Frankenstein

Illustration from the frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein showing Victor Frankenstein expressing disgust on seeing his creation.

Frankenstein is a story that has stood the test of time and a name that has endured in popular culture. It is often acclaimed as the first sci-fi novel and has given rise to countless Hollywood adaptations which apparently are nothing like the book. I am glad I read the book without having seen any of the film versions. But the story has become such a pivotal part of our culture that I, like many others, mistakenly believed that Frankenstein was the name of the monster. It is, in fact, the name of his creator but the confusion is an interesting one, albeit unintended, as one can argue that the creator himself was the monster.

First of all, I was blown away by the fact that Mary Shelley started writing this novel at the tender age of eighteen. Well, she was after all the daughter of two literary luminaries- the philosopher and writer, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecroft, a passionate advocate of women’s rights. The story surrounding the genesis of the novel is as fascinating as her creation. The prologue mentions how Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom Mary married eventually) and Mary Godwin met regularly at a villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816. It was a season of especially inclement weather when they were mostly confined indoors. Lord Byron suggested the idea of writing ghost stories during a rainy and stormy spell. While the project was  eventually abandoned by most at the fireside, only Polidori’s The Vampyre and  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saw the light of the day. Galvanism or the induction of electrical currents was a popular topic of discussion at the time and Mary was inspired by the concept to pen her story:

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …

The rest is literary history.

Frankenstein is the story of the brilliant Victor Frankenstein who as a young boy was drawn to natural philosophy, the term used at the time to describe the sciences. He particularly sought out the teachings of alchemists and ancient philosophers. He became obsessed with the idea of creating new life and devoted hours to his project, neglecting in the process, his family, friends and his own health. He went to great lengths to create a human form from old body parts and animal remains and imbued it with life. Yet he ran away from his creation the very day it came to life, as he was repulsed by the gigantic and grotesque monster he had created.

His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

He describes what happened next, to Robert Walton, a British explorer who rescues him from an ice floe near the North Pole while he was in pursuit of his monster. The explorer, in turn, describes the events in the form of letters to his sister Margaret Walton Saville in England. These letters form the outer narrative of this story within a story. And within the inner story are embedded the stories of the monster and of his neighbors.

It is interesting how Shelley weaves in the monster’s narrative as part of the novel. He discloses to Victor how he slowly became aware of who he was and lived in an abandoned hovel next to a cottage where he vicariously lived through the lives of the De Laceys, a family exiled from Paris for defending a Turkish man unfairly accused of a crime. He learned to read and write while eavesdropping on the lessons of the Arabian girl Safie, the daughter of the Turkish man and the guest at the cottage. Within his story is the story of De Lacey’s son Felix who loves Safie and reveals more about her and her mother. We have a tale within a tale within a tale like Russian matroushka dolls neatly stacked one within the other.

And like the narrative structure of nesting, the story is layered and can be interpreted in many ways. It raises many interesting ethical, philosophical and psychological questions.

First and foremost, it is a Promethean tale as indicated by the complete title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Just like the Greek titan stole fire to help humanity, Victor kindles the sacred fire of life. However he does not understand the ramifications of his project and things go awry. Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about what could go wrong if we flout the natural order of things. The story is more relevant than ever in our modern world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and makes us ponder over the ethical implications of scientific progress.

The novel also addresses the loneliness that results from parental abandonment. Victor’s abandonment of his creature turns the latter into a monster vowing revenge on his creator. He goes on a murderous rampage destroying the people close to Victor’s heart. The monster is basically good at heart. He wanted to be loved and to belong. His maker did not even bother to give him a name and referred to him as a devil, a fiend, a demon. He was rejected only on account of his deformity. The novel addresses the nature vs nurture debate and seems to imply that our minds begin as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank state, and our environment has a great impact on our behavior as opposed to our biological and genetic predispositions.

Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.’  

 

Woodcut from a 1934 edition, illustrated by Lynd Ward. Villagers stone the monster.

The novel made me ponder about our own creator and our place in the world. How could God create something and not take responsibility for it? For what purpose were we created if there is so much misery in the world? People who look different are discriminated against and the world is full of injustice. Are we abandoned by God too? The epigraph to the novel is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost which describes the conversation Adam has with God after his creation.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

The monster never asked to be created. But unlike Adam he has no Eve. His fate is even worse. Not only is he shunned from society but also faces the solitude of living without a companion.

Woodcut from a 1934 edition of Frankenstein, illustrated by Lynd Ward. The monster gazes into a pool.

Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The unjust ostracization of the monster brings us to the question: Who is the real monster? Some critics have analyzed the novel through a Freudian lens and have proposed that Victor and the monster are the embodiment of the ego and the id, representing the conscious desires and the subconscious wishes of the same being. A careful reading will reveal how Victor could have averted the deaths of some of his near and dear ones. The monster is his doppelgänger and they are very similar in their insatiable thirst of knowledge, in their admiration of nature, in the unabashed outpouring of sentimentality and the isolation they experience whether self-imposed or by society. The main difference is that Victor grew up in a nurturing environment and should have been more sensitive to the monster’s feelings. The creature then is a reflection of Victor’s own ugliness, a mirror of his own evil character.

Equally interesting is a feminist reading of the novel. At first glance, the novel seems to be very male oriented. The female characters are all passive and submissive to their men. Victor creates the monster without the help of a woman and he also destroys the female companion he is in the process of creating for the monster:

Yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth.

She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.

Victor is afraid that she will enjoy autonomy and think for herself. His act is a blatant expression of the patriarchal repudiation of women and the fear of their sexuality and fertility. He is afraid of the child bearing abilities of women, their power to create an entire race of such beings and one of the horrors of the novel is making us wonder if science would eliminate the biological function of women. But Shelley highlights the misogyny to show the detrimental effects of envisioning a world without women for we see the terrible fate Victor meets with when going against nature. As a nineteenth century woman writer, Mary Shelley knew this misogyny all too well. Frankenstein was initially published anonymously because of her gender and some critics believed it to be written by Percy Shelley.

The portrayal of reproductive anxiety may have emanated from Mary Shelley’s own feelings of loneliness in life dealing with a loss of a mother who died from complications of childbirth, her own difficult pregnancies, several miscarriages and the tragedy of losing her children and husband. She wrote to exorcize her own demons and it is interesting in this regard to consider that Victor is her own creation just as the monster is Victor’s.

I admit the novel is not without its flaws. The whole education of the monster seems implausible. But I was struck by the complexity of ideas presented and captivated by the marvelous lyrical prose. I will be returning to this book over and over again to delve deeper into the themes for I have only scratched its surface. To write with such maturity and finesse at such a young age is nothing short of genius. Whatever be the fate of Victor’s mortal creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lived over 200 years and has attained immortality!

 

The Black Tulip

It is virtually impossible to grow a truly black tulip. Black tulips are never completely black but more of a deep purple or purplish-black hue. Yet, in the novel, “The Black Tulip”, by Alexandre Dumas, père, a tulip competition takes place to see who can create a jet black tulip which would be the first of its kind. Although the tale is more fiction than fact, it was inspired by ‘tulipmania’, a phenomenon that swept the Netherlands in the 17th century.

It was the golden age in Dutch history when its empire was the greatest power in Europe. It was also a time of prosperity when people indulged in luxury goods. They became fascinated with tulip bulbs and paid exorbitant sums for rare streaked and striped varieties. As the tulip market grew, people began speculating in tulip bulbs. The tulip bubble lasted for three years before the mania died abruptly and the market collapsed. With the backdrop of this event, Dumas recounts the story of Cornelius van Baerle, a horticulturist who dedicates his life to producing a black tulip. But before Dumas gets to the story of the tulip, he depicts another major historical event that took place in 1672- the lynching of the de Witt brothers in The Hague.

