Precious Bane

Recently I read a beautifully written book that is unfortunately underrated possibly because it is not well known. Published in 1924, but set over a hundred years before, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is the story of the trials and tribulations of rural folk in Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. Usually when I read a book, I am at least subliminally aware that I am reading a made up story, however moved I might be by the characters and their issues. I was so immersed in this story that I almost forgot it was fiction. I was shaken to the core by a tragedy that befalls on the family and my husband was surprised to see me affected this deeply and had to remind me that it was just a story. If this is not the mark of a truly gifted writer, I don’t know what is.

I think one of the reasons the novel is not that popular is that the language is hard to get into as it is old fashioned with archaic words and employs dialect distinctive to the area. ‘Mon’ is the word used for man, ‘tuthree’ is a word to refer to two or three, ‘clemmed’ is a term for hungry, ‘bostin’ means wonderful and ‘ow bist’ is the expression for how are you and ‘durst’ for do you? But soon you will get the hang of it and you will know that ‘inna’ means isn’t, ‘canna’ can’t and ‘dunna’ don’t. I had to read with a dictionary next to me which annoyed me in the beginning but eventually I started savoring the language. My advice would be to persevere as it is worth it. The language adds authenticity. It is needed to evoke the rural atmosphere of the place and to transport us to another world where you can see the fields of sweet barley rustling in the wind and hear the thin notes of the willow wrens across the mere. Before you know it you will swept in the enchantment and will soak in the local color.

Precious Bane is the story of of a young girl, Prue, who is ‘hare shotten’- born with a hare lip disfigurement and for that reason she is believed to be a witch by her rural community. She has a desire for knowledge and learns to read and write from her neighbor Beguildy who dabbles in potions and is considered to be a wizard. When her father passes away, her brother Gideon takes over the farm. He is ambitious with his only purpose in life to become rich and acquire a house in town. He is in love with Jancis, the wizard’s daughter but money is his first motivation. He prevails upon Prue to pledge herself into a life of servitude on the farm with the promise that one day he will pay for an operation to mend her lip. They work very hard, depriving themselves of little pleasures. Then one day love walks into Prue’s life in the form of Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. But is she resigned to the life of a ‘spinster’ because of her deformity? Or will Gideon meet with success and liberate them from a life of poverty and hardship?

The oxymoronic title of the story is taken from lines in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book I, lines 690-692):

Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.

It refers to the love of money which is disastrous. Gideon’s story is tragic. He puts money above everything – above his dependent mother, his devoted sister and his loyal fiancée- which not only leads him to ruin their lives but also descend on a path to self-destruction. The title can also refer to Prue’s deformity which is a source of great strength and makes her the person she is. In the portrayal of the two siblings, we witness human nature at its best and worst. What Gideon believes to be precious becomes his bane and Prue’s bane ends up being precious!  

Prue is an unconventional protagonist because of her disability, but has become one of my favorite literary characters. She is such a breath of fresh air. The first person narrative makes it easy to relate with her. Not only was I rooting for this gentle and beautiful soul who deserved happiness, I found her personality to be very inspiring. She is kind, hardworking, cheerful and loving. She has reserves of strength and resilience in the face of misfortunes. She helps everyone around her even those who are mean and cold-hearted. She is surrounded by evil but she views the world around her with a child like innocence. She is a strong but kind female character who enjoys a spiritual communion with nature and often feels a mystical presence when alone in the attic, where she writes in her journal:

“I cannot tell whence, a most powerful sweetness that had never come to me afore. It was not religious, like the goodness of a text heard at preaching. It was beyond that. It was as if some creature made all of light had come on a sudden from a great way off, and nestled in my bosom…I cared not to ask what it was.”

Mary Webb evokes the countryside poetically whether she is describing dragonflies breaking out of their larval bodies and drying out their iridescent wings, or the changing reflections on the mere with its outer ring of bulrushes and inner ring of waterlilies. There are Biblical allusions throughout the book yet pagan symbols abound. Nature and the elements- the earth, water and fire play a pivotal role in the unraveling of the plot. There are whispers of witchcraft and wizardry among the local folk. Felena, the shepherdess dances naked by moonlight in a ring of cattle and sheep. Webb magically recreates a world of superstitions and small town gossip. I enjoyed learning about rural customs like ‘love spinning’ which is a gathering at which local women spin the wool that will be woven into the wedding fabric of the couple, the concept of ‘sin eating’ when a person takes over the sins of a deceased person for a fee, and the tradition of ‘telling the bees ‘when bees would be told of important events like birth and death in their keeper’s lives.

