Friday, 27 September 2019

Book Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton


I could tell you what happens in Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (the first one written by a woman to win, incidentally) in a single, long sentence—New York’s High Society steps out to the Opera, a wealthy young lawyer announces his engagement at a ball, invitations to a dinner are declined, invitations to another are accepted, the lawyer advises his client regarding some family matters, High Society vacations in Florida, a wedding takes place, High Society vacations in Rhode Island, a young woman stands at the end of a pier, an old woman falls sick, a young woman throws a farewell party for her cousin, a wife becomes pregnant, and an old man walks away from a closed window. 

That would tell you cover the events depicted in the 300-odd pages in the book, and may even pass for an adequate review if I added in a few lines about how I inherited the book from my uncle’s library well over a decade ago, how it came back to my consciousness while watching an episode of Gossip Girl on Netflix, and end by asking whether you, dear reader, have read it as well.

Except that, if I did leave it there, I would fail to point out that within the exquisite elegance of these rather mundane actions lies a story of devastating brutality.

The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, does not contain a hint of physical violence. Not so much as a slap. It is set among the elite of 1870’s New York, among a people ensconced in privilege, lineage and wealth, committed to appearance and manners, ruled by overt politeness and genteel behaviour. Through their polished words and grand homes, their eminently predictable habits and cold respectability, Edith Wharton shows how pain can be inflicted and hopes crushed just as effectively as through the most stark, gory prose that another author might write.

We see the world through the eyes of Newland Archer, a young blue-blooded New Yorker who has just gotten engaged to the lovely ingenue May Welland, a member of the numerous and prestigious Mingott family. The arrival from Europe of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, fleeing herabusive husband upends the quiet order of High Society, for rather than hiding her under a proverbial rock, as such fallen women should do, the Mingotts, led by their formidable matriarch, Catherine Mingott, choose instead to parade Ellen at the favourite haunts of the city elite. Archer, who fancies himself a progressive man, questions why Ellen must be ostracised for leaving a husband who was clearly a brute, and announces his engagement to May publicly at a ball hosted by Julius and Regina Beaufort, making sure his family is seen as firmly on the side of the Mingotts. Despite this, when the Mingotts decide to host a formal dinner to re-introduce her grand-daughter to New York, the invitation is declined by every family it is sent to. In response, Archer enlists the ‘big guns’—his aristocratic elderly cousins, the Van Der Luydens—who agree that such an insult should not be tolerated, and host a dinner where Ellen is personally invited. As a Van Der Luyden invitation cannot possibly be declined, the rehabilitation of May’s cousin into New York Society seems to be complete.

However, Ellen Olenska proves to be rather square peg, unwilling to fit neatly into the Upper East Side of Manhattan and its round holes. Vivacious and charming, far too interested in proletarian pursuits, far too disinterested in the shallowness of New York’s prestige-obsessed, anti-intellectual society, shaped by the intellectualism of European courts and boudoirs, she chafes in the shallow, stifling confines of what New York deems ‘proper’ even as she takes solace in its comforting politeness and predictability after the nightmare that was her marriage. As a woman living separated from her husband, she also occupies a precarious position—she cannot marry, but she is too interesting and beautiful to be left alone; and she becomes a target for the attentions of several men, among them the rich but somewhat disreputable Julius Beaufort. 

Archer finds himself drawn to Ellen; her apparent freedom from the conventions and hypocrisies that he is so familiar with, and so tired of; her appreciation for a world beyond the vapid and superficial one he lives in; as well as the mystery surrounding her past makes him question his feelings for May, who represents precisely the vacuous, hypocritical, convention-bound New York Society that he has begun to hate being a part of.

As the novel progresses, we see Archer, Ellen and May each play out their parts, riding conflicts within themselves, their allegiance to society, to conscience and to their own feelings. Jealousy and passion, honour and deceit, play a role, but it is all buried under the veneer of gentle conversation and propriety, whitened out under a blaze of opulence, concealed beneath the ordinariness of the daily routine of the life of the wealthy.

With a soft touch and deft hands, Edith Wharton sinks the knife into the reader’s hearts, spinning and twisting it as she spins and twists this poignant story of love and duty. The emotionally-draining climax, the moving epilogue, all speak to the human condition in ways that resonate across the ages from the time it is set in, to when it was written, to the present day, a century later.

The Age of Innocence is a novel that operates at many levels, and not just because its characters almost never actually say what they mean. A love story it is, and a family drama as well, but it manages to go well beyond that. It shines a harsh light on the injustice perpetrated on men and even more, upon women, in the name of being ‘proper’ in upper-class society, upon the hypocrisy and vacillation of even ‘good’ men like Newland Archer, the indecision and cowardice of women like Ellen Olenska, the vapid cunning of women like May Welland, and the role of High Society women in institutionalising patriarchy upon themselves. 

