Saturday, 30 July 2016

Wuthering Heights, once again

A hundred and ninety-eight years ago today, Emily Bronte was born. She would die not long after – just a few months past her 30th birthday. But she gave the world – and me – something that we should be eternally grateful for. The novel Wuthering Heights

In a world which celebrates material achievements and makes Gods of the rich for no other reason than their ability to extract money from the earth, atmosphere or from human beings, it might not be a bad idea to remind ourselves that a parson’s daughter from a remote village in northern England, who only ever wrote one book, achieved more lasting fame than John Jacob Astor. 

Who is Astor, you ask? Oh, just the richest man in the world in the year 1848, the year the parson’s daughter died.

I wrote this as a tribute to the book and the novelist on this day a last year.

“Let me in.”

It was a disembodied, child-like voice. Definitely a girl's though. Wasn’t the first time I was hearing it either. In fact, she had been making her plaintive plea for a while now. How long had it been – how long had I ignored her?

“Nine years,” she said, anticipating my thoughts, as she often did. “Nine years you've left me out in the cold.”

“Nine? Not that many, surely,” I smiled weakly. “And you haven't been out in the cold or...”

“A book unread is a book out in the cold, Jormund,” she laughed her saucy laugh.

“Well nine years…I do feel…surely you’re mistaken.” I said. She was mistaken, wasn’t she? I remembered her face, her form, her words as clearly as though I had seen her yesterday.

“I know you better than you know yourself, Jormund. Do you remember why you sought me out, then? Wasn't it for a grade? A grade to shore up your sinking – what do you call it? A GPA? You wrote about me and got the grade you wanted. Your first year in University.”

I had heard enough. I opened the window.

“Come in! Come in!” I sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more!”

(c) Duhinta Das

I can't recall how often I've read Wuthering Heights. Deuce take it, I can’t even recall how old I was when I first read it. It was a book that had belonged to my uncle, with the glowing golden stamp of the University of Mumbai on it, already disintegrating in my hands, the pages yellowed with age.

Too young to understand most of the words, too impatient to savour the flavour of Yorkshire's moors that Bronte brought so vividly to life, too stupid to understand the themes it brought forth, I nonetheless devoured it impatiently and when it was over, I was conscious of a feeling of loss, as if this was a book I could read for ever, that I never wanted to end.

Well, I did read it again. And again. And again. Each time, I laughed with Catherine and Heathcliff as they ran through the moors, I cried for Isabella Linton as she sped to her foolish doom, I reflected sadly with Nelly Dean on Hindley Earnshaw's wasted life, I felt sorry for Edgar Linton, ever to enjoy only a pale reflection of the all-consuming passion his wife held for her lover, and then I grieved for the younger Catherine as she knowingly stepped into the abyss prepared for her by her father's enemy.

I have heard people call Wuthering Heights just another love story. I'm told they've made it a part of the syllabus at schools and colleges, thus condemning it to the eternal hatred of generations of students.

It's about as much a love story as the Taj Mahal is just another tomb, or Everest is just another mountain. I am not even sure whether or not a book that's meant to be experienced, to be lived, to be understood, should ever be tried to be taught.

So I close the pages again on Catherine. I hope it's not another nine years before I let her in again. But it doesn't matter, and she knows it. Here, and here, in whichever place the soul lives, Wuthering Heights will always be a part of me.

(c) Muirin

[Anyone interested in reading the Book Report I wrote on Wuthering Heights for which I got an A Grade in my first year of B-school in a subject called OB-I, can click here. I almost never actually praise myself, but trust me, you will NOT regret reading this one]

(c) Leonnack

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Book Review - The Rainbow, by D H Lawrence

Book Review: The Rainbow, by D H Lawrence

There are some authors whose work is not popular with casual readers, and D H Lawrence, I surmise, is one of them. Growing up, the only association I could have made with the name was the knowledge that his book, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which came out in 1930, was banned in India (and continues to be).

The first exposure to his writing was through the poem, The Snake, a long-ish poem detailing his personal encounter with a snake by a water-trough. It was a part of our syllabus for the ICSE exams, and compared to the other works that we studied, I found myself not particularly impressed. To be honest, my preferences then were probably rather skewed towards lyrical poetry. Re-reading the poem earlier this year, I found myself quite taken both by the cadence and the theme. You can click the link and read it for yourself, though.

When I picked up The Rainbow, I had no idea what to expect. The blurb at the back of the book is brief, but it does mention that the book was banned for a long time in the UK itself.

