“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson

A lachrymose and mournful atmosphere pervades the town of Fingerbone in which ‘Housekeeping’ is set; Fingerbone is a town of foggy, opalescent mornings, hazy pink sunsets, of pale moon-light reflecting on the glacial lake, a town of ethereal beauty in which the lives of two sisters, Ruthie and Lucille and their eccentric aunt Sylvie play out. In many ways their lives are reflective of Fingerbone itself; insignificant and seemingly irrelevant, yet teeming with a hidden life and beauty.

The quiescent, and at times ironical style of the narrator, Ruthie, builds a lethargic  cadence to the book’s style, as the reader becomes lulled into the dreamy atmosphere which Ruthie weaves around the novel. There are countless elegiacal and poetic descriptions of the lake and he forest surrounding Fingerbone;

“The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindles clouds moulded and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out if it’s chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly, red and improbable. In an hour it would be an ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me.”

Ruthie and Lucille are abandoned by their mother, who then commits suicide, at their grandmother’s house. Initially inseparable, their paths gradually diverge, Lucille becomes embroiled in the human world with it’s seemingly petty and trivial concerns; money, clothes and status, whereas Ruthie, partially under the influence of her Aunt Sylvie, partially due to her own innate personality and partially due to fate an circumstance stemming from being abandoned by her mother, becomes increasingly removed from humanity and reverts to a detached outlook on the world. Her introversion makes it difficult for to grasp or describe human behaviour, instead the existence of most characters outside of her family members is peripheral to the elegiacal description of Fingerbone and the surrounding area, from the faery inhabited abandoned cabin to the frozen lake and the endless series of lazy, somnolent days. There is a short monologue towards the end of the novel where Ruthie reflects on the fickle nature of memory, how it captures only the superficial aspects of existence; whilst this is true to a point to Housekeeping, Robinson’s brilliant and sensitive style is able to raise the endless stream of seemingly irrelevant descriptions and images into a truly unique and beautiful work of art.

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“For Two Thousand Years” by Mihail Sebastian

“For Two Thousand Years” is a book which slowly grows on the reader; at first the series of what could loosely be described as vignettes can be jarring, not so much due to the style, but more due to the remorseless adolescent cynicism which pervades them, like Halden Caulfield on crack. However, as the reader becomes accustomed to the slightly broken cadence of Sebastian’s prose style, as the cynicism slowly gives way to profound insights into the nature note just of antisemitism, but of societal prejudices in general, as the feeling of desolation which drives the narrator’s isolation becomes increasingly apparent, the reader begins to understand the narrator’s diffidence, his pessimism, as he struggles not just under the weight of a wave of local antisemitism, but two thousand years of anti-Jewish prejudices. As the narrator points out, even those Jews who re-locate to Israel will forever bear the load of two millennia of hatred.

“For Two Thousand Years” is especially insightful because it explores the rise not just of antisemitism, but of Zionism in its incipient stages. The narrator comes across a wide array of characters, mainly intellectuals of some sort, with whom he discusses both weighty political and metaphysical topics to more quotidian, though no less important topics, such as women and love. None of the secondary characters are granted internal narratives or lives, instead they are all seen via the lens of the narrator, their motives and views are all presented-and therefore skewed-by the narrator. The result of which is an atmosphere of decadence and tension, shot through with the odd moment of beauty and repose;

“It is the house I dreamed of. A house built for sunlight. Evenings, its shadow fall across the water, like the shadow of a plant…we stopped on the terrace, where the September morning spread into the distance, beyond the lake, white in declining autumn light, as though reclining in its own splendour…we will forget each other, my white house in Snagov, you to receive the sun each day through your wide windows, me to put up other walls, just as likely to be forgotten.”

In many ways the above passage, which is the final in the novel, sums-up the novel; an insightful, and at times beautiful, if melancholic exploration of 1930’s Romania as it slowly became engulfed in the chasm of antisemitism, where so many lights were dimmed under the unremitting darkness of fascism.

