Monday, May 29, 2017

Review of Virginia Woolf's Mrs.Dalloway

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment."

There is a word that we usually do not associate with classics. Science-fiction? Sure. A thriller with a convoluted plot? Probably. A classic? Surely not. But then, Virginia Woolf's most famous classic, describing a single day's dusk-to-dawn in early 20th century London, can be accurately described with the word mind-boggling. I have a strange and inexplicable habit of pacing the mundane activities of my life to suit the rhythm of the book I am currently reading. As a child, I remember being asked to go to the grocery store while reading a Perry Mason and literally running to the shop until I realized that my life isn't as fast-paced as Gardner's courtroom thrillers and forced myself to slow down. After Dumbledore and Voldemart came face-to-face in Harry Potter and The Order of Phoenix, I couldn't sit down for a long time until my excitement subsided. Reading Mrs.Dalloway, I frequently found myself breathless trying to keep pace with the narrative.

There is not much in terms of plot in Mrs.Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is hosting a party, while unconnectdly, a soldier fresh out of World War 1 is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The threads intersect as characters wander through the streets of London often coming across one another. The general rule of fiction writing is to take an ordinary character and put them in an extra-ordinary situation. Mrs.Dalloway is an extra-ordinary woman in ordinary circumstances, and this is not the first rule of writing that Virginia Woolf breaks. Mrs.Dalloway is humble though, imagining that "her only gift was knowing people almost by instinct". On the said day, she looks back at her life and reflects on what she has become. Her husband is normal in most senses of the word, but "with twice his wits, she had to see things through his eyes - one of the tragedies of married life". Her reminiscences take her back to the days of her youth, and her friends Sally and Peter, making her wonder how her life would have turned out if she had married Peter.

There are two parallel philosophies in Mrs.Dalloway both of which are existential in nature and recognize the futility of human life. "One cannot bring children into a world like this. One cannot perpetuate suffering, or increase the breed of these lustful animals, who have no lasting emotions but only whims and vanities, eddying them now this way, now that", says one strand, while the other strand counters this with "As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship, as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeons with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possible can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan't have it all their own way".

The striking thing about Mrs. Dalloway is the narrative technique. The famed climatic scene from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was my first exposure to the power of a stream-of-conscious narration. Mrs.Dalloway uses this technique throughout. The genius of Virginia Woolf lies in how one scene segues to the next, seamlessly transporting us from the mind from one narrator to the mind of another. Her descriptions are heavy, and her sentences are long, often extending to complete paragraphs. For example, consider these lines which describe the humble experience of a guy falling asleep in a public park : "A great brush swept smooth across his mind, sweeping across it moving branches, children's voices, the shuffle of feet, and people passing, and humming traffic, raising and falling traffic. Down, down he sank into the plumes and feathers of sleep, sank, and was muffled over". There is also a hint of rationality, feminism and a critique on how society views mental illness, all of which were much ahead of the time when the book was published (1925).

The narration of Mrs.Dalloway is an immense feat in itself, and to be honest, I felt it very hard to keep up at times. I struggled for the first few pages to dig into the story, and kept struggling each time I went back to the book after a break. But once I succeeded in digging into the narration, I couldn't come out of it. Mrs.Dalloway is a beautiful book. I regret that I didn't read it as carefully as I should have, but I will forever remember the wonderful experience of reading it. And I would probably revisit this book multiple times over the years to get more of the nuances.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Manu Joseph's Serious Men

Serious MenSerious Men by Manu Joseph
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical"
"Of all deformities, genius is the most useful"

If there is any doubt about the tone Manu Joseph's debut novel Serious Men would take, the book's opening lines -- "Ayyan Mani's thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours" -- clear it up for us. Manu Joseph's wit and cynicism are in full display in Serious Men, which is set in Mumbai ("the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor"). Hidden beneath the clever one-liners is an intertwined tale of two vastly different men in dissimilar circumstances trying to break free from the stereotypes on them.

Ayyan Mani is a son of a sweeper, a Dalit - among the lowest of castes in Indian caste hierarchy. He is extremely well versed in the ways of the World, deeply cynical, and is capable of getting things done. His anger is Manu Joseph's anger, his perversions are our perversions. However he is not where he wants to be in his life, and he has a strong sense that this is due to his caste. "If you only had the fathers that these men had, you would have had a room of your own today with your own secretary", a character tells him, and one can only agree. Ayyan Mani lives with his wife Oja and 11-year old son Adi in a densely populated tenement for the poor. "In a way, this was the easiest place to be a man. To be alive was enough. To be sober and employed was fantastically impressive. Ayyan Mani was something of a legend". Ayyan Mani has one opportunity to use his cruel sense of humour and get back at the World. The risks are immense, especially to his partially deaf son Adi. But Ayyan senses that he may not be able to stop himself before it is too late.

Arvind Acharya is the director of Indian Institute of Theory and Research. He is a Tamil Brahmin, and has a "newsworthy rage and tragic brilliance". Tall, good looking, arrogant, incisive, but past his prime. His reputation is spotless, and his words carry respect through-out the scientific community everywhere. Acharya is not a man bothered with the practicalities of the World, and he is in pursuit of higher truths (whereas Ayyan believes that there is "no such thing as truth." There is "only pursuit of truth and it was a pursuit that would always go on. It was a form of employment"). He loves his wife Lavanya in the per-functionary way a couple whose marriage has been arranged love each other. He laments that scientists are more focused at research in "time reversal, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, invisibility, intelligent civilisations", or what he terms as "Exciting rubbish". He has his own eccentric theories on life. However he faces an institutional opposition, and a threat to his own sense of morality.