The first four chapters describe the horrific incident in gory detail. The de Witt brothers, the Dutch Grand Pensionary, Johan de Witt, and his brother Cornelis were much revered Republican statesmen who held influential political positions. Both England and France attacked the Dutch Republic and Johan de Witt was criticized for neglecting the army and relying solely on the naval strength of the nation. He was blamed for the ‘raampjar’, the invasion by Louis the 14thin 1672. He escaped an assassination attempt while his brother Cornelis was arrested for allegedly conspiring against William the 3rd, the statholder. When Johan went to visit his brother in prison, a crowd who supported the Orangist monarchy, had gathered outside and savagely attacked the brothers and ripped them to pieces. There are accounts describing how parts of the cadavers were sold as souvenirs and even eaten by the frenzied bloodthirsty mob.

Although gruesome, the historical background is crucial to the understanding of the story. Fiction blends with history when we are introduced to the fictitious grandson and namesake of Cornelis de Witt, a certain Dr. Cornelius van Baerle who gets embroiled unwittingly in the political intrigue. The Orangists had accused the de Witt brothers of treason believing their correspondence to the French king to be incriminating evidence. The letters were entrusted in the care of Van Baerle and he keeps them safely unaware of the contents. Meanwhile the city of Haarlem offers a generous monetary prize of 100,000 guilders to the person who can grow a purely black tulip. 

Dr. Van Baerle is a tulip fancier who believes that ‘to despise flowers is to offend God’. The tulip fanciers of the time added their own specific embellishments to the aphorism:

“C’est offenser Dieu que mépriser les fleurs.La tulipe est la plus belle de toutes les fleurs.
Donc qui méprise la tulipe offense démesurément Dieu.”

“To despise flowers is to offend God.The tulip is the most beautiful of all flowers.Therefore, the one who despises tulips offends God beyond measure.”

  Van Baerle works assiduously on cultivating the black tulip. It is on the verge of blooming when his jealous neighbor Isaac Boxtel, a fellow tulip grower who spies on him constantly, alerts the authorities and has him arrested for keeping the letters of the de Witt brothers. Boxtel covets the prize himself and resorts to all sorts of machinations to steal the bulbs and acquire fame and fortune for himself.

A distraught Cornelis manages to sneak in three cuttings of the tulip bulbs with him when he is arrested and continues to grow them in prison. Meanwhile he meets Rosa Gryphus, the guard’s beautiful daughter and the two fall in love. He teaches her to read and write and she helps him grow the black tulip secretly. Love blossoms too along with the tulip. The rest of the story is sappy and sentimental and different in tone from the first few chapters.

The black tulip needs the right amount of light and soil conditions to flourish. Love too will only develop with the right amount of nurturing and attention. Love faces challenges but never gives up and blooms in spite of all the hurdles in its way. The obstacles come in the form of Rosa’s own cruel and suspicious father and a mysterious visitor to the prison who takes more than a passing interest in Rosa and her tulips.

 The story lacks the depth of “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Three Musketeers”. The characters are portrayed with no nuance and belong to the distinct tropes of hero, villain or victim. My edition had notes on the historical details. Apparently Dumas got some of his facts mixed up. He confuses William the Silent with William the 3rd and some of the chronology regarding the de Witt brothers does not match up. Also, there are inaccuracies in the research on tulips. Tulips came from Turkey and not from Ceylon ( Sri Lanka) as Dumas claims. The sources he followed were not always accurate. Reading the notes took away a little from my experience but I found the fictional aspects of the novel to be entertaining and was happy to read a lesser known work of Dumas. 

I enjoyed the delightful lovers’ tiffs between the two. Rosa is jealous of the tulip and claims that Van Baerle loves the flower more than her. Of course Rosa is named after a flower herself and one can say that he is caught between the tulip and the rose.

Will the black tulip bloom? Will love triumph in the end? We hope so for after the misfortunes endured by the protagonists, we wish them all the happiness in the world for, “On a quelquefois assez souffert pour avoir le droit de ne jamais dire : Je suis trop heureux.” “Sometimes one has suffered enough to have the right to never say: I am too happy”.

Letter From Peking

I love diving into lesser known works of famous authors; you never know what pearls you might come up with. Letter from Peking is one such pearl of a book written by the legendary Pearl S. Buck. She is most famous for The Good Earth, a novel about rural pre-revolutionary China that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, earning the distinction of being the first American woman to be honored with the award. I may be one of the rare readers who preferred Letter From Peking to her popular and award winning novels. Letter From Peking, published in 1957, has an unusual plot and a sad and haunting tone. I was moved to tears several times while reading.

The story is about long distance love and a family caught between two countries, two continents and two cultures. The setting is Vermont and the novel is written in the form of a dateless diary with a lot of flashback to Peking. Elizabeth has been separated from her beloved husband for five years and has been raising their son alone on her family’s farm in Vermont. While studying at Radcliffe College, she had met Gerald MacLeod, a half-Chinese half-American doctoral student at Harvard. They got married and returned to Peking where they spent many happy years together until the rise of the Communist regime when it was no longer safe for Elizabeth and her son to stay there. Gerald is the President of the University in Peking and it is not clear if and when he will return to the US to join his family.

Elizabeth leads a quiet life in Vermont managing her farm and devoting her days to her son Rennie and Gerald’s father, Baba, a Scotsman from Virginia whom she is looking after in his old age. The caretaker of the farm and his wife, the single doctor who takes a romantic interest in Elizabeth and summer residents are among the few people who revolve in their orbit. She pines for her husband and reminisces about the beautiful love they shared. In fact, they were each other’s first love. “The first run of maple syrup, John Burroughs says, is like first love, “always the best, always the fullest, always the sweetest, while there is a purity and delicacy of flavor about the sugar that far surpasses any subsequent yield.”

Now she lives on the strength of her memories and on the hope that they will be reunited again which seems like a dim prospect in the political climate of the time. She reassures herself:“Gerald has not deserted me nor I him. We are divided by history, past and present.” Letters are the only form of communication between them. They have to be sent clandestinely as communication with westerners is banned by the Communists. At first fairly frequent, they start dwindling in number until a final one comes along. The contents of the last letter are not revealed till the end.

Although not a widow, the sad reality is that Elizabeth is one in many ways. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Can you imagine not seeing your spouse for years and living life without knowing if you’ll ever meet again? There is so much uncertainty coupled with the loneliness but yet Eve as Gerald used to call his beloved Elizabeth, takes it all in stride with so much grace. There are men vying for her attention but she fends off their advances staying loyal to her husband. I think what appealed to me in the book was the gentleness in the tone despite the sadness. There is something very moving about Elizabeth’s serene acceptance of her situation and resignation to her fate. Her loneliness is described with poignancy:

Oh, the awful silence of the valley at night! No one comes near me and I am as alone as though I lived solitary upon a planet. Here and there in the distance a light burns. It means a house, a home, two people, perhaps children. The oil lamp burns yellow in Matt’s little house, and far down at the end of the valley the bright single light is the naked electric bulb that never goes out above the office door of Bruce Spaulden. I know, too, the intermittent flares of summer folk. None of them burns for me. Sometimes I light every lamp in my empty house and a stranger passing by could believe the house is full of guests. But I have no guests.”

