Olive, Again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Night Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Maisie Didn’t Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Painted Veil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Social Distancing With Mrs. Dalloway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a lark! What a plunge!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A View Without A Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Room With My View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Paternal Love in Le Père Goriot

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

( The translation is mine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Love Song

antique-violin

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

Love Song

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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

Here’s the original in German:
Liebeslied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crocus Focus

Crocus
Crocuses in my garden!

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

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

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

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

The Crocus’s Soliloquy

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

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

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

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

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

~ Hannah F. Gould

Crocus2
Crocuses blooming in the garden right now!

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

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

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