Monday, March 28, 2011

Rabbit Tetralogy - John Updike - A Life In Words

Last week I was reading an article by John Updike and was struck (as usual) by the simplicity and lucidness of his prose. That got me thinking about his works that I have read and the result is this post on the Rabbit series of novels. The Rabbit tetralogy is a series of 4 novels written by John Updike, tracing the life of 'Harry Rabbit Angstrom',  from his mid 20's to the next 4 decades. The novels were also written over a period of 4 decades with one novel being published in one decade starting from 1960. Updike has been one of the foremost exponents in describing the small town American middle class and his concerns are those of the average middle class American, his marital life, affairs, moving into middle age and coping with it, the final descent into old age. Though there would be disagreements on what his best work was, the Rabbit series consist of, by far his most famous books. Rather than referring one book, it would be better to give information on the whole series so that it offers a clearer view to a prospective reader. So it's going to be a big post.

Rabbit Run  (1960) - This is the first novel in the series. As the novel starts, we encounter Harry (Rabbit), who is in his mid twenties, married  with a pregnant wife (Janice). He already has a son Nelson. He has been a high school basket ball star, but that is all in the past and his 15 minutes of fame has been used up. Now he is a normal, one among many person trying to make ends meet. He sees a some kids playing basket ball and something snaps in him. He leaves his family and town and start driving aimlessly. He changes his mind and meets his old coach. While with him, he meets 'Ruth' a hooker and starts living with her. Janice meanwhile goes to her parents place.  A church minister tries to reconcile Harry to live with his family, but has no success. Later Harry returns home, after his wife gives birth to a girl child. He pressurizes Janice to have sex with her, but she refuses. Harry leaves again to see Ruth. Meanwhile Janice gets drunk due to the fight and their new born daughter drowns. Rabbit returns for the funeral and again loses control and runs into the woods. Returns (again) to Ruth, learns that she is pregnant by him. But he does not take the step to leave Janice, nor is he willing to live with Ruth. Rabbit runs again for the last time (in this novel) and the novel ends here. 
As can be seen from the above lines, Rabbit is always on the run from thing or the other. He seems to be basically a loser, a wimp one who cannot face situations and runs aways from it not thinking about the consequences. So what makes this character and the whole series compelling to continue with the other novels. For once the prose, the exquisite prose of Updike. Updike is referred to as America's man of letters and deservedly so. His preoccupation is with the mundane and everyday life is so rich in its prose and imagery that you cannot help be sucked into it. (He can be too flowery at times). And as the series proceeds, the reader can see the characters evolving so that what you finally see are 3 dimensional characters who have their own smooth and rough edges. The first few pages of this novel where Updike describes a small American town is incredible, there is no description of the people, just the landscapes, buildings, the woods are so evocative that you feel a connect with the story immediately.

Rabbit Redux (1971)- This is the second novel in the series. Harry is his 30's now, approaching middle age and stuck in staid matrimony and job. Janice who was pretty much a minor character in the first part is much evolved here. She is now working in her father's office. She has an affair with her co-worker and leaves him. Rabbit, true to form indulges in his own way of coping with it, but shacking with a afro-american veteran of the Vietnam war (Skeeter) and Jill a runaway white girl. They stay together, with Nelson who is now a young boy. Harry does not seem to care for the impact his lifestyle could have on Nelson (comes in the next novels). They live a decadent sort of life style, debating about race (60's were the period of Martin Luther King, race riots in America), doing drugs without a care. During one such orgy a fire breaks out killing Jill. There is no news of Skeeter. Finally at the end, Harry starts to live with Janice again. The novel ends here. 
One could ask again what is so good about this part of the novel too. Adultery, a decadent life style, so what's there for the reader. Rabbit too does not seem to be a much better person, so why continue with the series. Well, for one, well defined morally right characters is not a pre-requisite for good literature (where would Madame Bovary be if this rule is applied). The other thing is, the detailing that Updike invests in these characters, in their actions which show another light to them. Lets consider what happens when Rabbit comes to know of his wife's affair. There has been some rumors, but he has not thought much of it. When Janice accepts it, what happens? No angry arguments, tears or blame game. He slaps her and they have sex. Nothing erotic in it, just 2 persons probably for whom the tension they have been under the past weeks or months is now over, since the truth is out and sex is just an outlet for the emotions coming out due to it. It is moments like these that elevate the novel. 
The first 2 parts in the series are probably the best in my personal opinion. But the next 2 were the ones that were awarded the Pulitzer prize. Well, there is no accounting for taste right :). BTW, I think Updike is the only person to have got 2 Pulitzers for fiction. (Not 100% sure)

