My review of Nabokov's Pale Fire published in Spark Magazine:
Not at all.
Now what is it that makes great characters and a great story? And why is Ayn Rand such an awful writer? I have often wondered why my bile starts boiling at the thought of some writers who are so widely regarded. Ayn Rand is one such writer. The interesting thing is that when I actually read The Fountainhead at the age of 15 I was completely enthralled by it. I was swept away by the character of Howard Roark and saw in him all that was pure about the human spirit and noble about the human struggle. I saw in him what most people see, an inspiring and uncompromising man who was ready to go to any lengths of sufferings to stay pure to his own principles and just like other people I hated the mediocre world which was being an impediment to him in his pursuits of perfection. I saw the world in the black and white colors that Rand wanted from her disciples and I really did believe that pure characters like Roark existed in real life and even if they did not exist, I felt that Roark was an ideal which must be aspired for. What a bunch of bollocks, I have since realized.
I must say that Rand must be admired for the success that her creations have achieved but if one really wants to talk about her on artistic terms, she must be flayed and with vengeance. So what is it that really makes a great character? George Carlin, in one of those rare moments of overt sympathy, once said that you can see the universe in everyone’s eyes if you really look. I really do believe that each one of us is potentially a great character just waiting for our stories to be told by a competent and observant enough storyteller. What makes each of us fascinating has less to do with what we end up saying in conversations but has so much more to do with all that we never mention. What we say and what we feel are tremendously dependent upon a host of factors that would be hard to list. From our general upbringing to specific instances in the past, from the current company that we keep to our economic situations, there is almost an infinite number of factors which go consciously or subconsciously into explaining why we chose to keep quiet when a heated discussion on, say, the Palestinian conflict was going on. We snicker in disapproval and we are smitten with envy, we applaud inwardly and we dismiss with contempt but often we say only those things which would keep the wheels of social interaction in motion. We think about betrayal and we think about the ghastliest of things and we often do not mention all the sentimental love that we feel for the fear of ridicule. Against this background of the tremendous emotional turbulence we try to put up a face which is proper and graceful and strong and self-confident. Some of us are better than others at hiding our imperfections and some are better able to ignore the presence of such imperfections but they are present in all us and those character flaws are precisely the interesting bits in each of us.
Who wants to hear the story of the perfect being? We heard it a few times in the past and they still plague so many of us with their unreasonable ideals. The really great characters, I feel, are the flawed ones and especially those who are confused and contradictory in their flaws because that’s what people really are like. The great characters differ from boring people in the conviction that they have but they often do not understand the repercussions of acting upon their convictions. They are driven by true passion, just like Howard Roark, but there is none of that pathetic moral high ground in them which Roark seems to suffer from. Unlike Roark, they are not faced with a world whose sole purpose of existence seems to be stopping them from achieving their goals. They live in a world which is merely and appropriately apathetic and which has other characters as ‘right’ as them. They lead lives which are unfair to them despite all their best attempts and which often do not even compensate in the last few pages. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, creates easy worlds which appeal to our easy sympathies and automatic ideas. She creates worlds for those who want merely an escape and who are fine with missing all the variety and all the color of real life for the certainties of the simple stories which we have been fed with since time immemorial.
I hate her books so much that I had to rage delete my accounts from Orkut and Facebook because of all the people who had Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead in their favorite books list. Rather than going around the city and bashing kittens to take my anger out, I thought it was just better that I ignored that such people actually existed. There, I think those few lines of irrational anger make me incredibly interesting. I’m just waiting for a Tolstoy now!
Joyce's Ulysses. How should I describe it? The book is too great to be spoken of in words bound within the sorry perimeters of rationality. It's turbulence itself. It's the ravings of a supremely eloquent madman, a continuous fear of falling from a cliff as you tread carefully a ridge infinitely high and extremely thin. It's the disintegrated shards of a spent bullet. It's alternatively Beethoven and Duchamp and the regularity with which it changes character leaves you asphyxiated and disoriented. It's at once a supreme effort in vanity and contempt, a relentless dissection of orthodoxy, an erudite commentary on history and art, a squirming message written on the walls of a school lavatory, a mockery of custom, an inexcusable experiment! It's like a dream whose essence and beauty can only be remembered in parts and whose memory and understanding escapes you as soon as you try to grip it too hard. It's one of those great great pieces of art which restore your faith in the towering human intellect and make you feel privileged to belong to a specie which has the potential to think at such a level. But more than anything else, it's the purest form of individual expression - untethered from the morass of custom it reaches the giddy heights and suffocating depths which normal people do not even know exist. It's not for nothing that Ulysses is almost unanimously considered the greatest English book ever written.