“I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale” by Khuswant Singh

To paraphrase VS Naipaul vis-a-vis Pankaj Mishra British colonialism “wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else”, but also “wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves”. In many ways this sums up the particular brand of modern European colonialism that idea that, in exploiting the resources, degrading the culture and systematically dehumanising the people it subjects it is fact doing them a favour and allowing them to rise out of the indigence of their existence. This is evidence in behaviour and attitude of the Indian characters in “I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale”; labouring under the load of cultural and racial subjugation, they have developed a deep sense of inferiority, whereby even the slightest act of kindness, however innocuous,  by a British person is regarded as a divine gift, whose judgements are infallible and orders unquestionable.

In ‘I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale’, this feeling is more deeply-embedded in the older generation who have lived their entire lives under colonial rule, whereas the younger generation are starting to clamour for independence. In many ways this inter-generational conflict is the central theme of the novel and is encapsulated in the relationship between the respected judge Buta Singh and his rebellious and charismatic, if essentially weak-willed son Sher. It would be easy-and understandable-to dismiss Buta as an idle flatterer whose sickly servility towards the British stinks of sycophancy, however it is important to understand his psychology in the context of a life-time of tacit subjugation and cultural appropriation; like-wise his son, ironically named Sher, is, beneath the bluster and arrogance a weak-willed coward more interested in flattery than revolution, more concerned with his reputation than enacting change. Again, it is important to understand Sher’s personality-like that of his friend Madan-in the context of his upbringing as an essentially spoiled and privileged young man in a society where he simultaneously holds a position of power and authority amongst Indians, but is also powerless amongst the ruling British clash. And herein lies the central issue of the cessation of colonial power in Indian and elsewhere-the system of subjugation set up by the British remained after they left and were filled by natives who sought to ape and emulate their attitudes and perspectives, men like Buta and Sher, self-serving and selfish and so, following the withdrawal of the British, India experienced a continuation of imperialism, with the only real change taking place being that the oppressors were now Indian rather than British.

Another point in the novel’s favour is how-by and large-how dislikeable a lot of the characters are. With the exception of a few characters, such as Sher’s illiterate and devout mother Sabhrai, most of the characters are trapped beneath a web of self-absorption, self-interest and deceit. Too often characters in Indian fiction are depicted with a one-dimensional saccharine sweet simplicity  and so it is refreshing to see Khuswant Singh subvert these tropes and cliches, such as the craven Sher being held up as a hero for defying non-existent police torture, or the affair between Sher’s wife Champak and Madan.  In addition, Khuswant is able to skilfully depict Northern Indian, from the humid and oppressive Punjabi summer to the wonderful descriptions of the monsoon and the airy buoyancy of Shimla;

“The monsoon is given a grand farewell with fireworks….the sky is no longer a mass of shapeless grey; it is an expanse of bulbous white clouds which change their shapes and colours as they tumble away. The mists life as if raised by a magic wand, unfolding a rain-washed scenery of snow-capped mountains on one side an an infinity of brown plains intersecting a thousand gold streams on one another.”

I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale is a well-written and interesting depiction of pre-independence Indian, of colonialism and of the privilege of the soon to be ruling Indian classes, as well as being a well constructed character study of the wide cast of characters who populate the novel.

“We Are That Young” by Preti Taneja

A modern day re-telling of “King Lear”, ‘We Are That Young’ is a brilliant exploration of greed, corruption and vice in modern India. The novel follows the aristocrat-cum-royal family of Devraj; a patriarch whose puissance dissolves once he cedes ownership of his company to his elder daughters, Garghi and Radha, only to rise, ephemerally, like a phoenix, in a haze of self-righteous indignation against the corruption inherent in the company he set-up, riding a wife of populism based on deep-seated misogyny and malevolent nationalism, ‘We Are That Young’ both eschews the limitations so often placed on Indian literature, whilst at the same time exploring the problems inherent in modern Indian society; the uneven distribution of wealth, the rise of parochial religious fundamentalism and the cultural schizophrenia India is experiencing under the relentless waves of globalization.