I loved the Vermont setting and its juxtaposition with Peking; the grandeur of Chinese civilization offers an interesting contrast to the gentle beauty of Vermont and captures the essence of the novel. Elizabeth cherishes her husband’s Chinese heritage and wants her son to appreciate it too and wants him to have a life partner who would accept and understand it too. Baba lives in the past and still wears Chinese silk robes and reads Chinese books. As Elizabeth says, he still lives in the world of Confucius and Chinese emperors. I think that’s an important distinction- there is the grand old China- one of the oldest civilizations of the world and the new Communist regime which is entirely different. Her father-in-law is the only link to her husband and it is interesting that though Baba and Elizabeth are not Chinese by blood, they are proud to be linked to the rich culture.

Being quarter Chinese, Rennie, on the other hand, wrestles with his identity. Which country do you claim as your own when you can’t embrace both? It was a period of Sino-American geo-political tensions and there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favorable to it and a similar distrust on the part of the authoritarian Chinese government towards Americans. Besides, in those days mixed families were not as common. Rennie has to choose between America and China and sadly between his mother and father. Unlike his mother, it is not so easy for him to forgive his father and it is safer for him to reject his heritage.

He falls in love with a girl in the neighborhood named Allegra and he is worried that revealing his Chinese identity will keep her from liking him. Elizabeth is harsh and judgmental about his relationship with the white girl. She wonders how Rennie could love a girl whose heart can “only hold one cup”. Pearl S. Buck beautifully depicts the complicated mother-son relationship.“Yet no mother can save her son. She can only watch and wait and wring her hands.” I thought her feelings arose from her loneliness. Her son was the only constant person in her life and she seemed jealous like any over protective mother. But later on I realized that maybe she was on to something as she seemed to readily accept his relationship with Mary, a girl she thought to be better suited to him and who would understand and embrace his Chinese heritage.

Gerald and Elizabeth’s relationship is tender and sweet no doubt, but I felt that she could have been idealizing it at times. Time and distance can make you lose perspective. When a person is absent, we tend to focus on their positive qualities and overlook their flaws. We only remember the good times. The bitter truth is that Gerald chose his country over her. Gerald’s patriotism and love for China prevented him from leaving his country. He had the opportunity to return to the US with her but didn’t and then it became too late. Even her son points it out to her but she is in some kind of denial mode. She continues to be fiercely protective of him.

I was struck by the dignity and poise Elizabeth had in the face of suffering but I do think she had a slight ‘holier than thou‘ attitude- she felt that no relationship could compare to this sublime love of theirs and she is steadfast in her belief that this true perfect love can withstand barriers of time, distance, race and culture. Her attitude seems like a coping mechanism. She needed something to cling on to, to give her hope to continue waiting.

In spite of some annoying traits, Elizabeth is on the whole a sympathetic character and I think it is because she is a lot like a modern day single mom who is self-reliant and has to raise her son singlehandedly. She is an independent woman who lives alone, works hard and makes her own money by managing a big farm by herself. She interacts mostly with men and like a single woman sometimes has to deal with their romantic interest in her. She also takes care of her father-in- law like a lot of women who end up taking the responsibility of caregiving. I am not going to reveal what happens in the end; what the final letter disclosed and whether Elizabeth is reunited with her husband. I hope I have piqued your curiosity enough to want to read the book.

When Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, former President Richard Nixon called her “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and the West.”Though there are critics who believe that she perpetuated stereotypes about the Chinese, there is no doubt that she was instrumental in making China and the Chinese real and relevant to many people. This ‘pearl’ of a novel is more than a story about interracial conflict. It is a story about the love a woman is capable of- a love in its myriad complex forms-the undying love that she has for an absent husband, the protective love she has for her son, the filial duty and affection for her in-laws and most of all the love for a country that she has no ties of blood to but has embraced with her heart and soul. Imagine all this tumult of emotion soaked up in the quiet and gentle beauty of Vermont!

Have you read this novel or any other novel by Pearl S. Buck? And have you enjoyed reading any lesser known works of popular authors?

 

Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri’s early novels and short stories explored the theme of displacement and alienation in the context of the Indian- American immigrant experience. In 2012, Lahiri moved to Italy and adopted the country and its culture. Not only did she learn Italian and become fluent in the language, she made the startling decision to give up writing in English. She wrote her first work in Italian in 2015, a non-fiction piece entitled In altre parole which was translated into English as In Other Words by Ann Goldstein. ( You can read my blog post on the book here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/in-other-words-a-love-affair-with-a-language/ )

Dove mi trovo ( Where I Find Myself) is her second book in Italian and this time she has translated it herself into English as Whereabouts. She has also moved back to the US, coming out a little, if not wholly, out of her self-imposed linguistic exile. Though Whereabouts does not address the immigrant experience, the anxiety of dislocation–that feeling of being neither here nor there- is still the prevailing theme.

In a series of vignettes set over a year and spanning the seasons, Whereabouts chronicles the daily life of a middle aged single woman in an unnamed city, presumably Rome in Italy. The structure is fragmentary and there is no plot as such-in fact nothing much happens. The short chapters read like diary entries. From the few crumbs of details thrown at the reader, we guess that she is a professor at a university and has never been married or had children. She is aloof with her colleagues and her relationship with her parents is fraught. She describes herself as “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around...” She may have some regrets in life but she seems content with her lifestyle despite her loneliness. She derives comfort from her mundane routine and rituals.

She wanders through the city and frequents its haunts as she goes about her day. You can find her on the sidewalk, at the trattoria, in the piazza, in the bookstore or at the museum. In fact these locations are also chapter titles. Sometimes the titles refer to the weather or the season (‘In spring’, ‘In the Sun’, ‘In August’). There’s one chapter titled ‘In My Head’ and another one called ‘Nowhere’. She moves in and out of these different urban spaces forming tacit and fleeting connections with the people she encounters.The specificity of the location is juxtaposed with the meanderings of the narrator’s mind which jumps between the past and the present. At times on the street, she runs into people she knows. But often she is only an eavesdropper, intrigued by strangers. She follows a couple having an argument and builds up a whole narrative in her head about their personal life based on the few words she hears them speak. She is a voyeur and so are the readers, privy to her innermost thoughts. She takes comfort in crowds but is a solitary woman who prefers being alone. “I eat alone, next to others eating alone”, she muses at a restaurant. She feels less alone in the company of people. She craves for connection but not of the close kind:

This evening as I read in bed I hear the roar of cars that speed down the road beneath my apartment. And the fact of their passing makes me aware of my own stillness. I can only fall asleep when I hear them. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, always at the same time, it’s the absolute silence that interrupts my sleep. That’s the hour when there’s not a car on the road, when no one needs to get anywhere. My sleep grows lighter and lighter and then it abandons me entirely. I wait until someone, anyone, turns up on the road. The thoughts that come to roost in my head in those moments are always the gloomiest, also the most precise. That silence, combined with the black sky, takes hold over me until the first light returns and dispels those thoughts, until I hear the presence of lives passing by along the road below me.

As she goes about her day, she reflects on her life and her relationships. She has had her share of men including married men and a two timing boyfriend. There is also her friend’s husband to whom she is drawn and he seems to be attracted to her as well but they never act on their feelings. She discovers that over time, this hypothetical affair, “which never took hold to begin with, loses its hold over me.” The narrator is prone to anxiety and suffers from tics, headaches, odd afflictions and mysterious pains arising out of the blue. Her mother who was codependent while married, is now a lonely woman who lives alone. Her father’s untimely death has left her bereft but she is not able to forgive him for not protecting her from her mother’s rages and cries out near his crypt: “ …but that magma never touched you, you’d already built yourself an enclosure that was taller and thicker than the marble that encases you now.” She was supposed to go on a trip with him to see a play but he died before that could happen. Her buried anger erupts : “I refused to unpack my suitcase for a month. I mourned those wasted tickets, and that trip never taken, more than I mourned for you.

