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.

My Classics Club List

I have decided to join the Classics Club, a group created online to inspire people to read and blog about classics. https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com The goal is to read at least 50 classics within 5 years and blog about each one after you finish reading it. If I had my way, I would be reading classics all the time. But I need to be abreast of what’s going on in the contemporary literary world too. And that’s why I have stuck to this attainable goal of reading around 10 classics a year.

I compiled a list of books I have been meaning to read for a long time and I am ready to dive into the challenge. Most of the books on my list are books I will be reading for the first time. There are a few books on the list that I had read during school and college days and look forward to re- reading with a more mature perspective. I read Gone With the Wind when I was around 16 or 17 and The Count of Monte Cristo when I was even younger. I am excited to rediscover them. Some favorite authors like Elizabeth von Arnim, Jane Austen or Daphne du Maurier feature more than once on the list. I have also picked books that I find intimidating like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer in the original Middle English to challenge myself. The selections are mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries but I have also chosen books from the Medieval and Renaissance periods and the 16th through 18th centuries. Most of the books are written in English but I have included some French books which I’ll read in the original and books translated from Russian and Spanish. I have included literature from around the world and two post colonial writers from India and the Indian diaspora to enjoy something from my own heritage.

How old does a book have to be to be considered a classic? I didn’t want to pick an arbitrary cut off date. The definition of what constitutes a classic is subjective. For me it needs to evoke a certain period in history and yet have withstood the test of time. So modern classics are on my list too. But I have not included any books from the 21st century.

 I started the challenge on the 20thof Feb, 2021 and I intend completing it by the 20th of February, 2026. Needless to say, this list is not written in stone. I have played with it many times and it is still evolving. But for now this is what’s on my mind, in no particular order:

  

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  3. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
  4. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  5. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  6. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  7. L’Amant ( The Lover) by Marguerite Duras
  8. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
  9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  10. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  11. Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
  12. Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
  13. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  14. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  15. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  16. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  17. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
  18. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  19. Chéri by Colette
  20. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  21. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  22. Essais ( Essays) by Michel de Montaigne
  23. The Metamorphosis by Kafka
  24. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  25. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  26. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  27. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  28. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  29. Le Comte de Monte- Cristo ( The Count of Monte Cristo) by Alexandre Dumas
  30. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  31. The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  32. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  33. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  34. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  35. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  36. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
  37. Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
  38. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  39. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  40. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
  41. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  42. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
  43. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  44. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  45. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  46. L Étranger ( The Stranger) by Albert Camus
  47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  48. So Long a Letter ( Une si longue lettre) by Mariama Bâ
  49. The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe
  50. Vanity Fair by William Makepiece Thackerey

What do you think of my list? Have you read any of the books on it? Could you recommend any other books that might be of interest to me? Do share your thoughts.

White Nights

White Nights- St. Petersburg, Russia Image from WeQ live website

P. S. The blog post contains spoilers.You can read White Nights by Dostoevsky for free online on Project Gutenberg if you wish to read the story before reading the post. It is a short story.

‘Toska’ is one of those untranslatable Russian words that elude definition. It denotes anguish, melancholia, spiritual sadness and boredom all at once. According to Vladimir Nabokov: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” The word seems similar to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ but it is uniquely Russian as to the Russians it also implies carrying the heavy weight of their collective history along with centuries of living in a gloomy climate. I recently read White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky which comes close to capturing this elusive and undefinable state represented by the word ‘toska’.

Published in 1948, this is one of Dostoevsky’s earlier works and lacks the polish of his future novels although it prefigures some of the themes you encounter later. It is a story about a sensitive dreamer and it is a story for all dreamers. I could immediately identify with the character. He is a painfully shy man and a recluse who lives in St. Petersburg and floats through life lost in his own world of fantasies. He roams the streets of the city encountering strangers with whom he never strikes a conversation. Yet, he thinks he knows them intimately. He knows the houses and they know him too. For they appear to talk to him. We don’t come to know much about him. We don’t even know his name. He is around 26 years old and lives alone with his maid Matrona who takes cares of his apartment. He is a hopeless romantic and dreams up romances but has never been with a woman. He is an introverted and introspective man weighed down by an unexplainable despondency. His malaise reminds me a little of Chateaubriand’s René. His dream world offers him a refuge from loneliness. In fact, the novella is subtitled as: “A sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer”.