The book is filled with pearls of wisdom from the pen of Prue who is true to her name ( Prudence). Here are two quotes among many that struck my fancy:

For if you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path. So when folk tell me of this great man and that great man, I think to myself, Who was stinted of joy for his glory? How many old folk and children did his coach wheels go over? What bridal lacked his song, and what mourner his tears, that he found time to climb so high?”

I got together all the pails and buckets, and thought it seemed a pitiful thing that with all that great mere (lake) full of water we could only slake our fire with as much as we could get into our little buckets. And I’ve thought since that when folk grumble about this and that and be not happy, it is not the fault of creation, that is like a vast mere full of good, but it is the fault of their bucket’s smallness.

I enjoyed reading about a now lost way of life, a time when rural communities were isolated and on the cusp of change. Mary Webb’s writing is reminiscent of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot though sadly she did not achieve their fame. The story is dark and heartbreaking for the most part but there is also a ray of hope in the form of a love story with a Cinderella touch. I was so moved by this sweet romance. If only Mary Webb had devoted more of the plot to it!

Precious Bane is a book that deserves a place in my own personal library. It is one of the finest books I have read. I’d lief read it again a tuthree times! 

Interior Chinatown

There has been a spate of violent attacks targeted against Asians and Asian- Americans in recent times. However Anti-Asian harassment is not new. Although exacerbated during the pandemic, the prejudice is rooted in a long history of discrimination towards Asian-Americans since the earliest Asian immigrants came to the US centuries ago. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020, is a satirical novel on the Chinese-American immigrant experience. The most unique feature of the novel is its unconventional format.

The characters of the book are part of a procedural cop show called ‘Black and White’ and the book itself is written in the form of a screenplay for a TV show. It is divided into seven acts with scene headings and even presented in the Courier font used in scripts. ‘Black and White'(ostensibly a spoof of ‘Law and Order’) has a charismatic black man and a beautiful white woman in the lead roles of detectives. Willis Wu, a Taiwanese- American has the role of ‘Background Oriental Male’. He is relegated to the background as all Asian-Americans are in the formulaic world of Hollywood. They only get bit parts and are sometimes reduced to playing props and corpses.

Willis Wu mostly gets to play Generic Asian Man. If he is lucky, sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son. For now he is a bit player: but he dreams that one day he will be offered the most coveted role someone who looks like him might aspire to: Kung Fu Guy.

The Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown serves as the set for the television show. Willis Wu, his friends and parents live in SRO ( Single Room Occupancy) apartments directly above the restaurant and are all Asian American extras. Their highest aspiration is to become ‘ Kung Fu Guy’ emulating an ‘older brother’, one of their gang who has made it. To land the coveted role of ‘Kung- Fu Guy’, Willis Wu practices martial arts and perfects his fake accent. In other words, he tries to fit his stereotype. He eventually makes his way up to ‘Special Guest Star’. Even Willis’ father’ Sifu’ was once ‘Kung Fu Guy’ but is now ‘Old Asian Man’ and his mother has been demoted from ‘Seductress’ to ‘Old Asian Woman’. These immigrants with their dreams and struggles are trapped in Chinatown just as they are trapped in these roles. The real world is only an extension of the entertainment world.

An elegant paifang or archway marks the official entrance to Chinatown in most cities. It is symbolic as an entryway for immigrants settling there. But the book cover design shows vertical bars that resemble a prison under the pagoda-like structure. The title Interior Chinatown is the description of the setting written on the script and could also refer to the claustrophobic lives of the residents living in humble conditions eking out a hand to mouth existence. They live in a physical and mental prison. And a metaphorical one too for they are also trapped in prisons of prejudice and stereotypes.

While reading the book there are times when you don’t know where the reel life ends and the real life begins. The boundaries are blurred between the two for Hollywood is nothing but the microcosm of the macrocosm. White people raise their voices and speak slowly to Asian people as if they won’t be able to understand anything they are saying. Asia is seen as a monolith. Every Asian is believed to be from mainland China. They are all lumped together just as all five of Willis Wu’s housemates are lumped together.