And it's been 3 months and I'm still only half way through.
I have often wondered why is it that English translations of Russian authors seem to be much more widely available and read than writers from other languages. We have all heard of the great triad of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gogol and have come across the names of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gorki, Nabokov and more but our familiarity with literature from other parts of the world is composed of randomly scattered, sparsely populated and vaguely remembered names of books and authors. So while Gabriel Garcia Marquez holds the torch for the entire region of Latin America and the literature emanating from there is spoken off in broad generalizations of 'Magical Realism,' it is Miguel de Cervantes with his heartbreakingly naive hero Don Quixote who dispenses off with the requisite responsibility from Spain. Germany is represented by the mighty Kafka, Italy by Dante and Eco, France by Camus, and Japan by Murakami. Other smaller countries, and vast regions from Asia and the middle east do not evoke appreciable neural impulses in my mind to list them here. The most important reason why this may be the case, in my assessment, is the fact that Russian literature dealt with the facets of life which are very immediate to the common man. The broad subject of a life which in reality is contradictory to its idealized version which exists in our minds is as universal as they come. It may take the shape of an unsatisfying marriage, a stifling economic situation, or unrequited love but one can be sure that any and all of such situations have the potential to appeal to almost every human being. The Russians, maybe driven by the severity of weather, the relentless wars, the constant bleakness of an autocratic rule, have expatiated on this general subject extremely comprehensively.
Nevertheless, I decided to check for myself what the rest of the world has been up to and I chanced upon this wikipedia list of the most acclaimed books from around the world and found a book by the french author Marcel Proust titled 'In Search of Lost Time.' The book is in seven volumes and I completed the first one, as translated by Lydia Davis. I have discovered that Proust's meandering discourse, his delectable remembrances, and his exquisite sensitivity, with which the book is replete, are some of the finest things I have come across in life. This book is absolutely not for those whose idea of good literature is coherence both in plot and language and who feel frustrated when they cannot decipher an underlying order. But if there are certain things in life which endows one with an unbearable happiness, pure and poignant, which are absolutely useless in the worldly sense, almost trivial in objective assessment, and yet they are the wellspring of such pleasure and giddy euphoria that one is left stunned at their acuteness and unexplainable origins; this book will be a treasure to that person. Like an exquisitely crafted piece of dessert whose charm is more than the sum total of the perfection of its ingredients both in quality and proportion, whose appeal lies as much in taste as in other intangibles including its geometrical and chromatic harmonies, in whose essence lies, as one might imagine, hundreds upon thousands of years of suffocated human protests against the utilitarian gauge of efficiency, this book encompasses within its bound covers both a torrential outpouring of emotions and a surgical dissection of life.
As an example, Proust is describing a lady who is removed from her lover,
'And I watched her, as she returned from some walk along a road where she had known that he would not appear, drawing from her submissive fingers long gloves of a precious, useless charm.'
and the image of a beautiful girl dressed elegantly in black waiting for her lover instantly flashes in my mind. She knows, by intuition and social conditioning, that her actions are relentlessly dissected in this great game of matchmaking and that they stand for much more than what is dictated by mere utility. Her eyes, those merry vehicles of infinite suggestion, are leaping ahead of her conscious self, and her gestures are the sharp edges of a whole which was especially constructed to be a dagger in many a hearts. Her graceful action of pulling out the gloves from her fingers, therefore, is as suggestive and charming an action as such an exquisite creature can ever by accused of committing. The fact that there is no one to see it , at least none towards whom it might be subconsciously directed, makes it oddly sad and useless!
