Buried Treasure- The Lost Short Stories of Du Maurier

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All famous writers have to start somewhere. I enjoy reading their early forays into the art of writing. They contain the raw material that shapes their future works as they skillfully hone their craft. It is no secret that I am an unabashed fan of Daphne du Maurier and reading an early collection of her ‘lost’ short stories was like stumbling upon buried treasure unearthed after decades of oblivion. Most of these stories were written very early in her career and were either published in obscure magazines and tabloids and subsequently out of print or had never been published. A bookseller in Cornwall discovered five of the stories including the titular The Doll in a 1937 collection marked as ‘The Editor Regrets.” They explore many of the emotions and themes that found their way into her later works.

The stories may seem dated to the modern reader but they depict universal truths transcending time. Many of these tales were written when du Maurier was still in her teens or early twenties and reveal an insight into human behavior and a maturity or even a precociousness far beyond her years. She is a great observer of humanity-of people with their quirks, whims, frailties, and foibles. She knows how to tap into the dark recesses of the mind and to lay bare all the base emotions like obsession, jealousy, sexual frustration and hypocrisy resorting to suspense, social satire or even comedy. She also has a predilection for the macabre. Often the stories send a shiver down the spine. They are horror stories but they portray a horror of a different kind- one that is more terrifying and longer- lasting- psychological horror.

The collection opens with my favorite story of the lot which was written when du Maurier was just nineteen years old. In East Wind, the serene life on a remote island cut away from the rest of humanity is disturbed when shipwrecked foreign sailors arrive introducing alcohol and their promiscuous habits with devastating consequences for some of the inhabitants. There is a sense of impending doom when ” … all the while the East Wind blew, tossing the grass, scattering the hot white sand, forcing its triumphant path through the white mist and the green waves like a demon let loose upon the island.”   And the simple village folk end up throwing all caution to the wind.

The Doll is a daring story ahead of its time with an almost pornographic twist. Letters washed ashore reveal the journal entries of a man who tries to figure out what went wrong between him and a young violinist named Rebecca. He was smitten by her but she repelled his advances as she had another object of affection. Could this strange, beautiful and independent young woman with her unusual sexual proclivity be not only the namesake but the precursor to the first Mrs. de Winter? It’s quite a risqué story for its time as it depicts a young woman in control of her own life and sexuality.

There are a series of bittersweet vignettes about young couples with irreconcilable differences and the disillusionment they face in love. In Nothing Hurts for Long, a woman who believes her relationship with her husband is perfect and is preparing for his return home after a long absence, lends a ear to her friend’s troubles but her friend’s troubles start mirroring her own. The reunion with her husband is not what she anticipated. And His Letters Grew Colder is a story written in epistolary form about how love dies a natural death as seen by the contents of letters which become gradually less romantic in tone when the thrill of the chase is over. A Difference in Temperament too explores the fragility of relationships.  If a man wants time to himself and a woman wants to share everything together, the relationship can only be doomed from the start.  Frustration is an amusing account of the thwarted attempts at romance of a newly married couple.  Week- End shows how you can fall out of love as suddenly as you fall in love.  The lines “She put away his colds hands from her, and gave herself to her own dreams, where he could have no entrance.” succinctly capture the overarching theme of many of the stories.

In Piccadilly, written in the form of a monologue,  a prostitute describes how she ended up in her profession. She resurfaces in Mazie where she dreams of the sea and a farmhouse but can her dreams come true given her lifestyle? The Tame Cat is an unsettling story about a naïve young girl with a jealous mother whose lover starts preying on her.  In Happy Valley, a woman dreams of a certain house that seems to be hers but that she has not seen.  Dream and reality and past and future coalesce in this atmospheric story which not only reminds me of du Maurier’s famous short story Don’t Look Now but also with the mention of Happy Valley presages Rebecca.

The last two stories in the collection are excellent character studies. Now to God the Father is about the good-looking and charismatic but hypocritical  Reverend James Hollaway who also features in another tale entitled Angels and Archangels in The Rendezvous and Other Short Stories. He professes to be a man of God but his virtuous sermons mask his vices. He is someone who abuses his position to further his own interests.The Limpet is a fascinating insight into a troubled personality- a girl who puts the blame on others believing that she is a nice person. The truth is that she is a manipulative, self-absorbed and passive-aggressive individual who destroys the lives of people around her including her parents, her aunt, her husband and her co-workers but desperately tries to convince the reader that she is a self-sacrificing martyr.

