Jul 21, 2011

Notes on The History of Love I: Loss

I'd heard good things about Nicole Krauss and had been meaning to check out 2 of her novels. Started The History of Love (THOL) today and am at a loss how to label it - a love story? a tale of loss and redemption? a quirky tale about how the only way to grapple with loss is to loosen the imagination and seek refuge in words? I know not.

The weather cleared after ages today, read some mails, and suddenly i felt a furious impulse to go for a walk. It's been ages since I've done this kind of thing and I realised too much time has passed rather quickly, unnoticed perhaps. Bunked office and walked around, picked up THOL and after a while settled myself at Aromas where the owner was kind enough to leave me alone for almost the entire day. Something I wouldn't have expected in India. 

To read Krauss is to feel vivacity and joy and emerging hope amidst deep sadness. That's her beauty. She's also someone who weaves words like magic - while some of it may read like Hallmark card sentiments, they fall into place in the novel's landscape.

THOL tells us the story of 3 people - one of whom is Leo Gursky - an old man whose greatest fear is that he will pass away unnoticed. We meet Gursky, an old man as he's preparing for death in a shabby Manhattan apartment. He's a Jew who escaped from Poland after the WWII. When we meet Gursky, he seems to be bereft of any reason to be alive. While in Poland, he'd loved a girl called Alma for whom he'd written a book named The History of Love. Alma moves to America before him and having assumed that he has died in the holocaust, she married someone else. Gursky entrusts his novel to his best friend who tells him that it is lost. The story is published later though in spanish and events unfold involving other characters and another young girl named Alma. 

Though Gursky survives the war and finally reaches America, he has nothing left of him - the woman he loved is gone, the book which chronicled the only memorable incident of his life, is gone. You cant get through the Gursky portions of the book without wondering, "How and why does a merciful God impose such cruelty?" 

There are two other sections and they all come together, but I dont really want to talk about the entire book here. Thing is, Gursky is such a great hero that I doubt I've read a more gripping fictional character recently. Alone in his apartment, estranged from his son, he reminds me of the protagonist of Rana Dasgupta's 'Solo' another brilliant novel about old age and loss and memory. Perhaps what is most compelling about Gursky is his complete inability to get over Alma, to 'move on' as they say. He stays as much in love with her when she's an old woman dying in the hospital as he did when he was 11. When the old Alma is dying in Manhattan he goes every day to sit at her bedside in the hospital after hours. "She was tiny and wrinkled and deaf as a doorknob. There was so much I should have said. And yet. I told her jokes."

Consider the wonder of Krauss' language as she writes, "She was gone, and all that was left was the space you'd grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it 'was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren't for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it." This has got to be the best description of loss, of void, I've read. 

Or this: "Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. When they were ten he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven he kissed her for the first time... For her sixteenth birthday he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words." 

Jul 18, 2011

Thoughts on re-reading Lolita

People make a big hue and cry about retaining their ‘inner child’ even in their adult years. I think it’s a tad hypocritical because the same people crucify you when you give in to the first instinct of childhood – self fulfillment. Frankly, they are not wrong, just hypocrites as I mentioned. You cannot replicate a time gone by, you cannot refeel impulses felt long ago amidst adult roles and responsibilities. And if you do, more shame to you. 

To discover romance in later years, to experience yet again the mad thumping of the heart as you see the beloved’s no. flash across the phone screen, is supposed to be a blessing. It is not, it cannot be, for it is a subversion of nature and you can’t subvert nature without disastrous results. Young love is always tinged with innocence – innocence about the ways of the world, innocence about how unkind people can really be, innocent that first love soon gives way to last rites. To attempt to either duplicate or even genuinely experience it later in life is a tragic perversity of the kind we see in ‘Lolita.’ We love during our youth, and spend our later years trying to remember what it felt like. 

Towards the end of the book, Humbert is walking along the sea when he hears the sound of some children playing. He says, "Reader!  What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic–one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter…and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from the concord."

Not only has he lost her forever, he is the single reason she has lost the 'vivid laughter'. You cannot appreciate a writer like Nobokov if you fail to grasp the air of elegiac mourning in these lines; of a regret coming too late. 

In succumbing to an absurd infatuation in his adulthood, Humbert perverts the capacity for 'love superior' which resides in all our hearts. Though he’s often despicable in Nobokov’s work, he also arouses our sympathy. Here is a man who has been chasing a dream (nymphets) all his life and who, when he realises his time is running out, attempts to translate that dream into reality through coercion and murder. It is not only a betrayal of trust, but also a betrayal of his purest instinct for love. Humbert's tragedy is that he cannot differentiate between a futile obsession and the centering of 'love superior' in his life.

