Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Goodbye Columbus - Philip Roth's Tender Side

What do we generally get when we read a Philip Roth novel? Lecherous old men (Mickey Sabbath), men who seem to be misogynistic , men constantly on the threshold of  boiling point ready to burst (Ira Ringold), men are colossus in their own way, magnificent in both success and failure (Swede Levov in American Pastoral is an example of the latter). They are morally ambivalent, selfish, trampling down other people's emotions, strong, stubborn, but never ever craving for sympathy, at least outwardly.  You may like or hate them but you simply cannot ignore them.  'Goodbye Columbus' Roth's first published work (1959) is an antithesis to whatever I have said above. This is Roth at his most tender self, a self we cannot see in most of his later works. The book is a collection of 5 short stories and a novella the title of which is the book's title. (Probably his only set of short stories). The full set of stories have as their common point, young Jewish Americans coming growing up and trying to assimilate into the greater American society, going beyond the ghettos

'Conversion of the Jews' is probably the most famous and celebrated story of the 5. It concerns Ozzie a boy just into his teens who is full of questions about God. His most insistent doubt is about the virgin Mary and the immaculate conception. The Rabbi who teaches Ozzie thinks that he is being impertinent and tries to avoid the question. When Ozzie persists, he slaps him. Ozzie snaps and runs on to the top of the building and threatens to jump. People try to dissuade him. Ozzie threatens that he would jump until all of them get down on their knees and accept that the immaculate conception of Mary is a truth. They do. But Ozzie jumps anyway only to be caught in a net which has been spread out by the firemen. This story could either be seem as a touching one about the innocence of the young or as a melodramatic piece of storytelling trying to thrust an message down our throats. I personally am ambivalent about the story's impact, but this is only on recollection of the story. When you read story however, you are sure to be sucked into it.  The other 4 stories are also good and all concern the jewish people trying to find their way in the American society. Epstein and Defender of the Faith are 2 stories that I particularly enjoyed the most than the other 3. 'Defender of the Faith' is both infuriating and funny at the same time, if such a thing can be possible. The stories could be taken as a self criticism/introspection done by an young author on his community/heritage or Roth could be seen a person hating the identity bestowed on him by his birth. I tend to go for the former.

The novella 'Goodbye Columbus' is the story of Neil Klugman a Jewish graduate belonging to the middle class and staying with his uncle and aunt and his ill fated romance with a wealthy Jewish girl over the period of a summer. They meet during a tennis match and Neil seems to fall in love with her. The remaining story is full of day to day incidents of their meetings, tennis matches, swimming, Neil staying at Brenda' house for a short while, as they work out their relationship. Though both are Jewish, the class divide between them seems to be too big for Neil to cross  Brenda and her parents are fully assimilated in their societal strata though both Neil and Brenda's families had started from the same place. (Brenda's  brother is a basketball player in college, supposed to be a gentile sport).Neil is still unsure about his way forward.  Both families are also not too keen on their union and Brenda's parents make Neil feel even worse with their condescending attitude towards him. Outwardly they are cordial to him and try to make him comfortable, but in doing so keep reminding him of his alienation from them. Neil and Brenda continue their relationship amidst all this, even have sex (remember this is set in the 50's so it would have been a big deal then), but the differences between them results in a gradual straining of the relationship between them and ultimately falls apart. The novella ends with their separation. One thinks that it was not love that bonded them, but casual lust. It was probably just the boredom of a summer and the excitement of crossing certain moral boundaries that got them together and once that was done they both lapsed back into their own worlds which could not be reconciled for any great amount of time. Also they were probably both two very different individuals who just could not coexist closely together. This again could be a result of their different upbringings which makes one think that the class divide is somehow more difficult or at least as difficult  to bridge than any differences in ethnicity or race.

This book shows a tender side of Roth which is not explicitly visible in his later works. In fact, in his later works you even feel that Roth is almost heartless and lacks empathy when dealing with his characters and consequently his characters too behave the same. The negligible female voice in this book also mirrors his latter works where female perspective is almost non-existence and if present, mostly in negative. The reconciliation of the Jewish identity with the American society that is touched upon is a recurrent theme in a lot of his works.  All in all, a solid read and a good introduction to Roth. But beware, if expect the same Roth here in his other works you would be disappointed, but those who have read his other works but not this, would be pleasantly surprised  by the change in tone here. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Remembrance of Time Past - Tennis Reminiscences

My first memories on viewing Tennis is in the late eighties when I stepped into high school. That was the time Doordarshan had probably started relaying the semi-finals and finals of grand slam tournaments. The  McEnroe, Borg era was over. Borg had retired, McEnroe was still playing but was not a major player particularly in singles. I remember seeing him in only 1 semi-final, and it was surprising to see him being dominated by the opponent. This was because the McEnroe, Borg clashes were something of a legendary thing to me, the details being what my father told me and what I read in Sportstar articles and saw in some old clips of tennis matches. McEnroe along with Viv Richards were 2 players who took an almost mythical quality from what my father told me and what I read about them. Sadly, I never saw the best of Richards too live. Along with these two, Connors was also still around, again he was something of a relic of a bygone era. The next era had well and truly settled down when I started watching tennis. There were a lot of good players around, but  the 3 people (as per my memory) who dominated that period till the early to mid nineties were Becker, Edberg and Ivan Lendl. 

