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!

Crocus Focus

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Crocuses in my garden!

I am finally greeted with the first splash of color in the garden! When I stepped out today, out of the blue ( or rather purple), I saw violet and lavender crocuses waking up from their slumber, stretching their delicate heads out through patches of dry grass and moss, slush and fallen pine needles, and turning their faces upwards to the sky. These cheerful blooms are always the first ones to lead the spring parade of flowers.

Somewhat serendipitously I came across an uplifting poem about crocuses. I am happy to share it with you as it is timely not only because it is spring and the first day of National Poetry Month in the US, but also because it could easily apply to our current situation of social distancing and isolation in these gloomy times.

The poem was penned by Hannah Flagg Gould, a late 18th and early 19th century American poet. She was a prolific poet from Newburyport, MA but never gained much recognition as her other New England contemporary, Emily Dickinson. Like the latter, she led a quiet secluded life and never married. Her mother had died when she was a child and she spent most of her youth caring for her father who was a Revolutionary war veteran.

Her friends collected the poems she contributed to periodicals and published them as Poems in 1832. Inspired by the success of the collection, she went on to pen several more volumes of poetry. Her poems, simple and gentle in expression, and infused with a deep spiritual sensibility, deal with a wide range of themes ranging from American history, religion and war, to poems for children and poems about nature.

The Crocus’s Soliloquy

Down in my solitude under the snow,
Where nothing cheering can reach me;
Here, without light to see how to grow,
I’ll trust to nature to teach me.

I will not despair–nor be idle, nor frown,
Locked in so gloomy a dwelling;
My leaves shall run up, and my roots shall run down,
While the bud in my bosom is swelling.

Soon as the frost will get out of my bed,
From this cold dungeon to free me,
I will peer up with my little bright head,
And all will be joyful to see me.

Then from my heart will young petals diverge,
As rays of the sun from their focus;
I from the darkness of earth shall emerge,
A happy and beautiful Crocus!

Many, perhaps, from so simple a flower,
This little lesson may borrow,
Patient today, through its gloomiest hour,
We come out the brighter tomorrow.

~ Hannah F. Gould

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Crocuses blooming in the garden right now!

The crocus is one of the first to spring to life from the bare and barren earth signaling the end of winter and ushering in a new season. There are always a few flowers that don’t make it in the spring; some trees that die and some birds that don’t return home. Nature is filled with uncertainty but the rhythm and recurring patterns continue and keep us going. We can learn a lot about rebirth and renewal from the cycles of nature.

It is fascinating how every verse of this simple 19th century poem resonates with our current reality. I hope we never lose hope and have faith that the trying times we are going through with the global pandemic will be behind us soon even as we lose some of our citizens. Hocus pocus, may we be like the crocus! May we emerge unscathed on the morrow from the darkness of the earth with patience and tenacity like these bright little blooms!

Hannah Gould’s most popular poem is ” A Name in the Sand”, but, unfortunately, it has been erroneously attributed to other people. I hope there is a revival of interest in this poet and that she is lifted out of obscurity. She deserves to come back to life like the crocus she so beautifully describes!

 

 

Olive Kitteridge

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Olive Kitteridge is a book that has been lying neglected on my bookshelf for years. I had always meant to get to it as I had heard a lot about it and it had even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. I finally read it as I wanted to read the recently published Olive, Again which is not technically a sequel, but I thought reading Olive Kitteridge first would get me acquainted with the eponymous character. I have to warn you that it is not the best book to read during a global pandemic. In one word, it is DEPRESSING! 

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen disparate short stories set around the mundane lives of the residents of the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a grumpy retired school teacher who features in some form or the other in every story.  In some stories, she is the main character while in others she is a peripheral presence or just mentioned in passing. The structure is disjointed and the stories are not in chronological order. They span decades in the life of our protagonist- from middle age through old age- first as wife and mother, eventually caretaker of her husband who suffers a stroke and finally as a widow. More than stories, these are vignettes weaving a tapestry of senior life with its small town gossip, banal routines, simple joys and profound sorrows. If there is one overarching theme, it is loneliness…loneliness despite the presence of others. The reader is the voyeur who has a window into the unremarkable lives of these unremarkable people. 

Olive lives with her husband Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist and her son Christopher, a podiatrist. She loves them both but she is unable to express her affection and treats them rather brusquely. In fact, she is a curmudgeon who is loud, aggressive and unkind to everyone in town. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.”