Now if this was the original cover, I wouldn't be surprised it was banned, but it isn't
The book tells us about the lives of three generations of the Brangwen family, living in Nottingham. They are not the nobles of Austen’s work or the destitute of Dickens’, rather they are landed farmers, comfortably-off but not rich, educated but not part of the elite. The first part of the book deals with Thomas Brangwen and his search for happiness, first alone, then through marriage and fatherhood and finally his acceptance of being always, spiritually, alone. Then we are with Anna Lensky, Thomas’ stepdaughter, her pride and her own search for fulfilment. Whether through her husband or her children, she too searches for the mythical rainbow, the symbol of contentment. The third and largest part of the book deals with the life and loves of Ursula Brangwen, Anna’s eldest daughter, from childhood to her early twenties. Hers is the most torturous journey, through love filial, heterosexual and homosexual, to reaching a state of personal freedom only to find that, too, compromised.

As for the ending, it is not a resolution, but rather deeply symbolic of the unending nature of life itself and the place of the individual in the constraints of English social life.

There is not a shadow of a doubt regarding the power of Lawrence’s characters. Thomas, Anna and Ursula are exquisitely, maddeningly real. Their thoughts and their actions are those of complex, thinking characters, their desires depicted with heart-breaking honesty. Lesser characters like Lydia Lensky, William Brangwen and Anton Skrebensky are also distinct and unique, real people who come to life before the reader.

The Rainbow makes it evident, early into the first chapter itself, that it is no breezy read. Lawrence’s use of vocabulary is not particularly difficult, but his use of complex sentences and deep delving into the psychological state of his characters makes this a book that demands, even as it arrests, the reader’s concentration. This could not have been easy for Lawrence to write – to examine human psychology with such brutal honesty and yet tender attention. And so he demands that level of effort from the reader as well, to apply our minds to the text as well as the ideas behind the story itself.

It is the ideas that should resonate, as well as the style. The Rainbow is a thoroughly ‘modern’ novel in terms of it’s treatment and writing, perhaps an early example of ‘Literary Fiction’. And the theme is starkly relevant – probably always will be – that of individual aspirations and a search for fulfilment, both intellectual and sexual.

As for the ban – well, it must have taken serious fortitude on Lawrence’s part to depict, without a trace of sugar-coating, a lesbian relationship, as well as unabashedly bring forth the power-play underlying every sexual act, of desire quite separate from love, of love unlinked to desire, and of contentment in sharing only that much of a partner’s life as he or she will allow. And it is the last two that are perhaps more disturbing than the sex itself, for that is not erotic at all – this is plot-driven sex, written to depict nothing but the act in its place, as a part of the relationships of Thomas, Anna and Ursula.

A cover that should surprise absolutely nobody.
As I close the book, I wonder who else I know that would actually enjoy it. More fundamentally – did I enjoy it? The answer lies perhaps in the truth that Ursula Brangwen learns in the time she spends as a teacher in the town of Ilkeston – not all experiences are meant to be enjoyed, and neither are they destined to fulfil quite exactly the expectations we had from them. But they leave us with something learned, something lost, and something to ponder.

Available here on Amazon in paperback and hardcover
Free for e-readers on Project Gutenberg

After all, it's not like this mug would attract readers.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Curious cats and the virtues of anti-intellectualism

[Ser Pounce-a-lot is a British shorthair cat who earned his Knighthood defending his dim-witted sister, Cat-a-tonia from a bunch of ruffianly dogs. A feline of rare wit and sharp insight, he often condescends to share his wisdom with his human slave, Percy the Slacker (the man behind this blog). In an ongoing series, Ser Pounce's wisdom shall be presented in the form of conversations between him and his scribe, the aforementioned Percy. Below, is one such...]
(c) Kmye Chan
[While I was planning to write on this subject for a long time, I had been procrastinating, as so often happens. Then Ajesh Sharma (better known as Slo-Man) posted this in a place where Ser Pounce could read it, and this blog-post came into being.]

“Oy, you! Yes you, what you up to?”

“Oh, nothing, Ser Pounce, nothing.”

“You’ve been staring out of that window for the last ten minutes when you should have been scratching my ears.”

“I can stare outside the window while scratching your ears. Was just looking at that crow hopping from branch to branch on the tree outside. He seems to have a plan, though a very random one. I wonder what he’s up to.”

“Ooh, a bird. Let me at him, let me at him, I say!”

“Calm down, we’re three floors up, you can’t pounce on him. You’ll break your neck falling.”

“True. Curiosity and cats don’t mix well, you know.”

“Yes, like in the adage.”

“Like, as you say, in the adage. How is it for humans, though?”

