way through the labyrinth is because I know his stories are interesting and insightful. I am not the kind of reader who skims through a difficult sentence; I will read it again and again till I get its import. With all due respect to the author, sometimes his circumlocutious prose has terrible syntax and does not make sense grammatically. Take any of his contemporaries- Edith Wharton, D. H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde or Sinclair Lewis to name a few. Their language is lyrical without being bombastic and a pleasure to read! I only trudged through What Maisie Knew as I found the story fascinating.

Beale and Ida Farange are getting divorced and get shared custody of their six year old daughter Maisie. A judge rules that she spend six months with her mother and six with her father. She is like a shuttlecock tossed between them and made a pawn in their disputes. Each parent sends her to the other with little messages. Her father tells her to tell her mother that she is a ‘horrid, nasty pig.’ The parents are both involved in adulterous liasions and make her their confidante. She is caught in between the mud slinging and in their adult world of adultery. She learns to play dumb as a coping mechanism. At first each parent denies her access to the other and later both parents try to dump her on the other. They must be among the worst if not the worst parents in fiction! 

“What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel of bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.”  

Beale marries Maisie’s governess Miss Overmore and Ida marries Sir Claude. But in a soap opera kind of twist, her step parents end up falling for each other. She is shuttled back and forth between the different adults of her life and caught in their web of sexual intrigue, deceit and drama. Her two step parents are only slightly better than her own parents. With all the different partners and changing last names, it is no surprise that:

“She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when—the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs. Beale—with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.”

The only person who is a loyal and constant presence in her life is her stodgy governess Mrs. Wix who has lost her own daughter and thinks of Maisie as her replacement. But even Mrs. Wix is not much different from the other conniving adults who use Maisie to further their own interests. At first, the innocence of the child acts as a foil to the vileness of the adults. Gradually, she gets corrupted by all the adult machinations she has been exposed to and has a precociousness that is quite disturbing for her age. Her childhood is stolen away from her.

Everyone stakes their claim on Maisie but she gravitates toward Mrs. Wix and her mother’s second husband Sir Claude who is involved with her father’s second wife, Miss Overmore, now Mrs. Beale. She is happy to have brought them together and encourages their affair. Sir Claude loves Maisie but he is a weak man completely besotted with Mrs. Beale. And Mrs. Wix has a huge crush on Sir Claude herself and uses Maisie to get closer to him. Oh, what a tangled web!

I was so moved by the plight of the child that I almost forgot she was fictional and wished to lift her from the pages of the book and give her a hug. She is abused mentally, emotionally and verbally. Her father calls her a donkey and a monster to her face. Miss Overmore calls her a hypocrite and a wretch. Her mother Ida accuses her of being ‘a dreadful, dismal, deplorable little thing’ and ‘a precious idiot, a little horror’. Once when she returns home after a long absence, Ida doesn’t see her for three whole days. Besides, she is isolated from other children and her education is abandoned.

Eventually her father and mother abandon her too and leave for America and South Africa, respectively. At first her father says he is willing to take her along with him to America but the poor child is perceptive enough to sense that he does not mean it and she declines his offer and decides to go to France with Sir Claude.

The choice of France for the denouement is interesting. They are away from the restrictive English society, and Maisie, on the cusp of adolescence, blossoms there to full maturity. She feels at home in Boulogne and has an awakening and discovers who she is. She also sees Sir Claude for who he is. She recognizes his fear of Mrs. Beale and is aware of his lies and ultimately she has the courage to give him an ultimatum.

There are romantic undertones in Sir Claude’s relationship with Maisie. To me the strange nature of their relationship became apparent in the last few chapters. James is fascinated with the subject of sexual repression and development in children and in Maisy’s precocity, we see seeds of The Turn of the Screw which was published a year later. Maisie had always put Sir Claude on a pedestal since she was a little girl as he treated her with a lot of kindness. Maisie’s exact age is left in the dark but she is probably a teenager or close to being one by the end of the novel. Though nothing explicit is said, there are lots of hints dropped like the way they almost leave for Paris together and how their closeness arouses the jealousy of the other two women. His body language becomes different towards her. One wonders if he is aware of the erotic tension and tries to defuse it by missing the train to Paris on purpose, needless to say, an honorable action on his part.

Maisie has to do what no child should be forced to do; she has to pick her guardian. She makes her choice after some deliberation but the ending left me in tears. It was probably the best outcome for Maisie and possibly influenced by an epiphany she had from the sight of the statue of the Madonna or the ‘high gilt Virgin’ in Boulogne. I feel that not one among her potential guardians was fit to take care of her! So I suppose any ending would have left me in tears. At first I thought that Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale were the most suited in spite of their adulterous liaison which was a scandal at the time. I thought they had the child’s best interests but Mrs. Beale turned out to be quite manipulative and selfish. I also didn’t think Mrs. Wix, the voice of Victorian morality was fit to be her guardian. She has bouts of anger and she uses Maisie as her confidante and accuses her of having no moral compass disregarding the fact that she is a child who has no idea of the restrictions separating men and women in Victorian society.

You wonder if Maisie will survive her childhood. She is amazingly resilient but this kind of toxicity catches up with you. I was struck by these powerful lines that appear early in the novel:

“She found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn’t big enough to play…A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later”

The stuff children are not able to understand or process when they are little is stored in the subconscious and surfaces laters in life- in their worldview, in their behavior and in the relationships they have with others. Our childhood leaves an indelible mark on our adulthood.

I love the way that in spite of the narration being in the third person, James is able to put himself in the mind of a very young girl. There is a gap between what Maisie sees and comprehends and what we deduce as readers. This is a brilliant tour de force as the readers understand what Maisie doesn’t know. What Maisie Knew is a disturbing and disheartening story with an unusual plot. You wonder how many Maisies have lived and continue living in the real world! Alas! If only they had Child Protective Services back then! 

The Painted Veil

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I recently read The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, selected by my book club. It turned out to an apt book to read during the pandemic as a part of the plot is set in a place in interior China, besieged by cholera. Although cholera is a water borne disease, the fear experienced by the population is eerily familiar. As the outbreak sweeps through the region, people are dying like flies, there are daily burials and abandoned corpses on the street. People are ordered to quarantine at home and doctors work around the clock to attend to the ill. Death hovers everywhere and the precariousness of life hits you with uneasy relevance.

