Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

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Sill Life, Books. Unknown Spanish artist, 1620-1640.
Old National Gallery, Berlin

I came to know about the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate through Jane @ Just Reading a Book and I signed up immediately. Thanks Karen and Jane! The aim of the challenge is to encourage us to read 12 classics from various categories. Actually I am drawn to classics and I often tend to choose them over contemporary reads. So reading 12 classics is not a challenge for me. I like this particular challenge as it encourages us to choose classics from different genres and different areas of the world. I love classics for reflecting the universal human experience with lyricism and artistic finesse. They enlighten me about a past era and increase my knowledge of history in an entertaining way. They are generally written in flowery prose and help me improve my own vocabulary and writing. And last but not the least, they provide insights into human nature and teach me a lot about the world and about myself. So, without further ado, these twelve books are among the classics I intend to read this year:

  1. 19thcentury Classic: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  2. 20th century Classic ( written before 1969): The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  3. Classic by a Woman Writer: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  4. Classic in Translation: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  5. Classic Comic Novel: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome. K. Jerome
  6. Classic Tragic Novel: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  7. Very long Classic ( 500 plus pages): Middlemarch by George Eliot
  8. Classic Novella ( less than 250 pages): Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka
  9. Classic From The Americas ( including the Caribbean): One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
  10. Classic From Africa, Asia or Oceania ( including Australia): L’Enfant Noir (The African Child) by Camara Laye
  11. Classic From a Place Where You’ve Lived: Nirmala by Munshi Premchand
  12. Classic Play: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

These classics are from the 19th and 20th centuries. My list is not set in stone. As the year progresses, I may replace some of the works with books written in earlier centuries or add them to my regular reading list. For instance, as a medievalist, I’m dying to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf side by side with the Old English text.

One of my resolutions for the New Year is to read more books in languages other than English and this challenge will enable me to achieve this goal. There are three French books on the list which I’ll be reading in the original. For the classic from a place where I’ve lived, I chose Munshi Premchand’s Nirmala set in Uttar Pradesh, India, where I spent the early years of my childhood. I have an affinity for the language, the culture and customs of that region and I’m looking forward to reading the book in Hindi. I’m also going to attempt reading The Metamorphosis in the original and that is my most ambitious resolution as my German is quite rusty.

There are three books on the list that I’ve already read before but I’m eager to re-read them from the perspective of an older adult for if there’s anything better than reading classics, it’s re-reading them. After all, they are called classics for a reason. And at the risk of sounding smug, I have to say that when it comes to literature, more than anything else, I look for quality.

Do you like reading classics? What are some of your favorite classics and are there any classics that you’ve always meant to read but never got around to doing it yet? Do share your thoughts in the comments.  

 

 

 

 

 

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Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

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Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

 

 

Letter to a New Mother on Raising a Feminist Daughter!

frontAs a mother of two daughters, I’ve often wondered if I have equipped them well in a world that is largely sexist and unfair. Have I empowered them to expect equal opportunities and equal respect as men or have I unconsciously passed on gender biases that have existed through generations and are reinforced by society and media? I recently read Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a guide to new parents presented in a simple and succinct manner on raising our daughters to become strong women. This book which can be read under an hour made me examine my own thoughts on feminism and introspect in retrospect about my children’s upbringing.

The book had its genesis in a letter Adichie wrote to her friend Ijeawele who had reached out to her on advice on raising her newborn baby girl. The epistolary style along with personal stories and anecdotes makes it heartfelt and intimate and the familiar and conversational tone establishes an instant connection between Adichie and her reader. In fact the book is astonishing in its simplicity. One would expect an essay on the history or theory of feminism or something profound based on the title but Adichie stays away from dogmatism and the use of academic jargon and makes the tenets of feminism accessible to a layman ( or laywoman as the case may be). This work could be considered a companion piece to Adichie’s essay How We should all be Feminists that resulted from one of her popular Ted Talks.