According to a witness, as the first man hit Allen in the temple, knocking him to the ground, they said, “This is for Pearl Harbor.” Young Wu thinks: it could have been him. Nakamoto says: it should have been him. All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same. All the same to the people who struck Allen in the head until his eyes swelled shut. All the same as they filled a large sack with batteries and stones, and hit Allen in the stomach with it until blood came up from his throat. Allen was Wu and Park and Kim and Nakamoto, and they were all Allen. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam. Whatever. Anywhere over there. Slope. Jap. Nip. Chink. Towelhead. Whatever. All of them in the house, after that, they should become closer. But they don’t. They don’t sit around the table anymore, comparing names. because now they know what they are. Will always be. Asian Man.

Willis falls in love with Karen, a mixed race actress who used to play the role of ‘Ethnically Ambiguous girl’. They get married and have a daughter together. She receives an offer for a show of her own with a part included for Willis but he refuses to get out of Chinatown and give up on his ‘Kung Fu Guy’ dream. They get divorced and she moves to the suburbs with their daughter. When Willis eventually gets the coveted role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he wonders why he even wanted it. He will only be perpetuating the stereotype. How much of the racism has he internalized? In order to be accepted, you have to live according to the script. You live to fit into the stereotype and it then becomes a self -fulfilling prophecy. In his quest for the fake role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he has lost the real life role of family man. He leaves Chinatown to rejoin Karen and his daughter and is tried in court in the ‘Case of the Missing Man’ for running away from the role assigned to him with who else but his successful ‘older brother’ as his defense lawyer. The unusual court case culminating in the denouement is a brilliant tour de force by the author.

  The script format is occasionally interspersed with disturbing facts about the history of anti-immigration laws in the US and narration in the second person when Willis reflects on his life and on his parents’ lives. The use of the second person creates instant empathy in the reader. There is a moving passage where Willis’ father sings at the local karaoke bar. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to that feeling that even if you have left the country, it never leaves you.

If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.” 

Yu ingeniously exposes the marginalization of Asian Americans through the lens of ‘Black and White’, the clever title revealing how we view the world with no nuance, no shades in between. There were two things that bothered me slightly about the book; the first the implication that black people are more visible than Asians and are treated the same as white actors, and, the second, the focus on just the working class diaspora without any mention of the more successful Asian immigrants like the author himself. The only accomplished immigrant we come across is this mystical ‘older brother’ who seems to represent an ideal. In this aspect, the book seems a little dated in its depiction. Is the author guilty of the same kind of ‘Generic Asian Man’ portrayal that he is criticizing? Or was that deliberate to reinforce the premise of the book? Nevertheless, it is an ambitious and brilliant book both thematically and stylistically that makes us think more deeply about race, identity and assimilation.

The Three Theban Plays

“Laius,” she cried, and called her husband dead
Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.” 

Oedipus Rex, Sophocles ( trans. Robert Fagles)

Note: There are spoilers in my post as I assume that even if people have not read the texts, they would know that all three plays being Greek tragedies, would end on a tragic note.

Thanks to Freud, everyone knows about the Oedipus complex which can be traced back to the myth of Oedipus, an age old tale about incest and patricide. I was always curious about the original story from where Freud got his inspiration to form his theory of psychoanalysis. Over the holidays, I read the three tragedies of Sophocles –Oedipus Rex ( also known as Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus The King), Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone- written in the 400s bce and referred to collectively as the Theban plays as they are all set in the city-state of Thebes and form a single storyline in spite of being written as three distinct plays. During my college years, I had studied Antigone in an English translation and I had also read the French adaptation by Jean Anouilh. I read the other two for the first time.

Though the plays are about the same characters, they were written at different times and were not intended to be a trilogy. In terms of their chronology, Oedipus Rex is the first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. But Sophocles did not write them in that order. I am glad I read them not just for their importance in the western literary canon but also for the realization that the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him.