The story unfolds over four nights and a day in the nameless narrator’s life. One evening while roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, he meets a pretty girl named Nastenka who is crying on a bridge and comes to her rescue when another stranger follows and threatens her. They become friends over the next few nights and share their hopes and dreams with each other. The two lonely souls come together in their loneliness. Nastenka is a sheltered young girl who during the day is literally pinned to her grandmother’s skirt as the old lady is afraid that she will be led astray by a man. She spends her time reading and sewing and has the freedom to walk around the city only after she manages to untie herself after her grandmother has gone to sleep.

Although she warns the narrator not to fall in love with her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her. She is betrothed to another man who was a lodger in her apartment and is waiting for him to return from his trip. When he fails to show up, she thinks he has abandoned her and is miserable. The narrator is moved by her plight and helps her deliver a letter to the man. He also ends up confessing his love for her. She is bewildered but when it seems to her that her beau will not return, she says she is starting to get over him and that she loves the narrator as as he is the better person. The two start making plans for the future. But when Nastenka’s fiancé returns that very night, she excitedly flings herself into his arms. The narrator’s world comes crashing down. Nastenka herself was a dream and he falls back to reality with a thud.

It is a clichéd story of the man who falls in love with a girl who has given her heart to someone else. Yet, Dostoevsky in his inimitable style imbues it with a freshness and poignancy of its own. It is the first work of literature that I have come across which gives importance to the ‘type’ of a dreamer. The narrator delivers a long monologue on being a dreamer similar to the style of the Underground Man from Notes from Underground. He begins narrating his story in the third person calling himself a hero. He is a melodramatic and excitable man who is very awkward and shy when an acquaintance visits him but pours his heart out to the girl who is virtually a stranger. Nastenka teases him about his poetic verbosity:”You describe it all splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it a little less splendidly? You talk as though you were reading it out of a book.” It is strange and almost comical to see the way he is overwrought with emotion. Through the dreamer, Dostoevsky shows how humans are afraid to reveal their true selves but yearn for communication and connection. It takes a potential soulmate who appears to share the same temperament as the dreamer to draw him out of his cocoon.

The narrative itself exerts a dreamlike hold on us. You feel you are in a dreamscape for the story takes place during the time of ‘white nights’, a phenomenon that takes place around the summer solstice when the sun does not set completely. St. Petersburg is located near the Arctic circle and experiences the season of the midnight twilight when there is a crepuscular glow in the night sky. In French, the expression for white nights is ‘nuits blanches’ and refers to sleepless nights. The nocturnal wanderings of the narrator take place in this transitional and hallucinatory state between wakefulness and sleep, between dream and reality when our thoughts are unconstrained by our usual mental filters.

The narrator is jolted from his reverie and back to living his monotonous life with the maid Matrona. She used to ignore the cobwebs on the ceiling but after he met Nastenka, it seemed to him that she had swept all the cobwebs. But now after losing Nastenka, the house seems old and decrepit, Matrona seems wrinkled and the cobwebs seem thicker than ever. They end up exactly where they started. Nastenka, meanwhile, announces the news of her marriage in a letter and says she will always treasure the memories she had with the narrator and will view him as a friend and brother. In modern parlance, one would say that he has been ‘friend-zoned’. And here is his sweet and sincere response:

But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss; that I should crush a single one of those tender blossoms which you have twined in your dark tresses when you go with him to the altar…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart!  

Aren’t these the most beautiful and heartbreaking lines of unrequited love? In the beginning of the story, the narrator’s feverish ramblings on love made us believe that he was in love with an ideal, but how sincerely he cares for the girl who breaks his heart! He wishes her nothing but the best, and as for him, that one fleeting moment of happiness they shared can sustain him for his whole life.

My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

*Text of passages translated from the Russian by Constance Garrett

      

Madame Bovary, c’est nous!

Madame Bovary” is the book I had to read as part of the Classics Club spin hosted by The Classics Club and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/30/did-you-finish-your-spin-8/comment-page-1/#comment-18315

My review:

There was once a woman who was obsessed with the idea of love. She had a highly idealized image of romantic love thanks to the sentimental novels she read secretly during her girlhood in her convent school. She also suffered from enormous delusions of grandeur. That woman was Madame Bovary, the creation of Gustave Flaubert who was one of the pioneers of the Realist movement in literature. He is believed to have once declared: ” Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” though there is no actual proof of it in writing. Certainly Flaubert himself knew what it was to pine for someone, to indulge in excessive romantic ideals and to have your heart crushed. But he created a type of character and not just an individual.