The book is written from a Nigerian woman’s perspective and there are many interesting references to Igbo culture in particular but the themes are universal. As a woman born and raised in India, I could identify with almost everything she writes about. For, sadly, misogyny knows no borders. There are nuggets of wisdom about marriage, gender roles, body image, body shaming, romance, boundaries and consent. She also highlights the importance of inculcating reading habits and taking pride in cultural upbringing while rejecting the bad but imbibing the good parts of our traditions. Much as I enjoyed this quick read, I personally prefer Adichie’s novels. Nevertheless it lead to an interesting discussion in my book club of women ranging in age from the thirties to the seventies.

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The back of the book cover!

Adichie begins by  writing about two feminist tools. “I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only”. Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.” The second tool follows in the form of a question. ‘Can you reverse X and get the same result? If a woman chooses to forgive her husband for infidelity, would the reverse work too?

Many points raised by Adichie resonated deeply with me. She urges us to raise our girls in such a way that they don’t view marriage as an achievement. In a heterosexual relationship there is an automatic imbalance when the institution of marriage matters more to one person than the other. A woman is more invested in the relationship when society conditions her to view it as the be all and end all of life. When marriage is made to be the primary goal of a girl’s life, all her other accomplishments pale in comparison.

The mother should be a fulfilled person with a full life apart from husband and kids. Housework and child rearing should be shared responsibilities. She counsels her friend to reject the language of help.“ Chudi is not “helping” you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should. When we say fathers are “helping,” we are suggesting that child care is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture. It is not.” The use of language is very important and reveals our prejudices. We must get rid of redundant words like ‘lady mechanic’ from our vocabularies.

She cautions her friend to beware of the concept of ‘feminism lite’ or  ‘the idea of conditional female equality’. Some men and women believe that women are naturally subordinate to men but men should treat them with respect. Do we then have to depend on male benevolence to be treated well? Again, the language we use is significant. Many women without paying attention to their choice of words speak of their husbands ‘allowing’ them to do things. But as Adichie wisely points out being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not.

She advices her friend to let her daughter play with toys traditionally considered as toys for boys. I am reminded of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s famous lines from her groundbreaking feminist text, The Second Sex, that one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman. She posited that a woman is a cultural and social construct as opposed to a biological one. Are traits like being obedient, childlike and timid imposed on women rather than being innate qualities? There is no denying that there has been a historical subjugation of women by patriarchal structures which by ascribing traits to women have kept them from achieving their full potential. An angry or powerful woman who doesn’t exhibit ‘feminine’ traits is frowned upon. Adichie points out the ingrained double standards : “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women.” 

From a young age girls are taught to be compliant and accommodate to others sacrificing their own sense of self in the process. Adichie exhorts us to reject the concept of likeability.  “We have the world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likable.” She emphasizes that a girl is not just an object to be liked or disliked, she is also a subject who can like or dislike.

Women do not need to be revered or worshipped. It is patronizing. They need to be treated as equals. This point struck a chord with me as in Indian society many men put their mothers and sisters on a pedestal thinking them to be flawless and beyond reproach but the same men mistreat their girlfriends and wives. How could they exhibit such extremes in their attitudes and behaviors? True respect for women comes from treating them as fellow humans. We don’t want to be treated as a doormat or as a Goddess but as an equal human being with warts and all.

Adichie brings up the uncomfortable topic of changing our maiden names after marriage. There are many women who consider themselves feminists but still resort to the practice for convenience. There is no easy solution to this problem as it is much simpler if the whole family has the same last name. Even our maiden names reflect patriarchy and Adichie admits that friends have called her out for it but she argues that it’s the name you’ve always had and identifed with. Imagine how long and multi-hyphenated last names would become if future generations were to honor their patriarchal and matriarchal ancestries! As a woman with four last names floating around ( it’s a complicated story for another day! ), I  personally look forward to the day when we would do away with last names and stick to mononyms.

If I were to pick a favorite quote from the whole book, it would be:  “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It’s misogynistic to suggest that.” Why do we have to apologize for being feminine? I personally don’t just embrace my femininity, I revel in it. To me feminism is about recognizing the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes and working in such a way that those differences complement each other in an equal and fair manner. It is true that we are conditioned into gender roles from a young age. My girls played with legos, blocks and trains along with dolls. But I have to admit that I didn’t stay away from pink in dressing them up or refrain from calling them ‘princess’ as Adichie suggests. To me it’s not about the colors I dress them up in. On the contrary, I believe that it’s not empowering at all when little girls are dressed as boys for then the subliminal message they receive would be that it’s better to be a boy.