Oedipus Rex- The Oracle of Delphi reveals to the King Laius of Thebes that he will have a child who will kill him and sleep with his wife Jocasta, in effect his own mother. Fearing the prophecy, the King and Queen abandon their newborn son on a mountainside to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to  King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth who raise him as their own. When as a young man, Oedipus learns from an oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves his home in Corinth to avert the prophecy. He kills Laius in a scuffle on the crossroads not knowing that it was his father. Ironically he returns to the very place he was driven away from during his infancy. He is offered the city’s crown and queen after he solves the Sphinx’s riddle and liberates the people of Thebes from its hold.

When a plague ravages Thebes, the only solution to bring an end to it, according to the oracle, is to bring the murderer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Oedipus resolves to find the killer only to discover that he himself is the unfortunate man. The unbearable truth leads to the suicide of his wife-mother and as for Oedipus, overcome by guilt, he gouges out his own eyes in desperation.

Oedipus’ story is tragic as he was not aware of what he was doing. He, in fact, did the right thing by running away from his city and parents to escape the prophecies of the oracle but his destiny caught up with him. So if the prophesies were intended to come true, was Oedipus responsible for his actions? If it was ordained from the moment of his birth itself that he would to kill his father and marry his mother, was there any way he could have escaped his fate?

Is his suffering self inflicted? Was his downfall due to hubris in wishing to subvert the will of the Gods? He was a noble king who wanted to help his people and remove the curse of the plague. His ‘hamartia’ or fatal error to borrow a term from Aristotle’s Poetics is his desire for knowledge and it is this quest for the truth that ends up being self destructive. The prophet Tiresias and the shepherd who saved him as a baby want him to abandon his quest for they know the truth already and know that it will have disastrous consequences. If he hadn’t urged the shepherd boy to answer his questions, and if he had listened to Jocasta’s pleas to drop his search for the truth, he would have perhaps lived in blissful ignorance. Or perhaps not. His fate would have caught up with him one way or the other.

As you can see, the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, believed that the Oedipus complex was ‘Freud’s dream’. Freud believed that infantile impulses of desire for the opposite gender parent and jealousy towards the same gender parent remain active in our unconscious. However Oedipus was abandoned as as infant and consequently did not form an attachment with his mother during the phallic stage. Queen Merope is the woman who raised him during his childhood. Whether Freud’s theory in general is valid or not is a matter for another discussion, but it certainly does not hold water in the case of the character who inspired it as Oedipus was not a mama’s boy, but a mere marionette in the hands of fate.

Fresco depicting Oedipus killing his father Laius, dating back to the second century A.D, the Roman dynasty. At The Egyptian Museum of Cairo

Oedipus at Colonus– The least well known play in the trilogy has a calmer and more meditative tone. The exiled and blind Oedipus is reduced to a life of wandering with his daughter Antigone by his side. They arrive at the town of Colonus, close to Athens and are at first viewed with distrust by the citizens and the members comprising the Chorus who know about Oedipus’ past but King Theseus offers them his unconditional support. The oracles had also prophesied that Oedipus would die in a place sacred to the Furies.

Meanwhile his daughter Ismene arrives and informs him that his two sons are fighting for control of Thebes. Polynices has been banished by his younger brother Eteocles but has raised an army in Argos and is preparing to attack Thebes. In a dramatic twist of fate, the leaders of Thebes want Oedipus back because they believe his presence would bless the city. Spurned in the past, he is sought after now. Oedipus refuses as he is still upset with his sons for not having prevented his exile. Creon, his brother -in-law and the King of Thebes, forcibly tries to take Antigone and Ismene as hostages but King Thesus comes to their rescue. Oedipus dies and is buried at Colonus and his tomb protects the people of Athens and brings them good fortune thereafter as predicted by the Oracle.

This play is Important as it is Oedipus’ chance to defend himself and restore his tarnished reputation. He is finally granted dignity in death. Oedipus knows he killed his father unknowingly in self-defense and that he unwittingly slept with his mother. Whereas he was consumed with guilt and shame before, he feels indignation now at the way he was unfairly treated. He is despondent but refrains from self- flagellation. He has forgiven himself and is forgiven by others. He has become a more humble person and the relationship between the old feeble man and his devoted daughters is very touching. When Oedipus had his sight, he was in the dark because he didn’t know the truth about his life. Interestingly, when Oedipus becomes blind, his vision opens up and he finally acquires wisdom.

Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Antigone- Both Eteocles and Polyneices are dead. The former gets a proper burial but the latter is considered a traitor by Creon and is refused a burial. Antigone tries to convince her sister to help her defy Creon’s edict and bury the body. Ismene agrees with her sister’s views but cannot muster up the courage to act and remains passive. Antigone is now completely on her own but still as steadfastly dedicated to her cause and gives her brother the burial he deserves. Creon and Antigone resemble each other in that they are both headstrong and unflinchingly devoted to their principles. After all they have the same blood coursing through their veins. She is imprisoned and sentenced to be buried alive but the Chorus, Teiresias and Creon’s son Haemon who is Antigone’s fiancé, plead with Creon to release her. He eventually has a change of heart but it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself and her heartbroken fiancé follows her in death which results in his mother Eurydice taking her life too, leaving Creon bereft and defeated. The ending though heartbreaking is befitting of a Greek tragedy. What else could we expect for the entire accursed bloodline of Oedipus?

Antigone giving burial to Polynices, Sébastien Louis Guillaume Norblin de la Gourdaine, 19th century, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Antigone is my favorite play of the trilogy for two reasons. Firstly, it raises questions that are still relevant today in depicting the conflict between the individual and the state. She commits an act of civil disobedience in defying the edict of the King, analogous to the clash between authoritarianism and democracy we encounter in current times. The second reason I liked the play is that it is way ahead of its time in its feminist undertones. In refusing to kowtow to the wishes of an unjust man, Antigone rejects the traditional role of women. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior and not consulted in matters of law or politics. Antigone stands up against tyranny in support of her moral obligations. No doubt her act is motivated by her filial love and loyalty to the men of the family, but by refusing to let herself be dominated by a man, she challenges the gender power dynamic. Interestingly, the play is named after her and not after Creon, the King.

 The main theme underlying all three plays is that of destiny and how we have to succumb to its inexorable ways. Even if you attempt to avoid the prophecies, your actions end up causing them to come about and they become what we refer to as self-fulfilling prophecies. So then we have to ask ourselves if everything is preordained, can we be fully responsible for our actions? And what is even the point of life and living if you pay a heavy price for exercising your free will?

I think the purpose of the plays was to emphasize that life is full of suffering and grief over which we have no control and all we can do is to cope with the cards dealt to us. You cannot control your fate but you can control how you respond to it. The plays were performed at the spring festival In Dionysus and were intended to be cathartic – to be a collective experience of shared grief which fostered compassion in the audience and enabled the release of their own emotions from the safe distance of their seats. The effect is the same on modern readers. The plays enhance our understanding of the human condition and of human nature and evoke the quality of empathy.

If ever we have a bad day, all we have to do is to think about poor ill-fated Oedipus and thank our stars!

 

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.

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 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.

     

  

Jamaica Inn- #1936Club

I am excited to participate in the 1936 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and StuckinaBook. I was thrilled to learn that Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier was published in that year. The novel is an underrated gem. Rebecca, the author’s more popular work, has unfortunately dulled its shine. Jamaica Inn is a Gothic novel par excellence which has a very Wuthering Heights vibe to it, and in my opinion may even be the superior work. The thrilling and fast paced novel is set in the remote and windswept Cornish moors. The strange isolation of the setting creates a very eerie atmosphere with a sense of impending doom. Cornwall was home to the author and is the inspiration behind many of her works. Jamaica Inn is a real place that still exists.  Daphne du Maurier once lost her way while venturing on horseback with a friend across the desolate moors and eventually stopped at Jamaica Inn, a coaching inn that was once a meeting point for smugglers. The inn’s secluded location and sinister past fueled her imagination. The rest is literary history.

The story was inspired by du Maurier’s 1930 stay at the real Jamaica Inn, which still exists in the middle of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England. 