The unnamed narrator who vacillates between the need to stay and to leave, to connect and to disconnect is a sort of an ‘everywoman’. It is easy for any city woman to identify with her. She is a flâneuse somewhat like her literary predecessor, Mrs. Dalloway, who ambles around the city, both part of the crowd and separate from it. I thought of how, like the narrator, we crave anonymity and blend in with the crowd but yet we shrink from total solitude. We are happy to sip our coffee alone with a book or our smartphone in a café but we derive a sense of security from the people around us. Even the narrator sees her double, a woman who looks like her and whom she follows and loses in the crowd. “ My double, seen from behind, explains something to me: that I’m me and also someone else, that I’m leaving and also staying.”“Did I imagine her? No, I’m certain I saw her. A variation of myself with a sprightly step, determined to get somewhere, just up ahead.” Variations of the narrator exist everywhere, caught in the hustle and bustle of urban loneliness.

The quiet story has a dreamlike quality and shifts between shadow and light, absence and presence, stillness and movement, till the narrator makes a momentous decision. When she was a little girl, she was afraid to jump from one tree stump to the other while playing with other children at school, but she finally takes a giant leap of faith. And like her protagonist narrator, Jhumpa Lahiri also reinvents herself by leaving her comfort zone to try something different. I appreciate her devotion and dedication to another language. It resonates with me personally, as much like Lahiri, I grew up exposed to many languages and was most fluent in English, which was not my mother tongue, but a ‘stepmother’, to borrow her analogy from In Other Words. I went on to embrace French, a totally different language I could consider my foster mother. I understand her relationship to Italian as I share her passion for living and breathing a foreign language. Yet I am left with ambivalent feelings on reading this book.

Does she have to give up one narrative style to find a new voice in her writing? Does she have to abandon one language to adopt another? I did not quite have the same intense and intimate experience with her Italian books as I did with her immigrant writing. There are a few poetic prose passages I savored, but on the whole I felt that some of her linguistic brilliance, so evident in English, is missing here as she is still in the process of perfecting Italian. I was mostly left with this agonizing question: Will we never get to read another Interpreter of Maladies or Unaccustomed Earth?

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

“I have not only occasionally made a confession of belief in essays, but once, a little more than ten years ago attempted to set forth my belief in a book. This book is called Siddhartha.” Hermann Hesse, My Belief, 1931

Published in 1922, after the First World War, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha struck a chord with Europeans looking for meaning in their lives. Writing this book was cathartic for Hesse too and part of his self discovery as he dealt with his own despondency and existential angst. The book became widely accessible after the 1955 translation into English by Hilda Rosner. It resonated with the hippie generation of the sixties, tapping into their alienation and giving them a flavor of the mystical practices of the East they were turning to for solace.

People mistakenly think that the book is about Gautam Buddha. The confusion arises from the fact that the protagonist’s name is Siddhartha which was the Buddha’s given name. The main character of the book is not the Buddha but a namesake who is a contemporary of the Buddha and whose path in life is analogous to that of the Buddha’s. Hermann Hesse deliberately gives him the same name to prove a point to which I shall return later in the post. Siddhartha is a coming of age story about the spiritual awakening of a man. In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Moksha or Nirvana is the awareness of the truth or the consciousness of existence residing within you which results in supreme bliss and leads to the ultimate liberation of the soul from suffering or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Siddhartha is on a quest to attain this state of enlightenment.

Thangka of Buddha with the One Hundred Jataka Tales, Tibet, 13th-14th century

The novella traces the spiritual journey of the eponymous character through various stages of his life. As a young man belonging to the priestly high caste of Brahmins, Siddhartha is disillusioned with the ritualistic and dogmatic teachings of the people who surround him and decides to leave his home and his parents with his best friend Govinda to start a life as an itinerant ascetic. The young men join the Samana monks who renounce all material desires and embrace a lifestyle of severe austerity abstaining from all indulgences. They teach Siddhartha to think, to fast and to wait but this lifestyle of self denial and deprivation does not lead to the peace and happiness he sought. Shortly thereafter, he meets the Buddha and is awestruck by his effulgence and grace, but decides to follow his own path instead of becoming a disciple. I love stories where the Buddha makes an appearance. The scene reminded me of the Jataka Tales of ancient India where the Buddha appears in some form or the other in every story with a didactic message. This encounter with the Buddha is especially interesting as Siddhartha defies him and says it is futile to follow a predetermined path. Just like the Buddha he has to reach spiritual enlightenment on his own and not on someone else’s terms even if that someone else happens to be the illustrious and exalted Buddha. He parts ways with Govinda who is more conforming and continues to live with the Samanas.

Siddhartha goes from one extreme to the other and decides to indulge his ‘self’ instead of suppressing it. Consequently, he embraces ‘samsara’ or the world by taking the comely Kamala as a lover. The courtesan ( which is just a fancy term for prostitute) initiates and instructs him in the art of love and introduces him to a successful merchant named Kamaswami. Siddhartha becomes a businessman. He makes money and squanders it by gambling, partakes of forbidden food and wine, enjoys all the pleasures of the flesh till his hedonistic lifestyle fills him with nausea and disgust and he realizes that he has died spiritually. He leaves Kamala and her pleasure grove unaware that she is pregnant and he is on the verge of committing suicide by throwing himself in a river when he is saved by the primordial sound of the universe, the sound of ‘om’ resounding from the depths of his soul. Subsequently, he meets Kamala and their son who is left in his care for some time and he is reunited twice with his childhood friend Govinda. He decides to live with Vasudev, the wise ferryman who teaches him to listen to the river which is eternal and ever flowing and reflects the entire cosmos:

  Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection. “

Minor spoilers follow:

When Siddhartha stopped seeking he found himself. He realized that the essence already exists within us and is present in the world in the here and the now. We are not the body- not intellectual or emotional beings but divine souls and the divinity within us is one with the Absolute or the ” Brahman’, the ultimate reality of the universe, ( not to be confused with ‘ Brahmin’ with an ‘i”). The individual self must be discarded to realize the universal self. It is only when the arrogant Siddhartha gets rid of his ego that he experiences that transcendent state of bliss. Govinda who focuses on the long term goal of nirvana fails to live in the moment and misses the tiny signs on the way. There is this climactic and sublime moment when Govinda asks Siddhartha to reveal the secret and when he comes close to Siddhartha’s face, he no longer sees the face of his friend but other faces which all changed and renewed themselves continuously and yet they were all Siddhartha. He saw the faces of aquatic creatures and animals, of a murderer and his executioner, of a newborn, of men and women in the transports of passionate love and faces of Gods.

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths – this smile of Siddhartha – was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

 In the beginning of the post, I pointed out the confusion that arises from giving the protagonist the Buddha’s childhood name. Apart from the name, there are many parallels to the story. Buddha breaks from the Kshatriya  caste of princes and nobles and Siddhartha from the privileged Brahmin caste of priests and they each follow their own individual paths to salvation. Interestingly, the name Siddhartha in Sanskrit means one who reaches his aim or goal. According to Hinduism there are four ‘purusharthas’ or goals in life ; dharma ( right conduct ), artha ( material prosperity), kama ( desire) and moksha ( liberation). Each has its place in life but moksha or salvation is the ultimate goal for every individual. Both the Buddha and Hesse’s Siddhartha go through and survive the vicissitudes of life before reaching enlightenment. Siddhartha, the Buddha left his wife and child and Siddhartha of the novel leaves the pregnant Kamala unaware of her condition. But the most obvious reason for the name choice is that the Buddha and the Siddhartha are one and the same- there is no difference between them. Nirvana is the realization of this undivided wholeness – the oneness of the universe -when everything and everyone, saint or sinner, merges into one.