She has a sadistic streak to her. In A Little Burst, on the day of her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter- in- law Suzanne discussing her with a friend. In a fit of rage, she steals Suzanne’s shoes and bra and ruins her cashmere sweater and this surreptitious act is her ‘little burst of happiness’. In the story entitled Tulips, Olive visits Louise and Roger Larkin who lead a reclusive existence after their son was implicated in a murder. The visit is not that of a friendly concerned neighbor or even one prompted by morbid curiosity. She visits them in order to feel better about her own life. Louise is on to her and accuses her thus: “ You came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, and it didn’t work.”

 How can a reader commiserate with such an intimidating and irascible woman? The stucture of the book is interesting as we get to see how Olive is perceived by the different residents of her town. As I come to know her better, I see her in a new light. People are complex and I was quick to judge Olive just as she is quick to judge others. She is capable of empathy for behind that mask of a cantankerous woman lie sadness, insecurity and fear. She is moved by the plight of an anorexic girl and bursts into tears:

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.

  And she, very profoundly, adds: “We are all starving.” 

There aren’t too many older women depicted in fiction and it’s refreshing to get a peek into the autumn of life. We forgive Olive for although she is flawed, she is human. We feel sorry for the immeasurable loneliness she experiences in the emptiness of her home after Christopher moves away from her physically to California and then to New York and drifts apart emotionally too and when Henry is at a nursing home and after he dies. Along with Olive’s increasing self- awareness, the reader’s empathy and understanding deepen too. We learn later on that though Olive and Henry loved each other, they both had secret crushes on other people and were aware of it but didn’t talk about it. The truth is that there are a lot of Olives and Henrys around us, starved of attention and affection. 

On the surface, the residents lead a quiet life but delve deeper and you realize that the specter of death hangs over every story. Just like Olive, death is an omnipresent force that inserts itself insidiously in every story and in every uneventful life. Olive’s father had committed suicide and she herself has contemplated it on occasion. In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson, sits in his car near the marina, on the verge of taking his life. And then there are other sorrows like having a son imprisoned for stabbing a woman twenty nine times, finding out that your husband was unfaithful on the day of his funeral and being jilted at the altar by your fiancé. 

Life is difficult. And sometimes it is unbearably difficult. This is the human condition. In the midst of all the sorrow, there are a few moments here and there that provide a ray of hope like the sunlight that comes streaming in through the window slats of a dark home- a motif that recurs in this work. Ultimately, humans seek connection in a lonely existence, to make life slightly less unbearable. Olive, after the death of her husband, meets Jack Kennison and finds a new purpose in life. It is never too late to love. Lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies are as needy as young, firm ones, Olive thought : “But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces life took out of you.”  

 Like Olive, the novel is not without its flaws. A Different Road stands apart from the other stories as its plot is implausible, in contrast to the stark realism of the other stories. The fact that Olive stops with Henry at a hospital to use the restroom and is forcibly examined by the nurses and that men armed with guns show up and hold them hostage seems too far fetched. This is the only ludicrous story in an otherwise brilliant collection. 

 There is a distinct New England sensibility to the work. The people reflect the weather and its moods, Yet, this small town is a microcosm of the larger world outside. We all inhabit this suffocating world and are familiar with its alienation to some degree. The beauty of this ‘novel in stories’ is how Elizabeth Strout with her lyrical phrases infuses the prosaic lives of these residents with poetry. 

 If I could paraphrase this book in one or two sentences, I would say: Don’t grow old along with me. The worst is yet to be. That’s how distressing it is! I certainly don’t look forward to growing old after reading Olive Kitteridge. Now on to Olive, Again. But before picking up that book, I need something lighter in the interim like a humorous Sophie Kinsella or a feel good romance novel. 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight Behavior

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Cluster of overwintering monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove, CA.   Photo Credit: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

” Just as the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time. ” ~ Deborah Chaskin

I am mesmerized by monarch butterflies. They are charming creatures whose iridescent wings remind me of stained glass windows in an old church. More extraordinary than the graceful beauty of these winged wonders, is their unique phenomenon of migration. In North America, they overwinter east and west of the Rockies, in the mountains of Central Mexico and the central coast of California, respectively. It is amazing that they make the trajectory to the same destination where previous generations of monarchs have congregated, without ever having been there before. It is simply programmed in their DNA. Apart from the biological marvel of migration, their metamorphosis is a great symbol and inspiration for poets and artists.