To honor her mother’s final deathbed wish, 23 year old Mary Yellan leaves the tranquil life on a farm in Helford, to live with her Aunt Patience in a remote part of Bodmin Moor. Her uncle Joss Merlyn is the landlord of Jamaica Inn, a dilapidated and forbidding dwelling which stands alone on the road to Laucenston. A coachman warns her that it is a dangerous place, unfit for a girl. Locals avoid the place like the plague. Coaches hurry past and never stop there. Her uncle is a sadistic man prone to bouts of drinking, mood swings and violent outbursts. Aunt Patience who was once a lovely and lively woman has become a shadow of her former self. Her spirit is broken and she lives in constant fear of her husband. Mary soon discovers that uncle Joss runs a smuggling ring and appears to be its ringleader.

The inn no longer hosts travelers and the bar is open to a few shady characters who engage in drunken revelry and seem to be accomplices of her uncle. Mary is called upon to serve in the bar as and when needed. She is determined to investigate the nefarious activities her uncle and his cronies are involved in and discovers that they are wreckers who deliberately decoy ships on to the coast with the aid of false lights prompting them to run aground so they could plunder them easily. She also suspects them of being murderers and senses danger. She plots an escape and wants to take her aunt along whom she wants to save from a life of servitude. She befriends Jem, Joss Merlyn’s brother who visits on occasion and seems to be a younger version of her uncle. Much to her annoyance, she is irresistibly attracted to him. Her only other acquaintances are people she chanced upon during her ramblings through the moors and into town- the kindly Squire Bassat and his wife, and Francis Davey, the gentle but strange albino vicar of Altarum to whom she turns for advice. Is Mary wise to trust her friends? Is her uncle the mastermind behind all the vile activities or does he report to someone else higher up? Mary sinks deeper and deeper into the mess like in the boggy marshes of the moor where one could easily drown if not careful.

I marvel at du Maurier’s ability to create such a captivating mystery. Although this was a re-read for me and I knew who the culprit was, I was still on edge throughout and the brooding inn and the wild landscape added to the unease. The menacing moors correspond to the characters’ emotional states. They too are at the mercy of forces they cannot control:

No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased, blow as it would from east and west, from north and south. Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amidst marshland and granite, harsh heather and crumbling stone.”

Although treacherous, the moors also offer comfort to Mary and provide an escape from the stifling tedium of her life. They represent wildness and freedom. Du Maurier has such a knack for evoking the atmosphere that I felt I was accompanying Mary on her long walks through the rough and bleak landscape with the mysterious tors and the hills in the distance cloaked in mist. I could hear the whistling wind and feel the lashing rain along with her.

Jamaica Inn is much more than a fascinating and atmospheric mystery story. It explores power struggles between the sexes within the traditional patriarchal structure. There is a darker story line of domestic abuse and male violence. Mary Yellan is one of du Maurier’s strongest female characters. She is a strong and independent woman with a mind of her own. She is courageous and resourceful and is not intimidated by the threats of her cruel uncle. Yet she is vulnerable as there is danger lurking around everywhere. She understands her limitations as a woman and sometimes wishes she were a man. Her small frame is no match for the enormous size and brute physical strength of her uncle. A girl has to have her wits about her to fend off unwanted advances. Mary is subjected to the lewd stares and comments of the men. She is referred to as a common slut and a woman of the streets in spite of being an innocent girl. She narrowly escaped a rape attempt by Henry the pedlar and she would have been gang raped by Joss’ men if not for the fact that she was his niece. Her uncle himself creepily says that “I could have had you your first week at Jamaica Inn if l’d wanted you. You are a woman after all.” On reading this novel in my youth, I admired Mary’s adventurous spirit. This time around I feared for her as a mother would for her daughter being aware of the constant threat of rape that hangs over a young woman.

She is a damsel in distress but takes control of the situation herself and refuses to be cowed into submission by her uncle’s brutality. In the process, she even gains some of his respect. Alas! Love changes everything. In spite of having no romantic illusions, Mary falls for Jem the horse thief who seems to be a younger and more energetic version of his odious brother. They have the same beautiful hands and fingers and although she is repulsed by the older brother, she is drawn to the younger one: “These fingers attracted her ; the others repelled her. She realized for the first time that aversion and attraction ran side by side ; that the boundary- line was thin between them.”  Even though she despises her uncle, there is a fleeting moment the night when he imprisons her in her room to protect her from the pedlar, when she is confused by the feelings he arouses in her. He admits that he has a soft spot for her and says that if he had been a younger man he would have courted and won her too:

She went then to her bed, and sat down upon it, her hands in her lap; and, for some reason forever unexplained, thrust away from her later and forgotten, side by side with the little old sins of childhood and those dreams never acknowledged to the sturdy day, she put her fingers to her lips as he had done, and let them stray thence to her cheek and back again.

