Another passage to India

April 26, 2015
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Beggars on the Street

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was written in 1995, about twenty years after the period it describes, The Indira Gandhi era of The Emergency of 1975,  but perhaps not much had changed when he wrote, and even now that may be true.  I spent four or five months in India in 1979-1980, travelling very cheaply, surrounded by the types of people he describes.  That is, I was not cocooned in an air conditioned tour bus, and I ate where street workers and small businessmen ate, and sometimes they would talk with me.  Sometimes a lot…  This book brought back thoughts of that trip in vivid ways, and gave meaning to images that are still with me, and from which I have never been able to make much sense.  More on that later, perhaps.

The novel has an epigraph that is a quotation from Balzac:

Rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction.  All is true.

Many of the negative commentators on this book at Amazon (I always find the thumbs-down views of more interest than the raves) seem to want a fiction, or to want a book that is more according to their taste.  The story is almost unremittingly depressing, and I shared the feelings of many readers who commented that they found it difficult to return to it after putting it down, yet they did, as did I, because Mistry is a fine writer who draws you in with his first page.  (How DOES he do that? What is there in his craft that casts this spell; I mean, what exactly is it in his words, at the level of the sentence, as some critics say? When a book fails at this, it is easy to point out specific weaknesses, but when it succeeds, for me at least, it is like magic.) Some commentators were angry and disappointed that Mistry offers not a shred of a happy ending to redeem the horrors his characters endure.  “A fine balance” refers to the necessary attitude humans must take between hope and despair, but Mistry is definitely light on the hope side of the scales.  The only positive things about the happenings in this book are that many characters show great warmth towards one another, and some show the ability to change from indifference to love.  It is a measure of the horror of the situations he presents that even this, turning towards love, seems like a small, weak thing:  all the people who show decency are destroyed by physical mutilation, social smothering, or their own unbearable powerlessness.

To say that the plot of this book is contrived is to miss the point of it:  it is, in some sense, an extended fable.  Like Dickens, to whom Mistry is compared by some reviewers, the book is filled with coincidences that seem, on reflection, to be improbable. By the time the reader is at the end of the tale, it should be obvious that this is not through carelessness, but is deliberate.  Just as calculated is the rain of misfortune that befalls the two tailors who make their escape from rural caste violence to the city where they seek their fortune.  Could everything happen to two people that happens to them?  They seem to always be at the wrong place, at just the worst moment:  rounded up for forced work gangs by Indira Gandhi’s City Beautification project; hauled in by thugs at a forced sterilization clinic;  caught in a brutal slum clearance episode, to name a few dark spots in their story.  To readers who feel that (I am paraphrasing some comments)… Mistry just piles on misery after misery, and should have held out some positive ray of hope…nobody would keep getting dumped on that way…  I wold reply, tell that to the five-year old child born to beggars in the street who has nothing in his future but just that.  To ask for something else from the novel is to deny the reality of these people, which is exactly what Mistry wants to force us to see.  To have all these things happen to oneself, or just one that is enough to destroy you, it hardly matters which is the case.

The epigraph of the book is from Balzac; reviewers mention Dickens; and I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  It’s been so many years since I read it, perhaps I am off-base, but the relentless grinding down of the characters by uncaring social circumstances is common to both books.  And of course, there are the children of Jude’s who hang themselves “…because we are too menny,” that appear in the form of three young sisters who hang themselves with their saris.  The story of these sisters is related through an old newspaper story read by one of the characters in the epilogue to the book:  that character, one for whom we feel there is something of a chance of a decent life because of his education and his loving family, echoes the tragedy of Ana Karenina.  Whatever the literary influences acting upon Mistry, he is telling a story about India, not Europe.

When I traveled in India, I saw lots of beggars, horribly deformed.  I stepped over lots of families sleeping in the streets.  I saw a man walking along the street in a small town react with horror and fright when a field worker accidentally brushed his clothing in the street:  he immediately began to furiously brush at the fabric, peering intently at it to see if there was some stain.  He was not just worried about a laundry bill – he feared pollution.   I waited in line outside a barber’s shack to get a shave in a rural village, and watched the man’s eyes dilate with terror when a local Brahman pushed himself to the front of the line. The man was faced with a horrible dilemma; insult a white European, or the Brahman.  I just smiled and waved to set him at ease, and was eyed with contempt by the priest.  Just the teeny-tip-of-the-iceberg of the caste system in rural India.