Having read Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People earlier (review here), I felt that there are some commonalities in his work. A bit of science in the plot, and a memory that cannot be explained away by Science; a random set of facts that are memorized and repeated; a disregard for male friendships ("That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men" in Serious Men and "that any two men in the world have real affection between them is itself a myth, chiefly of the two men" in the Illicit Happiness of Other People) and much more. Needless to say, I enjoyed both his works thoroughly. Serious Men is largely funny, and is littered with unexpectedly poignant moments. Manu Joseph is the ultimate troll, and he is endurable because his wrath is not directed towards a single idealogy or group of people. Dalits, Brahmins, Christians, Tamils ("Most Tamilians so tiny and genetically predisposed to believing something is wrong with others"), the rich ("Rich people have a name for everything. They even have word for the time a man spends with his family.. they call it 'Quality Time'"), the poor, the random motorist ("After riding like a moron all over the place, observe the face of an Indian when he crashes. He is stunned."), the educated and the irresponsible - no one is safe from Manu Joseph's vitriol. In my review of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, I had compared him with Oscar Wilde and written that "he throws up aphorisms which sound attractive but are not necessarily true". The same pattern is evident in Serious Men too, which is littered with witty one-liners such as "The fate of every love story, he knew very well, is in the rot of togetherness, or in the misery of separation" which are not falsifiable.

The only discernible downside is that the conclusion of Serious Men seems a bit forced, with some filmy moments. This is exactly what I felt about the conclusion of "The Illicit Happiness.. " too. But once again, I see that there are not many logical ways the plot could have ended. The supporting characters are all caricatures, and this contributes immensely to the humour. I enjoyed the simple-mindedness of Oja, who keeps throwing folk sayings such as "the end of an ox is beef, the end of a lie is grief". Serious Men is a worthy read, especially for privileged Indians (such as me) who wish to know how easy things have been for them.

I remain a fan of Manu Joseph, both his fictional works and his weekly columns.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review of Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise

This Side of ParadiseThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being"
I picked Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise from my local public library for two reasons : I wanted to read a classic; and having moved to an area not far away from Princeton, I was attracted by the blurb that indicated that a major part of the story takes place in Princeton. It occurred to me a bit later that the place would have changed immensely in the last century and that I might not be able to relate to the geography after all. With Scott Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical debut novel set in early 20th century, not only was I not able to relate to the place, I was not able to relate to the characters too for the most part of the book.

This Side of Paradise is the coming-of-age story of Amory Blaine. Amory's father is dismissed off quickly as "an ineffectual, inarticulate man". We learn that Amory takes after his mother ("But Beatrice Blaine! There was a woman!"). Beatrice comes from an European family of wealth, and ensures that for a good part of Amory's life, he does not have to worry about petty things such as money. She treats her son in a way we could only envy, with advice such as "dear, don't think of getting out of bed yet. I've always suspected that early rising in early life makes one nervous". Amory's initial education consists of private tutoring, until he decides to attend prep school at America. These were different times, and Amory attends a boarding school with the grand motto "To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training  as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences". His teachers think of him as "idle, unreliable and superficially clever", but he does not get the message. Amory completes school thinking highly of himself, and with disenchantment from his first love.

At Princeton University, Amory is in single minded pursuit of his ambition to maintain a high status, as are most of his fellow students. He discovers literature with his friends, and attempts a lot of not-so-ambitious poetry. He is terribly self-concerned (as Fitzgerald points out, he is just a "romantic egotist"). If you are a fan of such things, there are some beautiful lines here that describe the passage of various seasons, and there are many references to other literary works of the time. I am not, so I had through hurry through this phase with as much disinterest as Amory had on his studies. There are some exhilarating sequences, such as the one where a set of students elope for an unplanned vacation and eat a lot of expensive food without paying much. Amory, in the mean time, falls in love, and falls out of it once again. He also comes across Monsignor Darcy, an old friend of Beatrice and a mentor figure to Amory. Darcy is "intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be celibate, and rather liked his neighbor". Monsignor Darcy gives some important advice to Amory, such as "we're not personalities, but personages". However Amory does not seem to be taking much note.

World War 1 intervenes, but we do read much about it. Amory's outlook towards the war is described as "the attitude he might have held toward an amusing melodrama, he hoped it would be long and bloody. If it had not continued he would have felt like an irate ticket holder at a prizefight where the principals refused to mix up". The whole World War passes away as an interlude of a few pages. Amory is a changed man after the war, or so we think. But he falls in love once again with a girl artfully described as "her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others". It takes a few more episodes, and a few more flings with various women before Amory realizes that he has run out of the considerable sum of money he had inherited. Amory turns a new leaf, and even starts to develop an affection to communism ("However the brain and abilities of men may differ, their stomachs are essentially the same"). 

This Side of Paradise has an unpredictable narrative, taking the form of prose, poetry, and even drama. This in itself is extremely innovative. The writing is brilliant at times, and let's just say that I couldn't recognize the brilliance at other times. What kept me going was the fact that Scott Fitzgerald does not pretend that his protagonist is a hero. The writing is self-aware, and is self-critical of Amory's narrow-mindedness. This was after all a generation at the beginning of a new century, a generation that was caught in a war unlike anything else preceding it. The importance of this book, is thus, more contextual than objective. This Side of Paradise makes more sense for students of literature than to the lay reader.

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...