But it also, somehow, simultaneously, induces a latent sympathy for that same crusty upper-class society, struggling to hold on to the world they had established over so many years even as it crumbled around them in the construction of high-rises and raced past them in trains and shouted over them in the raucous dance of democracy. It makes us sympathise for poor Newland, struggling between the frightening solace of comfort without love and the frightening perils of love with disgrace; for Ellen who keeps reaching for a happiness that she always knew was not hers to achieve, or lacks the capacity to reach for the happiness she wants; and for May, innocence raised to a shallow saintliness and dragged into deviousness.

Edith Wharton’s writing blends Victorian convention with a more modern, conversational style that makes it easy enough to read. That does not mean it is easy to grasp, however. A certain degree of familiarity with the times and conventions of the time it is set in would help, but the most important factor a reader needs to bring to it is a desire and ability to delve into the world created by the author, else one is in danger of coming away having read nothing more than a story about an Opera, a Ball, a Wedding, a couple of vacations and a couple of parties. 

In his 1993 film of the same title, Martin Scorsese adapts the novel more or less faithfully, and perhaps the definite proof that he knew exactly what he was doing lies in his assertion that it was the most violent film he ever made. What I found fascinating was that he made it at all, though—Scorsese’s versatility is indisputable, but adapting a costume-period drama in 1993 would seem like an odd choice for someone whose previous films were Goodfellas and Cape Fear, and whose next was Casino—except that it is not. In it’s true essence, The Age of Innocence is a story with striking relevance, for you see, there is a reason some stories stand the test of time, and it goes beyond narrative excellence or memorable characters; it has to do with the universality of themes. That’s why we continue to make and re-make films based on the classics, that’s why we continue to read and love them, generation to generation—because they do still speak to us. 

Have you felt suffocated by the pressures of conventional morality? Have you struggled to keep a smiling face while your heart broke inside? Have you found yourself devastated by the luxury of comfort, frightened by the unending changelessness of your predictable life? Have you walked away from something, convinced yourself that it was not what you wanted, though it was everything you ever did? If you have, you have lived through The Age of Innocence.

Maybe you still are. 

Maybe you will again, one day.

And maybe you will, one day, shudder at the ruthlessness of Catherine Mingott when she tells her niece, 

It was Beaufort when he covered you with jewels, and it's got to stay Beaufort now that he's covered you with shame.”

at the magisterial death sentence Sillerton Jackson pronounces when he says,

I didn’t think the Mingotts would have tried it on.”

at the jealousy and hatred contained in Newland Archer’s,

Hallo, Beaufort, this way! Madame Olenska was expecting you,”

at the unfathomable sense of helplessness expressed when he says, with a smile,

Tell her I am old-fashioned: that’s enough.”

Purchase here

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book Review: My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Book Review: My Antonia, by Willa Cather

I've never been to Nebraska. Couldn't point it out on a map if I had to. I don't feel too bad about that, because, you's not like most Americans could either. It's a typical 'flyover' state, large rural expanses, minimal population (16th by Area, 37th by population) and not much to distinguish it from the rest of the mid-west. But to those who live there, and lived there, it must be home, and home is never insignificant. Home is always unique.

Willa Cather's' My Antonia' is a heartfelt ode not just to Nebraska and the prairies, but to the concept of 'home', of youth and first love.

Through the narrator, Jim Burden and the Antonia (Shimerda) of the title, Cather constructs a story without a real plot but with a lot of story; a narrative of intersecting lives that never quite come together other than in brief, shining moments of tranquility, conflict, remorse and love. 

Slowly tracing the life of the orphaned Jim through the heroes of his childhood, the harsh winters on a Prairie farm, the struggle between acquired 'class' and inherent desire for joy, offering glimpses of Antonia's struggle to settle down into an ‘American’ life, adjust to the realities of her life, the losses she faces with quiet, powerful dignity, Willa Cather paints a moving portrait of lives that were destined to grow apart but never lost their love for each other.

The supporting cast is memorable too, whether it's the old-world grace of Mr, Shimerda or his wife's loutishness, the villainous Wick Cutter or his toxic-dependent wife. She retains a special love for the 'farm girls', the 'hired hands', the ones who came from afar to make their lives in early-20th century America, and set down roots there. Tiny Soderball, the 'Bohemian Marys', Antonia and Lena Lingaard each show in their different ways, aspects of womanhood shaped by toil, cowed by circumstances, but never without hope and happiness. Antonia, of course, as the heroine stand out, but Lena too gets her moments under the sun, and both feel alive and real, portrayals of nuanced, complicated womanhood. 