I recently visited Pacific Grove in California, which is the winter migratory stop for hordes of monarch butterflies. Until recently, it was a veritable mecca for the monarchs. Now their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. While I was at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary there, a lady noticed my enthusiasm for the butterflies and suggested I read a book called Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t read any book by her although I had always been meaning to read The Poisonwood Bible. On my return, I immediately checked out the book from my library. Flight Behavior is a wonderful work of fiction which also addresses the pressing issue of global warming which results in migration collapse of the monarchs.

Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who lives in the fictitious Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee, is fleeing from her husband and family and is on her way to embark on her first extra- marital affair when she encounters a ‘miracle’ on the mountain where she is supposed to have a tryst with her would- be lover. She accidentally stumbles upon “a sea of orange fire”. The woman who was ready to take flight from her marriage is stopped in her tracks by this dazzling vision and returns home in a daze. She only realizes later that what she saw were millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. They were supposed to overwinter in Mexico as they usually do but instead take up residence on the Turnbow property in Tennessee, a site that could prove fatal to their survival. The locals interpret the off -course migratory pattern of the butterflies as divine intervention and Dellarobia, the witness to this supernatural phenomenon, returns, much to her surprise, to unexpected fame both in town and in the media.

As soon as I started reading the book, I was captivated by the poetic descriptions. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and Kingsolver endows them with even more beauty with her lyrical language which is as enchanting as the monarchs her protagonist happens upon:

“The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountains seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze.”

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

I was also intrigued by the unique name of the heroine- Dellarobia. Its meaning becomes clear as you read the novel. Dellarobia is a bright young woman leading a life of drudgery as a poor sheep farmer’s wife. Her husband Cub is a dull, unimaginative and passive man. They married at a young age due to an unexpected unpregnancy which subsequently resulted in a miscarriage. They probably wouldn’t have married otherwise. They stayed married and went on to have two more children, Preston and Cordelia. Cub is a decent and devoted man who cares about Dellarobia and their children. Yet she is unhappy as they are not compatible. Her in- laws who own the farm are struggling to keep it going. She maintains a cordial relationship with them but they have never warmed up to her. Her mother- in- law Hester is cold and sarcastic to her. Her only confidante and support is her best friend Dovey.

Dellarobia is a stay at home mother which “was the loneliest kind of lonely in which she was always and never by herself.” She has a roving eye and seems to be attracted easily to other men. She has had a lot of crushes but has not acted on them. How she longs to escape from the small town life, the gossip and the poverty!

Into her confined world, enters a charismatic African- American lepidopterist by the name of Ovid Byron who bears a likeness from his charming personality and erudition down to his initials to a former President although Kingsolver insists that any resemblance is fortuitous. He shows up in town with some post graduate students to study the erratic behavior of the butterflies and stays on the Turnbows’ farm. He sets up his RV in Dellarobia’s backyard and converts a sheep shed into a lab. Dellarobia herself is eventually hired to work on his project and her world view widens. Needless to say, our protagonist who has a propensity to develop crushes is immediately attracted to this young, intelligent and educated man. Along with giving her explanations about the behavior of butterflies, he also gives her butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart flutter.

Ovid Byron is the spokesperson through whom Kingsolver, who is a biologist herself, expounds her thoughts on climate change which could lead to the potential extinction of the butterflies. The only drawback to the novel is that at times Byron seems to be pontificating on the horrors of climate change which gives the novel a didactic and almost text book feel to it like it were a lecture from Biology 101.

Most of the people in the small town are suspicious of scientists. The locals interpret the vagaries of the weather as being in the hands of Providence. Biblical metaphors abound like Dellarobia’s Moses- like vision on the mountain and the massive floods reminiscent of Noah’s Ark to explain the people’s beliefs. There are two distinct worlds- the rural and  the God fearing community rigid in its views and the urban and progressive one aware of the dangers of climate change and Dellarobia bridges the two worlds. People who live paycheck to paycheck couldn’t care less about the environment. There is a funny and ironical moment in the story when an environmental activist reads out from a list the different ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Although ignorant about science, Dellarobia and her neighbors are so poor that they don’t really even have a carbon footprint.

