Monday, December 21, 2015

Travels with My Aunt [1969]

Graham Greene had gone on record to state that he’d written Travels with My Aunt “for the fun of it”, conjuring narrative developments on the fly. And, in keeping with his globe-trotting life, he even composed it in the form of a travelogue. These facets imbued the book with an incredibly breezy, carefree and freewheeling quotient. Yet, for all its light-heartedness, it dealt with such otherwise “serious” themes as ennui, loneliness, mortality, existential dilemma, corruption, war crimes and political turbulence; no wonder, the novel was once aptly summed up by a critic as, “laughter in the shadows of the gallows”. The wry, mordant, irreverent, deadpan and self-deprecatory humour, and the deliberate self-parody of so many of Greene’s pet themes and tropes, made it all the more enthralling, and a triumphant expression of, to borrow from Balzac, “La Com├ędie Humaine”. Henry Pulling, a middle-aged Britisher who’s been forced to take voluntary retirement from the bank where he’s worked for over thirty years, and reconcile to a dull suburban life of tending to his dahlias, meets Aunt Augusta during his mother’s funeral after nearly 50 years. And this fortuitous encounter plucks him from a life governed by middle-class conventionality and plunges him into a shady, amoral and anarchic world. His mother’s ashes getting mixed with marijuana, smoking pot aboard the Orient Express, smuggling gold out of Istanbul, experiencing a farcical party in Paraguay, deciphering hitherto unknown secrets about his parents, and meeting a host of oddball characters ranging from an crackpot Sierra Leonean to a statistics-obsessed CIA man – he experiences these, and way much more than he could ever have imagined, as he’s taken on a roller-coaster ride of a lifetime by his aunt, a crazy, unpredictable, authority-defying, law-breaking, impossibly romantic septuagenarian. I wouldn’t be surprised if the immortal Maude in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude was modeled after this incredibly etched, picaresque, counter-culture free-spirit, punch drunk with joie de vivre.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Picaresque Novel/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, December 12, 2015

American Pastoral [1997]

Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning late-career masterpiece which has been considered by Time and NYT Book Review, among others, as one of the great books of the century, and the first chapter in his ‘American Trilogy’ (this was followed by I Married A Communist and The Human Stain), American Pastoral explored a volatile period in contemporary American history, viz. the Vietnam War, which polarized the country right down the middle. Having read his fascinating trysts with dark, lacerating and self-deprecatory humour so far, I was taken aback by the dramatic tonal shift in that he opted for a deeply somber, contemplative and serious stance, without ever sacrificing his perennial willingness to explore uncomfortable socio-political questions. The book opens with his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, living alone and fresh out of a prostate surgery, attending a class reunion of his Newark school batch-mates – middle-aged men and women given to self-deceptions, regrets and nostalgia – to be apprised of the fact that his school senior Seymour “Swede” Levov, who he used to hero-worship for his dazzling looks and sporting prowess, has expired. What follows is a disquieting portrait of the larger-than-life Swede’s life which, as it turns out, was nowhere as triumphant as perceived. Son of a self-made Jewish immigrant who’s become a successful glove manufacturer, a wealthy businessman himself, and husband to a former Miss New Jersey, his is a classic all-American success story on the surface. But upon delving into his seemingly fancied existence one finds his utter ordinariness and self-defeating decency, the pressures of having an imposing father, his shattering grief caused when his daughter grows up to become a virulent anti-war terrorist, his helplessness at his wife’s psychological trauma, and the social turbulence around him that he fails to come to comprehend. And these dichotomies made this grand Shakespearean tragedy, which reached a dizzying climax in the form of an incendiary suburban family dinner, a singularly personal meditation and critique on the American Dream.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Family Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Aranyak [1976]