I was ecstatic the day my first daughter was born. I was equally ecstatic the day my second daughter was born. So many people all over the world wish and pray for boys. I felt that my girls entered the world with parents who were elated to welcome them. So they got the best feminist start to their lives as they were valued. And that carries a lot more weight than the color of their layette. The best way to teach is by example. Let’s raise our daughters to be self-reliant and financially independent adults proud to be women. Let’s lead a life dedicated to equality for all so they may be able to emulate us and consequently, lead a life better than the one we lead. And let’s also raise our sons to be feminists!

Feminism has become the new  F word and provokes strong reactions. Many women who consider themselves feminists wonder if they fit into what is defined as feminism as the common perception seems to be that feminists are angry misandrists. One woman I met in my academic circle told me that to be a true feminist you can’t be married. Another one went as far as to say that you can’t be a feminist in a heterosexual relationship as there is an inherent imbalance of power. Adichie who has herself faced criticism for saying that women’s issues are different from trans women’s issues has also been taken to task for writing this book from a cisheteronormative point of view. She defends her position by saying she writes best about what she identifies with. Besides feminism is always contextual as she points out. There is no rule set in stone. And according to me, if we exclude women who feel empowered in their personal choices from embracing the label if they don’t fit some narrow definition, then we are in fact doing a disservice to the movement and not letting it grow.

What are you thoughts on feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist? And if you have children, do you think you are raising them to be feminists? I personally look forward to the day when such a discussion will no longer be necessary.    

 

 

Claudine à L’École ( Claudine at School) : Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

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The young Colette with luscious long braids!

Anonymous was often a woman, noted Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own. In some cases she wasn’t anonymous but let a man take credit for her talent. And in one instance, the man and woman happened to be married to each other. The man was Henry- Gauthier-Villars who was more popularly known by his nom de plume “Willy” and the woman, Sidonie- Gabrielle Colette, one of the most eminent early 20thcentury French writers whose accomplishments are manifold. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She was also a grand officer of La Légion d’honneur, she was the first female member and eventually President of the prestigious Académie Goncourt and the first woman to receive a State funeral in France. However her most important contribution was that she was a trailblazer in the world of letters and in the world at large in issues of gender identity and sexuality.

Colette’s colorful and controversial life would be great material for a novel of its own and no wonder it provided plenty of fodder for a newly released eponymous biopic depicting her career during the Belle Époque and starring the enormously talented Dominic West as Willy and the stunning Keira Knightley who simply sizzles as Colette. Willy ,the bohemian libertine, springs a marriage proposal on the young and innocent Colette and whisks her away from her sleepy village in Burgundy to the Parisian world of scintillating salons and soirées. She is upset initially by his philandering lifestyle but gradually comes to terms with it and becomes a woman of the world herself engaging in lesbian liasons sometimes with the same woman her husband sleeps with. To say the couple led an unconventional married life would indeed be an understatement!

Willy is a mediocre writer who has a factory of ghostwriters who work for him but he realizes that he has a gifted one right at home whom he can enlist for free. He encourages Colette to write a novel about her school days and she comes up with the semi-autobiographical Claudine à l’École ( Claudine at School) recounting the delightful escapades of a 15 year old school girl and providing an insight into fin de siècle life in provincial France. The book, for a story about schoolgirls, contains a few shocking scenes  which can be explained by the fact that Colette wrote the book in her early twenties looking back on her school days through the lens of a slightly older woman. But here and there one can also detect Willy’s masculine influence in the writing especially in the salacious details.

The book published in 1900 under Willy’s name becomes a resounding success. Willy forces her to produce sequels going as far as locking her in her room so she can do nothing but write. Although she has the proverbial room of her own, of what use is it if you are someone’s literary slave writing in captivity?

Claudine becomes a household name and takes Paris by storm inspiring the fashion style of young women. Colette, in turn, on the urging of Willy, imitates her creation and cuts her hair and dresses like the theatrical adaptation of Claudine. Claudine becomes Colette and Colette becomes Claudine with art imitating life and life imitating art.  When novel after novel becomes a sensation, Colette argues for the right to be published under her own name and eventually separates from Willy. The movie apart from exploring the early career and marriage of Colette, depicts a woman who defies societal expectations and comes into her own be it in the form of her sexual awakening or finding her literary voice and independence.