Some dreams must not be chased, some dreams are simply meant to be held close for they define the people we become. Nobokov’s novel is about these dreams.

"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. "

Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov.

I Love These

I am not a gizmo enthusiast but am able to keep up with the broad developments in electronics by virtue of being married to one who lives and swears by then.

Anyway, today i thought i'd write about 3 particular objects that i've been using lately and which i quite liked - the Kindle e-book, Sensei digital photoframe, and the Sennheiser cordless headphones.

Yeah, you heard me right - this beauty (not really, its quite chunky) can be plugged into whatever device your music is stored and you can listen to it wherever you're in the house. Its superb 'ambient noise cancellation' technology means you could actually be adding tadka to dal and still float on the soft melodies of Swan Lake. Me? I usually plug the thing to protect my years when i scrub and wash D during the weekend. The scene is Chaplinesque in its incongruousness - she screaming and kicking, me clutching her limbs in a vise and nodding frantically to Rehman's 'O Humdum sunio re'.

A lot of book columnists and bloggers lament the (gradual)  demise of the book in its physical copy. I was completely allied to them previously but having read books on the Ipod Touch, the Iphone as well as the Kindle ebook, i can confidently say that the experience leaves very little to be desired. In fact, one of the things that i'd find really cumbersome while reading books earlier, was the entire deal of marking lines and passages and jotting notes. Though i'd index them at the book's end, some would inadvertently be lost. With the Kindle ebook, marking passages or bookmarking a page has never been easier. I really think it's a superb device for serious book reviewers.

My only grouse with the Kindle ebook is that it doesn't have a backlight option, like the Kindle app on Iphone does. Which means it functions pretty much like a regular book which requires reading lamps. I'm a lil fussy when reading and prefer a dark room, fan at medium speed and the text to be read by means of the backlight function of the device. I can't explain the strange intimacy that develops as you read about people and stories and places.

The digital photoframe and me got together almost by accident. Someone gifted it to us and we started using it. Like any other modern deviCe, it has hazaar apps and can do too many things, but I think it should be used as a photo frame and nothing much. Of course you can customise your own music to play as these photographs float across slowly.

The idea is this: you can't dump photographs indiscriminately on it. Choose the 'Tracy's face' of your life and select some 80 odd pics - from the earliest ones to the latest ones - and watch them flit across the screen as you lie in bed. Trust me, nothing gives as good a feeling as this. I have pictures of D from when she was like a scrawny chicken - just a few weeks old, pics of the day she first turned over, her first playgroup in the US, climbing a tree at Yosemite National Park, peeping from under a water pipe in Fremont and so many more. At the risk of sounding foolish, those snaps sustain me when others have been unkind or behaved in unexpected ways.

Go for these, you'll love them i'm sure.

Jul 10, 2011

Notes on In a Strange Room

Ostensibly touted as a travel book, I found it hard to label Damon Galgut’s ‘In a Strange Room’ as one. True, the protagonist, a white South African named Damon, travels through, first Lesotho, then Zimbabwe and Kenya, and finally India, but these travels are just a framework to support his basic theme of travel as a means of taming or countering an endless restlessness, a relentless craving for ‘home.’ This search for home is atavistic – from Moses to Yasser Arafat to Hamas – mankind has always looked for that which it can claim as its own; it is rooted in our deepest impulses to claim and to be claimed by another. It is not a stretch to read all these undercurrents in Galgut’s novel.

Obliquely, the home also becomes a metaphor for stability, for the 'other', for our unrealized dreams. After all, aren’t we all chasing that which we believe will complete our fractured selves? But Galgut seems to be saying that this search is self defeating, his novel shows the futility of searching for an idea or chasing a dream because the dream, by its very nature, will always be elusive, escape realization and bring about endless misery. So, is it all futile? Is this another sad novel? Wrong. In the end, it is kindness that brings relief from misery, it is the strangers who pass through our lives who give us the strength to go on, it is compassion and unasked for consideration that lessens our burdens. It is as Damon says, “Without love, nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.” This is as true of Damon’s life as it is about your's or mine.