The cholera epidemic is however not the main theme of the book but an important backdrop which triggers a transformation in the main protagonist. Kitty Garstin is a beautiful but shallow and frivolous socialite who marries for the wrong reason. When her younger sister announces her own engagement, she panics and accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a shy and boring bacteriologist, her total opposite. She is not in love with her husband but he seems to worship her. The story is set in the English colony of Hong Kong in the 1920s. While Walter is entirely absorbed in his work, Kitty has a torrid affair with Charles Townsend, the charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary who is married with three children.

When Walter discovers her adulterous affair, he gives her an ultimatum:  She should either move with him to a remote region in China ravaged by the cholera epidemic where he has volunteered to help in fighting the disease or prepare to be brought to court on the charge of adultery which will ruin her reputation and that of her lover’s too. He also gives her another option: if she convinces Charles Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her, he will move out of their way and she can stay in Hong Kong. Kitty is delighted by this unexpected suggestion but when she confronts her lover with the proposal, he refuses to leave his wife. She is heartbroken and agrees to go with her husband to fight the cholera epidemic in Mei-tan-fu. Walter must have been confident that Charles wouldn’t leave his wife. But Kitty failed to realize that he was a shallow cad and is utterly devastated. Walter knows that his wife doesn’t love him and utters these heartbreaking words, among the saddest on unrequited love in literature:

I never expected you to love me, I didn’t see any reason that you should, I never thought myself very lovable. I was thankful to be allowed to love you and I was enraptured when now and then I thought you were pleased with me or when I noticed in your eyes a gleam of good-humoured affection. I tried not to bore you with my love; I knew I couldn’t afford to do that and I was always on the lookout for the first sign that you were impatient with my affection. What most husbands expect as a right I was prepared to receive as a favour.”

Kitty is not a sympathetic character at first; she is quite loathsome. And Walter appears to be a saint. But why does he wish to take Kitty to a cholera infested place, risking both their lives? Is there more to this than meets the eye? While in Mei-tan-fu, he becomes increasingly cold and inscrutable, she is filled with remorse and begins to appreciate his good qualities and respects him more. She befriends Waddington, a local customs official who helps her find meaning in life and introduces her to Taoism. “Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whiskey and some in love. It is all the same Way, and it leads nowhither.”  He also accompanies her to visit Catholic nuns in a local convent who end up having a profound impact on her. She finds their values of self-sacrifice, duty and charity awe-inspiring and starts working with the orphaned and sick children there. Maugham shows a parallel between the Christian detachment and self denial of the nuns and Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. Kitty starts pondering the mystery of existence and realizes that there is more to life than the petty problems she faces.

The story has a lot of twists and turns which I don’t want to reveal in case anyone reading my post is planning to read the book. Does the couple reconcile and find happiness together? Or does Kitty go back to the arms of her insincere lover? Are they able to emerge unscathed from the epidemic that ravages the region? Meanwhile Kitty discovers that she is pregnant as if life weren’t complicated enough!

Maugham has the amazing skill to make us change the way we perceive both the main characters. Although Kitty was a disagreeable character at first, by the end of the book you are more forgiving of her and understand her actions better. She was the product of her environment and raised by a hen pecked father and a vain and self absorbed mother whose only agenda was to groom her daughters for marriage. Walter himself was superficial and married Kitty only for her looks although he was aware of her flaws.

After going through the dark night of the soul, Kitty reassesses her life and the choices she made. Human beings have the capacity to learn from mistakes and grow but it is a two step forward one step backward process as we see in Kitty’s case. She becomes more sympathetic to her father’s plight and both father and daughter are united in their grief and learn to express their love for each other.  There is a beautiful feminist message at the end of the story.

My only criticism with the book is the dehumanizing portrayal of Chinese children. Kitty Fane has a distaste for the Chinese orphans who “…sallow skinned, stunted with their flat noses, .. looked to her hardly human. They were repulsive.”These derogatory epithets made me cringe. One could say that it is the character’s perspective and not the author’s but in general there are no significant Chinese characters in the story. They are nameless and lumped together. There is a Manchu princess, the mistress of Waddington who with her painted doll face is exoticized to such a ridiculous degree that it erases her agency as a human being. The story has to be read in the colonial context of the era.

The title of the novel is taken from the opening line of a sonnet by Shelley, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call Life..”. If we lift the veil we discover the truth that lies beneath the painted veil. Is it better to live an authentic life and face the realities of imperfect relationships rather than dissembling or living in denial? Does it matter as life is an illusion anyway? Maugham was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy and the veil could refer to the Buddhist concept of maya or illusion.

There are two other literary allusions in the story. In the preface to the book, Maugham writes that he was inspired by a canto in Dante’s Purgatorio in writing the book and he explains how he proceeded from a story rather than from a character.“I think that this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something…” The second intertextual reference is to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. I am refraining on commenting on both the references as they would reveal plot details but they add a lot of depth to the story.

The Painted Veil is more than a story of forbidden love- it is a beautiful tale of self discovery and redemption. Kitty Fane often gazes at the vast and dreamlike Chinese landscape from a curtained chair lifted by coolies. Her journey through interior China is a moral one too and the image of her, veiled, at a height and distance is an apt metaphor for many things- the colonial gaze, her spiritual awakening and last but not the least, the painted veil that is life.

 

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall….

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Dorian Gray, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of the most iconic characters in literature. The basic premise of his story is well known. While his portrait ages, he enjoys everlasting youth and beauty. “I bet he/she has a painting in the attic somewhere” is a phrase used even by those who haven’t read the book to compliment people who look younger than their age. His story is everyone’s story. We all have a little bit of Dorian Gray within us for who hasn’t harbored a desire to drink from the fountain of eternal youth, to stay unwrinkled and unblemished forever?

Basil Hallward, an artist who lives only for his art, is utterly besotted with the amazingly handsome Dorian, his muse. He paints a strikingly beautiful portrait of him but does not want to exhibit it to the world as he has put too much of himself into it. While Dorian sits for his picture, he meets Lord Henry Wotton, Hallward’s old friend who also ends up being captivated by him. Lord Henry encourages him to cherish his good looks and lead a life devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Basil believes him to be a bad influence on Dorian and asks him to refrain from advising him.

He speaks too late though for Dorian is already succumbing to Lord Henry’s influence. His words prompt him to unwittingly make a wish that will change his life forever. “ If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” He wishes his appearance would remain the same forever just as it is in the portrait and his wish is miraculously granted. He keeps his beauty intact and remains unsullied while the portrait pays the price for his excesses by changing into an ugly picture and becoming a grotesque reminder of his dishonorable behavior.