There story is told via multiple narrators; Jivan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s right hand man, Ranjit, is the first and penultimate narrator. A vapid and ultimately egoistical young man, Jivan acts as the catalyst for the corruption and downfall of Garghi, trapped in a loveless relationship with a neurotic husband and Radha, married to the bellicose buffoon Bubu; Jivan is the key by which both characters break free from the shackles of their father, Devraj. Whilst objectively speaking the reader’s sympathies should lie with Devraj, Tenaja, influenced partially by King Lear, paints Devraj as a chauvinistic egoist, more concerned with his pride and money than his daughters, propagating a philosophy which is a mix of bigotry, misogyny and populism any tragic elements of his downfall are skewered by his selfish characteristics. Again, although Garghi and Radha are ostensibly the villains of the story, Taneja’s multi-faceted characterisation enables the reader to understand the reasons for their frustrations of being forever trapped in the roles society expects of them as women. The other principle characters are Ranjit’s soon, Jeet, who undergoes a ultimately fruitless spiritual epiphany after going through an existential crisis about the emptiness of life and the meaningless of his wealth. The heroine of the story-and one of the few positive characters-is Devraj’s youngest daughter Sita, whose truculence in refusing to marry sets off the chain of events which takes over the character’s lives.
Beneath this Taneja’s India shimmers forth via a blaze of colours and sounds; the effervescent sun-set on a sultry evening, the degradation of the slums, the  superficiality of the super-rich, Taneja captures and describes modern Indian with a verve and vivacity which is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie, from the corrupt  curmudgeons who hold power, to the servility of the poor and the weight of Westernization which Indian society is labouring under, Taneja is able to capture the complex, contradictory and often cruel contractions of a society undergoing constant flux and change and of a family which is driving and leading much of that change; a family which, like wider Indian society, becomes steadily dehumanised with money and power.

‘Dead Souls’by Nikolai Gogol

All stories, even those painted with the broadest strokes of realism are fairy tales. Some, however, are more fantastical than others and none more so than the phantasmagoria of Gogol’s fiction; characters with pumpkin shaped heads and preposterous dialogues, all of this is part of the  magic of Gogol’s fiction, of his unique, surreal style. Gogol should not be read to gain an insight of human psychology; his weird and wonderful cast of characters are cardboard cut-outs, unintentional caricatures of Gogol’s neurotic social interactions. Instead Gogol should be read for the originality of his style, the long, fantastical metaphors and non-sequiturs, the random occurrences and divergences which constantly crop up. As Nabokov writes, Gogol was one of the first writers to rescue Russian literature from collective purblindness and along with the rambling metaphors, the colourful portraits of the Russian countryside with punctuate the novel are some of it’s most delightful passages, however Gogol’s most poetic descriptions are punctuated with a macabre beauty” ;

“The united tops of trees that had grown wide in liberty spread above the skyline in masses of green  clouds and irregular domes of tremulous leafage. The colossal white trunk of a birch-tree deprived of its top, which had been broken off by some gale or thunderbolt, rose out of these dense green masses and disclosed its rotund smoothness in  midair, like a well proportioned column of sparkling marble; the oblique, sharply pointed fracture in which, instead of a  capital, it terminated above, showed black against its snowy whiteness like some kind of headpiece or a dark bird…here and there the green thicket broke asunder in a blaze of sunshine and showed a deep unlighted recess in between, similarto dark gaping jaws; this vista was all shrouded in shadow and all one could discern in its black depth was: the course of a narrow footpath, a crumbling balustrade, a toppling summer-house, the hollow trunk of a decrepit willow, a thick growth of hoary sedge bristling out  from behind it, an intercrossment and tangle of twigs and leaves that had lost their sap in this impenetrable wildwood…”

Dead Souls follows the story of the garrulous philistine Chichikov and his inane-and ultimately banal-quest to purchase dead peasants from land-owners in order to become rich. Chichikov is a unique combination of superciliousness and ineptness; he constantly bumbles and fumbles his way through life, committing blunder after blunder, both social and financial, he is like a ghoulish version of the hapless failures who populate Chekhov’s novels, or the neurotic of Dostoevsky. However, the reader should reflect that both Chichikov and the secondary characters who populate the novel are fundamentally different facets of Gogol’s neurotic personality, they are not ‘people’ in the traditional sense, but more ghouls who haunt Gogol’s nightmarish world, delighting the reader with their weird and wonderful behaviours.