The novel is filled with characters consumed with anxiety and feelings of disgust:  anxiety for their safety or their precarious livelihoods, and disgust for those limitless numbers of people who are worse off than they.  Usually, these characters are those with a little bit of authority or education:  business people, local functionaries, policemen, petty politicians.  Those with power use it brutally to enrich and protect themselves; their contempt acts as a spur to their actions and a justification for it, an old story.  Because the people of this strata of India often know some English, I tended to meet a lot of them.  I also met a lot who were not  brutal or totally self-serving, but who seemed consumed with anger and frustration at their situation, their powerlessness, the unfairness of it all.  To them, I was from a blessed world where people could actually do as they pleased.  And of course, compared to them, even traveling on $1.00 a day, I was vastly rich.  Often, they would beg me to help them.  It is this desperation that Mistry illuminated for me with his novel.

I have never returned to India:  I have no desire to travel there again as a tourist, but this book brought me back.

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An American Zola

January 16, 2013

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Theodore Dreiser was a Naturalist in the tradition of Emile Zola, but with a twist.  Maybe it was American puritanism, that Calvinist strain, or perhaps some other element of his personality, but man, could he lay on the doom.  Having just finished An American Tragedy, all 900+ pages of it, I feel as if I was run over by a steamroller.  And I’ve been feeling that way since page 100!

Clyde Griffiths (George Eastman in the Stevens’ film adaptation) has had a stunted youth, the child of impoverished street preachers who include him, even as a very young boy, in their curbside music and proselytizing.  Clyde doesn’t feel comfortable with this life from an early age – he always is restless and wanting something different.  Eventually, he breaks away, becoming a bellhop, and he enjoys the taste of the highlife that the job, and the tips that come with it, brings.  During a wild night out with some friends in he is a passenger in a car that runs over and kills a little girl:  he has to skip town, severing his relations with his family yet more deeply.

Eventually, he connects with his very rich uncle, who, feeling guilty about the way his evangelist brother was shafted in the matter of the family inheritance, decides to give the kid a chance in his factory, working from the bottom up.  He tells his family that there is no need to admit him to their provincial circle of the social élite, but Clyde besides being handsome and possessed of charming ‘soft’ manners, bears a striking resemblance to his cousin, the heir apparent at the factory.  It just wouldn’t do to shun him completely:  his face would give the story away and cause talk.  He is granted limited access to the Griffiths family.

Eventually, he breaks the rules and forms a romance with a factory girl:  she is pretty, and Clyde is subject to powerful sexual urges.  He also becomes a regular in the young-smart set of the Griffiths circle, and a powerful flirtation, then a romantic infatuation develops between him and a beautiful girl in that set.  He keeps his multiple romantic relations a secret, dooming him when the factory girl becomes pregnant.  At his wit’s end, his dream of marriage into society, wealth, ease, material opulence threatened, he plots her murder.  She is drowned, mostly through his actions, but there is, to the end, a little shred of ambiguity regarding his intent at the very last fatal moment of he life.

He is immediately caught, despite his ‘careful’ planning, tried, and convicted.  He dies in the chair.  It is all incredibly slow, detailed, crushing in its inevitability.  The characters in this tale are all presented as sympathetically as could be, while the author, from an Olympian perspective, dissects them coolly and dispassionately.  It was written and takes place in the 1920s, so some things are not discussed so freely as today, but more so than they were not long before.  Clyde’s visit to a brothel while working as a bellhop:

Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable

And later:

 His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex. And by the actions and approaches of each in turn he was surely tempted at times, especially in these warm and languorous summer days, with no place to go and no single intimate to commune with. From time to time he could not resist drawing near to these very girls who were most bent on tempting him, although in the face of their looks and nudges, not very successfully concealed at times, he maintained an aloofness and an assumed indifference which was quite remarkable for him.