? That is the question - as Hamlet soliloquizes in one of the deepest, most biting reflections on the absurdity of life. His father has been murdered, his mother is married to the killer - which is the slain king's own brother, and Hamlet, writhing under the agony of inaction and helplessness, ponders lyrically over whether he should end his own ridiculous existence. He is wary of the uncertainty of death and attributes it to the only reason why a man who,
...would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office...
can still not gather courage enough to end it all. He concludes with the brilliant observation,
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And just like that, we have another of those absolute gems with which Shakespeare's Hamlet is replete.
Reading Shakespeare is a tricky deal - and not just because his language, by virtue of its chronological distance from the present and its own eloquence, is quite removed from our current comprehension. Reading Shakespeare is tricky because one always feels enormously burdened by the weight of his reputation. It almost feels like an insult to one's own intelligence if the 'expected' awe and respect for his work is not automatically generated. Because let's face it, 500 years of literature after his time and enormous giants of the field since him cite inspiration from his pen. Therefore, I was quite dismayed when I read 'Midsummer Night's dream.' The language was brilliant, needless to say, but I found the plot, the story, the characters - almost everything except the language to be quite pedestrian. The primary emotion that I felt after reading the play was 'Why even bother writing something this mediocre?' And then I decided to read his most famous work and I am not disappointed at all.
Hamlet reminds me of a line from the movie Fight Club. Brad Pitt says to Edward Norton, 'We are God's middle children... with no special place in history and no special attention.' He indicates how our generation has not really had any great wars, any great challenges, and how our concerns and our tragedies dwarf when compared to what history had to face. Since art reflects life, (If, for a moment, I take the liberty of going against the great Oscar Wilde) the greatest challenges our heroes have to face today are merely contemporary. I'm not denigrating the efforts of one who tries to survive the tough life of a call center, or one who is trying to make sense of the quagmire of love, but I think we can agree that what our current stories have gained in realism and subtlety, they have lost in magnificence and grandeur. Which is why Hamlet was such a joy to read.
It is an eternal mirror to life inasmuch that life's core issues of revenge, conceit, disloyalty, anger, treachery, moral corruption, and individual conflict remain ever present. But that mirror reflects a particularly radiant gleam and is set in a beautifully adorned, intricate and larger than life frame. In much the same way that our current literature might slyly reference pop culture, Hamlet harks back to the Greek gods. The canvas on which Shakespeare has painted Hamlet's tragedy is a palimpsest from which nothing less than divinity itself has been erased. And just like the Greek gods which, quite refreshingly, were great and mighty and mean and capricious, characters in Hamlet are all in shades of gray. Only writers who have their own axe to grind paint characters which are either good or bad. Such writers are not only mediocre themselves, but they only appeal to a simple minded reader (Ms. Ayn Rand for example). I quite loved the fact that Shakespeare, in this epic tragedy, gave us characters which left me quite unsure as to where my loyalties lay.
I would have recommended reading the play but I can very easily understand how a lot of people might find it dreary. I have a special fascination with language and I like when things are unnecessarily beautiful and complex. Every line of Hamlet (indeed any other play by Shakespeare, I'm guessing) requires effort to disentangle and I understand how most people would consider it not worth the effort. But regardless of this fact, it would not be out of place for me to recommend watching the play. I myself am looking forward to it the first opportunity I get.
I read the book Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse over the weekend and here is an effort to glean some coherence out of its brilliantly ambitious and seemingly inchoate mass of ideas. I am glad to say that despite the back cover of the book containing phrases like 'blend of eastern mysticism and western culture', 'soul's journey to liberation', and 'vital spiritual force' this book has much more to offer in terms of imagination and depth than so many treatises on all kinds of philosophy do. There is no doubt that my contempt for philosophizing, especially the sort which gives you the idea that there is something higher worth aspiring for, results from my own belief in the ridiculousness and accidental nature of life. Yet, I cannot deny that life has a beautiful intricacy to it - the sort of complexity which gives rise to our best artistic creations, our desperations, our flights of imaginations, happinesses, insecurities and so many other interesting concepts. As someone who stands in awe at the magnificent variety of life, I find it a worthy occupation trying to dissect this complexity without falling into the trap of moralizing or teaching. Steppenwolf is an enjoyable attempt at this. Barring some questionable references to the 'wisdom of the east', the 'immortality of the soul', and a few other nuggets of bullshit thrown here and there (Mr. Hesse was a spiritualist so I did expect some unbearable passages.) Steppenwolf is a good book.