 

 

 

 

 

“Claudine’s House” by Colette

A pallid, opalescent atmosphere lingers in the atmosphere of ‘Claudine’s House’; a series if vignettes exploring the childhood of Claudine in rural France; the ephemeral, Van Gogh-esque bluish shimmer of  the wheat-fields under the rays of a arid April sun, the mendacious gossip of villagers, the slow, sonorous passing passing of the days; Colette captures all of this wonderfully in her poignant evocations of Claudine’s past, from the magic of childhood and frailty of human relationships, of the irrecoverable past, which can only be captured via fickle human memory;

“House and garden are still alive, I know; but of what avail is that if their magic has deserted them and their secret has been lost-the secret that once opened up a whole world to me; light, different scents, the harmony of trees and birds, the murmur of human voices that death has already stilled…a world of which I am no longer worthy?”

Interspersed between this are descriptions of Claudine’s relationship with the various animals who make an appear thoughout the novel, from the untameable wild cat Ba-To, to the magisterial owl in ‘Cats’, the animals are rendered with a child-like wonder and curiosity; Claudine in many ways understands animals better than humans, especially adults, whose emotional conflicts and passions she is unable to fully grasp,  and whose lives play second fiddle to the wondrous beauty of the world around them, a world of mellifluous moonlight, pink sunsets and bucolic beauty;

“I only had to move slightly away from the gardener’s dress with its fresh fragrance and my head immediately plunges into a haze of perfume that washes over us like a great smooth wave; the white tobacco plant opens to the night its narrow tubes of fragrance and its star-shaped corollas. A ray of light touches the walnut tree and awakens it; it makes a sound like lapping water, stirred down its lowest branches by a slender oar of moonlight”

Beautifully written and dense with poetic images as well as insights into human behaviours, although the latter is via the lens of adolescence, ‘Claudine’s House’ is a masterpiece of French literature.

 

 

‘The Romantics’ by Pankaj Mishra

‘The Romantics’ is, in many ways, about the unbridgeable gap between two disparate cultures; between the supercilious sense of superiority which the West holds over the East, a feeling which is perpetuated by those who claim to hold an affinity to the East, seeking to reduce it’s rich and diverse cultural heritage into an easy set of cliches and platitudes, fetishizing  its beliefs, people and practices, cloaking the vapidity of their spiritual seances beneath a garbled set set of misconstructions and misconstruememts. Likewise, the East, struggling under the weight of a sense of collective cultural inferiority reveres the West to the point of adulation. This isn’t so much a criticism of cultural interaction, after all every culture is fluid and is a patchwork quilt of a myriad of different beliefs and cultures, but more a reflection of the toxicity of imperialism, of the deep-rooted psychological impact it continues to have and, in the context of  ‘The Romantics’, the barriers it creates between individuals from these cultures from forming relationships, both romantic and platonic, with one another.

