Thursday, February 27, 2014

"One Of The Few English Novels For Grown-Ups"

This appeared in the latest issue of the Sunday Guardian -- although, by mistake, under a different byline. 

When I first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, the question I asked myself was: what makes it a novel? There's a profusion of characters of various ages and backgrounds, facing different predicaments, many of whom never meet, with parallel, sometimes interlocking narrative strands. On the other hand, if, as the novel's subtitle has it, it's meant to be a study of English provincial life, why the emphasis on Dorothea Brooke, commonly held to be the novel's heroine?  This reaction seemed a faint echo of Henry James’ own mixed admiration for the novel:  it was “a treasure house of detail”, but “an indifferent whole”.

One of the answers to the question of what holds it together, I later realised, is that of a distinct sensibility. Eliot, with her famous authorial interjections and empathy for all her characters, was tying the whole together with a magisterial understanding of what it means to be human, with human yearnings that are satisfied -- or not.

One of the satisfactions of reading New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead's new book on Eliot's novel is that it delves into this answer, and offers many more besides. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead's investigation into Middlemarch’s origination and conception, and the ways in which it intersects with her own life. It’s a beguiling combination of a devoted reader's analysis, explorations into Eliot’s life and relevant vignettes from Mead’s own experiences. Fittingly, the book’s structure mirrors Middlemarch itself.

As Mead reminds us, the novel was an amalgamation of two ideas that Eliot separately toyed with: the first, a study of provincial manners, and the second, simply called “Miss Brooke”. Bringing them together, she created a master-work, a clever inversion of the marriage plot that was “arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences”, with, as Eliot wrote, “tolerant judgment, pity and sympathy” extended to every character.

The most famous thing ever said about Middlemarch was Virginia Woolf’s observation that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. It’s a statement that Mead unpacks, concluding that what Woolf meant, perhaps archly, is that it’s for “those who are old enough to appreciate the artistic representation of failure rather than success.”

Mead reads Eliot’s diaries and letters, visits the author’s childhood house and walks the streets that she herself would have walked, in Coventry, London and Oxford, among others. She explains the ways in which Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her, detailing the effort required for Mary Ann Evans to turn herself into George Eliot. (She also speculates on the origins of the characters: were Casaubon and Dorothea based on the Rector of Lincoln and his wife? How much of Lewes, the man Eliot lived with, was there in Ladislaw?)

My Life in Middlemarch is also a paean to re-reading: “The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it.” Through episodes from her own life – moving from the provinces to the city, affairs, marriage, children – Mead highlights how Middlemarch provided revelation at every stage: “The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe the old, and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?” From an immersive identification with Dorothea, Mead moves on over the years to appreciate and sympathise with the other characters, Lydgate, Ladislaw, Rosamond, Fred, Mary and even Casaubon. As she puts it, the book was reading her as she was reading it.

Mead’s assessment of this “home epic”, then, shows how Eliot draws us deep into her fictional panorama and “makes Middlemarchers of us all”. In answering the question I put when I first read it, it makes me want to return to Middlemarch myself.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Of Marquez's Heirs

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

To the world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez still remains Latin America’s best-known writer, One Hundred Years of Solitude his best-known work, and magic realism his best-known style. Since that novel appeared, however, a new generation of authors has sprung up, one that has forsaken fabulist narratives but is as uncompromising in the search to tell stories that capture their region’s history.

One of the best examples is that of fellow-Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez. In an earlier novel, he mischievously has the narrator tell us: “This is not one of those books where the dead speak or where beautiful women ascend to the sky, or priests rise above the ground after drinking a steaming potion”. Clearly, despite the author’s stated admiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude -- one of the books that he says made him want to become an author – a new approach was necessary.

Vasquez’s recent The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Anne McLean and the third of his books to be available in English, is a perfect illustration of his concerns and technique. “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find that their life has been moulded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from their own decisions,” thinks the narrator of The Sound of Things Falling, and the novelist sets out to unpack this statement in the context of his country’s recent history.

The narrator, a law professor in Bogota, tells of his encounters with one Ricardo Laverde at a billiards parlour, and of how these chance meetings lead to an event that will transform him. We learn bits and pieces of his own life – romance, marriage, fatherhood – and this deftly segues into the heart of the book, a reconstruction of the life of Ricardo himself, revealed as an aspiring, morally compromised pilot taking advantage of his country’s dubious opportunities; and of his wife Elena, an impressionable Peace Corps worker from the United States sucked into the vortex of current events. All of them fall prey to “the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army.”