Everyone is ruled by their nature, formed by genetics and the social petri dishes in which they were cultured.  The unconscious, and sex, lurks unacknowledged, but powerful.  Not just Clyde, but the lawyer who sends him to the chair, the jurors, his defense, the doctors who refuse to give his girlfriend an abortion – they are all locked into the suffocating confines of the social machine.  Here’s Mason, the district attorney, determined to see him fry for his crime, and to make a political coup for himself in the process:

Mason was a short, broad-chested, broad-backed and vigorous individual physically, but in his late youth had been so unfortunate as to have an otherwise pleasant and even arresting face marred by a broken nose, which gave to him a most unprepossessing, almost sinister, look. Yet he was far from sinister. Rather, romantic and emotional. His boyhood had been one of poverty and neglect, causing him in his later and somewhat more successful years to look on those with whom life had dealt more kindly as too favorably treated. The son of a poor farmer’s widow, he had seen his mother put to such straits to make ends meet that by the time he reached the age of twelve he had surrendered nearly all of the pleasures of youth in order to assist her. And then, at fourteen, while skating, he had fallen and broken his nose in such a way as to forever disfigure his face. Thereafter, feeling himself handicapped in the youthful sorting contests which gave to other boys the female companions he most craved, he had grown exceedingly sensitive to the fact of his facial handicap. And this had eventually resulted in what the Freudians are accustomed to describe as a psychic sex scar.

In his dreaminess, he has something in common with Clyde, but he was deformed, and now he has that “sex scar.”  And there is the town, the jurors, the face of stolid morality, the herd mentality of the Christian rubes, which Clyde’s defense attorney scorns, but treats gingerly by necessity, as he questions Clyde on the stand:

He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position (his father had been a judge as well as a national senator from here), he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding which made him fairly capable of grasping any reasonable moral or social complication which life was prepared to offer.

“Oh, I can’t say not entirely afterwards. I cared for her some — a good deal, I guess — but still not as much as I had. I felt more sorry for her than anything else, I suppose.”

“And now, let’s see — that was between December first last say, and last April or May — or wasn’t it?”  “About that time, I think — yes, sir.”

“Well, during that time — December first to April or May first you were intimate with her, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even though you weren’t caring for her so much.”

“Why — yes, sir,” replied Clyde, hesitating slightly, while the rurals jerked and craned at this introduction of the sex crime.

“And yet at nights, and in spite of the fact that she was alone over there in her little room — as faithful to you, as you yourself have testified, as any one could be — you went off to dances, parties, dinners, and automobile rides, while she sat there.”

“Oh, but I wasn’t off all the time.”

Clyde done wrong, but what were his chances in life?  Society stinks.  Capital punishment is brutal and inhuman.  Public officials are self-serving and venal.  (Mason is honest, but one of his staff plants evidence to further incriminate Clyde.  He needn’t have bothered, but he does anyway.)  The social élite are shallow, smug, and uncaring.  Society is a machine to grind you down, and it starts on page one and goes on, and on, and on…It’s a pretty damn impressive literary feat, if you can stand it!  Dreiser can create a stem winding dramatic courtroom oration as well as he can reproduce the  baby talk of a society princess teasing her beau.

When I began the book, I was struck by how unsympathetically Clyde was portrayed (or at least, without sympathy) compared to the film.  As I read on, however, I came to feel that George Stevens had done a remarkable job of adapting the book and bringing forward to the 1950s, both as a narrative, and in its approach to the audience.  One of the principal differences that I did find a little bit too much to accept in the film, is that Angela Vickers (Liz Taylor) visits Clyde just before his execution, after being kept completely out of view and out of the testimony of the trial.  She still loves him.

In the book, she sends him a brief anonymous, typewritten note that makes clear that she is emotionally distant from him now, although she recognizes how in love they were, and she will not forget him.  It is  in keeping with the ruthless presentation of class relations that is part of the book – she will get on with her social role in the world – and it is the final, crushing blow to Clyde.  As I noted in my post on the film, it is a social melodrama, and such uncompromising realism would have been out of place.


Updike and Out!

November 27, 2012

I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life.  I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on.  Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content?  What is intelligence without critical appreciation?  Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering!  If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.

My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output.  I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting:  I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across.  Time to give him another chance I thought.  While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.