Dellarobia is willing to leave her children and run away with someone. She seems flighty and impetuous, ready to ruin her reputation as good wife and mother but at the same time she is a caring and responsible wife and mother. These are inherent contradictions faced by every woman. Some act on their impulses or are close to acting on them while most of them carry on in their constrained and unhappy lives.

Dellarobia like the butterflies is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Dr.Byron is the catalyst to this awakening but does he reciprocate the ardent feelings Dellarobia has for him? Will this shepherdess in southern Appalachia leave her husband and move on to greener pastures? Will she burst forth from her cocoon in a blaze of glory and spread her wings? There is a moving scene towards the end where she appreciates her husband and knows that he will always be there for her. You feel sorry for him as he is a good guy. They are two decent people who just happen to be wrong for each other. There are two small plot twists at the end that I did not fully anticipate and that enhanced my reading pleasure.

I found this book fascinating as it addresses the larger issue of climate change within the smaller human dramas of family life and relationships. It asks two important but distinct questions: Do we as human beings have a responsibility towards our planet? Does a woman have a right to lead a fulfilling life and to indulge in her own ‘flight behavior’? It makes us ponder over them with the metaphor of the monarch butterfly which brings the two together. And what results is a brilliant novel as bedazzling as clusters of amber and onyx butterflies hanging from trees!

 

 

 

 

O ‘Bookmas’ Tree!

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My Christmas Tree!

A few years ago I saw a picture online of a ‘tree’ assembled with books. I was intrigued by it and shortly thereafter I came across one in my local library. Soon they were popping everywhere- at libraries, bookstores and schools. I thought it would be cool to try this out myself as my house is literally toppling over with books. In fact I inaugurated this blog with a post on my book tree in 2014. You can check out the post for detailed instructions on assembling the tree: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2015/12/23/a-bookworms-christmas-tree/  Now it has become a holiday tradition of sorts and I look forward every year to get creative with ideas and themes to assemble the tree.

Now this is not a project for the faint of heart! It looks deceptively simple to assemble but it took me the better part of the day after I had dismantled it a few times and hurt myself with a few hardbacks! But it’s definitely worth the time and effort and the occasional bruise or two as what can compare to the joy of seeing all your favorite tomes brought together as a whole instead of lying neglected in the dusty and cobweb infested corner of  a bookshelf!

The tree reflects the eclectic reading interests of my family and includes all genres for all age groups. The books on literature, history, art history and culture belong to me. Books on science fiction, quantum physics, politics, photography and astronomy grace the tree thanks to my husband’s hobbies and passions. My elder daughter has trimmed the tree with books on historical fiction and biographies. My younger daughter’s dystopian science fiction and mystery novels have made their way on the tree. Sometimes our interests overlap and we claim ownership to the same books. For the sake of nostalgia, I also added a few books that my girls read during their childhood like the Ramona and The Little House on the Prairie series. I also placed a few of my childhood favorites- Little Women, What Katy Did and Nancy Drew books among others. I can proudly call it a multilingual tree representing the languages spoken by us at home or learned at school.  Most of the books are in English but there are books in French, Spanish, Hindi, German and Sanskrit that adorn the tree.

For decorations I added a string of lights and tucked a few bookmarks and my library card between the books as ‘ornaments’. I also placed a few dolls representing characters from books like Anne from Anne of Green Gables with her schoolbooks and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. For the tree topper, I put decorative bookends and a Jo March Doll for doesn’t that girl love reading and writing! I also wanted to honor Jo in anticipation of the film “Little Women” scheduled to be released on Christmas Day.

I have so many books at home that I forget what I own and often end up buying the same book. While assembling the tree I was quite surprised to find four copies of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Now I don’t think I would have bought them all. The hubby or the children must have bought a copy and it is possible that I received one as a gift. The fourth one still remains a mystery.  I sometimes check out a book from the library not realizing that I own it already. So assembling a tree is a great activity not only for displaying the books beautifully but for giving me a chance to get reacquainted with my favorite books- much like meeting a long lost friend  and going down memory lane together.

There is a sentimental story attached to many of the books- cherished gifts from near and dear ones, a memory of someone who has passed away, books read during different stages and milestones of my life, books that provided solace at difficult times, books that have notes scribbled on them that I now find amusing and entertaining. Each and every book narrates a story but they collectively create and tell my own story.