Lord Henry Wotton becomes Dorian’s mentor, philosopher and guide. He tests his theories and philosophies on the impressionable young man and gives him a book that serves as a blueprint for how he should live his life. Dorian lives a life of extravagance and debauchery ruining himself and those around him. When he breaks a young girl’s heart and drives her to commit suicide, he notices an evil glint in the eye of his portrait. With each of his transgressions, he remains pure and untainted but the figure in the portrait bears the burden of his actions and withers. His soul becomes more dark and damaged as he descends further and further into depravity and his picture continues reflecting the ravages of his lifestyle.

Dorian Gray’s situation reminds us of Faust’s pact with the devil for he is eternally enslaved to the picture. Even the sight of the aging picture fills him with grief. There is no deal with the devil here although one could say that Lord Henry is akin to the devil. He takes a fiendish delight in being the instigator while remaining unscathed himself as a passive observer.

Basil and Henry seem, respectively, like the good and evil conscience of Dorian’s nature. It is interesting that Oscar Wilde had once remarked: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Like Basil, Wilde was a devotee of the cult of beauty and believed in the purity of art but was ostracized by society for being gay. Lord Henry could have been his public persona, the delightful dandy who regaled everyone at parties with his witticisms. And perhaps, Wilde wished to be loved and admired as Dorian and to indulge in a licentious lifestyle without suffering the consequences of his actions.

The book is known for its homosexual undertones. I would even say it is explicitly homoerotic. You don’t have to read between the lines. When it was published, it was considered ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’ and was used against Wilde during his trial with the result that he was eventually prosecuted and imprisoned ‘for acts of gross indecency’ with other men. The fetishized descriptions of Dorian mirror Wilde’s own fascination with the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas with whom he had an affair and who, like Dorian, had a similar resemblance to Adonis, the Greek God of beauty and desire.

The story begins as an amusing novel of manners reflecting the aristocratic lifestyle of old Britain with intellectual and witty conversations in the drawing room and friendships that blossom over tea and strolls in the garden. There are male characters picking flowers for their buttonholes, perfuming themselves with exotic scents and fainting at the drop of a hat, reflecting the dandyism of the era but slowly the story takes a darker turn and incorporates Gothic elements of violence, horror and doubling- the portrait functioning as Dorian’s doppelgänger.

Dorian devotes himself to the study and acquisition of beautiful objects like tapestries,  embroideries, perfumes, musical instruments and jewels. His journey through the dark and dingy streets frequenting an opium den and encountering men of disrepute contrasts with the opulence he enjoys and reflects the lifestyle of unbridled hedonism that he has embraced. For all his vices, I didn’t view the morally depraved Dorian as a villain. I felt the poor guy needed a mother figure to knock sense into him. Eventually his conscience catches up with him and we have one of the best and most brilliant endings in literature.

The ending seems to contradict the preface to the novel which is a meditation on the nature of art and the concept of aestheticism or art for art’s sake. The novel paradoxically has a moral message although Wilde wasn’t a moralist. The question we have to ask ourselves is if art can be be truly beautiful without conveying some truth!

I view the book as a cautionary tale. It is a study of vanity, selfishness, shallowness and moral turpitude. It is a philosophical and psychological novel with a fascinating look into human nature. What is the meaning of beauty, what is the true value of external beauty when it is ephemeral and what is the price we are willing to pay for eternal youth and beauty? Could you be beautiful on the outside without inner beauty? It is a timeless story that addresses these questions that are as relevant as ever in our current times with our unhealthy obsession on physical beauty.

Oscar Wilde’s prose is rich in dialogue in keeping with his talent as a playwright. This book which happens to be his only novel is full of quotable quotes- little nuggets of wisdom mouthed by Lord Henry. Even Dorian remarks on his caustic wit : ‘’You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.’’ We could call these epigrams Henryisms or rather Wildisms for Wilde was well known for his acerbic wit. I had read this fin de siècle novel as a teenager and I enjoyed revisiting it again now with a deeper understanding. There is a misogynistic worldview espoused by some of the characters and that’s the only flaw I can reproach the author with in an otherwise outstanding piece of literature. I leave you with some of the humorous repartee as I conclude my post:

“….there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it & your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”

“Yes; she is a peacock in everything but beauty.”

“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”

“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”  

“……each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion.” 

“Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.”

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” 

“The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future”

And last but not the least, the aphorism that could apply to the book itself: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

The Picture Of  Dorian Gray is an introspective read that had me completely enthralled. Reading the book is like looking into a mirror and gazing at your own soul.

 

 

 

 

Social Distancing With Mrs. Dalloway!

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A recent article in The New Yorker points out that people are reaching for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to read during the pandemic. Mrs. Dalloway, the titular character of the book is preparing for a party she is hosting in the evening and goes about her day running errands around London. According to Evan Kindley, the writer of the piece, “At a time when our most ordinary acts—shopping, taking a walk—have come to seem momentous, a matter of life or death, Clarissa’s vision of everyday shopping as a high-stakes adventure resonates in a peculiar way…”and she adds, “We are all Mrs. Dalloway now…”. Clarissa Dalloway’s mundane activities laced with a feeling of impending doom strike a chord with the readers as “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” The fact that Clarissa Dalloway is possibly a survivor of the global influenza pandemic of 1918 adds to the book’s current relevance.

I read this book for the first time coincidentally during the pandemic and not because of it and I was awed by its structural virtuosity. Like Joyce’s Ulysses which could have served as its inspiration, it is set in the course of a single day. The book is essentially plotless and it seems like there is not a lot going on but there is a lot going on as during the course of that day when Clarissa is planning her party and thinking about buying flowers, she reminisces about her childhood, her youth, her loves, her life and the choices she has made.There are moments of epiphany within the mundane moments.

Clarissa is not just Mrs. Dalloway, the lonely wife of a prominent MP in the conservative government but an intriguing woman with a past. An old flame Peter Walsh who has just returned from India drops by on the afternoon of the party. Peter was madly in love with her but she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, the safe option who could provide her with a stable life. She may have been in love with Sally too, a wild girl from her youth who also ends up making an appearance at the party.

Parallel to Clarissa’s story is the story of the young veteran, Septimus Smith who suffers from what was known then as shell shock and is now referred to as PTSD. As he retreats more and more from reality and loses his ability to feel, his wife and caretaker Rezia desperately yearns for babies and holds on to her impossible dreams.