‘The Romantics’ follows the story of the reclusive and introverted Samar and his time in Benares. The city itself is rendered beautifully, its vibrancy brought alive beneath a cacophony of colours, of pink-tinted sunsets and the dazzling reflections of the summer sun on the waters of the River Ganges. Samar runs into Diana West, a pessimistic if well-meaning English woman whose friendship allows Samar to break free from the shell of loneliness within which he encased himself. Samar makes multiple references to Flaubert’s ‘A Sentimental Education’ in the novel and the reader can see the link between Samar and Frederic; both are naive and callow, repressed by a deep sense of diffidence and inferiority, withdrawn from life and in thrall to an older, beautiful and outwardly confident woman who is unattainable. Both use this experience to grow and mature, although  a streak of cynicism and bourgeoisie mediocrity embeds itself in Frederic by the end of ‘A Sentimental Education’, Samar is still hanging on the precipice between his insularity and desire to become an active member of society at the end of the novel. In Samar’s case the woman who he falls in love with is Catherine, a French woman, whose outward assurance belies a deep sense of inferiority and need to be loved, her personality is perfectly captured and encapsulated in the following passage where Samar describes the party in which he first met Catherine;

“But it is the picture of her sitting up very straight on the jute mat, abstractedly plucking at the tanpura’s strings, the light form the short, flickering flame of the diyas bathing her clear, unblemished face in a golden glow, that has stayed most vividly with me, and is the central force that illuminates the rest of the evening in my memory.”

Yet it would be hard to describe Samar’s relationship or feelings for Catherine as being passionate; rather they are a tepid series of  emotions which are ensconced in a deep sense of inferiority and idealisation of Catherine and love-even when the two achieve physical intimacy their attempts are clumsy and languid, both are held back by the idealised images they have created of one another in their minds; Catherine as an unobtainable, sexually confident and emotionally mature European woman and Samar as  a naive, gullible and repressed Indian man. Of course both characters have personalities which, more or less, adhere to these ideals, but neither character is able to view the other from outside this narrow lens. To further complicate matters, Catherine is in a relationship with the mediocre and mewling musician Anand, who she idealises and imbues with non-existent qualities; in her mind he represents the exoticism of Indian, misreading his selfishness for being misunderstood.

However, it is Mishra’s colouring of the secondary characters and Indian where the novel really shines. Mishra brings out the essential hopelessness poverty endemic in India. Nowhere is this more apparent than the cash of Rajesh; an otherwise sensitive and intelligent young man who is pushed into a life of crime and isolation, Mishra emphasises the sense of helplessness Rajesh is over-come by as fate and circumstance push him towards a life which he never wished for. One of the most resonant passages is of when Samar visits Rajesh’s village and witnesses the poverty and degradation of it’s inhabitants. This is the “real” India which the Western characters so constantly seek, an Indian of subjugation and extreme hardship and not the simulacrum of spiritual stereotypes which they imbue it with. Mishra is, however able to wonderfully render the magical, even mystical beauty of the Indian landscape, of the uniqueness and quiddity of it’s atmosphere;

“The sea from my window was a broad sparkling band of silver foil-blinding after a long spell in my curtained room-which, later that afternoon, as dark clouds gathered, shaded into restless grey. The rain, when it came, briefly pockmarked the sea and the obliterated all sight in a steamy white mist. The long asphalt promenade was deserted now; but, on humid, rainless afternoons that followed, I would see a couple of toy sellers, their red and yellow balloons straining upwards against the silently heaving seas.”

“The Romantics” is a beautiful crafted about love and relationships between individuals from opposing and incompatible cultures.

 

 

 

 

‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

The story of a woman’s self-discovery, ‘The Awakening’ explores the emotional journey of Edna Pontellier, who is materially and socially successfully, but emotionally unfulfilled. Edna begins to fall in love with Robert Lebrun, a callow if sensitive young man whose charismatic nature wins over Edna, making her realise the emotional shallowness of her marriage with her husband and its superficial and passionless nature. This awakening washes over Edna gradually, like the undulations of the tide they gradually carry Edna into a stormy sea, which acts as a dominant motif in the novel, a kind of symbol of freedom and self-realisation and ultimately, the place where Edna decides to end her life. Indeed there is a sense of restrained poetry throughout the novel, of the pale, opalescent moon-light on the beach-shore, as a heavy sense of symbolism dominates the novel; in a world in which emotions are restrained or repressed, they find their outlets in the environment;

“It was then past midnight. The cottages were all dark. A single faint light gleamed out form the hallway of the house. There was no sound abroad except the hooting of an owl in the top of a water-oak, and the ever-lasting voice of the sea, that was not uplifted at that soft hour. It was like a mournful lullaby in the night.”

