Saturday, July 18, 2015

Tropic of Capricorn [1938]

If Tropic of Cancer, the groundbreaking debut novel of the poet of grime and grunge Henry Miller, was a gleeful, satirical and freewheeling account of his Paris days, Tropic of Capricorn, the concluding chapter of his semi-autobiographical self-portraiture ‘Obelisk Trilogy’ (so named because the trio, which also comprised of Black Spring, were published by the now defunct Obelisk Press which was known for pushing the boundaries) was an angry and caustic rant of his formative years in New York prior to his move to Paris (interestingly, his ‘Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy’, which comprised of Sexus, Plexus and Nexus, formed the chronological bridge between the two Tropics). Banned in the US until 1961, as the entire trilogy was, it furthered Miller’s formal experimentation of seamlessly mixing facts with fiction – slyly referred to as ‘faction’ – through a heady concoction of surrealism, free-association and personal anecdotes. Part memoir and part polemic, the book chronicled the spiritual awakening of the young Miller while stuck in a dead-end job and an equally dead-end marriage, surrounded by a motley bunch of neurotics, vagabonds and losers, and living an existence of penury, squalor, uncertainty, bohemianism and chaos. Qualifying himself as the first Dadaist in America, brimming with a myriad ideas and analogies being an incredibly well-read man that he was (references ranged from Dostoevsky to Balzac), and freely swaying between the real and the fantasy through his stream-of-consciousness mode of writing, the book was alternately a bitingly funny and self-deprecatory tale of the various idiosyncratic associations that he made over the years (his parents, his lovers, his friends, his colleagues at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company – a reference to Western Union where he worked for a few years), scathing commentary on America in particular and the human society in general, and furious philosophizing on a random array of thoughts and dreams. Understandably, therefore, the book was at once a lucid, lively and compelling reminiscing of a wry, cynical intellectual, and a jumbled, rambling mess that only a person high on hallucinatory drugs can concoct.

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

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Travels with Charley [1962]

Anyone intending to learn how a good travelogue really ought to be written, must read John Steinbeck’s delightful penultimate book Travels with Charley, published in the same year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laced with perceptive observations, wry humour and a disarmingly lucid style, this richly textured account of the vast expanse of land that is America evoked the suppressed travel-bug in me, and the desire to seek and to know. At the age of 58, Steinbeck, realizing that he was losing touch with his country, decided to hit the road with his “French gentleman poodle” Charley as his companion in search of America. His cross-country road trip provided a fascinating chronicle of the places, the people, the cultural shifts, the natural landscapes and the subtle connecting threads that together, through a complex equation, define a country. Endearing encounters during his journey, befuddled awareness of the growing trend towards mobile homes, the lonely lives of long-distance truckers, the funny ways in which road signs and behavioral change across state-lines – these and so much more added up to make this a quixotic socio-cultural essay by a world-weary man. The inherent selfishness, rabid consumerism, rootlessness, socio-economic gaps, and the dark undercurrents of racism that he witnessed, however, made him sad and even angry. He reserved the most eloquent sections to three states in particular – the laidback charm of Montana filled him with joy, he reminisced about his childhood in California while melancholically noticing the rampant changes that it had undergone, and he amusingly described the land of contradictions that Texas is. Though accused of fictionalization from some quarters, as renowned biographer Jay Parini aptly remarked in the preface, “It would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist”. The book, therefore, was closer to the domain of non-fiction novel made legendary by Capote in masterful In Cold Blood, or even, for that matter, Kerouac’s fictionalized narrative of his own road trips in his iconic On the Road.

Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Travelogue/Non-Fiction/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US