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