In this modernist novel, the whole narrative flows in a stream of consciousness style from one person to the other, from one flashback to the other. This technique allows us to enter the minds of the characters- we know what they think and not just what they say or do. There are no chapters. Woolf subverts the traditional linear writing styles of literature and creates a new literary aesthetic. The narrative is disjointed and it is up to the readers to piece all the disparate strands together. The act of reading might seem like a tedious task and disorienting at first but ultimately becomes a transcendent experience.

Woolf employs a combination of free direct and indirect discourse, evident from the opening lines of the book itself:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. 

What a lark! What a plunge!” 

The use of indirect discourse is a technique that enables her to effortlessly meander in and out of her characters’ minds and capture their private thoughts. Along with the characters’ sensory experience of the world outside, there is an unceasing and undulating flow of interior action. Isn’t this exactly how our minds work, wandering from thought to thought and hurtling through time and space? She jumps to a new character without warning and yet the rambling style flows seamlessly and has a cadence to it. While reading, I marveled at Woolf’s ingenious use of free indirect speech. It’s sheer genius.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote that “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. She uses the metaphor in this novel to connect events and characters in an expanding web like structure with Mrs. Dalloway at the center and the other characters attached to her by threads around her however tenuous they might be.

“And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin 
thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain –drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.

 And Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whithbread hesitated at the corner of Conduit Street at the very moment that Millicent Bruton, lying on the sofa, let the thread snap; snored.”

The characters move back and forth in time. In a novel that is not in chronological order -where the past is constantly interspersed with the present, the bells of Big Ben are a constant reminder of the linear and inexorable passage of time. Big Ben’s regular tolling is also a reminder that time and tide wait for no one. Death is the only concrete and inevitable reality.

Death is a constant and menacing presence lurking around. Through the description of  Septimus’ PTSD, we have a penetrating insight into mental illness and how shoddily it was treated at the time. Clarissa loves life and escapes her sorrows by throwing parties (although tempted at times by death she doesn’t act on that impulse) whereas Septimus is in utter despair. It is then surprising to consider that Woolf intended Septimus to be Clarissa’s double. Her life affirming presence is a contrast to Septimus’ depressing state of mind; he is removed from the world while she throws herself heartily into it.

Although they seem to be polar opposites, the discerning reader can sense that they are two sides of the same coin. Apart from sharing the physical trait of a beak nose, they read or think of the same lines from Shakespeare: “Fear no more the heat ’o the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” The lines are from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and imply that death is not to be feared but celebrated. The two never meet but observe the same external events like the passing of a motor car and a skywriting plane. They may seem to be in different mental states but the line between sanity and insanity is a thin one and their two stories intersect with a forceful climax at the end.

Woolf suffered from bipolar disease and attempted suicide a few times before her final ‘successful’ attempt. I got goosebumps reading about death and suicide in the novel knowing that it eventually became her own story. I was struck by the recurring theme of waves and the sea for Woolf died by drowning and both Septimus and Clarissa identify with images of water. Even the writing style mimics the motion of water. The sentences and paragraphs with the ebb and flow of memories and thoughts are uncontrolled like the movement of water.

To go with the imagery of water, the novel addresses the concept of sexual fluidity. Septimus has sexual feelings for his commanding officer Evans and Clarissa reflecting on her youth thinks that the moment Sally Seton kissed her was the most exquisite moment of her life. She is definitely attracted to her and to Peter too. She could have had bisexual tendencies. She also wonders about the nature of her daughter’s relationship with her history teacher. Woolf was bold and ahead of her time in her exploration of repressed sexual desires given that Mrs. Dalloway was written during a period when homosexuality was considered an outrage.

The novel offers a glimpse into post war British society with its class structures, the falling Empire, increased industrialization and the devastation brought on by World War 1. It is also a window into human nature touching upon love and marriage, unfulfilled wishes, sexuality, mental illness, feminism, mortality, death and suicide. To me one of the most poignant moments of the story is when Richard buys a bouquet of roses for Clarissa with the intention of telling her he loves her but can’t bring himself to say the words but yet “she understood without his speaking.”The conflict between solitariness and connection is pronounced in an increasingly alienating world no matter how many glittering parties you host.

In the current time of social distancing, we don’t have the luxury of hosting parties like Clarissa but the novel resonates as just getting through the day by completing daily chores requires endurance under these grim circumstances. And we have the same existential thoughts like the characters …..What is life and how do we live and find meaning in it when it goes by in the blink of an eye? Along with physical confinement, there is that crushing feeling of loneliness and much like Clarissa who feels the need to socialize recognizing all the same that it is a superficial way of connecting, we turn to our phones- to social media and to zoom calls in a desperate attempt to reach out however shallow the connections might be.

Mrs. Dalloway is a challenging read as the narrative continuously shifts perspectives and leaps across time and space but I think that creates a powerful psychological effect and an almost real and palpable sense of the way the minds of the characters shift from one thought to the other. I think this is one of the most stylistically beautiful and brilliant books of the English language I have ever read. And during the pandemic it was one of the books that helped me get through my own day and routine just like Mrs. Dalloway’s daily activities provided some structure in a chaotic, uncertain world.

 

 

A View Without A Room

Do you wonder what happens to the characters in a book after finishing the last page and putting it down? Although it is exciting to imagine how their lives would have turned out, our visions of their futures do not always align with those of the authors of sequels. A continuation of another author’s book is not always a good idea. There are hundreds of sequels and spinoffs inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although a few are entertaining, they don’t live up to the original. Even the sequels written by the original authors fall far short of the primary text. The example that comes immediately to mind is The Testaments, the continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale which is entirely different in tone from its predecessor or Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman which reveals a very dark side to Atticus Finch compared to his portrayal in To Kill A Mockingbird. The readers do not want all the gaps filled. Endings are what make books amazing and some things are best left ambiguous or unanswered.  

I recently re-read The Room With A View by E. M. Forster. I was basking in that dreamy state of enchantment along with Lucy and George in the room with a view at the Pension Bertolini in Florence where they return for their honeymoon. Although Forster didn’t write a sequel as such, he returned to the characters fifty years later in an epilogue.

The book was published in 1908 and the author in 1958 imagined how their lives would have turned out. I had often wondered myself about the characters. Will they have children? Will they live happily ever after? In those fifty years they have lived through two world wars. I am a little nervous as I am not sure I want to know what happened to them. I am a die- hard romantic and didn’t want my illusions to be shattered but in the end, my curiosity got the better of me. 