Lena, indolent, seductive, slandered far and wide, drawing men under her spell without even trying, but virtuous as only a woman of principle can be; Antonia, animated, beautiful, adored by one and all, fated to disgrace and strong enough to rise above it. 

I've known a Lena Lingaard, I've known an Antonia, drawn from landscapes far removed from the western prairies, but no less remarkable, no less strong. Willa Cather captures their natures, their beauty, their power as she does their caprices. Perhaps they represent the country and the changing seasons; harsh and lovely in turns, pliant and stubborn in turns, but never less than magnificent.

The book ends on an open, uncertain note, the loss of innocence and childhood mitigated by the emergence of a new generation, just as spring's flowers supplant winter's bones. Yes, Jim can never go back again, for Optima dies prima fugit; in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee, but at the end, Jim Burden's Antonia still stands tall. 

She is older, perhaps very little wiser, her beauty is a thing of the past, but her strength still resplendent. For she is more than a woman, just as the book is about more than what is written on the page. She is womanhood, and the earth, and nature, the loves and losses of childhood, and she remains, like My Antonia, 'battered, but not diminished'.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book Review: Help the Witch, by Tom Cox

Book Review: Help the Witch, by Tom Cox

When I joined Twitter a few years ago, my hellacious cat, Ser Pounce-a-lot ensured that I followed several luminaries of the feline twitter-verse. He assured me that about 40% of the non-pornographic traffic on the WWW is cat-related and as such, if I wanted to stay abreast of current trends, following prominent cat celebrities was absolutely essential. 

One of the most interesting cat celebrities turned out to be @MySadCat, a.k.a The Bear, a mournful black senior-citizen feline, whose philosophical, poetic Twitter feed was a source of much joy. Occasionally, The Bear would mention that he had under his wing a human, an author named Tom Cox, and he shared the said human with three other cats—Shipley, who swore a lot, Ralph, who was a rockstar-cat, and Roscoe, a businesswoman-cat.

Following Cox’s Twitter feed and reading his work on his website was a joy, for he was clearly a seriously talented writer, combining wit, humour and quirkiness with a taste for the slightly macabre that made his work unpredictable in outcome, but always enjoyable.

Help the Witch, Cox’s first short-story collection, came out in October 2018 and while I bought it almost immediately, it took me till a recent train journey to finally read it, and it turned out to be…well, different.

Help the Witch begins in an epistolary format, with a narrator excerpting from his diary about moving into a new home in the north of England. Gradually, two neighbours are revealed, his landlord and a tenant farmer, and the narrator comments on the mysterious behaviour of his cats as well as the tendency of his wooden Owl figurine to end up in the trash. The village itself has a darker past than is at first apparent, and by the time the source of the strange happenings around the narrator are revealed, you settle in for what looks like being a very different sort of spooky novel…

And then it becomes something else entirely.

For Tom Cox is clearly not writing to his audience, even if he is writing for one. Help the Witch is, nominally, a collection of short stories, but it is not quite that simple. All conventional ideas about how a collection should be compiled are thrown out of the window, and stories jump from horror to humour, from charming ghost stories to slice-of-life narratives, from first-person to omnipresent third-person viewpoints. Through all of it, the only constant is Cox’s amazing ability to pitch the language in just the right way to keep a reader interested in the moment. 

That said, the sheer non-linear, unstructured nature of the stories and the book overall, is likely to be a turn-off for some readers. The horror elements are unconventional, and Cox’s humour relies on absurdity and clever turn of phrase rather than satire or situation. What holds the disparate tales together is their deep love for the environment from which they spring; a viewpoint that sees nature as neither a deified mother-figure or an unimportant part of the background, but as a living, breathing element in symbiotic co-existence with us. Sometimes, she is scary, and sometimes, she is stunningly beautiful, and that, really, is what Cox brings out best in his writing.

Help the Witch left me smiling, and even from a third of the way across the globe, the environs and people Cox wrote about came to life very vividly. All said and done, a quirky, meandering trek through a fascinating corner of the world that I would only recommend to those who don’t mind getting their brain slightly scrambled by the end.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, by Manu Joseph

Book Review: Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Manu Joseph thinks you are trash.

It does not matter if you’re male or female, young or old, rich or poor, upper caste or lower, or somewhere in the middle of each duality; he thinks you are trash.

If it’s any comfort, he thinks he’s trash, too.

Why does it matter what Manu Joseph thinks, though? 