Du Maurier starts off each story beautifully with vivid descriptions and builds up the atmosphere. Most of the stories do not have fixed endings but are ambiguous. Life is not tidy either. All pieces don’t fit and much remains unresolved. The onus is on the readers to fill in the blanks and make the puzzle fit.  I found these lost stories captivating as they contain the embryonic elements seen in her future works and also provide early indications of her literary prowess. The common thread of cynicism that weaves the stories together is startling considering that she was so young when she wrote them.  And as with anything written by her, you find yourself reflecting on your own life and relationships.

Apparently Du Maurier’s adolescent diaries described as ‘dangerous, incisive, stupid’ are yet to be published. She placed a fifty year moratorium on their publication and insisted they only see the light of day in 2039.  I hope this piece of information is true and I hope I am still around then to read them.

 

 

 

 

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Forbidden Stories From North Korea

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The Accusation is a collection of seven stories and two poems written under the pseudonym ‘Bandi’ or firefly by a dissident writer still living in North Korea and set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim-Il Sung and Kim-Jong Il. The stories are a window into the secret world of the hereditary dictatorships of the Kim family characterized by propaganda, corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic ineptitude where the government controls every aspect of a citizen’s life. While there are many works published by writers who have defected to South Korea, this is presumably the first collection written by a writer still living in North Korea to cross the border. The author risked his or her life to make these harrowing stories see the light of day. The account of how the manuscript made it out from North Korea into South Korea is an interesting story in its own right and is included as an afterword.

The chilling and profoundly sad stories are fictional but based on the experiences of real people and they all share a common thread. They reveal the fear and despair of the citizens, who, living under the watchful eye of authority, have to be constantly on guard as anything can be construed as conspiracy against the state. Each and every story is about an accusation. A person could be banished to the countryside, forced into a life of hard labor or even executed for a slight infraction, real or perceived.

Record of a Defection reveals how you have to atone for the sins of your ancestors. A peasant was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and of sabotaging the Party’s agricultural collectivization project as he was not abreast with the latest technology of growing rice seedlings in greenhouses. Years later his entire family suffers the consequences of his actions. His young grandson cannot run for Class President at his school. One black mark against you which can be a trifling offence or even an absurd non-offence can taint not only you and your family but many future generations.

City of Specters– A two year old is frightened by the gigantic posters near Central Square of Karl Marx and Kin Il-Sung visible from his apartment window. He mistakes them for monsters. His mother tries to allay his fears by drawing the curtains but the neighborhood is expected to exhibit uniformity in appearance for the upcoming National Day parade and her action is viewed as an infraction. Although she is a privileged woman, she has to pay a heavy price for this misstep. It is a richly symbolic story. These specters of Communism haunt not just the little boy but all the citizens in all of the land.

Life of a Swift Steed– A decorated war veteran  had planted an elm tree in his youth as a symbol of the growth of a new socialist state. He had envisioned a life where everyone would live in a tile-roofed house, eat meat and rice and wear silks but the reality is that the people are living in poverty and there is a dearth of fuel in the freezing weather. The state wants to cut down his beloved elm which is interfering with a power line. The tree ends up being a symbol of his disillusionment as he comes to the painful realization that his medals mean nothing and that his entire life has been a sham.

So Near Yet so Far– Myeong-Chol, a hard-working miner wishes to visit his sick mother in the countryside but the state will not give him a permit to leave his province as there is a Class 1 celebration for the leader in his mother’s town and travel is forbidden to the district. After his application for a pass is denied three times, the man who has always been a stickler for rules, decides to make the journey illegally with the help of a friend. He gets tantalizingly close to seeing his mother as the title suggests but will he see the dying old woman and what will be his punishment for violating travel regulations?

Pandemonium– An old woman is traveling with her husband and granddaughter to visit her pregnant daughter but they end up being trapped in a crowded railway station. All traffic has come to a halt as the Great Leader Kim Il- Sung is about to visit the area. In desperation, she sets out on foot to visit her daughter and ends up getting a ride in the leader’s personal entourage and accidentally becomes part of a propaganda video. The government’s report of her happy laughter is in striking contrast to the pandemonium at the station where her husband and granddaughter suffered injuries.

On Stage– Even a month after the demise of the leader, authorities would monitor how many times people put flowers at his altar. The people risked venomous snakes and landslides to pick flowers to demonstrate their grief.  Grief was closely monitored and people became experts at faking it. An improvisational comic skit had once landed a young man in hot water. He was suspected of being brainwashed by South Korean anti-Communist freedom broadcasts and now, much to the ire of his father, he is in trouble again for having held the hand of the daughter of a political prisoner and for picking flowers in a state of intoxication. He explains to his father how living in North Korea is akin to being on stage.