  And she began to cry, softly and secretly, the tears tasting bitter as they fell upon her hand.

Daphne du Maurier was only 29 when she wrote this novel and I am amazed by her ability at that age to capture the ambivalence and subtleties of relationships.

How did the author get the reputation of being a romance novelist? Yes, there is plenty of romance if you are looking for it. Jem and Mary exchange passionate kisses at the fair in Laucenston and he enters her room through the window breaking the glass. But when she is at his house, she cleans the place and she obeys when he orders her to cook for him even though he makes disparaging remarks about women. At times their relationship mirrors the relationship between her uncle and aunt:

For the first time in her life she saw a resemblance between herself and Aunt Patience. They had the same pucker of the forehead, and the same mouth. If she pursed up her lips and worked them, biting the edges, it might be Aunt Patience who stood there, with the lank brown hair framing her face.” 

Minor Spoilers Follow

Some people might consider the ending to be happy. Mary has the choice of returning to the farm or to work for a respectable family in Bodmin Moor but she chooses to sail in the sunset to an unknown destination and destiny with Jem. He is stubborn and has no desire to please her or even consider her wishes for an instant. She tells him that she loves him but he doesn’t. These are the clues that du Maurier throws around for the discerning reader. Even Rebecca which people believe to have a happy ending, left me with a feeling of disquietude. There is more than meets the eye in du Maurier’s universe. Mary is aware of the constraints that women face and has a feminist streak but when it comes to putting it into practice, she chooses love for a rogue of a man. What can I say but that love sometimes makes the most sensible person act foolishly! As someone who follows her heart, I could understand Mary’s decision. I only hoped that she wouldn’t meet with the same fate as Aunt Patience who silently put up with abuse. That would be far more sinister than any of the abhorrent activities that take place in Jamaica Inn. For just as ” Dead men tell no tales”, docile women tell no tales either.

 

  

A Tale of Two Cities

Title Page ( of the first illustrated edition in installments)

Set in the late eighteenth century against the violent backdrop of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, depicts the disparate but not entirely dissimilar world of two cities, London and Paris. Right from the title and the oft-quoted opening lines of the book,“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”, Dickens explores dichotomies of evil/ good, darkness/light, despair/hope and rebirth/ death.

The Likeness

A Tale of Two Cities is as much a personal drama as it is a political story. The novel narrates the story of Charles Darnay, an exiled Frenchman who is spared from execution for treason in London by the testimony of a young English lawyer, Sydney Carton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Both Darnay and Carton are in love with Lucie Manette who has just been reunited with her Dad, Dr. Manette, who was unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille. Darnay wins her hand in marriage and the couple lead a harmonious life with their young daughter until Darnay returns to Paris to save a falsely accused servant. Dr. Manette, Lucie and her little girl, and Lucie’s guardian, Miss Pross follow Darnay to Paris and are eventually joined by Sydney Carton and Mr. Lorry, a family friend and bank employee. They are all caught in the whirl of the Revolution in France as Darnay ends up in jail and awaits execution.

In Paris, revolutionary fervor is high among the aggrieved inhabitants of the poor neighborhood of Saint-Antoine. The wine shop of Ernest Defarge serves as a hub of the activities of a group of revolutionaries who go by the name ‘Jacques’. They want to uproot the existing social order characterized by the absolute power of the monarchy and feudal privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and clergy. The Marquis Evrémonde heartlessly crushes a child under his carriage and reacts with indifferent arrogance to its death. The people have suffered at the hands of the aristocracy for far too long and are filled with a desire for revenge. They want to establish a new society based on more egalitarian ideas. Defarge is their leader and will eventually lead the mob to the storming of the Bastille.