Rabbit is Rich (1981) - Rabbit is rich, well not quite so. Janice has inherited her father's Automobile dealer ship and is now a more mature and confident person. She has also got into drinking habit which worries Harry. Nelson is now grown up and is having his own problems. (It is implied these could be due to what he saw and experienced as a kid, as mentioned in the first a parts). Harry is becoming conscious of middle age and of losing his libido. Rabbit and Janice go to a resort with 3 other couples and indulge in wife swapping. Here too, Updike does not do anything for titillation, but mirrors the sexual freedom that came into being in the 60's and 70's overriding the moral pores of the previous decades. It also serves as attempts by Rabbit to reassert his libido and his desirability to women. We see a man who has come to a position where is well to do (thought it is his wife who owns the dealership), but still not satisfied with what he has, worrying about falling into the morass of middle age. He starts thinking about Ruth (from the first part) and wonders about what happened to her and the kid. Nothing actually gets resolved in this part and personally seems to be the set up for the final part. Updike's prose though is as good as ever and incisive in decoding the mind of the various characters. Rabbit's relation with Ronnie, a former school basket ball classmate comes into focus here. Ronnie is a minor character in the first part, but here he has also done well in life and is part of the circle the Harry moves in. Harry has always been the star the basket team and Ronnie resents him for that and that is understandable. But Harry too seems to have a grouse against him, no more than a grouse, it could be a sneaky feeling that maybe Ronnie was the better player. Harry has an affair with Ronnie's wife, though it is not something he actually wants. (He desires a much younger wife of a person, who is also his club member and is unhappy when he does not get her during the wife swapping).

Rabbit At Rest - 1990
Harry is old, overweight and perennially gloomy. Nelson has married Pru, but has got into drug addiction and substance abuse. Rabbit spends a lot of time with his wife at Florida, with Nelson running the business. But Nelson goofs up due to his addictions and the dealership is lost. This affects Harry more. He has a heart attack. While at hospital,  Rabbit meets a woman who he thinks could be his daughter from Ruth. He travels to the place where the woman lives thinking of meeting her and Ruth, but true to his character, leaves the place without facing up to the facts. He never knows if she was indeed her daughter. This is probably the best part of the novel comes, Harry's thoughts on the woman, his indecision on whether to go to her home, and finally running away from the confrontation. Another poignant moment is the funeral of Ronnie's wife, where Ronnie confronts Harry about having an affair with his wife. At the end, both of them form some sort of reconciliation, not out of affection or respect, but maybe due to the fact that death is a great leveler and beyond that there is no worth in recriminations or ages hold misunderstandings. It is a symbol of the old age they are into where most things that seemed important earlier seem trivial now.  But then Harry goofs up again. In an act of insanity, he has a one night stand with Nelson's wife Pru. Janice and Nelson come to know about it. Harry runs again (for the last time) to Florida. There, in a cyclical turn of events he plays a one-on-one basket ball game with a young man and suffers a heart attack. He is admitted to the hospital where Janice and Nelson see him. The cycle has come full. 