Edberg seemed too good to be true. Silken and graceful strokes and a superb net play and a classic backhand. You almost wanted him to win for his calm demeanor alone. Becker was almost the antithesis of Edberg. He appealed to the bad side of you. If Edberg was all grace, Becker was all power and was also a great player at the net. He also had an uncanny knack for drama. I don't remember any other player playing more 5 set matches during that time than Becker. He had the crazy thing of losing the first 2 sets or being 1-2 down and then winning the match. I loved the way he prowled the net and flung himself there, crashing to the ground and going at it again. These two were my favorites from that period. That's probably because I have personally liked the server and volleying type of game and players more than the baseline game. I love when a player server and rushes to the net to intercept the return. That gives me a great high. (For this reason the French Open is something I watched with probably less interest than the others). The two played 3 consecutive Wimbledon finals which were the high point of my tennis watching. Two pure serve and volley players trading volleys at net. It may not have been as good as the McEnroe/Borg clashes, but I sure enjoyed them a great deal. The third of the troika, Lendl was probably the person who had the least fans. He reminded me of a robotic assassin. The man seemed to be made of steel and seemed to have no nerves. But curiously enough a man of his temperament could not win the Wimbledon. I actually remember feeling sorry for this failure of this at a later stage. There were other players too who made an impact, but I don't remember them being very consistent. There was mats wilander who won 3 grand slams one year, but sort of petered out after that. Pat cash who upset Lendl in a Wimbledon final, Micheal stich who promised a lot in the early nineties but again fizzled out. Chang created a buzz by winning the French open. He never another grand slam again. Courier dominated for a couple of years but seemed to lose interest in the game soon after.

In the women's side, in the same period Steffi graf was coming up or rather she had broken through. Christ evert was still playing but was the fag end of her career. I remember seeing her playing for a couple of years only. Navratilova was still playing at a high level, but it was Graf's era all the way from the late eighties. Forget about winning against her, winning a set itself was considered to be a great thing. I remember 1988 where she won all 4 grand slams and the Olympic medal to boot. I saw that years French open which she won 6-0,6-0. The whole thing took just about half an hour. It was incredible.  The very next year saw her most difficult challenger Monica seles making her breakthrough. She lost in 1989 to Aranxta Sanchez which was a great surprise at the time. Sanchez for sometime seemed to the one who could beat Graf. But Seles soon became more dominant and it was an incredible rivalry between her and Graff over the next few years and Seles seemed to have the upper hand till she was stabbed by a crazy fan. Amidst all these players was the one person, who if rankings were given based on things other than winning, would have been the permanent number 1, Gabriela Sabatini. She must have had the biggest fan following of them all. Sadly though, she never seemed to break through beyond the semi-finals. I so much wanted her to win a Grand slam,. She actually one 1 title, but she was mostly an fringe player in the Navratilova-Graf and the latter Graf-Seles rivalries. It goes without saying that she was probably my favorite player, though I wanted Graf to win, maybe even Seles. Anyway it is not wrong to be polygamous with your preferences in sports.

By the mid 90's things changed. In the men's side the Sampras show had started. I somehow could not get into the rivalries as before. The only one who could have challenged Sampras, Agassi was too inconsistent to get a great rivalry going. Agassi being Agassi, he could be ranked in the top 5 one year and be playing in some remote tournament the next year ranked in the 100's. There were patrick rafter and a few other players, but there seemed to be no consistent rivalry to Sampras. Similarly in the women's section, after Seles's stabbing incident she was never the same player again. She could probably have won more than Steffi if that incident had not occurred. Graf herself tailed off in the mid to late 90's. Capriati came and went, but it was period of flux with not much of consistency. There were two sides to this. Since there was not many players to root for personally, I could watch matches without much tension. On the flip side, my interest level started waning. Sports needs rivalries, spectators need to have favorites to continue watching the game. The fear and agony of your favorite player failing and the joy of the same player succeeding is probably what drives most fans. It was ironic considering the fact that during that period, ESPN/Star Sports came into India and started beaming grand slams from the first round itself. They even started telecasting other ATP tournaments, but I was losing interest. I remember the early 90's where I used to read the Hindu to see if my favorite players had safely progressed through the early rounds. (Hindu and Sportstar had the best coverage during those days). By the time the Federer era kicked off around 2002-2003 my interest in who won had become even less. At the start of his dominance he was much pure serve and volleyer than he is now, but he too has changed his game the last few years. It was sad to see him win Wimbledon from the baseline. I think the time of pure serve and volley players has well and truly passed and probably Federer is the last in that line. The Nadal-Federer rivalry too did not excite me as it would have if it had happened 5-6 years earlier. I just wanted one person to win one time and the other the next  time. Yes, I enjoyed the clashes, but was seeing them at an impersonal level. Things seem to have turned a circle now with 4-5 players now jostling at the top consistently for the past 2 years. Dojovic, Murray seem to be forming a fine quartet with Nadal and Federer.