 The book is divided into 3 distinct sections where the section titles indicate the role Damon will play therein. In the first section titled ‘The Follower’, Damon meets a mysterious German named Reiner in Greece with whom he later goes on a walking expedition to Lesotho. While the section is charged with homoerotic currents, the reader realizes that in Damon, the longing is also for something more. But there is a Hamlet-like quality to Damon that keeps him from making the final move that may provide him, albeit fleetingly, with what he’s seeking in life. Even when he and Reiner are thrown in close contact, there is always something that stands tall between them: ‘Would you like some, he says, holding out an apple, I found this in my bag. The two of them pass it between them , solemnly biting and chewing, the one lying propped up on an elbow, the other sitting with his knees drawn up, all it will take is a tiny movement from one of them, a hand extended, or the edge of the sleeping bag lifted, would you like to get in, but neither makes the move, one is too scared and the other too proud, then the apple is finished, the moment is past, Reiner gets up, rubbing his shoulders….”.  Reiner is a sharp contrast to Damon and this contrast becomes more and more evident as the novel progresses and we see Damon in different roles. Reiner is insensitive, a megalomaniac who wants things to be always be his way and Damon bends to his superior will until things come to a head and in a curious reversal of his previous behavior, Damon rebels and walks out. This is where Galgut introduces the following exchange:

 “He turns. Reiner is walking towards him. If he offers one word of apology, if he concedes even the smallest humility, then I will relent. But Reiner is too rigid and too proud. Though what he does do is even stranger.
Here, he says. You’ll need this.
He’s holding out a fifty rand note.”

This is completely unexpected from a man as selfish as Reiner and just proves how little we know the people around us.

In the second section titled ‘The Lover’ Damon back-packs across Zimbabwe, Kenya & Malawi before finally landing up in Switzerland and London. He teams up with a group of European tourists – twins Alice and Jerome and their friend Christian. To me this was the book’s weakest section, not only because of Damon’s reluctance to accept what he desperately longs for and that which Jerome seems to be ready to offer him, but also because this reluctance seemed a trifle forced and rang false. What I liked about this section, however, was its title - one becomes a ‘lover’ simply in the act of loving another silently, not by making love. Like the preceding section, this also ends in tragic separation.

It is in this second section that we sense Galgut’s concerns as a white person in Africa, his self-conscious cringing at the white man’s callous response to poverty and filth. Contrast the white tourists in this section who is not only callous but wholly removed from the squalor and destitution that pervades sub-Saharan Africa, with Caroline and Sjef in the last section, two other white people who also operate amidst much squalor and chaos to go beyond the call of duty. This is the beauty of Galgut’s novel – repeatedly you come across people who are willing to do so much for nothing in return; these are the carriers of Wordworth’s famous words ‘little unremembered acts of kindness’ & they make the entire journey memorable.

The third and perhaps most vigorous section is title ‘The Guardian’ where Damon is called upon to play a role he is not only unwilling but also unsuited to play. So far we have seen that inaction is Damon’s favourite past time. He travels, he seeks, he broods, but he never touches the hand that’s extended towards him. He travels free, uncluttered and unrestrained. To me this freedom was wholly at odds with his deepest impulse to belong and it seemed completely natural too. Here he travels to India with Anna, a friend who is also like a sister to him. Anna is deeply depressed, an alcoholic, a suicidal psychotic, “It’s obvious that something in her has come loose from its moorings and is sliding around inside.” She comes on this trip, not to recover as Damon is led to believe, but for other more fatal purposes. This is the strongest part of the novel, hurtling us ahead as Damon and Anna confront one crisis after another. First she runs off with a stranger – Jean; then she loses her bag of medications, and then comes the final axe blow. This section abounds with the love of strangers, from the aged fellow passenger Mr Hariramamaurthy who retrieves Anna’s lost medicines, to Caroline and Sjef  who silently support Damon during those grueling days in the Goa hospital. None of these characters ring false – at different times in our lives, we have all witnessed such strangers. 

Galgut’s excels himself in this section with his intuitive understanding and depictions of the workings of a sick mind, the endless bureaucracy and filth in an Indian hospital, the ever shifting dynamics between Damon and Anna where he’s alternately frustrated and ready to kill her and again willing to do anything to save her.

Last but not the least is Galgut’s unconventional style where he eschews punctuation & voice in order to tell his story so much so that you don’t know initially that the omniscient narrator ‘I’ in the beginning is also Damon the protagonist. This may come across as jarring but is not so and it is a sign of how sure Galgut is with his material that he can pull of this stunt so successfully.

As I read more, I am discovering more and more writers like Galgut (Toibn and Trevor come to mind) who seem to be exploring a life of limited happiness, of failed chances and lost dreams. There is nothing spectacularly angst-worthy about their works, no high notes, but a quiet hum of sadness, not despair. Much of life is perhaps like that.