Here’s the epilogue if you are interested in finding out how Forster envisioned the future of his characters. Warning: Read at your own peril. You risk disillusionment.  

A View without a Room
A Room with a View was published in 1908. Here we are in 1958 and it occurs to me to wonder what the characters have been doing during the interval. They were created even earlier than 1908. The Italian half of the novel was almost the first piece of fiction I attempted. I laid it aside to write and publish two other novels, and the returned to it and added the English half. It is not my preferred novel – The Longest Journey is that – but it may fairly be called the nicest. It contains a hero and heroine who are supposed to be good, good-looking and in love – and who are promised happiness. Have they achieved it?
Let me think.
Lucy (Mrs George Emersen) must now be in her late sixties, George in his early seventies – a ripe age, though not as ripe as my own. They are still a personable couple, and fond of each other and of their children and grandchildren. But where do they live? Ah, that is the difficulty, and that is why I have entitled this article ‘A View without a Room’. I cannot think where George and Lucy live.
After their Florentine honeymoon they probably settled down in Hampstead. No – in Highgate. That is pretty clear, and the next six years were from the point of view of amenity the best they ever experienced. George cleared out of the railway and got a better-paid clerkship in a government office, Lucy brought a nice little dowry along with her, which they were too sensible not to enjoy, and Miss Bartlett left them what she termed her little all. (Who would have thought it of Cousin Charlotte? I should never have thought anything else.) They had a servant who slept in, and were becoming comfortable capitalists when World War I exploded – the war that was to end war – and spoiled everything.
George instantly became a conscientious objector. He accepted alternative service, so did not go to prison, but he lost his government job and was out of the running for Homes for Heroes when peace came. Mrs Honeychurch was terribly upset by her son-in-law’s conduct.
Lucy now got on her high horse and declared herself a conscientious objector too, and ran a more immediate risk by continuing to play Beethoven. Hun music! She was overheard and reported, and the police called. Old Mr Emerson, who lived with the young couple, addressed the police at length. They told him he had better look out. Shortly afterwards he died, still looking out and confident that Love and Truth would see humanity through in the end.
They saw the family through, which is something. No government authorized or ever will authorize either Love or Truth, but they worked privately in this case and helped the squalid move from Highgate to Carshalton. The George Emersons now had two girls and a boy and were beginning to want a real home – somewhere in the country where they would take root and unobtrusively found a dynasty. But civilization was not moving that way. The characters in my other novels were experiencing similar troubles. Howard’s End is a hunt for a home. India is a Passage for Indians as well as English. No resting-place.
For a time Windy Corner dangled illusively. After Mrs Honeychurch’s death there was a chance of moving into that much loved house. But Freddy, who had inherited it, was obliged to sell and realize the capital for the upbringing of his family. And unsuccessful yet prolific doctor, Freddy could not do other than sell. Windy Corner disappeared, its garden was built over, and the name of Honeychurch resounded in Surrey no more.
In due course World War II broke out – the one that was to end with a durable peace. George instantly enlisted. Being both intelligent and passionate, he could distinguish between a Germany that was not much worse than England and a Germany that was devilish. At the age of fifty he could recognize in Hitlerism an enemy of the heart as well as of the head and the arts. He discovered that he loved fighting and had been starved by its absence, and also discovered that away from his wife he did not remain chaste.
For Lucy the war was less varied. She gave some music lessons and broadcast some Beethoven, who was quite all right this time, but the little flat at Watford, where she was trying to keep things together against George’s return, was bombed, the loss of her possessions and mementos was complete, and the same thing happened to their married daughter, away at Nuneaton.
At the front George rose to the rank of corporal, was wounded and taken prisoner in Africa, and imprisoned in Mussolini’s Italy, where he found the Italians sometimes sympathetic as they had been in his tourist days, and sometimes less sympathetic.
When Italy collapsed he moved northward through the chaos towards Florence. The beloved city had changed, but not unrecognizably. The Trinita*0224* Bridge had been destroyed, both ends of the Ponte Vecchio were in a mess, but the Piazza Signoria, where once a trifling murder had occurred, still survived. So did the district where the Pension Bertolini had once flourished – nothing damaged at all.
And George set out – as I did myself a few years later – to locate the particular building. He failed. For though nothing is damaged all is changed. The houses on that stretch of the Lungarno have been renumbered and remodelled and, as it were, remelted, some of the facades have been extended, others have shrunk, so that it is impossible to decide which room was romantic half a century ago. George had therefore to report to Lucy that the View was still there and that the Room must be there, too, but could not be found. She was glad of the news, although at that moment she was homeless. It was something to have retained a View, and, secure in it and in their love as long as they have one another to love, George and Lucy await World War III – the one that would end war and everything else, too.
Cecil Vyse must not be omitted from this prophetic retrospect. He moved out of the Emersons’ circle but was not altogether out of mine. With his integrity and intelligence he was destined for confidential work, and in 1914 he was seconded to Information or whatever the withholding of information was then entitled. I had an example of his propaganda, and a very welcome one, at Alexandria. A quiet little party was held on the outskirts of that city, and someone wanted a little Beethoven. The hostess demurred. Hun music might compromise us. But a young officer spoke up. ‘No, it’s all right,’ he said, ‘a chap who know about those things from the inside told me Beethoven’s definitely Belgian.’
The chap in question must have been Cecil. The mixture of mischief and culture is unmistakable. Our hostess was reassured, the ban was lifted, and the Moonlight Sonata shimmered into the desert.

At first I regretted reading this piece. I was disappointed…no, I was disenchanted. I wanted to freeze that moment for eternity when Lucy and George were on their honeymoon whispering sweet nothings and smothering each other with kisses.

I find out that George and Lucy were happily married. They had three children but no house to call their own. “Windy Corner disappeared, its garden was built over, and the name of Honeychurch resounded in Surrey no more..” is one sad little sentence. But surely you can build a home without owning a house?

George, a conscientious objector during World War 1 decided to enroll  when World War 2 broke out.”He discovered that he loved fighting and had been starved by its absence, and also discovered that away from his wife he did not remain chaste.”Oh no! So he was unfaithful to Lucy. So much for the sweet love story! My cousin pointed out that “he did not remain chaste” could refer to the fact that he loved fighting and enrolled in the war. But the words “away from his wife” make me believe otherwise.

Some things did not change. Good old Mr. Emerson, my favorite character of the original novel was still confident that Love and Truth would see humanity through. The sanctimonious Charlotte who sort of redeems herself in the end of the novel by bringing the couple together leaves her money to Lucy. Forster believes in her innate goodness when in parentheses he states that even if that were hard to believe, he would never have thought anything else of Cousin Charlotte. 