End of Spoilers

Even the structure of the novella reflects Eastern philosophy. Siddhartha’s journey represents the four traditional stages of life of a Hindu; that of the student, the householder, the forest dweller and the recluse seeking enlightenment. The book is divided into two parts consisting of four and eight chapters respectively, to represent the Buddha’s teachings of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Indian philosophy can be metaphysical and esoteric and Hesse has simplified it in the form of a fable which makes it more interesting than reading a non- fiction account. It is a great read for anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with Buddhism and Hinduism. The language is poetic and lyrical, suited to the philosophical tone.

When I first picked the book, I was a little skeptical wondering if it would be dated and just another European’s exotic account of eastern teachings. There are nuggets of wisdom that I will be pondering over but what appealed to me most about Siddhartha is probably what also appealed to the hippie generation- it is a tale of rebellion and non- conformity. It is still relevant- for in an era of religious fundamentalism, cults, conversions and brainwashing, it is refreshing to read the story of a man who decides to think for himself and who carves his own spiritual path.

Notre Dame de Paris

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Assault

When in 2019, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was ravaged by a fire and suffered extensive damage, I became interested in learning about its history. I learned that Victor Hugo had played a pivotal role in the 19th century to revive interest in Gothic architecture and had inspired massive work on the medieval cathedral to restore it from its state of disrepair. Victor Hugo waxed eloquent about the cathedral, “a symphony in stone”, in his book, Notre Dame de Paris, more commonly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I was curious to read the book that spurred an interest in Gothic revival and recounts the well known story of the unrequited love of a hideously deformed hunchback for an extraordinarily beautiful gypsy girl. You can read an earlier blog post about the cathedral here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2019/04/24/notre-dame-de-paris-gypsies-gargoyles-and-grotesques/

The story is made for the performing arts and has been adapted countless times for the ballet, the opera, the theater and the screen. It is not surprising for it has a very Arabian Nights feel to it with a graceful and sensuous street dancer who pulls out the carpet to regale an audience, and a goat who performs tricks! Whereas Les Misérables remains Hugo’s chef d’oeuvre, Notre Dame de Paris has been eclipsed by its renderings which have become even more popular than the original book. I have seen the Disney film loosely based on the book. I say ‘loosely’ for the tone is entirely different. Notre Dame de Paris is no Disney fairy tale but a dark and disturbing story replete with abductions, murders, attempted murder, attempted rape, torture and executions. So much for a Disney style happily ever after! 

A Love Letter To A Cathedral

 The novel was written in 1830 but the plot is set in 1482. The cathedral is the center of the action and also serves as a moral compass over Paris. From the top you can get a view of the entire city as if it were keeping an eye on the inhabitants and their activities. Hugo loves rambling and there are detailed descriptions of the architecture and layout of this magnificent city which some readers might consider as digressions. The trope of “The Beauty and the Beast “is evident in the story as well as in the architecture. Quasimodo, the deaf ringer of the bells becomes part of the cathedral, representing a beast like the gargoyles while Esmeralda, the beauty, is like the stunning rose window of the edifice. Here’s a beautiful description of what the cathedral means to the hunchback:

“Et la cathédrale ne lui était pas seulement la société, mais encore l’univers, mais encore toute la nature. Il ne rêvait pas d’autres espaliers que les vitraux toujours en fleur, d’autre ombrage que celui de ces feuillages de pierre qui s’épanouissent chargés d’oiseaux dans la touffe des chapiteaux saxons, d’autres montagnes que les tours colossales de l’église, d’autre océan que Paris qui bruissait à leurs pieds.” 

Translation: And the cathedral was not only society for him but also the entire universe, and all of nature. He dreamed of no other trellises than the stained glass windows, always in flower; no other shade than that of the leaves of stone which burgeoned out, loaded with birds, in the tufts of the Saxon capitals; of no other mountains than the colossal towers of the church; of no other ocean than Paris, roaring at their feet.

I noticed the similarity between this book and The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, another French writer who was undoubtedly inspired by Hugo. Both portray physically deformed men living in a confined setting and in love with a beautiful woman. I wonder why it is always the man who is an ugly monster and the woman a stunning beauty who accepts and transforms him out of her kindness. Why is it never the other way around? There is something innately sexist about this trope but that’s a discussion for another time.

A Love Story…Not!

Four men are enamored of one woman but is there even one who loves her truly? Let’s look at these four men and their motivations. Pierre Gringoire, the aspiring poet and philosopher who is pedantic to the point of being ridiculous, follows ( er…stalks) the gypsy, La Esmeralda on the streets for no rhyme or reason. He later owes his life to Esmeralda’s appearance at the Court of Miracles. She marries him to save him from being executed but she rejects his advances on their wedding night making it clear that it was only a temporary marriage prompted by pity. He reconciles himself to the loveless marriage. He seems caring but he does not come to Esmeralda’s rescue when she needs it. He unwittingly helps Frollo kidnap her out of the cathedral where she has taken refuge and abandons the girl leaving her alone with the lascivious creep. He cares more for the goat Djali than for the woman who saved his life.

Then there is Phoebus who is a self absorbed and arrogant philanderer. He is captivated by Esmeralda’s rare beauty but would rather be betrothed to another woman who is rich and belongs to his own class. Esmeralda remains pure for she has a superstitious belief that if she loses her virginity, she will never be reunited with her family again and therefore resists Phoebus’ advances although she has made it clear to him that she loves him. Of all the men who are interested in her, Esmeralda only reciprocates the feelings Phoebus has for her. But his feelings are insincere. He considers her as an exotic object and almost has his way with her in spite of her decision to remain chaste. Esmeralda is no less superficial for she knows nothing about Phoebus and develops a foolish infatuation for him solely based on his looks.

Frollo is the most complex character in the novel. I liked that Hugo didn’t portray him as evil incarnate from the beginning but allowed us to witness his inner struggles till his descent into madness becomes inevitable. As a Catholic priest, he is tied to the demands of his faith and has to remain a celibate. He represses his sexual urges and his latent desires manifest in unhealthy ways. He has a lust for knowledge and secretly dabbles in witchcraft and alchemy, dark arts forbidden by the Church. We know that he is capable of love -we see it in the love that he has for his good for nothing brother Jehan and in the compassion that made him accept Quasimodo who was rejected by the world, as his own. But his obsessive love for Esmeralda is terrifying. As he considers lust shameful, he experiences deep shame and anxiety for his immoral thoughts. He is aggressive and thinks he can force her to love him. He is insanely jealous of Phoebus. In his dark cell, he observes a fly caught in a web which is eventually eaten by the spider, a foreshadowing of how Esmeralda will be ensnared and destroyed in his web. He believes that all actions are predetermined and uses his fatalistic beliefs to justify his horrible behavior. Frollo made my hair stand on stand. He is a woman’s worst nightmare. Every woman has had such a type of interaction with a man who won’t take no for an answer. He is the one who pursues her relentlessly but views her as a Jezebel sent by Satan to tempt him. He does not care one bit for the woman he claims to love. He attempts to murder Phoebus and lets Esmeralda take the blame.