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First edition cover of Claudine à l’École with Willy credited as the author.

The movie made me nostalgic and I abandoned the book I was reading at the time to re-read the funny and delightful Claudine à l’École, a book I had read in my teens. I was enamored from the first line: “Je m’appelle Claudine, j’habite Montigny; j’y suis née en 1884; probablement je n’y mourrai pas.”(“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.).

Claudine is an intelligent, pretty and precocious 15 year old motherless girl who lives alone with her father in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. He is an indifferent parent who means well but is more interested in studying slugs than bothering with his growing girl. Her father has an extensive library at home and Claudine spends a lot of time reading. She also loves spending time in the woods immersed in nature, either alone or with her communion sister Clare. She is in the last year of school and hangs out with her friends Anaïs, Marie, Luce and the Joubert twins who don’t seem to share her intelligence or spirit. The girls are preparing for their board exams and looking forward to the end of the year school celebrations.

There is no dearth of words to describe our captivating Claudine -plucky, saucy, mischievous, mean, manipulative, bold, bossy, willful, outspoken, wicked, spunky, rebellious, over-confident are some of the adjectives to describe this spitfire of a gamine but yet she is adorable and you can overlook her flaws as she is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t take herself or others too seriously. All the students and teachers think she is crazy. She talks to the teachers on an equal footing and at times is even disrespectful and impertinent. She gets away with her behavior as she is the star student who would bring prestige to their village school by doing well in the final exams.  There’s no doubt that her parents would have been called to school for her bullying in today’s environment. But one can’t help admiring how self-assured she is for her age when she peremptorily declares: “…on ne peut pas contenter tout le monde et soi-même. J’aime mieux me contenter d’abord… (… you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’’).

I first read Claudine à l’École as a teenager and enjoyed the antics of the 15 year old just as I had enjoyed reading about other school series like Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and the Twins at St. Clare’s. I didn’t quite pay attention to the homoerotic subtext. Claudine has a crush on Aimée Lanthenay, the new assistant teacher who appears to reciprocate her feelings but the school  head mistress, Miss Sergent wants Aimée for herself and comes in the way of their budding relationship. Aimée drops Claudine like a hot brick and shifts her attention to her superior. Aimée’s sister Luce has a crush on Claudine but the latter tortures the poor lamb and only bribes her with candy or lets her copy from her exercise book to extract information from her. The foolish girl still dotes on her.  Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Maybe I was naïve or I didn’t think too much of how often the girls “s’embrassent’  and dismissed their kisses as chaste kisses or perhaps I considered the school girl crushes as a natural part of growing up and adolescent development when it is not uncommon to idolize someone of the same gender older to you. Now re-reading it as an adult, the homoeroticism is very apparent. In fact the text is unapologetically Sapphic. The crushes the girls have for each other or for their teachers are treated as the most natural thing on earth and are innocently portrayed without judgement, guilt or shame. Today the book would be listed under LGBQT or feminist studies genres. It was written before the time when such labels were de rigueur and it is remarkable that there is no awkwardness or euphemistic language in describing the feelings the girls have for each other. No one has to stay in the closet. To me this is such a refreshing aspect of the story and so quintessentially and unrepentantly French unlike Forster’s Maurice across the pond published a few years later which was also a coming of age school story dealing with same sex love but one fraught with tension and anxiety.

However there is a disturbing scene in the book which would be considered highly inappropriate behavior in our times. The superintendent of the school district is a lascivious creep who constantly eyes the young women of the school. He has a soft spot for Claudine and forcibly tries to kiss her when she is alone with him in a room. She manages to thwart his advances but not before he has planted a little kiss near the corner of her mouth. Although she is upset with him, she regains her composure and can’t help being flattered that he finds her pretty. And they quietly move on with their lives.