The Wine Shop

In the character of Madame Defarge, Dickens creates the female face of the revolution, albeit a sinister one. Women, hitherto, confined to their domestic space, took to the streets in large numbers to air their grievances and played a pivotal part in the uprisings. Madame Defarge sits quietly in the wine shop knitting but nothing escapes her watchful eye. In the pattern of her stitches, she knits the names of her victims whose death is imminent. She is the leader of the ‘tricoteuses’ and represents the brutality of the Reign of Terror with her radical and extreme views. She reminds us of the Greek Fates, the ‘moirai’ who spin the thread of life determining the fate of human beings. While M. Defarge is ambiguous about killing innocent people, his bloodthirsty wife is unflinching in her desire for vengeance. She hates the Evrémonde family with a passion. Charles Darnay has a connection with the Evrémonde family and Ernest Defarge once worked for Dr. Manette. That is how the lives of the English get entangled with the Defarges in France. I don’t want to delve too much into the plot. There are a lot of plot twists, some of which quite improbable, creating a melodramatic climax and ending with the memorable last lines: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.

The Sea Rises

Dickens makes you live the revolution with the characters. I was quite horrified by how the oppressed become the oppressors. All the bloodshed eventually led to the establishment of a modern democracy and capitalist country but at the cost of innumerable lives. It is a cycle of oppression where the oppressed internalize the oppression of the oppressors and end up becoming like them despite their desire for social justice and quality. Though Dickens’ sympathy lies with the oppressed, he knows they can get carried away and highlights how people died often for no reason: “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” 

The polarities I brought up in the opening paragraph can be seen in the portrayal of the characters too. Sidney Carton and Charles Darney are set up as mirror images of each other and Miss Pross is a foil to Mme Defarge. The characters of Lucie and Madame Defarge are set up as stark contrasts to each other; one compassionate and angelic and the other vengeful and unforgiving. Lucie is the golden thread that holds the family together while Mrs. Defarge seeks to tear their family apart. Most of the characters represent extreme goodness or evil and end up being one dimensional except for Sidney Carton who is more complex and reveals a dual nature.  

Dickens uses powerful imagery in his writing to evoke the tension in the atmosphere. The image of a wine cask broken and spilling its contents on the streets of Paris foreshadows the bloodshed that will take place in that very neighborhood. He describes the storming of the Bastille in a very powerful and dramatic way personifying Madame La Guillotine. A Tale of Two Cities is also a love story and I was struck by the exquisite and heartfelt prose in the scene when Carton visits Lucie Manette and explains that while he expects no return of his love, he would do anything for her or for anyone whom she loves. I think these are among the most romantic lines ever penned in literature:

For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing. The time will come, the time will not be long in coming, when new ties will be formed about you—ties that will bind you yet more tenderly and strongly to the home you so adorn—the dearest ties that will ever grace and gladden you. O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father’s face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!” 

The title of the first Book of the novel is ‘Recalled to life’ and it could be extended to the whole novel as one of its major themes is the theme of resurrection. In fact, Dickens had even considered it as an alternate title for the novel. Charles Darnay is saved twice from a terrible fate. Dr. Manette never had the opportunity to know his daughter while in prison and missed out on that joy. She enjoys a father’s love for the first time and they are both thus recalled to life. In a morbid way, Jerry Cruncher, the grave thief resurrects bodies from graves and sells them to doctors and surgeons. In the end, he is willing to ‘resurrect’ himself by making 2 promises to Miss Pross- he vows to stop the criminal activity of grave digging and to treat his wife better and not interfere in her prayers. The person who most embodies redemption through sacrifice is Sydney Carton who led a life devoid of ambition and meaning, but eventually finds purpose by renouncing his life for the happiness of the other characters. His ultimate sacrifice makes him a hero and an almost Christ- like figure.

Last but not the least, the resurrection takes place on a societal and cultural level as the dismantling and death of the ancien régime in France leads to a new era ushering in freedom and equality. Dickens was indebted to Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution in writing this novel with historical accuracy. Dickens wrote this story perhaps as a cautionary tale for his own country to avert the tragic fate of its neighbor. Many of the issues raised continue to be relevant today as glaring injustice and the conflict between classes is not just an 18th century issue specific to France. In that sense, the novel is timeless as it serves as a warning of what can happen when injustice goes unchecked, and as a lesson in how to avoid history from repeating itself.

  • Illustrations above are by Hablot Browne ( Phiz) from A Tale of Two Cities, which was released in parts between April and November 1859.