Only Quasimodo seems to love Esmeralda unconditionally. He is touched that she brought him water while he was being publicly tortured. He returns the favor by swinging down on a rope from the Notre Dame and carrying her back to the church to claim sanctuary for her just as she is about to be executed. Esmeralda sees two vases filled with flowers on her window, one is a beautiful and brilliant cracked crystal vase from where water escapes and the flowers are withered; the other is a coarse and plain earthenware pot which holds all the water and has fresh flowers. The two vases represent Phoebus and Quasimodo, respectively. Hugo may be emphasizing that inner beauty is more important but ironically the ugly Quasimodo is in love with a ravishingly beautiful woman. So it seems that looks matter even to Quasimodo. Or did he only fall in love with her for she showed him some kindness?

SPOILERS FOLLOW:

At first I thought Quasimodo’s love was pure and unselfish but I was quite disturbed by that scene when Claude Frollo attempts to rape Esmeralda and is prevented by Quasimodo’s arrival who attacks him without realizing who it is. As soon as he does, he backs off. The rape has been prevented but imagine if he had immediately guessed it was Frollo! Would he still have prevented the rape? What would he have done? Claude Frollo raised him when he was abandoned and it is understandable that he feels filial duty and devotion to him. But to such an extent as to be blinded to his faults and monstrous ones at that? 

Some people might find the ending romantic; Quasimodo literally follows Esmeralda to the grave. When she was alive, his very sight revolted her. She slowly warmed up to him but I doubt she would have wanted him by her side for eternity. So here’s a woman with no agency. The men who claim to love her and chase after her, watch her die and one of them does not leave her alone even in death. This is not a tale of romantic love but a tale of obsession. There is a passage describing Esmeralda’s feelings for Phoebus but it could apply to all the characters in the novel:

C’est que l’amour est comme un arbre, il pousse de lui-même, jette profondément ses racines dans tout notre être, et continue souvent de verdoyer sur un cœur en ruines.   Et ce qu’il y a d’inexplicable, c’est que plus cette passion est aveugle, plus elle est tenace. Elle n’est jamais plus solide que lorsqu’elle n’a pas de raison en elle.”

Translation: Love is like a tree; it grows from itself, throws its roots out deeply through our whole being, and often continues to grow green over a heart in ruins. And what is unfathomable is that the more blind this passion is, the more tenacious it is. It is never more solid than when it has no reason in it.

Medieval Torture

There are many interesting aspects to the novel that I have not explored keeping in mind the need to be succinct in a blog post. It is a satire of the church, of the monarchy under King Louis the 11th who punished and pardoned according to his whims, of the entitled aristocracy and of the farcical justice system. Hugo captures the prejudices of the medieval Parisians who treated the Romani people as outcasts. The Romani people are not portrayed in a flattering light. But there is a passage where Hugo says that the behavior of the public was no different from that of the vagabonds and that their system of justice was as brutal. I was shocked too to see how people delighted in watching spectacles of torture and hangings and enjoyed other people’s misery.

And then there is the sweet and compassionate Esmeralda! There are some exquisite descriptions in the novel including one where Esmeralda is compared to a lovely dragonfly to show the effect she has on the poet Gringoire. We might think that Hugo has portrayed a beautiful Romani girl but the child who is barely 15 or 16 is objectified and fetishized as the exotic woman by the male characters in the novel. In the end it turns out that she is French by birth, separated from her mother who has been pining for her all these years. She is a dark haired white girl who probably developed a tan because of her nomadic lifestyle. Gasp! At least the Disney film portrays Esmeralda as a true Romani.

The novel begins with the word ANAKH, the word carved into the wall of Notre-Dame, which means fate and the reader senses from the beginning that this is not going to end well. The book deals with rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming which are new expressions of our time- the words are modern but the male control of female sexuality is as old as time. This is an unbearably sad book- one of the most heartbreaking I have ever read. But it is also a paean to a fine monument. I have visited the Notre Dame Cathedral thrice in my lifetime and climbed up the belfry twice. So the book was a very nostalgic read for me and in spite of the sadness it might evoke, it is a masterpiece of literature that I highly recommend.

  • The translations are mine.

Klara And The Sun

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Regular readers of my blog will know that Ishiguro is among my favorite contemporary authors. I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book and unfortunately it left me a little underwhelmed. I didn’t have a great reading experience either with The Buried Giant, the book published prior to this one. I found it a laborious read and trudged along through the pages waiting for the novel to end. Klara and the Sun is not painstaking to read; on the contrary, it is fast-paced and a page turner. To me it seemed similar to Never Let Me Go; they are both sci-fi dystopian novels in a sense, and yet, I would hesitate to include them under any rigid genre categorization as they are also philosophical in tone and ultimately a meditation on the human condition and our existential plight. The same themes that we find in Never Let Me Go are rehashed and packaged in a new form in Klara and the Sun and although there are aspects to the book that are thought provoking, it falls far short of the former which packed great emotional force.

We are in an unnamed city in a futuristic world, albeit a foreseeable future. In a shop on a busy street, there are solar powered AF or Artificial Friends waiting to be sold. They are displayed in different areas of the store and get their turn at the coveted spot by the window to entice potential customers. Artificial Friends are robots created for the express purpose of providing children with guidance and companionship and to help them deal with their loneliness. They come programmed with a knowledge of many things. Yet they have very limited knowledge of the world outside. One of the AFs named Klara is different from the others. She is exceptionally observant and intuitive. She is purchased by a girl named Josie and moves to her house where she has to learn to understand her and the other adults of the house that include Chrissie, Josie’s mother and Melania, the hostile housekeeper. The only visitor is Rick the neighbor who is Josie’s childhood friend and current boyfriend. Josie is suffering from an unspecified illness which seems to be the consequence of being ‘lifted’. Her sister had apparently suffered from the same illness and died from it. Josie studies remotely at home on her ‘oblong’ with online tutors, an eerily timely detail in our post pandemic world. Other children are stuck at home too and have ‘interaction’ meetings arranged periodically by their parents where they learn to relate to each other.

There is all this new vocabulary thrown around. You wonder what ‘lifted ‘means and what an ‘oblong’ is. I actually looked up the dictionary in vain till I eventually figured out that these are invented words to describe this particular dystopian universe. An ‘oblong’ is something similar to an iPad or a smartphone. A child is ‘lifted ‘after having gone through the process of genetic editing which is an expensive procedure but popular with people of the upper classes to ensure that their children get into an elite university. Rick is not ‘lifted’ and due to his socio-economic situation he is doomed. We know that Josie’s parents are divorced and we learn that her father has been ‘substituted’ which means that he has lost his job and has been replaced by machines. Ishiguro does not explain any of these terms. He throws hints here and there and the mystery and suspense gradually build up. You know there is something sinister going on but have no idea what it could be. We are in a slow burn dystopia. Besides Klara is the narrator and we are seeing the world through her eyes and we have to piece together what’s going on through her limited understanding. As an AF her vocabulary is limited. I understand that a first person robotic voice would necessarily be devoid of elegance to fit the narrative, but I missed the beautiful prose of Ishiguro’s other novels.

Klara is convinced that exposure to the sun would help cure Josie of her mysterious illness. The sun assumes mythic proportions for her. It is interesting that Klara’s very name means brightness. Not only does she depend on the sun for nourishment and survival, she also endows it with divine energy and visits a barn which is almost like a pilgrimage place to make emotional pleas to the setting sun for Josie’s recovery. Robots have the same human propensities to pray and to bargain with the Gods. Klara with her caring nature and empathy, is humanized. She is programmed for servility and her unswerving loyalty and devotion to Josie remind me of Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But on the other hand, we don’t forget that she’s a thing, an appliance. Rick’s mother, Helen, asks her: “After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” She also reminds me of Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale but Offred was at least aware of her oppression. Klara has no idea that she is being used. She is obsequious and stands in a corner in the presence of other family members. She is often referred to in the third person. How fascinating then that an object of utility is more capable of unconditional love than Josie’s caregivers! The person who is the most human in the novel is not human at all. There are times we forget who she is and think of her as another human being but the illusion does not last long. For every so often the world becomes pixilated through her eyes devolving into cubes and cones and we are reminded that she is only a robot.  