Forster writes about the characters as if they were real. While bringing up Cecil, he writes: “He moved out of the Emersons’ circle but was not altogether out of mine.” In Alexandria at a party when they are hesitating to play Beethoven as German music might compromise them, someone refers to an officer who believed that Beethoven was Belgian and Forster believes they must be talking about Cecil. How delightful is this little snippet of information! It makes us see Cecil in an entirely different light. Forster’s characters are not intrinsically good or evil but human and as fabulous as flawed. 

Was this postscript necessary? Reading it is akin to attending a reunion of friends after decades and catching up on news and gossip. We might feel that it ruins the romantic note on which A Room With A View ends. But on reading it again, I quite like the outcome. Forster portrays life and life comprises of love, marriage, wars, birth, death..in other words-adventures and misadventures or ‘muddles’ to use his own preferred word. Lucy and George are a happy couple and still in love. Life came in the way. Marriage is not an ending but a beginning. If they had outgrown their love, I would have been disillusioned. But love takes on different expressions as you go through the trials and tribulations in life. Even if we assume George had been unfaithful to Lucy, he was away from her at war. There is no excuse for infidelity but like the saying goes ‘All is fair in love and war’. Let’s not forget that A Room with A View exudes a certain gentleness and optimism as it is a story written before the wars.  

I think if Forster had elaborated on this epilogue we could easily have had another A Room With A View with a similar happy ending. It could have retained the very apt title of the epilogue, A View Without A Room.  Neither George nor Forster are able to locate the room with a view when they go back to Florence. It doesn’t matter if the room is there or not. Love is not necessarily diminished by the tragedies of life, on the contrary, it is often strengthened. The room is no longer there but the view exists and that’s all that matters. 

What are your views on A View Without A Room? Do you think Forster should have left well alone or do you like the new view? 

A Room With My View

FlorenceThere are some books that are plain comfort food for the soul. One such book that holds a special place in my heart is The Room With A View by E.M. Forster. I recently read it for the third or fourth time. I’ve stopped counting. This uplifting story was perfect to revisit during the time of the pandemic. Quirky and effervescent are the two words that come spontaneously to my mind when I think about this novel. A Room With A View is a feel good romance and a coming of age story but it is also a lighthearted satire of the class conscious and snobbish English society of the Edwardian era.

Lucy Honeychurch is vacationing in Florence, Italy with her straitlaced cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. They are disappointed when they fail to get a room with a view in the Pensione Bertolini, a place swarming with fellow English tourists. Forster seems to be poking fun at those tourists who have left England but have not really left England at all. A certain Mr. Emerson, a freethinking transcendentalist much like his American namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his pensive son George, offer to exchange their rooms with them. Their behavior, polite by modern day standards is seen as ill-bred and presumptuous by the ladies but that does not stop them from accepting the offer which sets in motion a chain of events leading to unforeseen adventures together.

A lot has been said about the book already and most people know the story if not through the novel then through the sumptuous Merchant Ivory film based on it. I am assuming most readers are familiar with the plot and I have not stayed away from revealing details. In any case, I am not going to go into too much depth about the characters or the plot but dwell more on the personal reasons why I love this beloved classic of English literature that stands the test of time.

 First and foremost, it’s a delightful romance. Lucy, the conservative English girl is drawn to George, an unconventional free spirit who is attracted to her and slowly brings out the passion buried within her. After a few encounters with him that culminates in a kiss that takes her by surprise, she and her chaperone, discomfited by the incident, beat a hasty retreat to Rome and back to England just when Italy had started to work its charm on her. Back home in Surrey, she is engaged to the priggish and pretentious Cecil Vyse. Call it coincidence or the intervention of Fate, George and his father end up renting a cottage in the same area Lucy lives and they are thrown back together. And then one day he takes her and kisses her again unexpectedly unlike Cecil who asked her for permission to kiss her. George’s sudden kiss in this current environment of the Me Too movement may seem inappropriate but no prizes for guessing what Lucy preferred! I was awestruck by the luminosity and lyricism of the description of that memorable kiss. I felt like I had walked into a painting by Monet or Renoir.

“She did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.
George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.
Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, “Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!” The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett who stood brown against the view.”

 I love a good ‘muddle’. Needless to say, Lucy finds herself in a ‘muddle’, a word Forster loves and which makes its appearance in his other books too. Her life is thrown in turmoil. Should she follow her heart or conform to the dictates of Edwardian society bound up in convention and respectability? She doesn’t know what she herself wants as the repressed society hinders your ability to be true to yourself. You lie about your feelings to yourself as much as you lie to others. Even the chapters are humorously named as: “Lying to George”, “Lying to Cecil”,” Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddy, and The Servants”and “Lying to Mr. Emerson”. The tension between emotion and reason is the crux of the plot as Lucy slowly awakens to who she truly is. The insular English life as represented by Charlotte and Lucy and some other lodgers at the boarding house is a life that affords no view- a life of not just physical confinement but limited thinking. The Emersons and Italy open up windows for Lucy to view the world in all its splendor and awaken in her new ways of thinking.

 I could relate to Lucy Honeychurch. The story may seem dated to the modern reader but for me it brings back flashbacks of my life in India in the eighties and nineties, a period that was no different from the England of the eighties and nineties of the 19th century. Yes, we were socially behind a hundred years or more. That’s why most Indians can relate to Jane Austen and her plots dealing with matchmaking and matrimony. Marrying well to achieve domestic and financial security was the goal as opposed to marrying for love.

I was also around the same age as Lucy Honeychurch and could identify with her predicament. Just as Lucy was engaged to Cecil, there was tremendous pressure on me from my family to accept a proposal of marriage from a so called respectable family. I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Yet I was afraid of the consequences of declining the offer and of disappointing my family. Luckily for me, I was presented with the opportunity to escape to Europe for a few months which gave me time to postpone the decision on which my future would be based. As I tend to pick up books based on the places I am visiting, I found myself on a train in Europe reading A Room with a View at a most opportune moment of my life.

And there I was in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, a city suffused with light and beauty and romance. I had no Baedeker guide with me like the English pensioners but was a flaneur in the city with no set agenda. Like Lucy I was a sheltered girl traveling to Italy from a repressed country of Victorian morality – a country where much ado was made over a kiss or a boy walking alone with a girl just as it is in A Room With A View.  And perhaps that’s why the novel resonates some place deep within me.