It has always been interesting to me that Updike wrote this novel over 4 decades, so that, while the characters aged, the author too aged. Now, how would the novel have been if it had been say, written as a single volume covering the same period of 40 years. For one, it would need to have been set in the 20s and end in 50s. Updike could not have surely incorporated in each part the essence of the decade that it represents first hand (race relations in the 60's, more sexual freedom in the 70's). Would it have been better it had been written as a single volume or does the changes and evolution in perspective that the author (or anyone for that matter) undergoes enhances what he writes. But whatever the case, this is one heck of a series and best read together. Reading one at a time, would not do justice to its content. However, if you are new to Updike and wary of getting into 4 books of an author upfront, you could start of with this short stories to get an idea of his works, themes and concerns. If you have already some of his works and like them, this series is for you. 
P.S - The novels are available as a single omnibus collection (at least the first 3 are), so buying them like that makes sense both monetarily as well as lessens the hassle of having 4 different books, so if you plan to buy this series go for the omnibus edition.

The Da Vinci Code Effect - Attack of the clones (or) How to write a conspiracy theory novel

It's been nearly 7 years since the 'Da Vinci Code' came out and became a huge sensation. During this period, readers have been inundated and submerged in the so called read-alike novels, all of which purport to unearth an earth shattering conspiracy and are hailed as the next big thing in genre fiction. The main reason for the 'Da Vinci Code' for being so successful was that it touched upon what would the greatest scandal in the world (i.e) Jesus having kids and his lineage living through to the current day. Other than that if one reads about the inaccuracies in the novel and the almost embarrassing way in which Brown tries to push down junk information down our throats, you could puke. (Priory of Sion is a total fictional organization presented as a true one). Don't get me wrong, I liked the novel to some extent at-least three fourths of it, it gave me some info to work on and search for, it sort of even resurrected a nearly dead and out genre of conspiracy theory novels, but to hail it as a greatest conspiracy thriller and trying to ape it? One hopes that the reception to Brown's 'The Lost Symbol' would give the publishers some thought to think about printing out novels in this genre like some assembly line production.  (Seriously, all the work in his latest novel is to find a buried Bible? Was Brown trying to be like Umberto Eco here, trying to subvert the genre itself, I doubt so?). I understand that everyone has to make a living and is well entitled to make some quick bucks on the current trend, and some of these novels are passable, but 7 years is a bit too much isn't it and also consider the junk that has been inflicted upon us during this time. Crazy, the template of such novels can be written down into a couple of pages and can be a starting point for a new novel. What are they?

1. All these novels start with the promise of making an earth shattering revelation of some secret that has been buried for thousands of years, which if revealed will change the course of mankind. Come on, the count of such revelations must be innumerable to count now. But what the heck, nothing actually gets revealed in the end or if so it is some bland point, which most of the world would not care even if it is made public. One actually wishes that some such revelation actually exists that can wipe out such books.
2. There is usually a cult, wait, not just a cult, but a deadly secret cult in existence for thousands of years, who will do anything to stop the revelation. They usually start off with a bang, committing a murder (or two) in the prologue, or in the first few pages, but then actually most of them turn out to be as stupid and dim witted as morons, rogues. And about the secret cult, nothing much is mentioned about the cult itself other than the initial build up. If you can digest a group of dimwits with homicidal tendencies gathering to indulge their base instincts then yes they are a deadly cult.
3. Put in Templars, Cathars, the Vatican, Mary Magdalene. Freemasons (they are a must) and concoct a potion and voila, you get a conspiracy. I am all for religious freedom and accept that no one is immune to criticism, but seriously can we have some new groups/icons against whom to train our conspiracy theories. The last 2-3 years have seen some disparate kind of 
persons/groups/myths, Mozart, Atlantis, even the creator of superman being thrown into the mix to create a new potion, but still most of them stink. The templars must be turning in their graves and the freemasons in their beds. At-least, the authors are now thinking beyond the church and that's some relief.  
4. Now the hero. He is usually a professor, retired agent etc, with enormous knowledge of the ancient world which is known only to a very few. He can also read ancient languages, or so it is said. By a happy coincidence he is also good in action (i.e) dodging bullets, driving cars at break neck speed etc. The only thing is that the so called knowledge he purports to have is either something that just about anyone and his aunt using google would know or is something that is plain false. Just read articles by true professors of history who castigate the information in these novels and you would get to know the true knowledge of these heroes.  These are not religious refutations, but refutations of the historical/scientific inaccuracies. I agree that these novels in a way serve the purpose of people getting interested in history and one should not expected very in depth information, but outright false information, please, there are people who actually believe in what is written in these novels and this can be dangerous.
5. The Heroine - She is usually the daughter/grand daughter of some poor soul, who is knocked off in prologue/first chapter and leaves to meet his maker. She is a stunner, well educated, erudite and extremely wealthy too sometimes, (which is anyway a handy thing and beauty with brains is the watch word here, the stuff of all juvenile male fantasy). She joins with the hero in finding out the so called revelation.Usually she herself is in the heart of the conspiracy, though she herself does not know it. It would be even better if she is a descendant and last heir of some long last lineage.