Klara’s servility mirrors the racism and classism we see in the world. We dehumanize people below us and exploit them for labor. You can exploit those whom you love too like Chrissie whose maternal love is motivated by her own selfish desire. Chrissie was left bereft by the loss of her first daughter and doesn’t want to lose Josie as well. We know that she secretly takes her daughter for portrait sessions and there is something unsettling about the artist she has commissioned. Will Josie be saved? Will the sun listen to Klara’s fervent prayer? I don’t want to reveal more and spoil the fun for future readers.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that it makes us think about life and mortality and the ethical decisions we have to make with the advance of science and technology. Can a soul be manufactured? Can a human be replicated in entirety? My hubby laughs when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa while giving her commands and reminds me that she has no feelings. But imagine a world where genetic editing is possible and where robots have feelings! What impact would such scientific progress have on division and hierarchy in society? Klara is just a product designed to be obsolete. She is a B2 model and there already exists a newer superior B3 model.

Is it far-fetched to imagine a time when artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that there is no demarcation between man and machine? Ishiguro portrays an alarming but a very possible futuristic world where no matter what scientific and technological advances we make, society will still be characterized by the same oppressive structures of race, class and inequality that will never be completely dismantled. This world, already disturbingly familiar, only becomes even more terrifying as we look into our future.

The Doll And Other Lost Short Stories Of Daphne du Maurier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Heavenali, for hosting Daphne du Maurier Reading Week. I enjoyed participating and reading all the posts by fellow bloggers.

A Normal Paranormal

Venice

I enjoy anything written by Daphne du Maurier and therefore I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of participating in HeavenAli’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. I decided to read and review a collection of short stories entitled, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories.

I had settled myself comfortably on the couch, snuggled with a copy of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories and was looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening engrossed in the soothing pleasure of reading. What was I thinking? After all, I was reading Daphne du Maurier and I should have known better. I have read most of her novels and I should have been prepared to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The stories kept me on edge constantly and the evening ended with me feeling out of sorts and a little terrified too. Du Maurier is best known for her Gothic novel Rebecca, a gripping psychological thriller. Her short stories are less well known but they create the same suspenseful and unsettling atmosphere that can send chills down your spine or, at the least, leave a bad taste in your mouth. This collection has five stories, each distinct and different from the other, yet they create the same familiar feeling of foreboding. They are all page turners without exception.

“Don’t Look Now”, the eponymous first story which is almost the length of a novella, is the most famous of the collection as it was made into a successful film in 1973 by Nicolas Roeg starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. John and Laura Baxter who are grieving the death of their little daughter, make a trip to heal to Venice where they come across a pair of elderly twin sisters who claim they can see the ghost of the dead little girl near the couple. One of the sisters is blind and a clairvoyant psychic who can look into the future. She warns the couple that they are in danger and must leave Venice as soon as possible. They soon learn that their son in boarding school is hospitalized and may need surgery. Laura promptly leaves the city for England whereas John stays on for another day and starts seeing things. The blind sister thinks that he is a psychic too but is not aware of it. He is gradually overcome with confusion and paranoia and if things were not bizarre enough already, there is also a serial killer prowling in the area. The ending is frightening and unexpected. The setting is evocative and plays an important role as in all of du Maurier’s works. Who can forget Manderley’s imposing presence in Rebecca where the mysterious mansion stands out almost like a character itself? And who would have imagined that Venice, the idyllic tourist destination, a city we associate with beauty and romance would be a backdrop for this chilling supernatural story? The dark alleyways and labyrinthine canals create a sinister effect. One could say that the twists and turns in the plot are disorienting like the meandering alleys of Venice or like the mind of the narrator itself.

“Not After Midnight” is a story told in flashback of a man who is clearly suffering from a mysterious ailment or even a nervous breakdown. Timothy Grey, the teacher of a prep school, looks forward to his vacation in Crete to spend his time in solitude pursuing his hobby. He has a penchant for painting seascapes. He is determined to stay in a sea front chalet even when he finds out that just two weeks before his arrival, the previous occupant had drowned in the ocean, half eaten by octopuses. He is annoyed by the presence on the property of an obnoxious and boorish American named Mr. Stoll who drinks like a fish and brews his own beer. He and his wife hunt rare artefacts endowed with strange powers. Mrs. Stolls invites Mr. Grey to visit their chalet but curiously “not after midnight” and leaves him a peculiar gift, an ancient drinking horn decorated with “Silenos, drunken tutor to the God Dionysus”. He is seized with a morbid curiosity about what may have happened to the former guest and follows the Stolls around. The conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous and the words “not after midnight” are left unexplored. After building up an atmosphere of great tension with a sense of impending doom, du Maurier leaves us disappointed, longing for more. I thought the story had a lot of potential and I felt cheated by the ending. Or maybe I just need to brush up on my Greek mythology

“The Breakthrough” is a strange sci-fi story combined with the occult. An engineer is sent to work at a research facility in the middle of the Norfolk marshes where the scientist in charge is conducting secret experiments. He and his team are working on a device called Charon ( Du Maurier seems to have a predilection for the symbolism of Greek legends) that has the ability to transmit psychic messages and control a dog and a mentally disabled little girl but the true purpose is something more ambitious and frightening. Their goal is to capture the living energy from a soul of a person at the time of death in order to examine the afterlife. A member of the team is a young man dying with leukemia who is ready to be their guinea pig. The premise of the story is interesting in spite of being dated but the conclusion is underwhelming and anti-climactic like the previous story.

“A Borderline Case” is the most risqué and disconcerting story of the collection with a compelling title that can be interpreted in many different ways. After her father dies suddenly , Shelagh, a nineteen year old actress, decides to look up his estranged colleague in Ireland. He was best man at her parents’ wedding but shortly thereafter vanished without a trace from their lives. She arrives in a village in Ireland and discovers that he lives in an island in the middle of a lake and is either crazy or a criminal. She is irresistibly drawn to this mysterious man and his ways. I enjoyed this story as the ending completely caught me unawares. Some readers may find the dark and disturbing denouement quite predictable but I did not see it coming. Du Maurier drops hints throughout the story but also distracts us enough with developments in the plot that we are completely taken by surprise or shock as in the case of this story.

“The Way of the Cross “has a different tone from the rest of the stories. It is more didactic in nature, almost like a parable. A young inexperienced clergyman, Rev. Edward Babcock, has to fill in for a vicar who has fallen sick and escort a group of parishoners on a tour of Jerusalem. The group includes a retired colonel, his snobbish wife and their energetic and precocious grandson, a business man with a roving eye and his tolerant wife, an elderly ‘spinster’ smitten with the absent vicar and a newly married couple on their honeymoon experiencing intimacy issues. Biblical analogies abound through the actions of the characters as they retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land on the first day of Jewish Passover. A strained dinner is followed by a walk on the Mount of Olives where everyone scatters and gets separated. Miscommunications and betrayals take place. Numerous mishaps happen in the form of accidents or humiliations ending with each of the characters having an epiphany and learning a valuable lesson.