Madame Bovary is a timeless character and could represent any woman or man dissatisfied with the cards he or she has been dealt with in life and pursues happiness only to realize that it is nothing but a chimera. In that sense, Madame Bovary could be anyone and everyone- Madame Bovary, c’est moi, c’est vous, c’est nous. She represents the loneliness of the modern soul who chases impossible ideals and fills his or her void with compulsive spending and the acquisition of materialistic things.

Flaubert was charged with blasphemy and obscenity when the novel was first published in serialized form in the ‘Revue de Paris’. The book may seem very tame today but it was revolutionary for the time for depicting a bored housewife who engages in adulterous liaisons. He was eventually acquitted and the novel became a classic that has withstood the test of time. Madame Bovary was the original desperate housewife, the precursor of an entire sisterhood of literary adulteresses.

The motherless Emma Roualt is a beautiful girl raised on a farm who yearns for all the finer things in life. She looks for an escape in marriage but her husband turns out to be a dull and unimaginative man. She also craves wealth and status but he is an unambitious and mediocre country doctor who is barely qualified to be one. He dotes on her but she is irritated by him:

Avant qu’elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l’amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n’étant pas venu, il fallait qu’elle se fût trompée, songea-t-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.” 

Before she got married, she had believed what she was experiencing to be love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from this love had not come, she must have been mistaken, she thought. And Emma tried to understand exactly what was meant in life by the words bliss, passion and intoxication which had seemed to her so beautiful in books.

She has a little girl but she is not the maternal sort and does not feel connected to her. At the Marquis d’Andervilliers’ estate where she secures an invitation to a ball, she realizes that her life is devoid of glamor and excitement. “…. sa vie était froide comme un grenier dont la lucarne est au nord, et l’ennui, araignée silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre à tous les coins de son coeur. ”  …..her life was as cold as an attic whose small window faces the north, and ennui, the silent spider, was spinning its web in the shadow in every nook and cranny of her heart. She is afflicted with ennui, that insidious bourgeois malady which makes her feel trapped in her limited life. She embarks on two adulterous affairs neither of which bring her lasting happiness. Emma Bovary is also a woman who lives beyond her means. She is extravagant and is quickly crippled by debts. She gets mixed up with L’ Heureux, a ruthless and scheming businessman who loans her sums of money and forces her to sign promissory notes. In the end, she is responsible for the financial ruin of her family.

Her first lover is the worldly but manipulative landowner Rodolphe. At first their clandestine trysts and the sentimental epistles they exchange are thrilling but soon everything becomes routine and Rodolphe breaks off the affair in a letter. She becomes ill and depressed, tries to take refuge briefly in religion and bounces back when Leon, a young law student who was infatuated with her and whose feelings she reciprocated during the early years of her marriage, reenters her life. He is more sincere than Rodolphe and seems to share her appreciation for literature and music. She meets him on a romantic rendezvous every Sunday in the nearby town of Rouen under the pretext of taking piano lessons. But this affair too runs its course. “Elle était aussi dégoûtée de lui qu’il était fatigué d’elle. Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage.” She was as fed up with him as he was tired of her. She had rediscovered in adultery all the banalities of marriage. I think these are my favorite lines from the novel and they summarize the plot succinctly. 🙂

Emma Bovary is considered to be one of the most unlikeable characters in literature. It is not only because she commits adultery and lacks a moral compass. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another famous literary adulteress also lives according to the dictates of her heart but elicits more sympathy. Although flawed, she is a much more complex character who is more grounded in reality. You can see why it is easy to despise Emma Bovary. She is a narcissistic and selfish woman who puts her needs above everything and everyone else. At first you do see her in a sympathetic light. In the 19th century, a woman’s world revolved around her husband and children. What about those women who were not cut out for marriage and maternity? Besides what choices were there for a woman in a passionless marriage?

The very fact that she chooses to assert herself within the constraints imposed by the society of 19th century France is remarkable. The novel sows the seeds of later feminism by questioning gender expectations and recognizing that a woman can have sexual desires as well. She wants to be more like a man in other spheres of her life too and even starts taking care of the finances. The outcome is tragic nevertheless for women were not financially independent at the time and therefore incapable of escaping from the tedium of their everyday lives.