Mix all the above elements and concoct it and you get a conspiracy theory novel. So, if you come across a new novel with the elements described above, don't blow up your hard earned money immediately on it. Wait till it comes in paperback, read up some reviews, or cunningly get your friend to buy it and read it after lending it from him. After all, what good is reading these conspiracy theory novels, if you yourself don't get some hang of it and indulge in a conspiracy of your own.

Does this mean that all such novels are junk. Not really, there are really good/fair works in this genre written before and after the Da Vinci code. These are not typically conspiracy theory works, but those which involve the medieval age, long lost texts etc. 
Foucault Pendulum (It is actually blasphemy to put this here and a great insult to Eco, but anyway this is one hell of a riveting read, but beware there's a twist in the tale in the tail and classic conspiracy theory buffs may be put off by it). Written before DVC.
'The  Secret Supper' - Javier Sierra. An erudite work. Written before DVC.
'The Rule Of Four' - Decent work
The Dante Club - Good one
The Illuminati - Good one. Written before DVC.

These names come to my mind off hand. There would/could be lots of other better works. There is even 'The Rozbal Line' with an Indian connection. Actually, there is a mine of information with our own Indian legends and myths that would result in many such novels. So what if nothing catches your fancy, use the points mentioned above and write your own novel, who knows yours could be the next DVC.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Something Happened - Joseph Heller - It's Still Happening

Generally when an author makes his debut with a great book, two things happen, the subsequent books of the author are not as good as the first one or even if writes a better book somehow it is always in the shadow of the first one. The second happened to Joseph Heller, with his second novel 'Something Happened',  which to me personally is as good as Catch-22 if slightly better than it.  But which somehow does not seem to have got the same importance of 'Catch-22' or captured people's imagination as the first novel. Told in first person narrative, it is about Slocum a manager level employee at a firm. The book could be split into 3 strands, one about his work life, the other about his family and third about his reminiscences of the past. The novels follows the similar narrative pattern of hysterical realism as in Catch-22, but in a more controlled manner. The novel could in some ways be seen as some of sort mix of the office novel genre and dysfunctional family novel genre and maybe just maybe a coming of age novel with the past of Slocum (though one is not sure if Slocum ever grew up)

As the novel starts Slocum is about to get a promotion, he has a fairly stable family, 2 kids, but he is insecure. Insecure about what? Well, everything in life and that about sum's up Slocum and the novel. Insecure about his professional performance, his marital life, worried about his kids going astray, Slocum seems to be a bundle of nerves and insecurity. How does he face it? Well, for one, he covers his insecurity in the way most other people, being overtly aggressive or overtly sarcastic or trying to be too funny which again ends up like he is insulting others. For instance his dealing with his kids. He fears for them so much, fears that his girl would end up with bad friends, his son may be left alone if he suddenly dies, but is not able to express it clearly and ends up being sarcastic to them, teasing them and generally coming across as a heartless father. The novel in some ways is so well written in the sense that it captures the mindset of a insecure soul pitch perfect. In fact it is so perfect that it could the major problem in the novel, one reason why it is not discussed more. What I am referring here is the prose of the novel, the repetitiveness in the prose with the same thoughts being discussed again and again, it could actually put off the reader as being too incoherent, but wouldn't a mind as troubled and in stress as Slocum be like this? Would he not obsessively keep thinking about the same things. Yes, this novel is not an easy read, but when you think of Slocum's mindset and try to relate it to the prose, then I feel that the reader may appreciate and understand it better. 