“I dare say curiosity must be bad for us too, so few humans seem to have it.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t you always complain about nosy relatives asking too many questions?”

“Well, that’s different. I meant true curiosity – a desire to know how things work, where things came from, why things happened.”

“You’re talking about intellectual curiosity now, aren’t you?”

“I suppose I am. If ‘intellectual’ wasn’t such a bad word nowadays…stop scratching my arm, Ser Pounce!”

“Eh sorry, I thought it was the arm of the chair.”

“We are sitting on a ledge, not on a chair!”

“Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to.”

“Anyway, as I was saying, between those who are dumb as bricks and pretend to be intellectual, and those who pride themselves on being dumb as bricks, the ability to think, the desire to learn is being lost.”

“You know, human, you do have a point. It is part of what makes cats the superior race. Despite the ever-hanging threat of curiosity killing us, we retain the desire to explore and learn.”

“During the 4 hours of the day when you’re neither sleeping nor eating, you mean?”

“I prefer to express it as a range between two hours and six.”

“Do you have a point?”

“Yes. You see, humans – and there are some decent sorts amongst you – have a formal education system. So you go to school and then to University, learn, give exams, and then join an office or start a business or something.”

“That about sums up human existence, yes.”

“Now some of you treat the classrooms and cubicles as closed spaces.”

“They are closed spaces, Ser Pounce, as you would know if you were an office cat.”

“Mentally, human, mentally. If you think about it, what your teachers tell you is a starting point. It should make you want to know more, to understand, rather than just absorb.”

“Even if the teacher is bad or boring?”

“Especially if the teacher is bad or boring. The good ones anyway expose you to a broad spectrum of learning. Think of it like this - a good pet, like a cat, enriches your life by sitting silently and judging you, filling you with existential questions, while a bad pet – like a dog – makes your life revolve around it, providing mindless entertainment in the form of tricks and chasing sticks.”

“I think you lost the analogy a bit there, but I think I understand what you mean. We should aspire to know more, rather than just see learning as a compulsion, or as a means to an end.”

“Yes, just as I see killing rats not so much as being for food but as a mental exercise.”

“Killing rats is a mental exercise?”

“Indeed it is. You see, the rat knows – and the cat does too – the battle is over before it really happens. We size each other up, and we know how it ends. Everything else – the chasing, the stalking, the leap – is but an expression of an art. The art itself is within us. Within me.”

“Have you overdosed on catnip again?”

“Nothing of the sort. Well, maybe a little. You need to keep it more securely locked up. Anyway, take how you consume art, for example. Music, movies or literature.”

“Where are you going with this?”

“Now there’s one sort of person who would listen to a song he likes and then try and find out who the singer is, what other songs she has sung, and if all her repertoire is good, find out what artistes she was influenced by and so on – basically maximise both knowledge and enjoyment.”

“And similarly for authors, composers and painters…”

“Or photographers, movie-makers and chefs.”

“And so on, yes, I get the point.”

“While there is another sort of person who would listen to a song, like it, maybe listen to it a few more times, but never even know the name of the singer, and definitely not the name of the album.”

“And you see this as a bad thing?”

“I think a person who fails to ask questions has failed at life.”

“You know, Ser Pounce, those people – those who do not ask the questions, or indulge in curiosity, as you put it – tend to be happier.”

“They are more certain in life, I’ll grant you that, because they do not think beyond the apparent. They work because they must, never asking why they are tied to their jobs, and whether they really need to be. It is the great virtue of anti-intellectualism, Percy – the happiness of not knowing what you do not know.”

“I say, Ser Pounce, now you are attacking the foundations of modern society!”

“Am I? Take my sister, Catatonia. She sees lunch and she eats it. No reflection on where it comes from, who provides it, or why she is provided lunch while other cats have to hunt for a meal.”

“As far as I can tell, you do the same thing.”

“Shows how little you know. I recognise that my inherent, excellent qualities led you to adopt me and treat me with the respect that I deserve. Therefore I strive to always remain worthy of that respect.”

“I thought you saw yourself as a Cat Overlord of a superior species.”

“Well, of course, but being an Overlord is a status that has to be earned and maintained. Like now, I am shedding fur all over your towel to remind you that it’s high time you washed it.”

“Ugh, get off it, you beast!”

“A fearsome beast I am, indeed. Anyway, while you gnash your teeth and curse at the world, I shall go off to explore the staircase and learn more and more about the habits of your subordinate species, for understanding is key to subjugation.”

“Yes, go, you odious cat, and if curiosity kills you, I’ll write her a thank-you note!”