Colette beautifully captures the confusion and awkwardness of girls at the threshold of womanhood.  On the one hand, they are typical schoolgirls who giggle, blush, make faces, spill ink pots, chew pencils and even taste snowballs. They play games and pinch and punch each other, have pillow fights, cheat during exams, attach ribbons on their dresses, try to get ‘curl clouds’ in their hair and flout the dress code when possible. On the other hand, they are budding women oozing with sensuality. They check out boys from their dorm windows and make sure they are being checked out in turn. They flirt with both boys and other girls and with adults. They put on coquettish airs and use their beauty to get what they want. There is a lot of sexual tension between the girls, between the teachers and between the teachers and the girls.

I can’t help  getting sentimental about Colette. I spent a lot of time in my teens and twenties devouring her books. Moreover the sensual lyricism in her descriptions of both nature and human nature has inspired my own style of writing. I also found the book endearingly amusing. Whether Claudine is describing teachers making out in front of the students, or the state of her beloved cat Fanchette in heat, or boys from the neighboring school examining their lingerie display during a needlework exhibition, or Miss Sergent’s humiliation at the hands of her mother, her cynical and wry quips made me chuckle on practically every page. Claudine à l’École, the first of the Claudine novels was a nostalgic read for me. And it has left me hungry for more. And now I move on to Claudine à Paris to continue delighting in the antics of this irreverent but charming teenager!

 

 

 

 

Autumn, My Muse, Autumn Musings…

“That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts….” – Ray Bradbury

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Today on the blog I’d like to share some “autumn thoughts” along with poems I wrote with the season as my Muse. Photos taken by me of the beautiful New England landscape accompany each thought or poem.

A chill in the air.. a sigh among the winds.. a shiver down the pines and summer slips quietly into autumn. It’s that time of the year that evokes in us a wistful longing. It’s that time of the year when you stop to reflect no matter how rushed you are. It’s that time of the year when poetry courses through your veins and spills out of your pen effortlessly. For autumn is more than a season, it’s a state of mind.

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One leaf can be my fall
One sorrow my downfall.

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Dancing leaves
swaying to the breeze
shimmering in the light
before the final curtsy

There’s something so ethereal and magical about mirrored landscapes. It’s as if time itself has come to a standstill when you look at the still waters reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors in all their glory.  This is a tranquil spot in NH perfect for contemplation. I couldn’t help thinking of the myth of Narcissus when I saw the leaves reflect in the pool and knew that they would all fall off eventually. The fall is inevitable.

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Just like Narcissus of the myths of yore
She gazed at her own reflection in awe
and slowly pined away.

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autumn leaves floating
in rain puddles
a painter’s palette

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Harvest moon up there
in a reddish orange hue
mimicking fall leaves

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These autumn leaves that once adorned the skies in a tapestry of color are now falling gently and creating a beautiful carpet on the ground. It seems like the trees are lovely damsels, resplendent in their gold and scarlet dresses, only to be disrobed…a leaf at a time.

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In the spring I trampled upon
the flowers you had strewn down my path
Summer rushed by me in a daze
and now at the bend of the road
through the trees shine
an autumnal ray of hope
Let’s meet then, my love
before the last leaf falls
and winter ends it all.

Here’s an old-fashioned rhyming poem I composed a few autumns ago:

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Miss Maple is dressed in a fancy scarlet gown
Bedecked with bijoux, elegant belle of our town.
In glittering garnets, rubies of resplendence,
Citrine and yellow topaz that dazzle and daze.
Mr. Sunlight adds a glow to her countenance-
Setting the feverish, frantic forest ablaze.
Soon she will tire and cast off her finery,
Sinking slowly and softly into sweet slumber,
After a few moments of restless reverie-
Drifting into a dream of bejeweled splendor.
Only to be roused by spring for a new chance to preen
In fine jewels of peridot and emerald green.

Although autumn is associated with death, hope is on the horizon.  The leaves will fall off but you know that the cycle will continue. Hope springs eternal. As I sit at the computer typing, a heavenly aroma of apples and cinnamon emanates from the oven in the kitchen. Outside in the garden, a few flowers remain. The sedum has changed colors along with the trees and the bees are still buzzing around the asters. These are simple joys that I hope never to take for granted. And I make a promise to myself and my muse-  I’ll stop, I’ll savor and  I’ll reflect no matter how rushed I am.

What did you think about my musings and poems? What are your favorite things to do in the autumn? Let me know in your comments.