The best Christmas present is not under the tree but it is the tree itself.

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading for ’tis always the season to read!

In The Footsteps of Steinbeck- A Stroll Through Cannery Row

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Cannery Row is the street parallel to the bustling waterfront of Monterey Bay.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

Thus begins Cannery Row in one of the best opening paragraphs of literature which concisely captures the essence of the novel! Steinbeck immortalizes a bygone area and era of Monterey during the Depression and World War 2 years when sardine canning operation was a thriving industry. Eventually sardines disappeared from the waters due to overfishing and other environmental reasons. Cannery Row preserves that brief moment in time when Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. Imagine my delight then when on a recent trip to CA, I had the opportunity to visit Cannery Row and retrace the steps of the author and the real people who willed the fictitious personages into existence. The book captured the people and the pulse of the place in that momentous time in history so well that even the street name in Monterey was changed from Ocean View to Cannery Row to honor its creator.

I read Cannery Row more than two decades ago. The novel has a simple plot. Mack and his ruffian friends decide to throw a party for Doc which unfortunately goes out of control. They end up ruining his lab and leaving his home in shambles. They decide to throw another party to get back in his good graces. Interwoven within the main plot, is a series of vignettes describing the other residents of the row. I have forgotten a lot of the plot details but what has stayed with me is the rich and teeming  portrait of a town featuring a panoply of characters from every walk of life. They are simple people living ordinary lives who accept the cards life has dealt them. These people living on the edge of the Pacific and on the margins of society navigate through the morass of human existence with grace and compassion despite the shortage of money.

Take Lee Chong for instance. He’s a shrewd and manipulative businessman who runs a successful grocery store but he trusts his clients and gives them huge amounts of credit. He never fails to come to the rescue of Mack and the boys who are constantly asking him for favors. Or Dora Flood. She manages The Bear Flag restaurant which is actually a whorehouse. She is in a so called disreputable profession but she takes good care of her employees, contributes generously to charitable organizations and helps families in need during the Depression. Steinbeck makes us examine our own stereotypical notions of morality through the selfless actions of these poor and marginalized characters. As Doc muses:

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”  

The present day Cannery Row only carries vestiges of its past. Many of the old cannery buildings have been refurbished as restaurants, galleries and kitschy souvenir shops. The only things packed as sardines are the tourists who descend in droves during the summer months. Yet remnants of history can be found throughout the city to a discerning eye whether in the form of dilapidated steel sheds, decrepit buildings or elevated walkways which were once used to move canned fish from the processing site to the warehouses near the train tracks.

There is the historic Cannery Row. And then, there is the literary Cannery Row. And the two intersect and there is nostalgia for both. Here are some of the authentic locales and some modern day tributes if you want to walk in the footsteps of the author and the people who inspired the plot:

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The Monterey Bay Aquarium-  View From The Bay Side

Hovden Cannnery- The site that attracts the most tourists to Monterey is undoubtedly the world- renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium which not only overlooks the beautiful bay but also seamlessly integrates with the shore. The building originally housed the largest and the last cannery on the row to shut down. When the building was transformed into the aquarium in 1984, it was designed in such a way as to preserve its historical significance. The cookers and boilers were retained inside and some of the original wood and iron corrugated exteriors of the building outside. There are two tall smokestacks  which although sealed, still remain on the roof. Inside the aquarium, near the entrance is a Hovden cannery interpretative exhibit about the sardine industry and a small biological lab formerly owned and operated by Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who inspired the character of ‘ Doc’.

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Pacific Biological Laboratories

If you want to see the main lab, you have to walk down the street from the aquarium to 800 Cannery Row where you will find the building that was known as the Pacific Biological Laboratories and called Western Biological in the novel. Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who collected and stored specimens of marine creatures was the model for the character of Doc. Apart from being a scientist and a connoisseur of art and music, Ricketts much like Doc was also a philosopher who made profound observations on life and was much admired by the community. He died in 1948 hit by a train after his car stalled on the tracks. There is a memorial on a recreational trail near the accident site honoring his life and work.

Across the street from the lab is the building that housed Wing Chong market and became Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower grocery of the novel. It has become a souvenir shop now but you can still see the Wing Chong Market sign outside. I almost walked by  without making the connection and I forgot to take a picture when it finally dawned on me that this was the inspiration for Lee Chong’s store. It is sometimes hard to separate Steinbeck’s Cannery Row from the real Cannery Row.