Much admired Bengali author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay – part of the so-called ‘Bandopadhyay troika’ along with his contemporaries Tarashankar and Manik– is best known for Chander Pahar, on account of it being a hugely popular adventure tale, and his Pather Panchali / Aparajito combine, as they were adapted by Satyajit Ray as part of his internationally renowned Apu Trilogy. However, when it comes to many Bibhutibhushan aficionados, his semi-autobiographical novel Aranyak (loosely translated as ‘Of the Forest’) is generally considered his best work. The highly episodic, semi-fictionalized memoir, written in the form of journal entries, was based on his experiences of managing the enormous estates of a Zamindar in the state of Bihar over a period of 6 years. His task, apart from estate management and collections, revolved around allocating lands for converting dense vegetation into arable lands, leading to revenue enhancement for the estate. Hence one key dichotomy that the author faced, and thus formed a major theme, revolved around promoting deforestation while inherently being an ardent nature-lover – a facet about himself that he comes to realize while moving to this place from Calcutta. Though initially he finds himself at odds with the godforsaken locations covered with hills and forests, and inhabited with poverty-stricken tribals, given his urban background, he eventually starts falling in love with the place. Consequently, that seeped into his intricate description of the wilderness, and also his portrayals of the people he gets to meet there – the descendants of a former king who now live in penury, a naturalist whose mission is to keep increasing the forest’s bio-diversity, a young guy who’s learned the art of various tribal dance forms, a man who intends to spread learning even if there are no takers for it, a local poet who loves his vocation even if he’s not very good in it, a money-lender who doesn’t keep track of his wealth et al. The book was laced with nostalgia, pathos and romanticism, which made this an earthy, humorous and emotionally involving work.

Author: Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Memoir
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

As I Lay Dying [1930]

Published a year after The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner was said to have written As I Lay Dying over a course of 6 weeks during the wee hours of midnight to 4 AM while working at a power plant during the day time, and didn’t change a word of what he’d written while editing. Considered by many amongst the 2 or 3 greatest works in his oeuvre, and included by the likes of Modern Library, New York Times, The Guardian, etc. in their lists of 100 Greatest Books of 20th Century, this Southern Gothic novel was, to use the Nobel-laureate author’s words, “tour de force” on modernist writing, and comprised of complex thematic and stylistic choices. A road novel in its most crystallized form, the book chronicles the journey of the impoverished Bundren family, comprising of dim-witted father and his five children, traveling with the body of his recently deceased wife in a coffin, in order to bury her amidst her kin at Jefferson in Mississippi. Their odyssey through the cotton fields of American South, was as much physical in terms of the hardships and catastrophes faced along the way, as it was psychologically revelatory about the characters, and their internal and external conflicts. Faulkner employed the pioneering technique of multiple perspectives to drive the narrative, and to present divergent motives and points of view in a mix of conversational and stream of consciousness modes. Each of the novel’s 59 chapters have been narrated by a character, and largely by members of the Bundren family – 19 of the chapters by Darl, the 2nd eldest of the deceased matriarch’s 4 sons, and the most developed among all the characters. Themes ranged from familial conflict, religious guilt, effects of poverty, undoing of uncontrolled passion, transformative effects of a journey, etc., while the multiple narrative voices, told in a manner to reflect the characters’ accents, development and state of mind, acted as pieces to a jigsaw that slowly came together as the leisurely paced story, requiring considerable investment by the reader, progressed.

Author: William Faulkner
Genre: Family Drama/Road Novel/Modernist Literature/Stream of Consciousness/Southern Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Human Factor [1978]

Graham Greene was a close friend of Kim Philby, the most legendary among the 5 Soviet double-agents within British Intelligence popularly referred to as the “Cambridge Five”, having worked with and under him during his stay in MI6. Consequently, not only did he extensively fall back on his personal experiences while writing the Cold War espionage thriller The Human Factor, many even believe that the novel’s central protagonist Maurice Castle was based on Philby even if Greene categorically refuted that assumption. If one were to draw a line with Ian Fleming on one extreme and John Le Carre on the other, this would be closer to the latter end of the spectrum considering Greene’s preponderance for mood, moral complications and psychological build-up over action and thrills; however, given the sardonic humour, wry irony, tussle of faith with doubts, undercurrents of melancholia, bitter comedy of existence, and portrayal of mundaneness amidst the grimy world of cloak-and-dagger, that the tale was filled with, would place it on an end of its own. The brilliantly etched protagonist, Castle, is an ageing, disarmingly sharp, deeply guilt-plagued and rather unspectacular bureaucrat edging towards retirement. His prior field stint in the draconian apartheid-regime of South Africa led to 3 different developments in his life – marriage to a black African woman who he rescued from the ruthless clutches of BOSS, being professionally responsible for a large section of the African desk in MI6, and developing moral responsibility to provide assistance to Communist African rebels through Moscow. Meanwhile, upon being apprised of a leak within the British intelligence, the smug, cynical and dangerously amoral Doctor Percival, a close confidant of C, decides on extra-judicial measures to save their organization from public scandal, while Security Head Daintry, an intensely lonely career man, is deeply troubled by Percival’s moral turpitude and wishes to deal with the mole by following due processes. Greene’s ability to traverse difficult themes – racialism, moral quandary, existential dilemma, international politics – made this late-career work a tense, bleak and quietly troubling novel.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Spy Novel/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: UK