The Red Mushroom– A man requests a journalist to clear his uncle’s name. He has become a scapegoat of the party when the bean paste factory where he works runs short of supply due to mistakes made higher up. Unfortunately, even sincere journalists have to toe the party line:

“Eventually, he decided that he had no other choice than to knuckle down, amend the article so that the praise was meted out as the Party demanded it be, and submit it to the newspaper, all the while heaping curses on the field of journalism which he had been unfortunate enough to enter….”

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deborah Smith who has translated these stories beautifully into English retaining the local color and turn of phrase. The writing is stark but yet imbued with poetry. Whether it is a description of a cuckoo ‘crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood’ or of people assembled in the square like ‘blocks of tofu’ or of a person shedding ” a pitcher’s worth of tears from a cup of sadness”, the similes and metaphors startle and suit the melodramatic nature of the tales. Many of the stories are repetitive but the repetition only serves to reinforce the shared plight of all the citizens whose fates are determined by the accident of birth and hang precariously on a piece of paper in a bureaucratic office.

There are Orwelian overtones in the stories but sadly this is not a dystopian world. It is a scathing indictment of a dynastic totalitarian regime which hasn’t changed much since the time the stories were written. In The Red Mushroom, the last story of the collection, the municipal building which stands for the red European specter is compared to a poisonous mushroom, the root of all misfortune and suffering and the story ends with the protagonist’s heart crying out the collective silent yearning of the people: “Pull out that red mushroom, that poisonous mushroom. Uproot it from this land, from this world, forever!” 

The afterword to the stories reveals the interesting trajectory of the manuscript as it made its way to South Korea thanks to a relative of the author who enlists the help of a human rights activist. We learn that Bandi is a writer of the Chosun Writers’ League but other biographical details have been altered to protect his or her identity. Bandi who sees himself or herself as a firefly illuminating the darkness that engulfs North Korea includes, in lieu of acknowledgements, a poem imploring us to read his words. We owe it to the daring author to honor his request. Please read his book as an act of solidarity.

Romantic Passages From Literature

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I love literature. I am a hopeless romantic. And it is Valentine’s Day. So what better time than today to share some of the most romantic excerpts I have come across in books? Last year I wrote a post on classic love poems. https://wordpress.com/post/literarygitane.wordpress.com/912 This year I’m sticking to prose passages. Not all of them are cheesy, I assure you. In fact, most of them are sentimental and sweet. 

Love At First Sight

The French have a special word for it. They call it un coup de foudre or a bolt of lightning. I am reminded of that first fateful meeting at the train station between Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. He is captivated by her beauty and needless to say it’s only a matter of time ( umm ..like a few seconds) before he falls head over heels in love (or lust) with her.

“In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.” Anna Karenina, Tolstoy 

Love is blind and love blinds. Especially if your gaze is upon a dazzling beauty. Our Count continues to be blinded by Anna’s looks. “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” All he wants is for her to belong to him. Never mind that she is married to someone else. And that she has a son. Those are minor impediments in the face of this grand love. I mean what can be more enticing than forbidden love? Even though this love will be the ruin of them and lead to destruction and alas, even death.

The First Kiss

What’s love without some heart- racing lip action? There are kisses and then there are kisses. Here’s a kiss that leaves you breathless and weak in the knees:

“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald

Sigh! I think my own heart beat faster and faster and my breathing stopped when I read this passage. And my incarnation is complete. Okay, let me not forget this one little detail. Daisy is a married woman. What’s with these men in novels who seduce married women?  Duh, it’s the thrill of the chase. After all, an inaccessible being is more mysterious and alluring. Just imagine if the fascinating creature were within grasp! Wouldn’t our lovesick hero start taking her for granted and move on to the next conquest? Shh… but today is not the day to be cynical.    

Declaration of Love

I am a sucker for novels like Rebecca and Jane Eyre with the theme of the good, innocent and kind-hearted young woman who has to learn to be brave in a cruel, hostile world. Throw in an evil stepmother- like character, a brooding and distant hero well-versed in the ways of the world and an enchanting socialite who is not an ingénue like our poor heroine and I’m in a romantic literary paradise! Never mind if the brooding man has skeletons in his closet or gasp! ….a wife already stashed away in there. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels and Mr. Rochester, one of the most romantic literary heroes. So I forgive him his flaws and even his sordid past in exchange for these delicious lines:

“After a youth and manhood passed half in unutterable misery and half in dreary solitude, I have for the first time found what I can truly love — I have found you. You are my sympathy — my better self — my good angel. I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wraps my existence about you, and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.” Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

Who needs sappy Hallmark cards when you have such a heartfelt outpouring of emotion to express your love?