The building next to Wing Chong market was known as Edith’s restaurant which inspired La Ida Café of the novel where Eddie, the bartender poured all the leftover drinks into a jug for Mack and the boys to enjoy at the flophouse. Today there is a bakery on the premises.

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Bruce Ariss Mural

Bruce Ariss Mural- Across from Doc’s lab is a mural entitled ‘Across from Doc’s Lab’ which commemorates the characters and setting of Cannery Row.  You can see the train tracks and the train and the discarded boilers that became homes. You can also see Wing Chong’s grocery store and The Lone Star Restaurant that morphed into the Lee Chong store and the Bear Flag restaurant respectively. Bruce Ariss, the original painter was a contemporary of Steinbeck and the mural is a microcosm of the larger world of Cannery Row, a snapshot of what life was like back in its heyday.

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Cannery Row Cottages

Cannery Cottages-  Further up the hill are three restored cottages or shacks that once housed workers. They are a reminder of the time when immigrant workers from Mexico, China, Italy, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines worked in the canneries and fisheries.

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The Cannery Row Monument in Steinbeck Plaza

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The four local entrepreneurs of Monterey!

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A section of the monument with a Chinese fisherman and ladies of the night.

Steinback Plaza-

The Cannery Row monument  sculpted by artist Steven Whyte of Carmel and unveiled in 2014 is a tribute to the people, real and fictional who played a pivotal role in Cannery Row’s history. John Steinbeck is on top of the rocky structure and his friend Ed Ricketts is at the base.

The sculpture also pays homage to four entrepreneurs who were instrumental in developing the town. A Chinese fisherman represents the  thriving 19thcentury fishing industry and the two women are Madam Flora Woods of Lone Star Café and one of the girls of her bordello. A whimsical detail is the placing of bronze frogs throughout the monument, a reminder of Mack and the boys who earned money by catching frogs and selling them to the lab.

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A bronze bust of John Steinbeck  at Steinbeck Plaza overlooking Monterey Bay!

Steinbeck found poetry in the mundane and the quotidian. In spite of the gritty reality of poverty, his characters demonstrate resilience and an indomitable spirit. Many of the characters and the locales of the novel also found their way into the sequel entitled Sweet Thursday.

With gentrification and a booming tourist economy, Cannery Row is a far cry from its dingy and seedy origins. One wonders if Steinbeck himself would recognize the place. Cannery Row itself has become like one of Doc’s lab specimens on display for the tourists.

Yet, under the veneer of tourism, it is the same tang of salt in the air that tickles your nostrils, the same cry of seagulls that greets you and the same sight of craggy cliffs with otters basking in the sun that meets your sight. You just have to let your imagination fill in the rest. If you close your eyes and ponder for a moment about life in the old fishing village, be it real or fictional, you just might catch a whiff of the fishy stench that once pervaded the air and hear the screeching whistles that once summoned the workers to the canneries.

  

 

 

 

 

The Testaments: The Sequel To The Handmaid’s Tale

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I read The Testaments, the long- awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize vowing that I would cut the author some slack as sequels are seldom as compelling as their predecessors. Just think of Go Set A Watchman which was published decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s most beloved classics and fell far short of the public’s expectations. One would have hardly imagined at the time of the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that the dystopian fantasy would end up being prescient of the current political turmoil.

With the rise of the Christian Right and the misogyny in general of all organized religions, the novel has turned out to be hugely prophetic. In fact, in political rallies you often see activists dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaidens to protest bills that would restrict abortions. The handmaid’s costume has also become a powerful symbol of the Me Too movement. Many women showed up in Washington donning the habit in protest of the swearing- in of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.

The Handmaid’s Tale also resulted in a tremendously successful television series adaptation on Hulu ,which, incidentally, seems to have influenced the writing of the sequel. So Margaret Atwood had a lot to live up to and in spite of allowing for this latitude, I was still disappointed as the new novel which transports us once again into the totalitarian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead has an entirely different tone and structure from the original.

The Republic of Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale was founded on a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and emerged after the collapse of America in a society that witnessed a drop in fertility due to environmental reasons. Consequently, in this despotic society, women became prized for their fertility.