The title reinforces the fact that women had to efface their individuality. The eponymous heroine is not the only Madame Bovary. There are two Madame Bovarys that precede Emma; her mother in law and her husband’s deceased first wife. The first two Madame Bovarys were discontented with their lives but resigned themselves to their fates. Emma refuses to be circumscribed in the role of a devoted wife, mother and housekeeper. Although I admired Emma for her courage, what irked me personally about her was her inability to reflect and grow. Kitty Fane from Maugham’s The Painted Veil is a shallow and self absorbed woman who is also trapped in a loveless marriage and has an affair, but she shows the capacity for introspection and growth and by the end of the novel you actually start liking her when she finally matures. I wonder if Emma would garner more sympathy if she had a few redeeming features like being a good mother or financially sensible. One thing I don’t get is why adulteresses are almost always portrayed as lacking maternal instinct. Wouldn’t they be more human and fascinating if they were depicted with more nuance? My heart broke for Berthe, her little girl who clamors for her attention but is constantly pushed away.

Emma’s husband is a rather pitiful character. Not only does he turn a blind eye to her affairs, he encourages them inadvertently by his cluelessness. I hoped he wouldn’t find out about her indiscretions not because I cared about her image but I couldn’t bear to think of the heartache he would have to endure. Flaubert carefully chose a name that makes you think of ‘bovine’ for Charles Bovary is doltish and oblivious to everything around him. The story is a means for Flaubert to mock the vulgarity and pettiness of the bourgeois class and he does not spare anyone.

The secondary characters are equally interesting as the principal ones. Homais the pharmacist who lives next door is a deceitful and self -serving pseudo intellectual who encourages M. Bovary to perform an experimental club foot operation on Hippolyte, the stableman that ends up leaving him crippled. Homais shows no remorse but seeks to further his own interests. His bombastic language and the satirical retorts he exchanges with the sanctimonious priest Bournisien provide some comic relief. He reminded me at times of Moliere’s Sganarelle although he has a much more sinister role. He is also the male counterpart of Emma who dreams big like her but ends up achieving what he seeks which she as a woman fails to do.

Flaubert’s style of writing is objective, ironic and humorous. There is a scene where Emma starts feeling guilty for having an affair with Rodolphe. I was convinced she was thinking of her husband but as you keep reading you realize she feels guilty for cheating on Leon, her other lover. His superb use of irony is evident in a long scene at the local agricultural fair where the pompous speech on morality delivered by the councillor is juxtaposed with Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma. The insincere words of the councillor are no different from the insincere words of Rodolphe and before long their sentences cut into each other. Another scene vividly portrayed is the passionate carriage ride that Emma and Leon enjoy secretly through the streets of Rouen; the pace of the vehicle matches the lovemaking inside and the scene reaches its climax with Emma’s hand reaching out to throw scraps of paper she had crushed to the wind.

Flaubert was known for his meticulous attention to detail and the writing style is descriptive and lyrical.

L’amour, croyait-elle, devait arriver tout à coup, avec de grands éclats et des fulgurations, — ouragan des cieux qui tombe sur la vie, la bouleverse, arrache les volontés comme des feuilles et emporte à l’abîme le cœur entier. Elle ne savait pas que, sur la terrasse des maisons, la pluie fait des lacs quand les gouttières sont bouchées, et elle fût ainsi demeurée en sa sécurité, lorsqu’elle découvrit subitement une lézarde dans le mur.

Love, she believed, had to come, suddenly, with great bursts of thunder and lightning flashes, a hurricane from heaven that falls upon your life and turns it upside down, pulls out your will power like leaves and hurls your entire heart into the abyss. She did not know that up on the roof of the house, the rain will form pools if the gutters are blocked, and she would have stayed there feeling safe until she suddenly discovered a crack in the wall.

At the same time you also have amazing one liners: “Elle souhaitait à la fois mourir et habiter Paris.She wanted to die, but at the same time she also wanted to live in Paris.

Emma’s mother in law believes the books she reads should be confiscated from her. Did literature ruin her life? She was probably reading potboilers and not brilliant books like the one penned by her creator. If she had read the book written about her, she would have probably viewed it as a cautionary tale and death could have been averted. Isn’t this the biggest Flaubertian irony of all? The end is inevitably tragic with a description of her long drawn out agony. Everyone knows that Madame Bovary dies. I am not revealing what happens next. All I can say is the ending and especially the last sentence of the book left an awful taste of arsenic in the mouth.