Marriage Proposal

Charles Dickens is one romantic soul. In fact, the guy is all mush. Of course his novels are Dickensian in the true sense of the word but some of the most romantic lines show up amidst the descriptions of squalid working conditions, abject poverty, and the plight of orphans- one could expand the adjective ‘Dickensian’ to include unabashed sentimentality and romance. When I first read Great Expectations, I was struck by Pip’s one-sided love for the cold-hearted Estella. “I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.” Unrequited love is a thème de prédilection with Dickens. There is this passage in Our Mutual Friend where Bradley Headstone asks for Lizzie’s hand in marriage. Would any girl decline this impassioned proposal?

“You know what I am going to say. I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good – every good – with equal force.” Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens

Oh no, these words ring hollow to Lizzie and she turns him down. Oh, our poor rejected suitor!

Till Death Do Us Part

But here are two people who had better luck and are looking forward to a happily ever after:

It was Dinah who spoke first.

‘Adam,’ she said, ‘it is the Divine Will. My soul is so knit with yours that it is but a divided life I live without you. And this moment, now you are with me, and I feel that our hearts are filled with the same love, I have a fullness of strength to bear and do our heavenly Father’s will, that I had lost before.’

Adam paused and looked into her sincere loving eyes.

‘Then we’ll never part anymore, Dinah, till death parts us.’

And they kissed each other with a deep joy.

What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life — to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?” Adam Bede, George Eliot

With all due respect to ‘Corinthians’, don’t you think this passage is far more suitable for a wedding reading?

Love Letter

Sometimes you mess up in life and in love. Lucky are the people who get second chances.  Jane Austen’s Persuasion can seem like a rather dull novel in comparison to the delightful Emma and Pride and Prejudice but to me it portrays a more realistic picture of love. Anne Eliott broke off her engagement with a young man she was in love with on the urging of Lady Russell as he was a man beneath her social class. She made a mistake many years ago and is paying dearly for it. She still pines for Frederick Wentworth and at the ripe old age of 27 her prospects seem bleak to her. The two cross paths again years later ( meanwhile he has become a Captain in the Navy and he is considerably richer..cough, cough..noteworthy developments we can’t ignore.) and they are still in love with each other but won’t admit it. Oh my God.. but can he forgive her for breaking his heart all those years ago? You know it will end well. It’s a Jane Austen novel after all. And he writes one of the most romantic letters ever. Swoon!

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.” Jane Austen, Persuasion

Okay, I admit it. Everytime I read this, I get a little teary in the good way…out flow tears of relief and joy. Who wouldn’t like receiving such a romantic love letter and that too from a dashing captain? If only people still sent love letters to each other in this age of texting? 

 

People complain that such sublime sentiments only exist in books and movies. But it is possible to experience such love in real life if you accept that love is not perfect and never will be. None of the love expressed in the books was perfect or smooth -sailing. These love relationships were far from uncomplicated. Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky’s love was doomed. And so was Gatsby’s. Jane Eyre had to contend with a skeleton in Mr. Rochester’s closet ( literally! ) and a husband who lost his eyesight. Bradley Headstone was unlucky in love. Adam Bede pursued Dinah’s cousin, the extremely pretty Hetty and hoped to marry her before he proposed to Dinah. Anne Eliott and Captain Wentworth had to wait a long time to find each other. Perhaps we need to recognize that there is a difference between love and the illusion of love and that true love is perfectly imperfect. I’ll end with a passage from Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis explains what love is to his daughter Pelagia. This passage which is a realistic depiction of love is actually recommended by registry offices for a wedding reading:

True Love

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”  Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières

 

Do you have any favorite romantic passages you like to read again and again? Please share them in your comments. Hope you enjoyed reading my favorite romantic lines. Now go woo your sweetie with these words. They will speak volumes of your love. Happy Valentine’s Day! 

 

 

 

 

The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

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Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.

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The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.

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Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

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Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

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“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of annefrank.org

 

The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place. 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam:Ursula K. Le Guin ( The Wife’s Story)

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Werewolf- From a German Woodcut, 1722

I was deeply saddened to hear about the demise of Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed science fiction and fantasy writer best known for her Earthsea series. She was much more than a writer of science fiction. She was a poet, a philosopher, a feminist and a visionary. She had penned many poems, short stories, essays and even written children’s books. What is uncanny is that I was in the process of writing this blog post on one of her short stories when I heard the sad news yesterday. What a coincidence! Maybe I have acquired some ESP skills of my own while immersing myself in her fictional world!