In the office, Slocum spends most of the time worrying about getting fired, though as he himself says, he works well, meets his targets, gets his bonuses regularly and is generally seen as a solid employee. But why this fear of getting fired, why this insecurity, what happened to him? You never get to know that. The office parts of the novel are the ones that are hilarious, professional jealousies, backbiting, people trying to climb the corporate ladder, while pulling the others down. Other the other hand we also see people at very high level positions who spend their time doing nothing worthwhile, while driving those below them like slaves, hoping that the work will be get done by their sub-ordinates. Official conferences, which is just an opportunity for the big shots to get wasted are described in laugh out loud manner. We get an understanding of how a huge monolithic organization manages to work, how some how things get done, though when you look at the actions of the employees it's almost as if they don't care about anything. The organization could be seen as a machine whose path has been chartered a long time ago and which humming alone nicely, irrespective to the individual merits/demerits of the employees.

In Slocum's past we see a young man (boy really), just out from the war, working in a small position at an office, trying to reconcile the madness of the war that he saw with the (so called) normal social life. His major concern is to have an affair with a co-worker, which does not come to fruit, in spite of his trying. You cannot read into it, as a youngsters normal impulse alone. There seems to be something deeper in the office and the workers that has remained with Slocum. Maybe that's why he keeps calling up the old office's number and makes crank inquiries about the old employees.

This is a tough novel in some parts, but well worth it. Along with Catch-22 (, this is the masterpiece of Heller. If Catch-22 was about a person trying to make sense of the madness of war, this novel is about a person trying to make sense of the madness of normal life. Slocum is not a likable, person by any means, but his  but that's what makes him so close to us. In that sense Slocum seems to be a more fresh and blood kind of man to whom most of us can relate to than Yossarian  of Catch 22. (Of course, that's not Heller's mistake, how many of us have any first hand experience of the horrors of war, but most of us would have had some of the experiences of Slocum). 

The novel has it's resonance even today, in the sense how many of us don't suffer from some sort of boredom, ennui even if it is in minor level in the work we do, in our day to day humdrum existence. Don't many of us yearn for some break from it, but are caged to our daily existence due to various factors like family, money, comfort or sheer plain  indolence in breaking from our chains. Do we not, at many times, suppress our professional fears and get on with the job as if nothing is wrong. Are we not scared about the permanence of our jobs at some point or other, particularly in these times of faster cycles of recession?  Looking at the novel and current life, nothing actually seems to have changed for the so called 'Modern Man' the last 30-40 years, since the novel was first published.  The question of what happened in Slocum's life that made him the man he is right now, could also be asked of anyone of us, but as in the novel, I am not sure if we could answer that clearly. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Burden Of The Mind

Last week I read a short story online about a person who is losing his mind and it was troubling. That led me to think about works that deal with a faltering mind. Writers take their own experiences and also what they see and observe and create their works, even if it may be fiction. It may be their hurt, anger, some one else's misfortune, be what it may, it also pre-supposes that their mind is in someway taking it all in with a certain lucidity, so that they can bring it out later. But what if the mind itself is not in control, or what if a person whom a writer sees is losing his mind, how does the writer  try to explain what is going on or what happened in such a case? There have been several works in this regard (கோபிகிருஷ்ணன் ஆக்கங்கள், கன்னி நாவல் நினைவுக்கு வருகின்ற உடனடியாக ). From what I have read, these works start at the point where the mind has already collapsed and is at an extreme boiling point and try to illustrate as much as possible what is happening in that distorted mind. But can one tell with almost frightening lucidity (at least it felt to me that way), what happened to himself/herself when she had a mental break down? That's what Sylvia Plath's Bell jar does.