Was it worth it to pursue this ephemeral happiness even if it meant death was the price you pay for it or would it have been better to suffer a slow death in the stifling bourgeois life? The irony is that the woman looking for love is herself incapable of loving and the only person who genuinely loves her is the boring man she marries. Flaubert has portrayed a character who is devastatingly human in her inhumaneness even resulting in a new word in the dictionary called ‘bovarysm ‘ defined as ‘a conceited or romantic conception of one’s own importance.’ Yes, Madame Bovary is as contemporary as classic. Madame Bovary, c’est nous!

  • The translations are all mine.

La Maison de Claudine

The fifteen year old Colette with her long braids…”long enough to lower a bucket down a well.”

It is believed that much of the nostalgia that a book evokes in us is due to the memory of reading it during our childhood or youth- that innocent or seemingly innocent stage of life. When I look back upon my college days, one of my cherished memories is reading Colette and especially her ‘Claudine’ books. My lackluster life is a far cry from the colorful and scandalous life the writer led. Yet I have felt a kinship with her and something about the lyrical and lush sensuousness of her writing has always resonated with me. I seized the opportunity during the pandemic to re-read a comforting Colette from my early years.

La Maison de Claudine published in 1922 and translated as My Mother’s House is not about the fictitious Claudine. Claudine doesn’t even make an appearance in the book despite the French title but as the protagonist- author duo of Claudine-Colette are virtually the same, even their names, interestingly, have become interchangeable. La Maison de Claudine is an autobiographical book about Colette’s childhood in the countryside with a warm and loving family that consisted of her mother and father, her brother, a half brother and a half sister and a host of cats and dogs who are as much a part of the family as the two legged creatures. Colette herself was Minet- Chéri or ‘Little Darling’,the youngest of the brood. 

There is no story as such. The book is a series of vignettes in the form of sentimental musings of Colette’s childhood and picturesque evocations of provincial life in Burgundy. The episodes are not in chronological order. Some are very short episodes and are barely a page or two long. Some of the chapters describe a later stage in her life when she was living in Paris with her second husband and daughter Bel- Gazou.

But most of the episodes are a charming and sensuous depiction of an idyllic childhood in a house overflowing with pets and books. Her father, the captain who lost a leg during the war, is an absent-minded and amusing man who adores his wife and flirts harmlessly with his neighbor saying that he would teach her the meaning of love for six pence and a packet of tobacco. Then there is Juliette, her recluse of a sister lost in her books and daydreams and her quirky and fun loving brothers- Achille the older brother who loves puttering with pieces of cloth and wire and glass tubes and who eventually becomes a doctor, and Leo, the amazing musician who plays by ear the tunes he hears on the street and has a morbid fascination with creating epitaphs for fun. This eccentric domestic domain is presided over imperiously by a formidable woman- – tender and kind yet resolute, strong willed and assertive- her beloved mother Sido. The entire book can be said to be a tribute to this strong and compassionate lady.

Sido is unconventional in many ways. She is far from religious and her irreverence is charming. She insists that the dog attend mass where she herself reads plays of Corneille hidden in the prayer book and dies of boredom if the sermon lasts longer than ten minutes. She retains her maid who is pregnant out of wedlock, ignoring the gossip of her neighbors. Above all she is this nurturing maternal figure, who, on hearing stories of kidnapping in the news, fears that her little Minet- Chéri will be a victim and sneaks her out of her bedroom at night and brings her close to her own bed, prompting the confused little one to shriek in the morning,” Maman! Come quick! I’ve been abducted.” When her estranged daughter Juliette goes into labor next door, she literally feels the pangs of pain as she hears her wail in agony. Even when age takes a toll on her, she is stubbornly independent and is caught chopping wood on a frosty morning in the backyard dressed only in a nightgown or moving a heavy walnut cupboard from the upper story to the ground floor.

I was amused by all the stories of Sido brushing her daughters’ long hair. Both girls had hair that nearly fell to their feet. Minet Chéri had to be woken up half an hour earlier than her schoolmates every morning just to get her hair ready for school. Her two long plaits were like horse whips. And Juliette needs four plaits – two springing from her temples and two from above the nape of her neck. It’s hilarious how Sido complains that her legs hurt just by standing to comb Juliette’s hair. Ah, braiding a daughter’s hair or getting a hair braided by a mother is one of those quotidian activities filled with pain and pleasure at the same time!  