It is contemporary in the sense of concerning with the isolation of a man in the modern society. It deals with the sort of isolation which on a superficial level is afforded only by the modern society and is seen to be increasing as technology allows us to be more and more disconnected yet connected. On a deeper level, though, this book is about the kind of isolation which is very much independent of time and age. The isolation of the man who has refused to buy into the common ideals of society. The man who has spent considerable effort trying to hone his intellectual side and, thus, has developed a highly biting sense of contempt towards the mass of humanity who do not appreciate the 'finer way of living.' This mass of humanity, quite understandably, finds such a man unbearable and is only too happy to leave him to his own devices. The desperation that follows this isolation, however, is compounded by the fact that man is, in essence, merely an animal. His animal instincts (represented by the wolf in this book) often clash with his desire to be civilized. The desire to kill, to be unlawful, for sex, and for aggression are in direct odds with his desire to be swept away in the gay abandon of Mozart, Handel, Bach, and the intellectual thoughts of Nietzsche, Novalis, and Goethe. Our protagonist (Harry), therefore, decides that suicide is the only resolution to such a deep seated conflict.
This is where he comes across a girl who seems to be able to read his thoughts and make more sense out of them than Harry himself can. She empathizes with him and gives him an immediate reason to live for. The essence of the book from here on is Harry's reintroduction to the 'indulgences of the bourgeoisie.' Dancing, jazz, sex, drugs - all those activities of the common man which Harry had so much contempt for. The wolf rears its head against the cultural snob every now and then and the inevitable question is raised - 'What is right?' And thankfully the question is left more or less unanswered; or at least open to interpretation.
The book ends with Harry's foray into the very imaginative 'theater of magic.' It raises topics like the profligacy and the simultaneous necessity (even inevitability) of war, the ridiculous duality of our civilized existence in a world which is hopelessly burning, the triviality and the simultaneous magic of 'human emotions' like love, the chanced nature of our birth and existence, and the ultimate folly of taking oneself too seriously. To my liking, none of these topics are explicitly stated or preached upon but a reader with sufficient intelligence should be able to sniff them out in the brilliant and surrealistic theater of magic. I, with my very limited intelligence, could decipher some broad themes but I am quite flummoxed by the way the book ends. At this point, it appears to me that some characters and ideas of the book have been modeled upon the Bhagwad Gita but my ignorance of Gita prevents me from being able to verify my suspicions.
All in all, it's a very good book. Highly recommended.
Just finished reading Vonnegut's famous Slaughterhouse Five. New York Times, in their original review of the book, said something to the effect that you'd either love it or push it aside as a science fiction book. I suppose great works have that capability of sharply dividing public opinion but I just found the book... listless - which is probably a great compliment for it in a warped sort of way.
The book, like other Vonnegut's novels, is about nothing really. I mean, it sort of has an anti war message in its mundane and trivializing portrayal of the bombing of Dresden. It may be called a science fiction novel in its description of the planet of Tralfamadour but the greatest compliment I can give to the book is that it's about nothing and the only thing it manages to do in its 250 pages is babble about zillion small and disconnected happenings and concepts. I am by no means being critical - because I really believe that Vonnegut, for the kind of writer that he was, appreciated above all other acclaim, the acclaim of being the champion of nothing. It seems to me that he was the sort of chap who looked at the triviality of the world and the seriousness with which people took themselves with an amused look - and the world with all its self-presumed purpose was nothing but a heady dose of entertainment for him. Very much like George Carlin actually. He preaches no morals, sort of believes in predestination, really doesn't have much sympathy for any cause, and doesn't want anything to do with group mentality. He is disinterested with the travails of the irrational humanity but understands that he needs to milk it in order to lead a decent life. And he knows that he is smart enough to jeer at the dumb humans and us humans would love him for it. Slaughterhouse Five is exactly the sort of novel which you expect to come from such a person.