~ Jayshree ( Literary Gitane)

 

 

 

 

 

A Literary Pilgrimage To The Mount

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Nestled in the picturesque Berkshires in a bucolic setting in the town of Lenox, MA is the Mount, the stately former home of Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and my favorite American author. Needless to say I was ecstatic when I had the opportunity to undergo a literary pilgrimage to this enchanting place which is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

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Wharton belonged to an exclusive circle of the wealthy elite of New York society and designed the Mount in MA as a retreat to escape the confining milieu of her social class. “The Mount”, she wrote, “was to give me country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations, which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing.” She lived here for just ten years but it was a period of unbridled creativity when she wrote novels as acclaimed as The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.

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I ventured on my excursion on a rainy and dreary day. I was hoping for sunny weather to get good pictures of the property but in the end the rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it lent to the place the same wistful air that permeates her work.

The quarter mile road leading to the imposing mansion had contemporary art displays on each side. Some people may balk at the idea of such quirky displays on a Gilded Age property but they added a whimsical touch to the tour and, I thought, brought out the contrast between the past and the present in a rather unique and striking way.

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One of the first things you notice on entering the house is that it is not ornate or stuffy with wallpaper and formal furnishings but represents a departure from the Victorian conventions of design. It is light and airy and quite different from the opulent Newport mansions of the era. I was surprised to learn that Wharton planned a lot of the design and the architectural elements of the home herself.  She co-authored a book with Ogden Codman, one of the architects of the house, entitled The Decoration of Houses and the Mount reflects her aesthetic sense of understated elegance through the features delineated in the book- simplicity, symmetry, balance and living in accord with nature.

Although the house was designed to be a tranquil haven, Wharton’s life in the Mount was far from peaceful. Her marriage to her husband Edward “Teddy” Wharton was strained. He suffered from depression, mood swings and angry outbursts which took a toll on her own health. Today his symptoms could be explained as bipolar disease and schizophrenia.  She was also trapped in a loveless marriage and she finally divorced him in 1913.

Wharton moved to France after her divorce and the manor was sold to private owners and eventually to a girls’ school and later to the Shakespeare & Co theater group which still puts up performances on the grounds. After a long period of disrepair, it is now being restored to its former glory. The renovation is a work in progress and is being done with scrupulous attention to detail. As most of the home contains reproductions of the original furnishings, you can wander around freely at your pace and even sit on the chairs and couches.

As soon as you step into the entry foyer of the three- storied home you are struck by the welcoming and informal atmosphere. The first floor has the entry foyer which resembles a grotto, a kitchen and a bookstore. On the second floor are a study, a library, a drawing room and a dining room surrounded by a wrap- around terrace with stunning views of manicured lawns, parterres, wetlands and woods.

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The dining room has an informal look with no chandelier and a round table instead of a long rectangular one to facilitate conversation.

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The library is the only place cordoned off as it houses her original collection of books.

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The third floor has the sewing room, the bedrooms of guests including the one where Henry James used to sleep and Edith Wharton’s own boudoir, bathroom and bedroom. Her bedroom has facsimiles of drafts of her novels in her own handwriting with words and lines crossed out.

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The tour was made more interesting by the personal anecdotes shared by the docent. Apparently Wharton wrote in bed every morning letting the pages fall to dry when she had finished and one of the servants would pick them up and send them to be typed. The docent also gave details about her infamous love affair with Morton Fullerton. They picked late-blooming witch hazel in the woods ( perhaps as a symbol of their late-blooming love) a sprig of which he sent her in a billet- doux and which marked the beginning of their adulterous relationship. Another interesting tidbit was the fact that the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses” was originally made in reference to the wealthy relatives on the maternal side of Wharton’s family.

After the tour of the house, I stepped outside to take the garden tour. As it was still raining, I was the only one on the tour and was able to have an in-depth conversation with the docent, who, much to my delight had read the same Wharton books as I had. To the left of the house is the symmetrical French garden with a profusion of colorful blooms. The garden has been recreated with the same flowers planted at the time of Wharton’s stay after researching her correspondence and conducting interviews with people who knew her. I have always thought of Edith Wharton as a kindred spirit for I share her love of the written word and of Romance Languages and an affinity for European culture along with an interest in gardening.  Imagine my joy then to discover this little detail that like me she preferred tall phlox in her garden beds to the short groundcover phlox!