Mixed in with the sense of melancholy which pervades the novel is the somewhat decadent world of Creole Louisiana, as well as the changes taking place in an increasingly modernising society, a world in which female emancipation was beginning to gain a foot-hold and where sexual mores were gradually being relaxed. The heroine, Edna, isn’t a particularity brilliant or dazzling woman, artistic proclivities aside, but she is a woman who is gradually awakening form the emotional slumber which she had stuck in, as love jolts her from her long somnabulation.

“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” by Jorge Amado

The sultry smell of clove and cinnamon surrounds Gabriela, a conflagration of  sensuality and salaciousness. Gabriela, like many of the other female characters in the novel,  is a light whose ebullience is dimmed by the murkiness of male insecurities and hypocrisy, who sinks beneath the weight of Nacib, seeking to tame the wildness of her personality beneath the banality of bourgeoisie morality, ends up losing her and his happiness due to the-largely unwarranted-doubts which creep into his mind, due to his inability to accept and love Gabriela for what she is and to mould her into a respectable, but soulless, woman.

Reading the story of Nacib and Gabriela,  the reader recalls this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; “And that heart which was a wild garden was give to him who only loved trimmed lawns. And the imbecile carries the princess into slavery.” Gabriela herself intuits when she considers Nacib’s marriage proposal; Nacib, measuring Gabriela against the prostitutes he frequents,  feels love is expensive shoes and laced clothing, domestic oppression and social pretence; for Gabriela it is the feel of Nacib’s body over her thigh at night. Nacib views love as a form of ownership, whereas for Gabriela it is freedom. Indeed the novel is full of women who seek to break free from the yoke of societal prejudices, from the hypocrisy of men and to re-take ownership of their bodies and emotions-whilst Gabriela’s struggle is more primitive than intellectual, it is symptomatic of the struggles the female characters face in the novel.

The cadence and rhythm of Amado’s prose echoes the sensuality note just of the story, but of Ilheus and of the sultry hedonism of Bahia and and the fiery atmosphere which pervades the novel;

“The prayer rose to the diaphanous, cloudless sky, with a pitiless sun-a murderous ball of fire set on the newborn pod of cacao sprouts.”

Mixed in with this are the plots and political intrigues, of the Machiavellian machinations of local politics and of the wide-spread cronyism inherent in Brazilian politics as well as a series of soap opera sub-plots. However, more fundamental than this is the story of a well-meaning, if naive, man who seeks to enslave the woman who only seeks freedom in the love she feels for him.

 

‘A Void’ by George Perec

A playful,  lipogram, in which a syllabic sonant is vacant, ‘A Void’ is a artistic travail which fits right into ‘Oulipo’s (brainchild of Raymond Q, alias Raymon Q. Knowall, ‘,  in which the central aspiration was to rethink scholarly protocols follows the story of ‘Anton Vowl; a missing mad-man who is stuck in a continuous accumulation of fictional confabulations and has vanished from the world, leading to the a group of insouciant companions to conduct a chaotic and maniacal pursuit for him.

A soporific spiral of mishaps, a pasquil of various bookish forms, as a scholarly fantasy, ‘A Void’ is no doubt a singular work of imagination;  adulation is paid from Proust ‘Moby Dick’ to cordial frolics which said author took a fancy to with quotidian constancy and various malapropisms typical patrolman fiction. A cast consist of bumbling assassins, pugnacious  criminals and vamps, along with a conspiracy of global proportions, instils an air of whimsicality which can distract from how daring of said author’s pursuit of artistic originality is. On occasion,  constant authorial  distortion and lampooning can put off bilious bookworms who want to scan the words which the book consists of, but ‘A Void’ is an unusual, regularly fun and farcical and occasionally irritating work of art.