I recently happened upon an inventive and cleverly written short story from Le Guin’s 1982 collection, The Compass Rose. The story veers out of the sci-fi genre into the realm of myth and folklore. I have always relished stories about mythical and supernatural beings. After all, dragons, wizards, vampires and other shape-shifting creatures are more enthralling than a world peopled with dull people like us. This fascination that I undoubtedly share with countless other readers goes beyond the curiosity of the unknown. In Jungian terms, myths and mythical creatures convey archetypal truths about human nature and emanate from our ‘collective unconscious’. These myths and legends have existed for millennia across the world among different cultures and are as old as humankind itself.

Please read Le Guin’s interesting story here (it is brief and you can read it in a few minutes.) before you read the rest of my post which contains spoilers:

https://frielingretc.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/the-wifes-story-ursula-k.pdf

The story is narrated in first person from the perspective of a wife. At the beginning of the story, she creates the picture of an ideal husband. She describes the gentle and considerate ways of someone devoted to his family. This hardworking man and wonderful father is also gifted with an amazing ability to sing. But his disposition starts to change gradually. He becomes more irritable and starts disappearing from home. His prolonged absences arouse his wife’s suspicions especially as his voice changes when he returns home and he even starts smelling strange. Needless to say, the transformation scares the wife and children. His little daughter becomes afraid of him overnight. We are told that it’s the moon’s fault and that he has got the curse in his blood. Could this man be transforming into a wolf?  The next time the moon changes, the wife sees a fleshy and furious man emerging in place of the handsome wolf. The pack hunts him down and brutally puts him to death.

Wow! I never saw this coming! The reversal of the werewolf story is a clever ploy by the writer. The first person narration is a good device to trick the readers into believing that the story is about human beings. She certainly managed to dupe me. The narrator keeps us guessing throughout the story and the plot is unraveled gradually, a hint at a time. The unexpected twist in the end when you discover that the wolf is the true form makes you go back to re-read the story in light of what you have discovered. Not once does the narrator say that the story is about human beings but the reader makes the assumption about the text. It is interesting how our minds can be tricked into believing what we perceive to be true. The narrator teases us by talking about the close bond she shares with her sister, her parents who have moved south and her life in a community. I thought her perfect husband had gone astray and had infidelity issues when she brings up the smells that linger and describes how he washes himself to get rid of the smells. I even suspected child abuse when the little girl develops a revulsion for her father overnight and is petrified of him.

Yet, the narrator drops many hints throughout the story. She talks of a hunting trip and game, of the husband sleeping during the day and the fact that on one sleepless occasion, he goes out in the glaring sun. He also leads the singing in the full moon with others joining in which should have led us to imagine wolves howling to the moon. At this point I realized the story was about a werewolf. But I still thought it was about a man who changes into a wolf. It was only when the wife trembled with a grief howl and a terror howl that I finally realized she is a wolf.

Fiction abounds in examples of the werewolf motif right from classical antiquity to modern literature like the Harry Potter series. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf by Zeus for serving him the flesh of a prisoner and for attempting to murder him while he slept. (the Greek word for wolf is ‘lycos’ and the word lycanthropy or ability to transform into a wolf is derived from the same root). In a Breton lai called Bisclavret, written by Marie de France in the 12th century, a werewolf’s wife on discovering his secret identity becomes disgusted with his physical appearance and doesn’t wish to “lie with him” anymore. She finds a knight who had been pursuing her for a while and schemes with him to steal the wolf’s clothes and prevent him from becoming human. The selfish adulterous wife turns out to be more ‘beastly’ than her noble werewolf husband and in the end is banished out of the kingdom by the King but not before having her nose bitten off by the wolf.

There was a time when people believed seriously in werewolves and thought they were humans under a curse who could change their form into wolves. Any unusually hairy person or someone with a sensitivity to light could have been rumored to be a werewolf centuries ago. Unfortunately they were thought to be in cahoots with witches and just like their alleged partners in crime, they were also put to death in the Middle Ages.

Le Guin has subverted this popular literary trope into something unexpected and has demonstrated how we as readers bring our biases and preconceived notions to the text, which begs the question as to who the real beast is. If it is scary to imagine a man turning into a wolf, doesn’t the transformation from a wolf to a man present an even more frightening prospect?

Adieu, Ursula le Guin! You have departed this world, I hope, only to find newer worlds beyond! I can imagine you in some far away galaxy in the universe spinning even more wondrous tales!

 

An Unending Winter: Ethan Frome

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

As Summer Fades To Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER FOLLOWS

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

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

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

END OF SPOILER

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