All said and done, when I think back on all these, to borrow from Byran Adams, the late 80's and early 90's were the best days of my tennis watching life.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Americana - Don Dellilo

Don Dellilo's works have been described as novels of ideas and I agree with that. Several of his novels have an idea/concept/contemporary social more as the base and the characters in the novel serve as props for that. (It could be consumerism/threat of nuclear warfare in 'White Noise', power of the mob/television in 'Mao II'. )However this is not to give an impression that Dellilo is trying to shove things down the readers throat, not at all. On the other hand, it seems to me like he has something to say and instead of using the non-fiction format he is writing novels. I don't claim to understand his novels fully (can we claim that of any work of art at all?) nor can I say that I enjoy reading this works (enjoy as in it's most basic meaning). But he engages me, I feel he has something to say to me, something which I have not noticed, something that I may have noticed but cannot articulate it in the way he does. That's why I keep going back to his works. I see that I am writing more about the man than about the novel which the post is about. That's because as I have said in the beginning his novels are in several cases novels of ideas and so an introduction into the author is as needed as about the work. Another thing that I noticed is that his works are sometimes rooted to America or a particular time period in America, so it could be a bit off putting to readers. For example 'Libra' is about Harvey Lee Oswald. The reader has to have some basic information on the Kennedy assassination and probably some interest in it to read it. Else it would probably not have the same impact. Or, the prologue in 'Underworld' which is a 60 page description of a baseball playoff game set in the 50's. I had to slog through it, not knowing about the base ball rules and also the context of the game which is apparently a part of American sporting folklore. (Let me put it this way, an American would have felt the same had he read a novel in which the prologue is about India's 83 world cup final match and winning it. He would be completely out of the loop isn't it).But by and large his novels address a bigger world view and we can relate to it from anywhere. Again you need to be in a certain mindset to read him (from my personal experience). If you are in no mood to read about the television images and it's impact you would probably miss the point of Mao II. (like what happened to me first time round). Considering all this, Americana Dellilo's first novel, published in 1971 is the best place to start him off. It also conforms the most to what could be termed as a conventional novel. The novel is split into 2 parts, the first part is of the office novel genre and the second part is of the road novel genre.

The protagonist of the novel is 'David Bell' who is also the narrator of the novel. A film student and an executive at a television studio. He is young, highly successful with the possibility of going given higher in his profession and the future looking rosy. With all the success he has, he is looking over his shoulder to see if any younger guy is on the horizon who could overtake him and at the same time looking forward to see the persons whom he has to overtake. Like Janus of the myths, he is looking both ways. He seems to be living in a vacuum. The beginning of the novel itself tells us about his current mindset 'Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.'  (P.S Joshua Ferris's first novel is named from the first part of this line 'Then we came to end'). As the novel progresses, David settles into a sort of ennui. He sort of loses interest in his work, does not care about the ratings and generally settles down into a stupor of blank emptiness. He knows that he is ignoring his work and it would have serious ramifications, but he is beyond caring. It's like sitting on a ticking bomb or going at great speed in car towards the mountain cliff. You know you are going to crash, but are so beyond caring about what is going to happen. (Shades of this mood could be seen in Eric Packer of Dellilo published in 2003, somethings don't seem to change over the years isn't it). This part of the novel is funny at times with lots of black humor, but nothing really new if you have read other novels in the office novel genre ('Something happened' comes to mind). At the end of the first part, David finally loses wakes up from his ennui goes on a road trip with a video camera, officially to work on his job, but on a personal quest in reality. This is the second part of the novel.

Armed with his camera, David sets out to the heart land of America, to basically a nowhere land. He meets various people. As his trip progresses, David starts using his camera becomes a voyeuristic tool capturing people at a most primitive level with all their defenses down . People are willing to bare their most inner most thoughts on families, friends, relationships in front of the camera. They are ready to perform sexual acts in front of the camera. It's not just about voyeurism but also says something about the willingness of people to be the object of the voyeurism. This is something that is very related in today's times of reality shows, mms scandals et all. In some ways Dellilo seems to have prefigured in the 70's ,what's happening today. David becomes more and more distanced from the reality of his professional life which is spiraling towards disaster and becomes more and more obsessed with the trip and camera itself, capturing not only people, but also the american landscape and having reminiscences about his childhood. The novel runs all over the place (much like the protagonist) and ends with David going off to Dallas to the place of Kennedy's assassination. (again a more American 
pre-occupation from the 60's and 70's about Kennedy's assassination). 

Check out this link ( of a Dellilo short story.