They were placed into strict classes with barely any prospects for mobility: the Wives or the spouses of the high-ranking commanders, the Marthas or servants, the Handmaids or former sluts forced into childbearing for other couples, the Pearl Girls or the missionaries, the Jezebels or the prostitutes, the Econowives or the wives of less wealthy and less powerful men, the Aunts or the moral guardians of the society who were the only women allowed to read and write and the most dehumanized of them all, the Unwomen or women like nuns and lesbians who could not perform any of the roles delegated by the patriarchy and were sent off to the colonies or forced labour camps where they died exposed to toxic levels of radiation.

Women were considered vessels and treated as chattel and often the Aunts and Wives were complicit in the oppression of their own gender. In the end and in their own way, both fertile and barren women were devalued and debased.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman told by a first person narrator threading together narratives from the past and the present. Offred, who has been stripped of her name and all her civil rights has forcibly been separated from her husband and daughter to become a reproductive surrogate. The Testaments picks up approximately 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when the pregnant Offred gets into a van and goes either on the road to freedom or to be arrested for treason. The novel ends on a ambiguous note and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.

In The Testaments, the separate stories or testimonies of three different women come together in a three part narrative. We have the first person account of Aunt Lydia whom we remember as the cruel matron and moral guardian of Gilead and whom we had seen only from Offred’s perspective. The vicious and dreaded aunt who trains and indoctrinates the future handmaids in the role of the narrator we least expect is a brilliant move by the author. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten…And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch..”, she quips.

We delve into her past and Gilead’s emergence through her diary entries which she is recording for posterity and understand some of the difficult and duplicitous choices she had to make, her interactions with the other founder aunts which involved a lot of scheming and backstabbing  and how she eventually made her way to the top.  She is the mastermind that sets in motion the downfall of Gilead.

We also have the accounts of two teenage girls; the story of Agnes Jemima, a girl who grew up in Gilead and Daisy a girl who grew up across the border in liberal Canada. Daisy is raised by overprotective adoptive parents who end up being murdered under mysterious circumstances. After their death, she gets involved in the resistance movement despite herself and travels to Gilead. Agnes is raised by a loving foster mother in Gilead who succumbs to an illness and dies and is miserable when her Dad remarries a disagreeable and cold woman. She is about to be married off to a commander but on discovering that her birth mother was a handmaid, she sets out on a new path.

Both girls are on a quest to find themselves and their paths cross with each other’s and that of Aunt Lydia’s. It is interesting to see the contrast between Gilead and the life across the border in Canada. Organizations from both countries are working to lure or rescue the girls across the border. The weakness in the narrative structure is the fact that both girls have such similar voices that I could barely distinguish the two of them till more facts became evident.

The book is an entertaining page turner but the shift from the dark claustrophobic tone and setting of the original to an action- packed Hollywood style entertainer is jarring and robs the original novel of its seriousness and sobering message. Many of the plot twists seem predictable and hackneyed such as the revelation of Baby Nicole’s identity and that of the mother of the two teenage girls. I don’t even have to worry about revealing spoilers as I could see them coming a mile away. Yes, the book is that shockingly predictable.

While The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale, The Testaments ends on a note of hope. Although it is heartening to know that resistance is always possible and that tyrannical regimes do collapse, some questions are best left unanswered, some tales best left untold.  The Testaments doesn’t have the same bone chilling effect of its predecessor. The Handmaid’s Tale left me with a feeling of disquietude and despair. I shuddered with disgust and indignation. In short, I was shaken to the core.

The most frightening epiphany is that Gilead is not altogether dystopian.The story doesn’t feel dated or far-fetched. The novel is chillingly resonant in the current political climate characterized by the control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The character of the handmaid has crossed over from the realm of fiction to reality as symbol of dissent. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. The Testaments is a well- written and absorbing read.  I only wish she had left The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand alone novel. It would have been even more impactful and powerful like Orwell’s 1984.

Atwood has definitely shaken us out of our complacency that such events cannot transpire in our little worlds. Gilead exists in some pockets of society in every corner of the world. In some regions, women are banned from reading and writing; they are stripped of literacy, the ultimate instrument of empowerment. In other regions, they are not allowed to work, denied of their economic independence. All over the world, their bodies are objectified and subjected to violence, their voices silenced and stifled. In such an environment, things can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye. We only have to be reminded of Aunt Lydia’s ominous words:” You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”