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To the right of the house is the walled Italian garden connected to the French one by a linden allée. The Italian garden was intended to be a place of serenity and therefore the color scheme is green and white with only the green leaves and white flowers of plants like climbing hydrangea and hostas. On one side of the garden is a pergola covered with Concord grape vines from where you can see a spectacular view of the Berkshire mountains.

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Edith Wharton’s excessive wealth afforded her privileges not available to other women of the era but she carved her own reputation by dint of her talent. Not only was she a prolific writer who wrote more than forty books in forty years, she was also a humanitarian  and philanthropist who helped refugees in France during World War 1. I knew Edith Wharton the writer but I left the property knowing Edith Wharton the person. Her legacy lives on and is honored through artistic and literary programs and events on the grounds. There are jazz performances on Friday and Saturday nights and plays put up periodically by Shakespeare & Co.

As I was leaving the property, I tried to imagine how it would have been to be Edith Wharton and live in a bygone era. I could picture myself living on the Mount with an enviable coterie of servants, gardeners and footmen, riding on horseback, strolling in the gardens with the dogs and sipping cocktails on the terrace with distinguished guests like Henry James. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have even minded being one of the servants waiting on Edith Wharton for I would still have had access to the tranquil and beautiful property.

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One of the rooms in the manor with exhibits about her life.

Although Edith Wharton led a life of luxury, she was far from happy which reminds us of the adage that money can’t buy happiness. Her novels convey the same sense of unfulfillment she experienced in her life. Her stories are about love and loss, lost chances in life and regret. I left the property in a rain- tinted haze feeling the weight of all the unresolved emotions of the author and all her fictional characters. I am glad it rained for in some strange way it enhanced my experience of Edith Wharton’s home, life and work and made it all the more poignant.

 

 

 

 

 

80 YEARS OF ‘REBECCA’

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I am now the proud possessor of Virago’s 80thanniversary edition of Rebecca which has the most exquisite cover inspired by a scene in the novel where the second Mrs. de Winter comes across Rebecca’s azalea- scented handkerchief monogrammed with the letter ‘R’.  The handkerchief design along with the ‘R’ was first hand stitched and embroidered on fabric and then photographed for the cover which was embellished with gold foil to give the appearance of gold threads.

First published in August of 1938, Rebecca has never been out of print and has had numerous avatars on stage and on screen including the suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock 1940 film adaptation. Written in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, Rebecca is a gothic romance, an intriguing murder mystery or a psychological thriller depending upon the reader’s perspective. According to Daphne du Maurier, it is primarily a study of jealousy. And the handkerchief scene itself could owe its existence to personal moments in Du Maurier’s life when she came across correspondence by her husband’s ex-fiancée, Jan Ricardo who signed the ‘R’ in her letters with a flourish.

Whatever genre the novel might belong to, there is no denying that right from the very first sentence, “ Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”, the reader is hooked and transported to this quasi dream-like, quasi menacing space which mirrors the sentiments of the highly imaginative narrator and her world of fantasy. Every time I read Rebecca, I discover something new about it that I had overlooked earlier.

When I first read Rebecca as a teenager, I considered it to be a traditional romantic story in the vein of Cinderella. A timid and innocent young girl of modest means while working as a lady’s companion to the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper, is swept off her feet on a trip to Monte Carlo by the much older and worldly widower, Maximillan de Winter, with this unexpected marriage proposal:

“Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.”
“Do you mean you want a secretary or something?”
“No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” 

After a whirlwind courtship, she is whisked off to Manderley, a stately estate on the Cornish Coast replete with gardens and servants and, alas, the presence of the dead first wife Rebecca who despite her absence still haunts the mansion and its inhabitants and eventually the thoughts of the young narrator herself, bringing out her doubts and insecurities. And just like the Cinderella story, there is an evil stepmother in the background in the form of Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper who makes her life hell for she is still exceedingly loyal to the memory of her former employer whom she adored. The kind-hearted narrator eventually surmounts the obstacles in her path and wins the affection of her Prince Charming and they live happily ever after or so I thought when I was a starry-eyed youngster.

