Romantic Passages From Literature

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

Love At First Sight

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

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

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

The First Kiss

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

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

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

Declaration of Love

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

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

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

Marriage Proposal

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

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

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

Till Death Do Us Part

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

It was Dinah who spoke first.

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

Adam paused and looked into her sincere loving eyes.

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

And they kissed each other with a deep joy.

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

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

Love Letter

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

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

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

 

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

True Love

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canal side entrance to the museum

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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Werewolf- From a German Woodcut, 1722

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

An Unending Winter: Ethan Frome

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

As Summer Fades To Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILER FOLLOWS

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

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

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

END OF SPOILER

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

 

The Remains of the Day

KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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