Part fiction, part auto biographical this novel narrates a young girl 'Esther Greenwood's descent into mental illness. This is Plath's only novel. Esther has just come to New York from a suburb and is working in a magazine. As the novel start she seems to be a pretty normal girl, confident and secure. Her family too seems to be a stable one with the normal preoccupation with academics, but nothing unusual about it. But what Plath narrates next in a no-nonsense way, how Esther slips into some sort of depression and tries to fight it is chilling. Right from the party, where Esther starts getting the first symptoms to her leaving the job, her attempts at suicide, getting admitted to a hospital are told in a very dispassionate tone as if describing normal every day activities. The crystal clear manner in which they are told is even more disturbing when you think about the fact that Plath too suffered from some sort of depression and some events in the novel has a parallel with her own life. As a reader, you first encounter a very normal, happy, spirited young girl, the kind of person whom we probably encounter throughout our life.You see a young person, starting out on her career, her entire life ahead of her, with all its joys and sorrows and then you slowly see her breakdown, and because it is so close to life in the sense it could happen to someone you know, maybe even ourself, you find yourself being affected and even scared by it. You know something very bad is happening but are powerless to stop it. Like seeing cancer spread everywhere. This is a very disturbing read and I personally have not been able to read it after the first time, even now I am writing from memory, could not even flip through the pages just to refresh my memory, left the book on the desk after taking it.  It is beyond my limited vocabulary to explain what I actually felt and beyond my mental fortitude to even explain what happens in the novel as it is as some sort of synopsis. The book is like holding hot coals and that's why I have not mentioned much about what actually happens in the novel except in a few sentences above and I see this is more of a rambling from me instead of some sort of coherent post, but this is the only way I can try to tell about this novel. You actually do not know how much of what is mentioned in the novel actually happened to Plath, but what's terrifying is that it can happen, will happen, has happened, is happening to others even if not to Plath. 

The novel ends on a possibly optimistic note as Esther goes in for her interview with the doctor which would decide if she can leave the hospital. One would think that the novel would have acted as a sort of catharsis for Plath. But as we know, life nearly never follows the script that we would like to see. So, in this case, Plath committed suicide about a month after the novel was published. Ironic isn't it. Maybe it just shows again the inadequacy of words to express what actually we feel, what we felt, maybe the burden of the mind was too much was Plath to bear (David Foster Wallace comes to mind again). But whatever happened, I got an incredible amount of respect for Plath, for confronting what to me personally, is a person's most difficult opponent, one's own mind, the traitor within, the mind which can lead us to great heights, but if it rebels against us, it is mostly a losing cause for the person to fight it. Some books are so good, but very disturbing in some way, that you feel unsure about referring them.  Similarly I don't know if I could refer this work to somebody off hand, but if you feel you can put up with what I have mentioned in the post, go ahead but be warned. I know nothing about poetry and have read zilch, but if I ever get an inclination towards it, Sylvia Plath's works would be the first ones I read.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The General In His Labyrinth - Marquez Masterpiece