In my mid to late twenties, I thought of Rebecca more as a coming of age story where the narrator has to learn to forge her own identity. Maxim turns out to be a morose and distant Heathcliffesque character. Besides, the shadow of the first wife hangs over their marriage and the new wife feels like an imposter in her own home. How could this socially awkward and shy girl compete with a dead woman who was the epitome of beauty and grace and whose virtues were extolled by everyone?

I could fight with the living but I could not fight the dead. If there was some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her anymore. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.hh

She can’t stand up to anyone including the servants despite being the mistress of the house and occupying a more superior position.  I felt bad for this unassertive girl who has to deal with the stern and intimidating Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter is probably the literary character I could most identify with at that stage in my life.  I have had to face quite a few forbidding Mrs. Danvers type people myself and I could relate to the plight of the insecure child- woman. I rooted for her and I wanted her to blossom into a more confident person and to make her place in the home and in the heart of her husband. She has such a weak sense of self that Du Maurier decided to keep her anonymous. This is an ingenious device to show that she pales in comparison to the charismatic Rebecca and that her identity is wrapped entirely into her husband’s name.

The narrator’s obsession with her predecessor grows and as we learn more about Rebecca, we discover that she was a manipulative woman of licentious behavior and a far cry from the perfect woman she was imagined to be. Interestingly, I didn’t pay too much attention to the murder mystery element of the story till I read it in my thirties. Was Rebecca’s death an accident, did she commit suicide or was she murdered?

SPOILERS FOLLOW:

Half way through the novel Maxim makes a stunning confession to his new wife. He is the one responsible for the murder of his ex-wife. One would think that she would be livid that he had committed a crime or even terrified that she is married to a murderer. Doesn’t she fear that she could be the next victim?  But the silly girl is relieved to hear that he had never loved Rebecca. It dawned on me that the character I had once felt sorry for has no integrity or backbone. Along with the narrator, I had probably condoned the murder too when I read the book in my youth as I probably wanted her to be happy and secure in her husband’s love. I completely forgot that aspect of the story when I read it again at a later date. It is interesting how Du Maurier makes the readers complicit in the murder. Alfred Hitchcock made the murder an accident as he didn’t want to shock the audience by portraying the hero as the anti-hero. Although the film was excellent in its own way, much of the chilling impact of the book was lost by altering this detail.

I read Rebecca again last year and I realized that it is far from the love story I imagined it to be in my youth. Maybe I’m jaded with age but the Maxim I once found handsome and thrilling is a moody and controlling bully who infantilizes his wife and treats her much like he treats his pet dog, Jasper. Why does the narrator make him get away with the murder instead of reporting him? Perhaps it is not love but the fact that a submissive woman ends up gaining control over her domineering husband as she is the only one who knows his damning secret! What an amazingly brilliant book! I am now reading Rebecca from a feminist angle as a story of identity, gender roles and power struggles within a traditional heterosexual marriage. But there are so many ways to read this fascinating story which taps into our most primal emotions of love, fear, jealousy and obsession. There have been Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian and queer interpretations of the book. One could argue that the book is essentially about repressed sexuality. Isn’t it telling that the one character who asserts her sexual freedom poses a threat to the conventional patriarchy and is unceremoniously murdered and dumped?

END OF SPOILERS

In the end Rebecca’s ghost has been driven out. Or so believes the narrator. But there is an interesting scene where she looks at her reflection only to see Rebecca peering back at her from the mirror. Maybe she unconsciously wishes to be Rebecca herself.  Rebecca appears to be the alter ego, the sexually alluring and exciting counterpart to the naive and inexperienced young woman. And even if Rebecca’s ghost has been exorcized for the narrator, it has not for the readers. We return again and again to the story and will never be free of its seductive grip.  Even Rebecca’s boat is prophetically named “ Je reviens” or I’ll return as Sarah Perry points out in the introduction to the new Virago edition. And let’s not forget that the narrator herself had once cried out in despair, “  Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca”.

The anniversary edition cover is a fitting tribute to an exemplary writer. Now excuse me so I can go make a pot of English Breakfast and re -read Rebecca for the umpteenth time in this new stunning edition! I wonder what new insights I will have as I continue reading this cherished book throughout my life.