The animals are part of the daily domestic dramas and their feline and canine adventures are as delightful as their names- Toutouque, Pati-Pati, Bâ-tou, Bellaude and Kamaralzaman aka Moumou. Their stories cracked me up although I suspect Colette may have slightly embellished the details for effect. A cat relishes the best strawberries in the garden with all the good taste of a gourmet, and a spider descends from the ceiling in the middle of the night, dangling from a thread to take sips of Sido’s hot chocolate simmering over a little oil lamp on the bedside table. Nonoche, the cat and her daughter Bijou are pregnant at the same time and deliver a day within each other. The daughter cat has a few kittens attached to her breasts but goes to suckle from her mother who has her own set to nurse. There are sad stories too. The neighbor’s cat is grieving her dead kittens and has a lot of milk and the Colette family kitten seeks her abandoning his own distraught mother whose milk dries up. You can tell that Colette has observed animals very closely like many countryside children. These minute details captured so vividly remind me of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

A qui vit aux champs et se sert de ses yeux, tout devient miraculeux et simple. Il y a beau temps que nous trouvions naturel qu’une lice nourrît un jeune chat, qu’une chatte choisît, pour dormir, le dessus de la cage où chantaient des serins verts confiants et qui, parfois, tiraient du bec, au profit de leur nid, quelques poils soyeux de la dormeuse.

“To anyone who lives in the fields and uses his or her eyes, everything becomes miraculous and simple.We had long since felt that it was quite natural that a she-hound would feed a kitten, that a female cat would choose as her sleeping place the top of a cage where trusting green canaries sang, and who sometimes with their beaks pulled out a few silky hairs from the sleeping animal to build their nests.“

Beneath this tranquil surface, there is something simmering that threatens to disturb the harmony. There is a sense of melancholy pervading the air although Colette doesn’t allude to it explicitly. There are hints of financial trouble. I was especially intrigued by the mysterious Juliette and her crowning glory- the girl who is such a bookworm that even when she is sick with typhoid and forbidden to read, she lights matchsticks at night or strains to read clandestinely with nothing but the help of moonlight. Her in laws are not satisfied with her dowry and forbid her from visiting her parents. What secret sorrows lurk behind the thick and dark veil of hair! Who will rescue this Rapunzel from her tower? And why is she referred to repeatedly as an ‘ingrate’ when she is avoiding her parents only because she is afraid of her in laws’ ire? When we write a memoir with the distance of years between us, it affects our objectivity and we tend to gloss over unpleasant or uncomfortable details. Colette doesn’t want to break the spell of those halcyon days of childhood.

We don’t want the spell to break either. Colette summons up a childhood paradise imbued with delight and magic. Yet from the beginning, we are aware of the transience of the house, the garden and the inhabitants. From the very first chapter entitled,” Where are the children?” where Sido is frantically trying to round up the children who are in the garden playing games or hiding on tree tops with their books, we know that they will be leaving the maternal Eden behind. And that eventually their mother will leave them too and they would be left wondering where their mother was just as she was anxious about them.

Maison et jardin vivent encore, je le sais, mais qu’importe si la magie les a quittés, si le secret est perdu qui ouvrait — lumière, odeurs, harmonie d’arbres et d’oiseaux, murmure de voix humaines qu’a déjà suspendu la mort — un monde dont j’ai cessé d’être digne?…

“The house and garden still exist, I know it, but of what use is that if their magic has left them and if their secret has been lost- the secret that once opened up a whole world to me- light, scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I have ceased to be worthy?”

The book describes three generations of people who even share names and nicknames. Colette’s full name has her mother’s name Sidonie in it and she took her father’s last name as her first name and passed it on to her own daughter along with her nickname Bel-Gazou. Even though homes and people vanish out of their lives, there is this continuity in retaining the names along with the memories through the generations of this particular family.

And yet, the most amazing part of the book is its universality: it transported me to my own childhood ,which, strangely, was nothing like Colette’s; it made me nostalgic for a place or state of mind that wasn’t even there or perhaps was there in fragments. I used to relate to Minet- Chéri, or the young Colette; now on re-reading the book, I wonder if I have been a mother like Sido to my children in some small way and if I have provided them with enough experiences for sweet reminiscences. All I know is that as they take wing, I am left to lament like her: ” Where are the children?”

* The translations are all mine.