A presence that pervades the novel – as it does Colombia’s recent past – is that of Pablo Escobar and the continuing havoc that his actions have wrought. To drive home the point, The Sound of Things Falling opens with an escaped hippo from Escobar’s private zoo in Hacienda Napoles, a place that the narrator and Maya, Laverde’s daughter, re-visit near the end. At one point, the latter wryly says: “We have an abnormal relationship to Bogota. Being there through the 80s will do that to you.”  Later, the narrator himself observes: “One day I’d like to find out how many of them were born as Maya and I were at the beginning of the 1970s, how many like Maya or me had a calm or protected or at least unperturbed childhood, how many traversed their teenage years and fearfully became adults while the city around them sank into fear and the sound of gunshots and bombs without anyone having declared any war, or at least not a conventional war, if such a thing exists.”

Vasquez also grounds his narrative in other historical events that have scarred his country: the 1938 aircraft accident during a ceremony to mark the founding of Bogota is one such, cross-matched by another air disaster, that of the American Airlines flight in 1995. Other temporal markers are provided by, among others, conversations about Nixon, Ho Chi Minh and the Sea of Tranquility.

In a Washington Post interview, Vasquez has said, “I realized that the fact that I didn’t understand my country was the best reason to write about it — that fiction, for me, is a way of asking questions. I think of it as the Joseph Conrad approach: You write because there’s a dark corner, and you believe that fiction is a way to shed some light.” This is exactly what he– thrillingly, arrestingly – has done in his new novel.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This Land Is Our Land

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

The members of a dysfunctional family come together to celebrate an event. Old bonds are renewed, old wounds re-opened, old secrets spilled. Upon their departure, they are driven to make changes in their circumstances. Some are sadder, some wiser, some both.

That’s a familiar scenario in many novels and films, and it is this that Prajwal Parajuly employs in his debut novel, Land Where I Flee. Many of the novel’s aspects will be recognisable to readers of his earlier short story collection, The Gurkha’s Daughter: among others, the fast-changing cities of the North-East; the psyche of Nepalese immigrants in the United States, feisty domestic workers; political manoeuvring for Gorkhaland; and divisions of caste and class.

The reason for the family re-union in Gangtok is the chaurasi – or 84th birthday – of the materfamilias, the formidable textile factory owning, beedi-smoking Chitralekha. Three of her grandchildren arrive from overseas: the disgraced Bhagwati, married into a lower caste and working as a dishwasher in a Colorado diner; the tentative Agastya, a New York oncologist who has to keep his gay side hidden; and the embittered Manasa, an erstwhile financial consultant in London who spends her time caring for a paraplegic father-in-law. Their parents died in a car crash when they were young and all of them have complicated, not to mention fractious, relationships with their grandmother.

Rounding up the cast of characters is the spirited eunuch Prasanti, Chitralekha’s long-time servant-cum-confidant, and another grandson, the cocksure writer Ruthwa. He’s carrying a double burden of ignominy: his first novel laid bare secrets the family would rather have withheld, and the second gained notoriety because of charges of plagiarism. (Ruthwa’s family would no doubt have agreed with Czesław Miłosz, who once said: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”)

Most of the time, Parajuly does justice to this collection of disparate individuals as he cross-cuts between points of view, keeping the narrative moving through an artful release of information. He deftly makes them negotiate identities: those from the past, those in the present and those that are emerging. As one of them thinks, "How complicated adulthood was. It had so many dangerous curves, so many restricted areas that, if trespassed, the adults would find themselves squashed in. Had they been children, they'd have probably called each other names, fought and made up a dozen times throughout their journey to Gangtok. As adults, they could barely muster up enough courage to ask the questions that mattered.” As the novel proceeds, their interactions and arguments continue in the family house under the gaze of Mount Kanchendzonga.

The fleshing out of the character of Ruthwa, however, is disappointing given the central part he plays in bringing the narrative to a close. Some sections are his first person account, incorporating chapters and articles he’s written on the story of Prasanti as well as the Gorkhaland agitation, and these come across as inorganic, a departure from the quiet, convincing realism of the rest. His actions as a writer of repute are somewhat unpersuasive, and his departure is anti-climactic.Every once in a while, though, Parajuly has fun in sending up Ruthwa’s public image, such as the time when he thinks: “Of course you must stick to pigeonholes in your writing; otherwise, there's all that talk about inauthenticity”.

At one point in Land Where I Flee, Ruthwa thinks: “This reunion was strange, but I wasn't expecting anything different. There'd be big, uncomfortable silences, I had conjectured. There were. Awkwardness. There was. Reminiscences. There were. The revisiting of past follies and passions. There was. Vindictiveness. There was. Vindication. There was.” All of this is to be found in Parajuly’s novel as it depicts the shifting intersections between past and present,individual and collective, and freedom and responsibility.