I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring.  Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt.  I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives.  Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him.  He and a loony black radical, another house guest  the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another.  Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot.  He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.

It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating.  Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority.  Consider:  Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family.  His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore.  Everyone in the family seems fine with this:  not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days.  She and Harry chat about fucking a lot.  Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right?  Maybe I’m naïve…

I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example.  The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War.  The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure.  The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them.  Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him.  And… oh, never mind.

He sure does write sentences well, though.


Beta-minus

May 26, 2012

I figure that in Huxley’s Brave New World,I would rank as a Beta-minus, on the scale from Epsilon-minus up to Alpha-plus.  Not on the basis of my intelligence, mind you, but on examination of my status in society and the nature of Huxley’s dystopia.  Hmm…maybe I should exit for 1984.

It has been eighty years since Huxley’s satire was published, and it remains fresh and entertaining, and sharp, precisely because it was written as a satire, and not an attempt at ‘science-fiction’, which hardly existed as a genre in that day.  Of course, he was remarkably prescient on some points, genetic engineering, before genetics was even developed in its modern form, for example, but that’s a small thing next to his wicked skewering of industrial-consumerist-ideology and religion.  The people of his future world worship Henry Ford, swear by him, “By Ford!”, and display ‘T’ pendants (for the Model T, that is) everywhere, conveniently similar to the ancient Christian cross.

Huxley gets in a sly observation about the literary history of cults and religions, the way that popular culture and orthodoxy twist and mold the facts of history, when he remarks on Ford and Freud.  Freud too, is revered in the new world, but his name is unknown.  His ideas are assumed to have been those of Henry Ford – how could two such moral and mental giants have existed?  Scholars, exegetes, and philosophers have simply determined that Ford, when he spoke of matters psychological, chose to speak under the name of Freud.  The prophets have their ways.

The book is marvelously funny, and the device of having Mr. Savage, a visitor from the ‘uncivilized regions’, speak constantly in Shakespearean verse, a result of his compulsive reading of the only book he has ever seen, is wonderful. Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way when I read The Bard, i.e., that the glorious quality of his words is somehow an ironic comment on, and critique of the world I live in.  It also provides a frame on which Huxley can hang his implied and explicit speculations about culture, civilization, and politics – always the weakest point in any of his books.

Despite his brilliance and originality, Huxley always seems to me to be tip-toeing through the muck of modern culture: shocked and appalled by it, and so concerned that it not dirty his clothes.  How paltry all this is, he is thinking all the time.  Oh dear, nobody has time for real culture, but these…ordinary people…are so interesting at times, their pastimes and songs, and whatnot…  For me, his work’s appeal is limited by the fact that it is that of a man who never quite shakes off the upper-class twit aspect of his social background.


Great Expectations Dashed

February 26, 2012

I read Great Expectations with great pleasure in junior high school, and in high school, I watched the David Lean adaptation of it – only the first part stayed with me.  I just finished the novel for the second or third time, and started to watch the film again, but lost interest after Pip goes to London.  The early part of the film does a wonderful job at representing the weirdness of Miss Havisham, the marsh country, the terror of the escaped convicts, the tortured soul of a simple boy.

Should we like Pip?  He berates himself for his ingratitude to Joe, his adopted father, and Biddy, the simple girl he could love.  He kicks himself for longing for the ice-queen, Estella.  He excoriates himself for his desire to climb socially, and for being ashamed of his humble origins.  I can’t fault him too much – he is too aware of his failings, and they are all portrayed in retrospect.  What can we say but that he was a young boy, immature, and sometimes thoughtless.  Would that we were all so wise about our limitations.

The book is called dark, and so it is.  Even the happier ending that was substituted for the original one is not all that happy:  there is a hope of emotional fulfillment for Pip and Estella, but it is melancholy too.  And the thunderbolt that falls on Pip when he returns home, his great expectations in ruins, hoping to turn over a new leaf and propose marriage to Biddy, completely destroys any prideful self-delusions he has left.

Lets say, at least, that Pip learns from his mistakes.