I love the ideas in the book and share Vonnegut's amusement at human irrationality (not to say that I'm not irrational), but a satirical antiwar book, for me, has to be measured against the gold standard of Catch-22, and it just doesn't hold up there. There is a cruelty in Catch-22, an absolute inhuman disgust at human herd-mentality, a complete disregard for so many of our cherished ideals - it's a symphony in cacophony, and S5 is nowhere near. Vonnegut probably never tried to write another Catch-22 and there is no obvious reason to compare the two but I cannot help it. But here is the thing - if I had to ignore the content of the book and evaluate Vonnegut as the avant garde, zany writer that he was supposed to be, I'd prefer Woody Allen over him. Allen is not considered a great writer maybe because he never really wrote seriously, but from what I have read from him, there is nobody that I've read (with the exception of Kafka) who even comes close to how crazy his imagination was and is. The trouble with Vonnegut is that in whichever department I choose to evaluate his brilliance, it is always easy to find someone else who is much better. So it goes (and that's how Vonnegut ends most of his paragraphs).
It was one of those moments of lucidity when you abruptly realize that most of the time during the last 10 days that you did not spend sitting in front of the computer screen in the lab were spent sitting in front of the computer screen at home. And then you read a bit of Calvin and Hobbes in which Watterson talks about 'letting the pandering idiocy of television liquefy our brains' and you realize that the prominent differentiator between our generation and the last is the mode of 'passive entertainment' it offers. So I decided to shut down my laptop and pick up a book.
I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury but do not exactly have a lot of good things to say about it. When you have read dystopia of the level of 'Brave New World', and '1984', 451 seems lacking in a lot of respects; but I don't intend to talk about this book anyway so we'll leave it right here. I read some stories by Kafka and if you want to read what creations a brilliant, messed up mind can create, it's hard to find anything better than 'Metamorphosis', 'In the Penal Colony', 'First Sorrow' etc. And then I read William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' and my dear god, what a brilliant book it is!
It's a story of some British school boys who get stranded on an island amidst an unnamed nuclear war raging in other parts. They begin by trying to make sense of their deserted new home and bringing some order to the chaos which has ensued after their plane crashed on this island. There are no elders to maintain decorum so they end up forming a loose organisation with a chief and sketchy roles for everybody. It's a story of how the initial attempts at civilization fail completely and anarchy sets in. It's a story of how humans are invariably cruel when not bound by social mores. It's a story of the essential darkness of human nature and all that is scary and despicable about it. And like Orwell's 'Animal Farm', the brilliance of the book lies in how believable the descent into chaos is. While reading it, the most prominent emotion I felt was, 'My God, I know where this is going. There is no other way a normal human being is going to behave.' Because I am aware of how humans have behaved in history when the thin veneer of civilization was taken off their restless, twitching souls. Because I'm aware of Milgram's and Zimbardo's experiments, and our inevitable roots in animality.
The fact that it's a story about children only makes it more believable. What they have in innocence is more than amply balanced by shaky morals and a pliable, fluid sense of right and wrong - ideas which can be easily molded for better or for worse. I think that a normal human being living in normal peaceful times comes across the cruelest peers during childhood. It's not surprising then that the subject of this book is children.
The language is beautiful and imaginative and so realistic and urgent that it's actually a terrifying, uneasy read. Fear grips you like closing foliage of the dark deserted island, and speaks to you in the very voice of the lord of the flies himself.
Very highly recommended. But you might want to read a bit of Wodehouse after that, just to feel good about humanity .
Language at once both beautiful and wise
set in the tetrameter's confines,
a work as evocative as Monet,
unflinching rhymes, and refreshing sonnet.
Through joy and sorrow the characters drift,
like the unsure antics of fog and mist,
the Golden Gate often is in whose fist,
A belated thanks for this thoughtful gift.
To read it, I remember you had willed,
That promise, dear, today stands fulfilled.
P.S: The book is in iambic tetrameter but since I have no feel for it, the only thing I could manage was a pentameter. It's a good book, highly recommended.