It has a charming and eccentric cast of characters. They are depicted with humor, satire and irony. Yet they are not caricatures. There are no good or bad characters. The insufferable Charlotte who thwarted the young couple’s attempts at romance, redeems herself in the end by bringing them together. At least that’s what the goodhearted and forgiving George believes. George realizes that he has the same desire to govern a woman as Cecil and other men and he wants to make sure that his internalized sexism doesn’t come in the way of Lucy having her own thoughts. Even the despicable Cecil graciously steps out of Lucy’s way when she calls off the engagement.

The book has wonderful passages. While reading, I marked many beautiful and thoughtful lines. The last two chapters simply took my breath away. The senior Mr. Emerson is my favorite character and seems to espouse his creator’s liberal outlook on life. He appears odd to the others but he is the most original character in the book who believes in the equality of the sexes and in the glorious power of love and truth and might I add, the pure and unadulterated joy of bathing naked in a pool. My two favorite passages from the book are both from the second last chapter of the book which is a paen to love and an exhortation to live your truth. Mr. Emerson is instrumental in urging Lucy to follow her own heart and declares:

“ It isn’t possible to love and part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal.”
“When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love—Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.“
 

It has important life lessons. As I was walking at sunset in the city bathed in golden light, I saw youngsters hold hands on the Ponte Santa Trinita. Or steal a kiss on the stairs of the Piazzale Michelangelo. Love was in the air.  Love was everywhere. I knew what I had to do when I returned home. Perhaps it was Florence or A Room With A View or both the city and the book it inspired that taught me to have the courage to face my feelings and live with authenticity. In the end, Lucy decides to stay away from the safe choice of marrying Cecil and takes a risk by marrying George who belongs to a much lower station in life. Like Lucy I learned that being true to yourself comes at a cost. She has to elope with George as her family is against the match but she has the confidence that those who care for them will forgive them in due course. I didn’t know what the future had in store for me. There was no George yet in my life but all I knew was that he was worth waiting for and that by listening to my heart, I would eventually live my bliss.

A beloved college professor now deceased had introduced me to Forster through A Passage To India. In that novel, I was touched by the mutual silent and intimate understanding between Mrs. Moore and Aziz. Forster’s novels are essentially about human communication and connection or the lack thereof. All of his oeuvre can be summarized in the oft quoted lines “Only Connect” in the epigraph to Howards End.  In fact, Forster has had such an impact on me that “Only Connect’ has become my own mantra to live my life.

 

 

 

Paternal Love in Le Père Goriot

peregoriot-web
Father Goriot on his deathbed- From a 19th century lithograph

 

Honoré de Balzac is renowned for his series of interconnected books written under the title of La Comédie Humaine or The Human Comedy.  In the ‘roman fleuve’ or novel stream format, each novel is complete in itself and the whole of the sprawling magnum opus consisting of over 90 published books along with many unfinished ones, portrays common themes, recurring characters and a panoramic view of early 19th century French society. The work represents a break with romanticism and launches the realist movement in literature, the purpose being to depict life as it is – in a word striving for the quality of verisimilitude. I have read some of the novels during college and graduate school days – Eugénie Grandet and La Cousine Bette to name a few but recently read Le Père Goriot, which would be a good introduction to La Comédie Humaine in general to anyone interested in getting a taste of Balzac but daunted by the colossal collection.

Le Père Goriot is set in a shabby Parisian boarding house run by a certain Mme.Vauquer. The lodging, is in effect, a small scale model of Parisian society with its social hierarchies. One of its inhabitants and the main protagonist, Eugène Rastignac, is a country boy recently planted into the city to attend law school. After visiting his aristocratic cousin, Mme de Beauséant, he gets a taste for Parisian life and tries to get an entrance into haute society through liaisons with upper class women. Also a resident of the boarding house, is the titular character, Père or Father Goriot who is the butt of ridicule among the pensionnaires. After being rebuffed by Father Goriot’s elder daughter, Rastignac eventually falls in love with the younger one and that is how their stories intersect.

To add to the colorful mix is the unscrupulous fellow boarder, Vautrin, an escaped convict who tries to lure Rastignac into a diabolical scheme involving a duel and death, ostensibly to help the latter advance in his ambitions, but in reality, to promote his own mercenary interests. For money is the driving force behind the action of each and every character. The novel highlights the deleterious impacts of social mobility and capitalism with the restoration of the Bourbons in the post Napoleonic era. Rastignac neglects his studies and falls into a lifestyle of debauchery.  His transformation from a naïve idealistic person to a cynic is the main plot of the novel which one can classify as a bildungsroman.

As fascinating as Rastignac’s story is, I was more intrigued by the story of Father Goriot. The role of the father or the father figure is central to many of the books of La Comédie Humaine. This story of paternal love immediately brings to mind the story of King Lear and his daughters but here we have no devoted Cordelia.

Father Goriot is a retired vermicelli maker who has squandered his fortune on his selfish daughters, the Comtesse Anastasie de Restaud and the Baronne Delphine de Nucingen, both married into the upper echelons of Parisian society. He paid for their excellent education, their massive dowries and elevated their social status by marrying them into rich families. He lives in penury so he can continue to support his daughters who would not even deign to visit him or to welcome him into their homes. He is not acknowledged by them in public either as they are ashamed to be seen with him.

He is rejected by the two and their husbands but is still involved in their lives as an observer, on the outside. He admires them in their carriages from afar. He funds their extravagant lifestyles and lives vicariously through them as he deprives himself of food, coffee and firewood. In his little room, there are no curtains, the walls are damp, the wall paper is peeling and even his blanket is made of Mme Vauquer’s old dresses. The contrast between his room and the luxury his daughters enjoy is staggering. His physical transition from a better area of the boarding house to an inferior one is symbolic of the old man moving from one level of self-sacrifice to another. He bankrupts himself in order to support his girls going as far as pawning his gold and silver to pay off their debts and their lovers’ debts too. The only link he has to them is to support their lavish lifestyles. Otherwise he would be disowned completely.