'The General In His Labyrinth' is Marquez's fictional reconstruction of Simon Bolivar's, the liberator of South America from the Spanish, last days. Being an Indian I am not 100% sure of the historical accuracy in the novel,  but people expecting a hardcore historical novel may be disappointed as Marquez weaves his own brand of magic interspersing events and actions that you would not expect in a novel of this genre while maintaining the relevance of the genre also. After all, this is a person who created an entirely fictional village 'Macondo' and in someways made it the center of the physical Latin American world. So, being an outsider I will just give short introduction to this novel, hoping to persuade those who read this post to go out and grab the novel too :)
Simon Bolivar was a one page/paragraph note to me in my ninth standard history class. Just knew him as the liberator of the entire Latin American continent. So generally, in such cases we unconsciously form a mental image of such persons. But all those is shattered here. As the novel begins, Bolivar is person who is seeing his dream of a united Latin America crumbling before his own eyes, his own authority diminished greatly and even hated by many of the countries/people he helped in their liberation. He is also a person who is holding on his last illusion that he may somehow again be accepted by the people and powers that be. But that is not the case and Bolivar finally decides to leave for Europe. The novel then charts his last days through the journey that he undertakes.
The Bolivar we come to know through the journey and flashbacks is not a squeaky white person, but a person with his own failings and faults. He  is obstinate, a bad loser even in card games, someone who uses cologne so much that opponents even accuse him wasting money on it, maybe even a person who aspired to be the complete dictator for the entire South America and we even think that maybe the people were justified in turning against him. But he is also a leader who is so careless with money and has lost his entire inherited fortune and whatever he has earned. In fact he cannot even afford a horse to travel and rides a mule and one who cannot afford a first class travel in a barge and has to travel third class, this a person who liberated an entire continent. He is now reduced to talking about a mine which he says is his and is expecting money from it. Other than him, no one even knows if it exists or not. As the travel progresses, we get to see a nearly completely broken man, who rants and raves against his enemies but somehow seems to have lost the drive that led him to be such a great general in the first place. He is almost like a petulant child who refuses to accept things even if it is right in front of him, hoping against hope that goods things would happen. He sees the complete destruction of what he built and is powerless to stop it. Persons he exiled are returning to the continent even as he is preparing to leave it. People in a town throw dirt at him and humiliate him. They write slogans on the wall humiliating him. The death of a close associate who is assassinated seems to come as the final blow to him and he fully gives up all will to live. The novel ends with the general having a moment of epiphany which is one of the most evocative passages I have ever read (will give that below).
I felt some parallels between the General and  Colonel Aureliano Buendía (Hundred years of Solitude) . Both of them start off with noble intentions, get sucked into doing things that themselves fought against in the first place, are nearly forgotten by the same people they helped and are forever doomed to a life in solitude and labyrinth in the midst of all the people surrounding them.
The following passage right at the end of then novel itself should be enough for someone to read it. This is my most favorite of all Marquez books, much much more than his more acclaimed works.
//He examined the room with the clairvoyance of his last days and for the first time he saw the truth: the final borrowed bed, the pitiful dressing table whose clouded, patient mirror would not reflect his image again, the chipped porcelain washbasin with the water and towel and soap meant for other hands, the heartless speed of the octogonal clock racing toward the ineluctable appointment at seven minutes past one on his final afternoon of December 17. Then he crossed his arms across his chest and began
to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o' clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows,the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mouring, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity be repeated again.//

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Remains Of The Day - End Of Illusions

