Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Adventures of Augie March [1953]

The Adventures of Augie March, which won the National Book Awards in ’54 and has been qualified by Time and Modern Library as one of 100 greatest novels of 20th century, was the first great work of celebrated American writer and Nobel-laureate Saul Bellow. The ambitious book, which can be simultaneously described as witty, funny, sardonic, imaginative and enchanting, and had its inspirations in Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a quintessential example of the ‘Great American Novel’. The picaresque tale followed the adventurous, unpredictable and thoroughly fascinating journey over many years of its amoral eponymous protagonist Augie March – the largely unaffected manner through which he goes through life, the various odd jobs he indulges in, the array of seemingly far-fetched experiences he gathers over the years, and the myriad oddball characters he encounters in the process. Born into an impoverished Jewish family in Chicago during the 30s, Augie drifts through the Great Depression, WWII and post-War dash for easy money with a bleary-eyed sense of hope and optimism despite the poverty, corruption and disillusion surrounding him; he embraced but never succumbed to the bleak socio-political environs he grows up in. The brilliantly etched idiosyncratic characters that populate the novel, introduced at the average rate of one per chapter, made it all the more memorable – his ambitious go-getter elder brother Simon who tries hard to have Augie established in the society, the fallen-from-grace swindler and serial-entrepreneur Einhorn, the stern and world-wise Grandma Lausch who’d taken upon herself to be Augie and Simon’s moral guardian, the impulsive and alluring Thea who pets a bald eagle and with whom Augie has a relationship that takes him to Mexican wilderness, the headstrong Mimi who becomes his platonic friend for a while, the self-professed genius Basteshaw with whom he survives a shipwreck, the beautiful but self-serving Stella who he gets married to, et al. The spectacular and over-the-top proceedings, coincidences, and constant series of narrative developments, were suitably supported by Bellow’s linguistic flair, gift of the gab and power of imagery.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Satire/Picaresque Novel/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, October 24, 2014

If This Is a Man [1947]

Italian Jewish chemist turned writer Primo Levi created one of the most important literary works of 20th century – listed by Le Monde in its list of “100 Books of the Century” and cited by Phillip Roth as “one of the century’s truly necessary books” – with his breakthrough debut novel If This is a Man. This harrowing, heart-rending and deeply personal autobiographical tale provided a chillingly candid first-person account of his punishing time as a prisoner in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp during the final days of Nazi Germany’s regime. Arrested for being part of an Italian Resistance group, the then 22-year old Levi spent 1 year – from February ’44 to January ’45 – at the detention facility, and in this seemingly brief time spent he witnessed and experienced the horrific atrocities that the Jews and political prisoners endured there – back-breaking hard labour, brutal corporal punishments, inhuman living conditions, and most devastating of all, random and en masse “selection” of people for being executed at the gas chambers. Despite the degradations that the book is rife with, the book never lost its sense of humanism through unlikely friendships, last straws of hope, striving for survival against all odds, acts of unexpected kindness, lucky escapes and so forth. It also chronicled the astounding proliferation of trade and commerce that the in the form of basic necessities which were always at short supply, the various means used by some prisoners to get into good books of the powers that be, and the serendipitous escape of those who hadn’t died by then after the Nazi surrender. The book, despite its slender size, packed a wallop on account of its dense and bleak contents, and would forever continue to be a shuddering yet undeniably lyrical and poignant account of what happens when fascism, with its calculated madness and unrelenting monstrosity, is given a free hand to rule. Levi’s sophomore novel The Truce is generally considered as a companion piece to this book.

Author: Primo Levi
Genre: Memoir/War Drama/Autobiographical Novel/Holocaust Literature
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tropic of Cancer [1934]

Rarely in literary history has an author managed to evoke such astounding brilliance and pop-cultural significance, or such intense controversy for that matter, with his debut novel as Henry Miller did with Tropic of Cancer. The 1st chapter in his ‘Obelisk Trilogy’, which also comprised of Black Spring and Tropic of Capricorn, and so called because they were all published by the now defunct Obelisk Press which was known for pushing boundaries, the book was banned in the US and Great Britain for a whopping 30 years until a landmark trial in 1964 overruled the ludicrous charges of obscenity that had been levelled against it by Conservatives and Victorian moralists. Unapologetic and irreverent in both its choice of prose and means of depictions, filled with unbridled energy, glibly provocative and profane, infectious in its romping chronicle of the seedier underbelly of pre-War Paris, brimming with caustic humour and searing wit, and with an unflinching eye for the profound as well as the putrid, the fabulous semi-autobiographical novel, with its episodic nature, disjointed narrative and stream-of-consciousness mode, provided a fascinating glimpse into what it means to be alive and happy amidst filth, chaos, poverty, uncertainty and struggle. In its unabashed upholding of free speech, liberation, bohemianism, freewheeling anti-establishmentarian spirit and rejection of conventional social mores, it also succeeded in being a terrific pre-cursor to the Beat Generation. Through a seamless intermingling of fact and fiction, Miller chronicled his series of interactions with idiosyncratic characters of varied nationalities – poets, writers, artists, pimps, prostitutes and whatnots – during his eventful stay as a vagabond in Paris, and in turn a meditated on the city’s underground literary circles, myriad shades and contradictions, thus making this marvelously written book, considered by Time, Modern Library and various others as one of the greatest books of 20th century, a powerful socio-cultural document and a staggering masterpiece of personal artifacts.