He is a paragon of fatherly virtue and I was heartbroken by his plight. When I read this passage where he explains his love for his daughters to Rastignac, I was moved to tears:

My very life resides in my two girls. As long as they are enjoying themselves and are happy, as long as they are well dressed and walk on carpets, what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lie down to sleep? I am not cold as long as they are warm, I am not bored if they are laughing. I have no sorrows but theirs. When you become a father, and when on hearing the babble of your children’s voices, you say to yourself, ‘That has come from me!’,you will feel that those little ones are every drop of blood in your veins, that they are the delicate flower that issues forth, for that’s what they are; you will feel you are attached to them so closely that it will seem you feel every movement that they make. I hear their voices everywhere. A sad look from them congeals my blood. Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in their happiness than in your own. I cannot explain it to you, it is something within that sends a feeling of warmth all through you. In short, I live my life three times over. Shall I tell you something funny? Well, since I have been a father, I have come to understand God. He is everywhere and all around us, because the whole world comes from Him. And, Sir, it is just the same with my daughters. Only, I love my daughters better than God loves the world, for the world is not as beautiful as God Himself is, but my children are more beautiful than I am.

( The translation is mine)

Halfway through the book, I realized that he becomes more and more of a martyr in order to support his daughters which made me wonder if in fulfilling his duties as a father, he considers himself morally superior. Is he duplicitous too like the other characters in the novel? After all, he stands to gain from Rastignac’s relationship with Delphine and encourages their illicit liasion.

He is neglected in death as he was in life. The indifference of the two girls when he is in the throes of agony is appalling and one could even accuse them of parricide as their quarrel with each other brings on his stroke. Delphine would rather go to a ball to elevate her social status than visit her dying father. Reluctant at first, Anastasie arrives  eventually but a little too late. Rastignac takes on the role of a son by taking care of the ailing man. He attends to the bureaucratic formalities and pays for the funeral expenses and shows more filial piety towards the old man than the two girls ever did.

Father Goriot could never find fault with his daughters. But all his suppressed feelings come to the surface on his deathbed in the form of a melodramatic monologue full of gibberish and exaggerations where he shifts rapidly between extremes of hate and love. He calls his daughters criminals and accuses them of murdering him. He imagines himself to be a ghost cursing them at night but quickly withdraws his curse. In his delirium, he asks for the police, the government and the public prosecutor to force them to come.

The scene is heartrending but it slowly dawned on me that he was not a model of saintly love like I believed him to be initially but an overly protective parent. After his wife’s early death, he became both father and mother to his daughters. He transferred the love he felt for his wife towards them and became obsessed with them. Even after their weddings, he took on their husbands’ role of provider. There is something disturbing about his conduct bordering on the emotionally incestuous. There is a scene where he lies on the floor, kisses Delphine’s feet and rubs his head against her dress. He even says his girls live like mistresses of an old rich man. It is possible that his inappropriate impulses and overindulgence pushed his daughters away from him.

In current times, Father Goriot would be considered a classic example of an helicopter parent who swoops in to rescue his offspring at the first sign of trouble, creating a world for them where they never have to face struggle, conflict or disappointment and leaving them with a sense of entitlement.

In more ways than one, Le Père Goriot is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. The French economist Thomas Piketty who studies economic inequality was fascinated with this work and believes that we are returning to the patrimonial capitalism delineated in the novel. Even the name Rastignac has made its way into the French dictionary referring to a ruthless social climber and an arrivist. Le Père Goriot is also a cautionary tale for cosseting parents about the excesses of overparenting. No wonder then that the author declares on the first page itself: “This drama is neither a fiction nor a romance! All is true–so true, that each one of you may recognise its elements in his own family, perhaps in his own heart.”

 

Love Song

antique-violin

Today I celebrate Valentine’s day on the blog with a ‘soulful’ poem written by Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet and mystic. His poetry speaks deeply to me, as it undoubtedly does to countless other people. I remember that when I first read a collection of his poems, I bookmarked almost every page as I found something there that tugged at me. His poems have the ability to startle and leave you with the enormous feeling of relief that here is someone who ‘gets’ you.

Love Song

by Rainer Maria Rilke

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here’s the original in German:
Liebeslied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Spieler hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied!

There are two distinct parts to this poem. In the first part, the speaker/ poet expresses his fear of falling in love. He is afraid of the closeness to the person he loves. To love is to be raw and vulnerable. To love is to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected. You expose your naked emotional self as you re-open wounds from the past. There is no love without loss. Love and pain go hand in hand. Love is not calm waters but the dizzying heights and crashing lows of waves in the ocean. And that is why he wants to shelter his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” far away from the beloved.

The word ‘yet’ expresses the futile attempt to resist the beloved and links the first part to the second. If you love, you wear your heart on your sleeve. He is irresistibly drawn to the love of his life. Falling in love is inevitable. He cannot hold his emotions in check even if he wants to.

The second part describes the perfect union of souls. The two souls in love are part of an identical energy force; their vibrational frequency is the same. They are no longer disparate and disembodied beings but have merged together and are completely in tune with each other. The concept of soul mates which seems like a modern invention, in fact, harkens back to antiquity. In Plato’s Symposium, the philosopher Aristophanes discusses the concept of mirror souls. Zeus, the King of Gods, split androgynous human beings into two separate parts, male and female, and they spend their whole lives in pursuit of their other halves so that they could become whole again: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”

The two lovers are like two separate violin strings on a violin that vibrates with one sound. They come together to create music. Their oneness emanates from a deep love and understanding. The musical metaphor reminds me of a similar train of thought in Kahlil Gibran’s meditation on love and marriage in The Prophet: ” Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music… “
Two human beings in love can come together to create one whole relationship and still maintain their distinct individuality and not lose sight of their own unique purpose in life.

There is a fatalistic tone to the poem as it alludes to a force greater than the two of them that brings them together in union. Maybe their love was written in the stars. Is the musician God and the instrument upon which they are spanned the Universe or Fate itself? Man and woman come together as one to have a common spiritual communion with God. Their love is transcendent as both entwined souls surrender themselves in exultation into the hands of Divinity. Soul mates are your spiritual catalysts too and there is a sacredness to the union.

In the first part of the poem, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You’ ( ‘ich’ and ‘dich’ in German) are used to convey the separateness.  After the speaker utters ”yet” you have the words ‘us’, ‘me and you’, ‘together ‘and ‘we two’ ( ‘uns’, ‘dich und mich’, ‘zusammen’ and ‘ wir’ in German) to emphasize the fusion of the souls. The poem begins and ends with questions. The frenzied questions about how to protect his heart from love are followed by the description of the bliss of union and more questions revealing the incertitude about their destiny and culminating in the rapturous but resigned sigh that he lets out: “Oh sweetest song!”

This beautiful poem about soul mates touched me to the depths of my soul. Hope you enjoyed it too!