First up, I like the title of this novel much much more than the novel itself and it was the main reason that I bought  this book in the first place. As titles go, personally for me, this is one of the best titles ever. Whenever I think of the title, I get the image of an empty landscape or just by the river at dusk all alone, watching the sun set with complete silence all around. It gives me a curious mixture of feeling happy and a bit sad at the same time. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro and set in post world war 2 England, the novel concerns 'Stevens' a butler who has to come to turns with the old world that he has known for a long time coming to an end and also face some home truths about his professional and personal life, something he had consciously or sub consciously avoided so far.
As the novel begins, Stevens is all set to go on a small holiday to meet his old colleague Kenton who has written to him saying she wants to meet him. Stevens has been a butler for Lord Darlington his entire life. Darlington is now no more. His estate has been purchased by an American 'Farraday' and there is some bit of implied disconnect between Stevens and his new owner Farraday, though most of it seems to be in Stevens mind only. Basically it is a disconnect between the American and British cultures. As Stevens begins his trip, events from the past intersperse with the current events as he makes his journey. 
As the novel progresses, we get some insights into Stevens and how he functions. He is not your comical butler like Jeeves or the the type of butler in Agatha Christie novels who commits the crime. Rather, he is a person who has a very fixed set of ideas about the social hierarchy and adheres to hit fully (i.e) obedience and reverence to people above him in the hierarchy and expecting the same from people below him. For him the hierarchy is sacrosanct and cannot be disturbed in any way. In some ways he is a snob too, with a bit too much of own self esteem about his contribution to his employer. Miss Kenton who worked with him earlier, is hinted at having some feelings for him, but Stevens does not ever seem to reciprocate it, but neither does he explicitly put and end to it. He seems to be afraid of crossing the line between professional and personal relationship. In that sense he seems to be a somewhat insecure person too, though he tries to hide it within a rough exterior. This can be inferred from the fact that as the journey begins, Stevens muses as to why Kenton has called him though she is married and wonders if her marriage could be in trouble, there is almost a hint of expectation in Stevens here.
He meets Kenton and actually finds that what he had thought was true (i.e) there has been some problems in Kenton's marital life. But Stevens advises her to stay put with her husband and not disturb their life. Why does he say so? His inherent goodness or the notion bred into him that he has to do what is right irrespective of whether it is good for him or not? Kenton leaves after their meeting and Stevens muses about his relationship with Kenton and his true feelings for her. Does he really love her, after all these years. This is the first crack as it were in his solid interior.
This leads to him thinking about his previous employer Darlington. Stevens has always thought of him as being above any wrong doing. But as his carefully built mental defenses slip away, he remembers things about his employer that he had some how consciously or sub consciously kept out of his mind till now. Darlington had been accused of being friendly with the Nazis before the war and was subjected to trial by Media after that. That left him a broken man and he died. Stevens had always thought that it was unfair for Darlington to be labelled a Nazi, but now he recollects some incidents which indicate that it may have actually been the truth. Stevens even now thinks that his master may have been misguided but this is the final crack in his Armour. 
The novel's title comes into play at this point. Stevens now looks back on this entire life and his work as butler for Darlington and muses about what he has achieved by living a lifetime of complete servility to his employer, putting his professional life above everything, overlooking what his employer was doing and living in an illusory world of his own. He does not suddenly come to hate his old employer, but has started to view everything with a different light.  His own sense of importance too seems silly now. What remains now after all that has happened? His own life seems to be one of missed opportunities and living in a make believe world. This moment of epiphany is something that can, would occur to each one of us when we think back on our lives. As Marquez says 'Life is not what one lived, but what One remembers and how One remembers it in order to recount it". We generally try to remember only what we want and even if we do remember something that we do not want to, our mental perspective at that point (loyalty to someone, social constraints) may actually make us see the event in a different way. As time shifts and our perspective changes, our memory too changes in the sense that we look at things from a completely different point now, things that we thought were horrible and impossible to handle may actually seem funny with the distance of time, and things we thought important may actually seem silly now. All said and one, when anyone looks back at his life, most probably the opportunities missed and the wrongs done may always outweigh the positives. Life is but a steady stream of mistakes to be committed, which we come to know only in hindsight. The novel's title could also point to the remains of the old English world that was present before the war and which is now slowly coming to an end. In some way it is the end of an social era too.
Stevens recovers and decides to go on ahead, and starts the journey back looking forward to serve his new employer Farraday. There is marked shift in his mindset now, earlier he had thought Farraday was bit frivolous, but now he looks forward to working under him, even thinking of practicing how to whistle. The novel ends here with  Stevens hopefully moving on to a new life. But is that the case? I feel that Stevens has just swapped one form or servility to another form, but hope that I may be wrong here.
This is a beautifully written novel with silken prose. The description of the British landscape, the moors, the rural areas are superb (have not been to these places, so how far they are true is not known to me). Ishiguro captures the nuances of dialogue pitch perfect and the characters are 3 dimensional ones with their own faults and positives.  As is the case with good writing, Ishiguro tells more with his silences than what is said explicitly, leaving the reader to fill up the blanks. 
Note:If someone feels that the concept of butlers, lords etc is outdated now, remember that the novel is set in the mid 50's in the years after World war 2. The novel was made a movie starring Antony Hopkins.