Friday, November 30, 2018

Le Père Goriot (Old Man Goriot) [1835]

The colossal, multi-volume and interlinked La Comédie Humaine, in which Honoré de Balzac painted vivid, multi-layered portraitures of the socioeconomic and moral fabric of post-Napoleonic Parisian society, remains a seminal constituent of the Western canon. Hence, it’s especially interesting to note that, the French literary giant conceived the monumental series around a year prior to writing Le Père Goriot, considered amongst his 2 or 3 most important works, and finalized its scope while composing it (including post-facto inclusion of novels and short stories which were written earlier). Maison Vauquer, a seedy, sordid, squalid boarding house located in the Latin Quarters, run by a darkly hilarious landlady, and rented by a host of idiosyncratic residents from diverse walks of life, formed the focal point of this realist parable, along with the city’s grotesquely shallow, egotistic, debauched and hedonistic upper class. Three characters, in particular, stood out among the boarding house’s motley tenants – the titular Old Man Goriot, a doting father, former merchant and the tragic embodiment of King Lear, who’d made a bucket load of money through his acumen, but spent all his wealth, including the figurative last cent, in his self-destructive devotion to his two incredibly beautiful but odiously self-serving daughters; Rastignac, a naïve, ambitious law-student from the country, and a recurrent character in the series, who gets seduced by the dazzling beau monde, infatuated first by Goriot’s elder daughter Anastasie only to be spurned by her, and then besotted by his younger daughter Delphine, only to learn some indelible lessons in human folly; and Vautrin, a wily, silver-tongued, enigmatic, deliciously amoral, devilish rogue, hustler and swindler, and arguably the book’s most fascinating creation – he, despite being a dangerous criminal on the run, formed an interesting counterpoint to the nadir of human corruption that the two daughters and their ilk embodied, so much as to be presented in a far more appealing light vis-à-vis the latter class for whom Balzac reserved his most lashing satire and bleakest commentaries.

Author: Honore de Balzac
Genre: Drama/Ensemble Drama/Psychological Drama/Social Satire
Language: French
Country: France

Monday, November 26, 2018

Quiet Days in Clichy [1956]

The decade that Henry Miller spent in Paris (1930-’39) was a mad, tumultuous, chaotic, freewheeling, transformative period in his life; he made crazy friends, experienced love and liberty, and found his distinctive, spellbinding voice as he composed the Obelisk Trilogy comprising of a groundbreaking masterpiece (Tropic of Cancer) and two more marvelous books (Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn). Reading Anaïs Nin’s lovely memoir Henry and June, I was tempted to turn back to Miller for his recollections from that watershed period, and his slender semi-autobiographical memoir Quiet Days in Clichy, written shortly after his return to the US in 1940, and revised 16 years later in Big Sur, provided for an absorbing chronicle of that – as much for the hilarious depictions of his debaucherous and rollicking adventures (his time there was anything but “quiet”), as for his witty, funny, unfettered and enthralling prose; the quintessential ability this ‘poet of the urban grime’ to imbue ribald set-pieces and urban grunge with surprisingly transcendental beauty and quiet profundity, while casually giving the finger to moralists and puritans, was on exquisite display in it. The rambling plot follows American expat Joey (stand-in for Miller himself) and his equally insane buddy Carl (based on the Austrian writer and his life-long friend Alfred Perlès), sharing an apartment in Clichy, and leading a bohemian, destitute, manic, amoral and euphoric existence – Miller’s short fling with a prostitute he meets at his favourite café in Montmarte, and his relationship with another prostitute who reminds him of someone who he ought to have married; Carl’s rambunctious tryst with a fifteen-year old girl that nearly lands him in jail, and his volatile affair with a married lady; their madcap trip to Luxembourg; their desire to create art and find ecstasy amidst insolvency; uproarious revelries at their seedy apartment; and the sheer joie de vivre that permeates their boisterous friendship. The only grouse that I can possibly have is that, it would have been even more memorable had it been at least a couple of hundred pages longer.

Author: Henry Miller
Genre: Memoir/Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Roman a Clef
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Curfewed Night [2008]

Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer, associated with the likes of New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, Hindu, Caravan, etc. and co-scriptwriter for the brilliant Vishal Bharadwaj film Haider, considers his nationality a “matter of dispute”, and it isn’t difficult to understand why once one has read his searing, discomfiting, melancholic memoir Curfewed Night. As a young man studying in Delhi University and then working as a reporter in Delhi, he was deeply haunted by the scarring memories of daily violence, illegal detentions, forced disappearances, torture and murder (both custodial and on the streets) during his days of growing up in the 90s; while he’d find books on various other conflict zones like Palestine, Chechenia, Kosovo, Tibet, etc., he’d never find one on Kashmir which, upon the rekindling of the separatist movement in the late-80s, turned into one of the most heavily militarized zones on the planet. That prompted him to quit his job, move to Srinagar with the intent of penning down memories and human stories. Thus, in what was the book’s most stirring and affecting section, he recollects an array of deep-rooted memories from his adolescence days – the eruption of violence in the beautiful valley, the fascination with Kalashnikov-carrying rebels and simmering anger towards the Indian armed forces, his friends and cousins going on to the other side and how he too almost walked that path, etc. Along with that, he also chronicles the debilitating, tragic personal stories of the various people, viz. former friends and acquaintances as well as strangers both well-known and unknown, he met upon return – the Gowkadal Bridge massacre, the notorious Papa II interrogation centre,  Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, acts of brutality by the paramilitary (casual killings, rapes, turning civilians into human bombs), exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, homegrown groups like JKLF being sidelined by Pakistan-funded militant groups, destruction of landmark sites by the civil war, dreams of freedom being replaced with disillusionment, and many more such heartbreaking stories.

Author: Basharat Peer
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Political History
Language: English
Country: India

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Henry and June [1986]

Henry Miller was in an epochal period of his life in the autumn of 1931 – he was composing his groundbreaking autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer that would forever change the boundaries of literature; he was impecunious but also in a state of creative euphoria and moral freedom; and he was in a volatile relationship with the alluring June Mansfield. It was at this juncture that he met and started a torrid affair with Anaïs Nin – a compulsive diarist and then fledgling writer thirsting for liberation from her conventional Parisian suburban lifestyle with her loving but staid husband Hugo Guiler. Henry and June, an unexpurgated section of her iconoclastic diaries published after her death, chronicled the delirious 1st year of their relationship which threw her into emotional doldrums but also helped her break-free from her cocoon of prudishness and explore new-found possibilities. Interestingly, while this frenzied, freewheeling, free-form, intensely personal memoir vividly laid bare her sizzling, life-changing love affair with Miller at the cost of putting her marriage at stake, and, as the title alludes to, a passionate liaison with the beguiling June, it also provided absorbing accounts of her relationships with the other men in her life – her gentle husband who’s hopelessly in love with her, her cousin Eduardo who’s crazy about her, Henry’s then flatmate who becomes enamoured with her, and finally her psychoanalyst Dr René Allendy who becomes infatuated with her while helping her cope with her doubts, insecurities and frailties. Given that this memoir is an extract of her diary (covering the period of Oct’31 – Oct’32), it’s rambling nature is a given; however, the searing confessions of her deepest self, nuanced depictions of her relationship not just with Henry but also with the others, the variegated and complex array of emotions ranging from elation to sadness that she experiences, and the accompanying revelation of how she as a person and as a writer dramatically evolves over that momentous period, are all testimonies to its beauty.

Author: Anais Nin
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir/Diary
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Reasons of State [1974]

Nearly every South & Central American country has faced, in varying degrees, the devastating effects of dictatorship – from military juntas to notorious tyrants. Hence, as the legend goes, the three giants of Latin American literature – the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier – over a rambling conversation in the early-1970s, made a bet to each write a novel on this terrible reality of their tragic continent. The master of literary baroque, renowned musicologist and champion of leftist values, Carpentier, contributed in this fabulous triptych with the incredibly ambitious, trenchant, disarmingly roguish, jet-black political satire Reasons of State – a tome of a work written with such flair, flourish and aplomb that it captivates one like only a tour de force can. The novel’s unnamed protagonist – the self-anointed “Head of State” of an unspecified country – is a ludicrously well-read, classic-quoting, rabble-rousing, egotistic Francophile and all-powerful dictator who alternates his time between Paris, where he loves basking in the company of aristocrats and intellectuals, and attending operas and having pop-philosophic discussions, and his ravaged country, where he’s either hosting opulent events and undertaking absurd projects completely incongruent with its socioeconomic troubles, or crushing dissent, rebellions and attempted coups (by both army generals and the underground leftists) with draconian and shuddering ruthlessness. After an especially brutal crackdown, he earns the moniker of “Butcher of Nueva Córdoba”, and begins to lose, much to his chagrin, his sheen in Parisian social circles; though he gets a reprieve by the advent of WWI, an all-encompassing unrest led by a mysterious Communist radical and the Americans’ nefarious deigns to protect the investments of the United Fruit Company might just be one battle too many. Darkly hilarious, grotesque, flamboyant and gleefully parodic, the book provided for a fascinating take on personality cult where dictatorship, unlike Vergas’ audacious semi-fictionalization of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic in The Feast of the Goat and Greene’s bleak masterwork The Comedians on Papa Doc’s Haiti, is ultimately reduced to a comical, anachronistic and self-deluding buffoonery.

Author: Alejo Carpentier
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire
Language: Spanish
Country: Cuba