Author: Henry Miller
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Stream of Consciousness/Social Satire/Modernist Literature/Memoir
Language: English
Country: US/France

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The End of the Affair [1951]

British novelist Graham Greene preferred calling himself a “Catholic atheist”, and the constant tussle between faith, skepticism and rationality formed a key theme in his famous 1951 novel The End of the Affair. The roman à clef was also significant in that his scandalous adulterous affair with Lady Catherine Walston, wife of British politician Henry Walston, formed the springboard for the book. Crisis of faith, moral dilemmas, extra-marital relationship, love, obsession and jealousy played parts in this slim but dense book about the four-way affair between man, wife, lover, and, well, God. Narrated completely in flashbacks, the story has its protagonist Maurice Bendrix, a volatile novelist of scanty means but growing repute, reminiscing about his torrid affair with Sarah Miles, the dazzling, sexually voracious and independent-minded wife of wealthy mild-mannered and cuckolded civil servant Henry Miles, during the turbulent days of London Blitz during WWII, and its sudden collapse which propelled Maurice towards an obsessive streak of jealousy and anger. The story begins with Maurice having a chance encounter with a uncharacteristically drunk Henry, which rekindles his memories of Sarah on one hand, and propels him towards hiring Parkis, a pitifully docile and simple-natured private detective, to spy on her, on the other. The 1st third of the book, where love, hurt and viciousness got brilliantly mixed with cynicism and self-destructiveness through Maurice’s 1st person account, was easily its best part; the unlikely friendship that eventually develops between the two men at the end led it to a surprisingly affecting finale; the middle section which put the ball on the lady’s court in the form of her personal diary, however, was its weakest part on account of the effusive sentimentality and excessive religiosity that seemed out of sync vis-à-vis the rest of the book’s measured and acerbic tone. The characters were very well-etched, with each of the 3 protagonists, as well as the supporting characters like the mousy detective, a compulsive rationalist and a head-strong priest, distinctively identifiable and imbued with three-dimensional facets.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Drama/Romance/Religious Drama/Semi-Autobiographical
Language: English
Country: UK

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Armies of the Night [1968]

Though Capote’s devastating masterwork In Cold Blood possibly remains the greatest work in the school of literature known as New Journalism, Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night, too, was a fine example of it. He infused traits of narrative fiction, personal commentary and subjectivity into traditional reporting, and provided a complex, layered and deeply personalized account of the famous October 1967 March to Pentagon for protesting the ugly war that US was waging in Vietnam. Interestingly, the previous book that I read, viz. Greene’s astounding The Quiet American, had touched upon America’s covert activities in the country post WWII in order to root out Communism. In keeping with the thematic and stylistic choices made by Mailer, he divided the book into two sharply contrasting halves – the first half, titled ‘History as a Novel’ and based over a few days, provided his experiences of being part of the march, starting from a gathering on the evening before the march to the actual walk to the Pentagon along with intellectuals, poets, students, hippies, etc., his arrest followed by a night in prison, and he managed to get him released much to the authority’s opposition; the second half, titled ‘The Novel as History’, covered a wider temporal and spatial span as it detailed study of march, starting from the preparatory stages and negotiations with the government prior to the event, and its aftermaths. By infusing novelized and historicized accounts, the book didn’t just documented the symbolic event, it dealt a powerful blow against the socio-political system and foreign policy of the technology and corporation land called the US, while it also questioned how we interpret history. The rambling style, interspersing of narration with opinions on wide array of topics including his personal life, and the sharp and deprecatory sense of humour (directed at himself as well as others), can be really distracting to start with, but fascinating once one gets a hang of the flavour.

Author: Norman Mailer
Genre: Non-Fiction/New Journalism
Language: English
Country: US