My review of Nabokov's Pale Fire published in Spark Magazine:
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.
After days of diligent pouring, I have finally waded across 750 pages of paradoxes, logic, philosophy, mathematics, painting, music, and computation and crossed the checkered flag signaling the end of Hofstadter's 'Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.' Why, you might ask, is this important? Well, in the field of 'intelligent, thought provoking books', GEB has a towering, almost bullying, presence. It is the Don Bradman of 'intellectual' writing. Consequently it manages to scare off the reader even before it begins, partly owing to the lofty goals it sets out in the beginning, and partly because of the sheer thickness that requires negotiation. And now that I am done, I at least want to jot down some of the ideas which have managed to stick, for the fear of losing them again.
What is it about? For a book that deals with issues as different as molecular biology and transcendental music, it has a surprisingly clear and single minded focus. I wonder if anyone who has read it finds that the book is about anything but one single sentence and its ramifications. Epimenides paradox is the sentence:
'This sentence is false'.
No matter how much you think about it, it won't make sense. There is something deeply sinister and pathological about the sentence. But it's just language and language can be easily pushed under the rug. It doesn't bring the house down. GEB primarily tells the story of this dude called Kurt Godel who devised a way of applying this sentence to mathematics in the first half of the 20th century. He showed that for a sufficiently complex formal system (like number theory) there is a way to formulate a theorem which is true in that system and which says:
'I am not a theorem in this system'.
In other words, he proved that a mathematical system which aims to be consistent (no self contradictions) will not be able to provide proofs for all that is true within that system, and that a system which aims to give proofs to all truths within it is necessarily inconsistent. If you think about it, a result of this depth does indeed require a 750 page tome to talk about it. I mean, results and theorems in every other discipline are merely humanity's tentative, though increasingly accurate, stabs in darkness. They do and will continue to suffer from our own sensory limitations. Experimental validations of our grandest astronomical theories and minutest quantum ones are merely smudges on photographic plates. On the other hand, theorems in mathematics stand alone, almost inviolable (almost). And a theorem about how mathematics can and will behave should truly count as the towering achievement of human intellect. It should also be seen as one of the greatest contributions to society because mathematics is the language we have chosen to interpret the world in. It is the only tool we have got and it is precisely because of it that society affords us the comforts and leisure which allow us to indulge our creativities, and be sympathetic towards fellow humans, animals, nature.
The book goes on to study the implications of the theorem and its curiously self-referential nature on issues like the mysteriousness of the human mind, the future of artificial intelligence, the meaning and emergence of truth and beauty in artistic creations, the existence/nonexistence of free will, the illusion of intelligence resulting from a system of sufficient complexity, genetic evolution etc. The scope of the book is breathtakingly broad and the fact that Hofstadter makes it all appear coherent is either because he is a depressing genius in deception or because deep down, things should be so. Like Hardy mentioned about Ramanujan's crazy results: 'They must be true because, if they are not true, no one would have had the imagination to invent them.'
I found that the book, despite its content and size, is cheerfully lucid. It has the same 'philosophical displacement' as David Deutsch's 'The fabric of reality' but while Dr. Deutsch assumed that all his readers trace their route back to Einstein and decided to cram everything in 200 pages, Hofstadter is more sympathetic to our vacuity. He has included fictional dialogues between Lewis Carrol's characters Tortoise and Achilles which give a simple-worded, though cryptic, overview of the ideas. And he has shown elaborate harmonies between mathematics, painting (M.C.Escher, Rene Magritte) and music (J.S.Bach) to sustain a general curiosity. But then, he hasn't done all this for the express desire sustaining interest. He has done it because, as you start feeling by the end of the book, there is a very deep connection between such disparate fields. It shouldn't come as a surprise that what we find harmonious in music and beautiful in art, often has deep mathematical associations. When music is bound in meters and beats, and art has familiar geometries, when poetry is enclosed in metered iambs, it seems that a condition for beauty is automatically met. This, as opposed to postmodern art, aleotoric music, which, in order to explain their significance, have to invoke ideas of rebellion, boredom, authority and conformity. Where such deep connections exist between mathematics and art, it is interesting to see how something as profound as Godel's Incompleteness and self-reference commute between the two. And this is what GEB explores, with humor and intelligence.
I guess it was the apt time to read Forster's 'A passage to India'. Any book that Kowsik recommends demands to be taken with a pinch of salt by me. Not to cast any aspersions on the merits of his choice for his is an extremely keen intellect and possesses a very envious literary repertoire, but our reading habits and general lines of beliefs diverge enormously. This book, though, is a thoroughly enjoyable masterpiece, although I liked it not for being a great story but for Forster's insightful painting of flawed characters set against the Indian background - a background which has been beautifully dissected by an author more observant than most. His language sketches the Indian landscape in surreal, metaphoric shades and nails the famed subcontinental overdrive of emotions to the T. His portrayal of the religious umbrage that clouds the Indian social intercourse is exactly what it should be - drugged at places, euphoric at others. Because it is futile trying to capture that abandon in logic. As much as a nonbeliever as I am, I cannot but respect the primal surge, the self-sacrificial faith that drives religion in India. It is a spectacle that should be described in words as turbulent as the phenomenon itself. Forster's characters are gray, something which is very welcome because real life doesn't have infallible heroes and impeccable mistresses. His characters fall repeatedly to weave a story that actually appeals to one's emotions and sympathy. A very good book all in all.
The other book that I read was Kurt Vonnegut's 'Breakfast of Champions' and found it to be too episodic, too incoherent for the most part. Aware of the author's mighty reputation as a contemporary master of prose, I was searching for vantage points, lookout hills, from which to make sense of the book but I did not find any till about 2/3rds. It seemed to me to be a sorry attempt at imitating Joseph Heller's humor, only less complex. But then I came across a few lines which put everything in perspective and explained away 200 pages of incoherence and arbitrariness:
'I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it has lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And the I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abonimable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
...Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would right about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order.'
As long as someone does something not just because he cannot do any better but because he believes in it. I actually ended up liking the book.
Finally, India! The source which generates a million thoughts, a billion confusions. You only need to peek out of your window to see the radiant faces on malnourished bodies of sunburned toilers and marvel at the mysterious source that keeps them going in a life that doesn't and will not reward them in a manner commensurate to their efforts. It not only does not give them clean water, decent food, and breathable air, it breathes venom and sucks them dry of their last reserves of life. And yet, and yet... How do they manage their smiles? Why doesn't the twinkle not vanish? In a society where material comforts are on such short supply, I'm actually thankful that religion, with its nebulous promises and abstract goals, has such a strong hold. It is such a reason to live for so many people here. It has ideals which might never be achievable, but at least those ideals would never be beyond one's reach simply because he was unfortunate enough to be born without means. For all its shortcomings - and glaring they are - I'm happy that it's there, at least for now.
I'll be going to Delhi this weekend to meet my best friend - I talk to him once every two months for a few minutes. Next weekend I'll visit IIT Guwahati for the first time after graduation. I hope there will be experiences to speak of!