Du Maurier has a remarkable talent for describing the extraordinary in the ordinary. All the characters are regular people in everyday situations with everyday problems with whom you can relate well. You are lulled into a false sense of security while reading about them till you realize that something is off kilter. Nothing is as it seems when you peel the surface and layers. The characters go about their mundane lives but they have an insatiable curiosity that leads them into places and situations they are unfamiliar with and chaos ensues. The paranormal is treated as normal in a casual way and soon the boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. The endings often leave you  bewildered and baffled. You have to go back to the first few pages and piece together how it all fits together. You think the stories have ended but have they? They stay with you long after you place the book back on the bookshelf or return it to the library. I know I’ll be thinking about these stories for days, if not months or years.

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer-#1936Club

After decades, I experienced the pleasure of reading a Georgette Heyer and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was published in 1936. It is a great candidate for the 1936 club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and StuckinaBook. The Talisman Ring was a welcome change of tone from all the serious reading I have been doing lately. It is nonsensical and absurd but utterly delightful. Set in the Georgian period in Britain around 1793, it is a romantic comedy and a murder mystery that reminded me a little of Jane Austen, a little of P.G.Wodehouse and a lot of Oscar Wilde.

Warning:  Suspension of disbelief is required to derive maximum enjoyment out of this novel.

The story has all the elements you need for a rip roaring farce-cousins betrothed to each other, a runaway heiress, smugglers, a missing ring, secret panels, hidden cellars, Bow Street Runners, break-ins, pistols, a headless horseman ( Huh?), a priest hole, an evil valet and a villain who has nothing villainous in his appearance or demeanor. There is also some crossdressing thrown in for good measure.

On his deathbed, Lord Sylvester Lavenham arranges the marriage of his grand nephew Tristram Shield to his half French granddaughter, Mademoiselle Eustacie de Vauban who has escaped the French Revolution and arrived in England ; neither of them is happy about this arrangement. The 18 year old Eustacie is full of romantic notions and craves adventure and even has fantasies about a glorious death- she wants someone to arrive ventre à terre to her deathbed. The dour and straitlaced 31 year old Sir Tristram is exasperated with her juvenile flights of fancy. As for Eustacie, she would have preferred to have been sent to the guillotine rather than make a mariage de convenance with her cousin. She has entertained that thought even before meeting Tristram and has even considered the outfit that would be most suitable for the occasion. Their exchanges are comical:

We used to talk of it, my cousin Henriette and I. We made up our minds we should be entirely brave, not crying, of course, but perhaps a little pale, in a proud way. Henriette wished to go to the guillotine en grande tenue, but that was only because she had a court dress of yellow satin which she thought became her much better than it did really. For me, I think one should wear white to the guillotine if one is quite young, and not carry anything except perhaps a handkerchief. Do you not agree?’

I don’t think it signifies what you wear if you are on your way to the scaffold,’ replied Sir Tristram, quite unappreciative of the picture his cousin was dwelling on with such evident admiration.

She looked at him in surprise. ‘Don’t you? But consider! You would be very sorry for a young girl in a tumbril, dressed all in white, pale, but quite unafraid, and not attending to the canaille at all, but–‘

I should be very sorry for anyone in a tumbril, whatever their age or sex or apparel,’ interrupted Sir Tristram.”

Tristram needs to marry and provide an heir and the Lord cannot stand his other grand nephew, Basil Lavenham aka Beau. Come on, the guy wears a green coat with yellow pantaloons and an absurd sugar loaf on his head. Not to mention the knots of ribbons at his knees and the ornate quizzing glass that hangs on a riband around his neck! Eustacie decides to run away and runs instead into a group of smugglers- er free traders who are led by an exiled cousin, Ludovic Lavenham, who is falsely accused of murder and is therefore in hiding. Eustacie and Ludovic are instantly smitten with each other. She ran away from one cousin to fall into the arms of another. But hey, it’s all in the family. And besides, Ludovic is the rightful heir to the Lavanham property ( cough cough!).The two are chased by excise men and Ludovic is injured in the process. They end up taking refuge at The Red Lion Inn which is the main setting of the novel.

The Red Lion Inn at Handcross, Sussex inspired the setting of the novel.

At the inn they meet an unmarried 27 year old woman Miss Sarah Thane, and her brother Sir Hugo Thane who is recuperating from a cold. Miss Thane is more sensible and practical than Eustacie but she has the same thirst for adventure and takes the young girl under her wing. They decide to solve the mystery of the murder of a certain Matthew Plunkett for which Ludovic is falsely accused. A talisman ring is missing and if found, will clear Ludovic’s name and uncover the truth. Sir Tristram becomes enmeshed in their adventure and they are helped by innkeeper Joseph Nye to keep Ludwig hidden and to prevent The Beau from becoming the heir. We witness some harebrained schemes and rollicking adventures till all’s well that ends well!

The characters are charming in spite of their ridiculousness. Some readers might find Eustacie, the ingénue and the headstrong Ludovic downright silly but the two youngsters could not be more perfectly suited to each other. And there is not just one but two romances to enjoy! The more mature and sensible pair, Sarah and Tristram indulge in delightful banter:

“How cross you are!’ marvelled Miss Thane. ‘I suppose when one reaches middle age it is difficult to sympathize with the follies of youth.’ 
Sir Tristram had walked over to the other side of the room to pick up his coat and hat, but this was too much for him, and he turned and said with undue emphasis: ‘It may interest you to know, ma’am, that I am one-and-thirty years old, and not yet in my dotage!’ 
‘Why, of course not!’ said Miss Thane soothingly. ‘You have only entered upon what one may call the sober time of life. Let me help you to put on your coat!’ 
‘Thank you,’ said Sir Tristram. ‘Perhaps you would also like to give me the support of your arm as far as to the door?”

  Their relationship is characterized by witty badinage and culminates in a charming and original marriage proposal. I also enjoyed the sweet friendship between the two women who despite the difference in age strike up a connection. Sir Hugo Thane is a complete hoot! He is a justice of the peace who has no qualms about consuming smuggled booze and is more concerned about his room than about a murder attempt on poor Ludwig:

Then understand this, Sally!’, said Sir Hugh. ‘Not a yard from this place do I stir until I have that fellow laid by the heels! It’s bad enough when he comes creeping into the house to stick a knife into young Lavenham, but when he has the infernal impudence to turn my room into a pigsty, then I say he’s gone a step too far.”

Georgette Heyer was known for her meticulous research in writing historical fiction. Although this is a period mystery, the focus is more on dialogue and plot than on costumes and balls which are described in more minute detail in her novels set in London. The action takes place in the countryside of Sussex and free traders who were known to operate in the area, play a big part in the story. For the first time in her fiction, she introduces Bow Street Runners who are considered the original British police force and they appear in some of her future works too. They are portrayed as inept and add a lot of hilarity to the plot.

There are many French words used in the book. As a word nerd, I thoroughly enjoyed reaching for the dictionary to learn some archaic words and Regency cant no longer used in conversation- abigail, chit, demmed, reticule, wench, dentical, gammon, oubliette etc to name a few. I learned that there are many types of carriages for transportation- barouche, landau, cabriolet, post chaise, curricle and phaeton. It was interesting to come across words in local Sussex patois like ‘ Adone-do ‘( ‘Have done’ or ‘Leave off’) and amusing insults like ‘cribbage faced tooth drawer’ to describe a dentist.

This was an uproarious and nostalgic read which took me back to my teen years when my friends and I would devour Georgette Heyer books along with Mills and Boon and Barbara Cartland. We would borrow and lend them and often lose and gain copies in the process. I am determined to read and re-read more of Heyer and her outrageously funny novels. They would be the perfect antidote for a break from grim reads.