Grove Press

February 23, 2012

Barney Rosset, the founder and publisher who ran Grove Press, died and is written up in this NYTimes obituary.  I still have my copy, purchased in high school, of The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis.  At the time, as today, I had a taste for gothic excess in literature.  When I say gothic, I mean in the original literary sense:  Vathek, Melmoth the Wanderer, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and that sort of thing.  The Monk is in a class by itself, however, moving over the line from dark romantic fantasies and frissons into peverse and pornographic lunacy.

Grove is famous for battling the censorious US Postmaster, and winning, in cases involving Lady Chatterlee’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.  Many got their fill of Divine Marquis by perusing the pages of the fat, brick-like three volumes of de Sade in the bookstore, even if they didn’t buy them to finish at home.


When in Rome…

February 20, 2012

The Free World is a marvelous first novel by David Bezmozgis, who wrote Natasha, and Other Stories, which was also excellent.  In this book, he relates the fortunes over a period of about six months  of a family of Soviet Immigrant Jews, stuck in Rome, a common way station in the 1970s and 80s for people granted permission to leave the USSR.  That was the period of massive out-migration of Jews from the USSR:  many went to Israel, by far the easiest destination point, but many more went to the USA, where I met them daily while I lived near to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.  At times, in some places, only Russian was heard spoken.  The family in this book is destined for Toronto, Canada, where the author grew up.

The story is book-ended by death:  in the beginning, the father, an aging veteran of the Great Patriotic War (against the Nazis, in case you don’t know the lingo) and a Communist loyalist, reminisces over his brother, killed at the front.  It closes with his death, and the letter he received announcing the death of  his brother.  In between, Bezmozgis turns his precise and unsentimental eye on the difficult process of adaptation for the family in transit.  Adapting to Rome, to an uncertain future, to an ad hoc life among a community uprooted, and to the past that dogs them.

For me, the father is the most interesting character, a Latvian who welcomed the Stalinist invasion and annexation to the USSR during WWII, a party official who knows “there were some mistakes…” but who reveals why so many people would tolerate those “mistakes,” a few million dead innocents.  He grew up at a time when people thought the utopian schemes of political scientists were actually taking genuine form, when there was a right and wrong side of History.  He and his brother were so sure of their side, that they stood by while their cousin, a Zionist with no interest in revolution, was deported to Siberia as a suspect element when Latvia was annexed.  Even being nearly shot by a brutal NKVD agent, for no reason at all, doesn’t shake his loyalty.

Now, in Rome, on his way to the triumphant, capitalist West, he watches with disdain and some despair as he hears people around him speaking Yiddish, embracing the shtetl ways of his parents, trying to revive all those old customs he was so happy to abandon.  At one point, at a school program,  his eyes like mine shafts, he endures the sight of his grandchildren singing Hebrew songs on a stage.   Two generations of social progress being reversed before his eyes.

The characters in this book are all  intelligent, which is to say, they think as people really do, rather than as characters do.  They all struggle to make plans, make sense, to find a way forward, and nobody has the answers, nobody is all one way or the other – they are complex.  And like every other Russian novel, it seems, women are treated rather badly all around, by the old line Party man, or by the new opportunists.

Although I was fascinated by the father figure, it is Alec, a smart-alec, unserious fellow who is the main character.  Like everyone else, he is dealing with the past in this novel that is neither about the past nor the future, but that thin line between them.  The fact that it takes place in The Eternal City is an additional irony.  Alec would be an endearing fellow – he’s smart, funny, resourceful, and open-minded – but he is also a cad.  He can’t help it.  He just doesn’t want to let go of his past, doesn’t want to admit he is an adult and must act like one.  So much easier to pretend he’s still thumbing his nose at the stupid ways of the bone-headed society he’s escaping.  He learns the hard way, too late, and we never know just exactly how he will turn out.

As the child of parents who grew up in the USA, and of a father whose parents were completely American and assimilated, I found Alec’s father’s irritation with sociocultural regression amusing.  At any family gathering, there’s always a story about a distant cousin, a brother-in-law of a nephew, etc. etc. who has thrown off the restrictive coil of American consumerism to return to the great freedom of religious orthodoxy.  The beards, the clothes, the huge family, the religious fundamentalism…  I guess it’s like ex-hippies who raise kids that become disciples of Ayn Rand.