Fair question, that. He’s a journalist, as are many others, and not being on TV, is not important enough to issue certificates of nationalism either. So why does his opinion matter?

It matters because he has a voice and he is not afraid to use it. It has become quite common among right-wing commentators to brand writers as ‘liberals’ and lump them into a corner alongside the ‘intellectuals’, whose opinions must be discounted as driven by ideology. This is quite ridiculous, really, because India’s greatest literary giant, Chetan Bhagat, has broadly been a cheer-leader of the current government, as has Amish Tripathi, which makes it quite surprising that the ‘writers’ are reviled thus.

But Manu Joseph, ah well, now that’s another matter. He does hate the right-wing, you know. Enough to make them the apparent antagonists of his book, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

Indeed, on the surface of it, this short novel, featuring two quite sympathetic female protagonists and two quite unsympathetic male protagonists, seems to be an attack on the current dispensation. Thinly-veiled references to the Great Leader Modi, his caporegime Amit Shah and the mystical AK Doval abound. The extent to which the party and more importantly, the RSS, have infiltrated higher echelons of the security apparatus is hinted at, and much of the set-up of the story would, or should, make a reader nod his head in quiet agreement—tinged with pride or disgust, perhaps.

So what’s the story of Miss Laila?

Given that much of Joseph’s non-fiction writing lacks a comprehensible argument, flow or point, it is important to mention here that, short though it is, this novel does have a story. But to talk about Miss Laila’s story would be to give away much of what makes the book so interesting. Suffice to say that it exists. 

It is based on a not-so-recent event that was fairly controversial when it occurred—back when there needed to be a reason for killing a Muslim—and constituted a minor blip in the meteoric rise of India’s man of destiny. But I am getting ahead of myself. Miss Laila doesn’t appear in the narrative till much later.

Instead, we are introduced first to Akhila Iyer, stand-up comedienne and maker of prank videos. A minor tremor in Mumbai leads to Akhila venturing to check on the damage in the neighbourhood. Instead, she ends up embroiled in a strange, complex terror plot, becoming the only connection the ‘establishment’ has to a member of a terrorist sleeper cell. 

Then there is the erudite old bachelor Professor Vaid, the prominent intellectual backbone of the Sangh, able to articulate more shades of bigotry in one line than his foot-soldiers can through essay-length Facebook posts. 

Finally, there is Mukundan, the government heavy in charge of tailing Miss Laila,  when she is revealed to be armed and dangerous, who is not quite sure if he’s driven by duty or ideology and is apparently trying to be a decent bloke according to a very flexible definition of decency.

As Akhila zips between her present mission and her chequered past, as the Professor expounds mentally on the various shades of indoctrination that he has at his command and as Mukundan debates the ethics of premeditated murder versus accidental collateral damage, we find that we are laying bare not just a one-time political hot potato, but the casual bigotry that infects our society and the ease with which institutions, scruples and laws can be subverted and brought to serve a toxic, hate-filled ideology.

The characters follow their pre-ordained literary paths, converging into an unexpected ending that is suitably disturbing. Whether it leaves room for hope, or is a monument to despair is something that I think an individual reader will have to decide for himself.

Oh, and it reminds the reader that Manu Joseph thinks he’s trash. 

You see, the right-wing reactionaries and the bigots and xenophobes are the obvious targets of Joseph’s words. But his sharper weapons—his satire and his cutting wit—are reserved for the other side of the aisle. Left-leaning writers, rich upper-caste liberals who sympathise with peasants, self-proclaimed male feminists, all the apparently well-meaning members of the chattering classes are skewered and roasted with far more gusto than the Professor and his cadres. One can almost visualise the pleasure in the writer’s face as he attacks the leftists and the liberals (who are not, contrary to what your WhatsApp forwards tell you, always the same people), the NGO-types and the intellectuals.

However, the great weakness is Miss Laila remains its lack of intensity. Hovering over the political and social implication of what he writes, Joseph steadfastly refuses to delve deeply into any of the issues he raises, whether the hypocrisy of the intellectual class or the depravity of the religious ideologues. Despite the felicity with language, the pacing, and a proven ability to use words to evoke an emotional response in readers, Joseph steps back and avoids making it truly hit home in the way he surely could.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to say that, though. A writer, especially one as good as Joseph, is entitled to write what he wants, and his frankness and willingness to speak the truth as he perceives it is worthy of appreciation for its own sake. To expect more, to want a more compelling, more evocative narrative from him is like asking a Wizard not to be late—a Wizard, as we know, is never late; nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to—and we must trust that Joseph gives his readers precisely as much as he means to.

After all, he thinks we are trash, so why should he give us more? 

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That's right, you're trash.