Monday, December 26, 2016

The Human Stain [2000]

Philip Roth provided an extraordinary display to his stylistic breadth and political consciousness with The American Trilogy where he explored the complex dimensions of post-War American history. However, where American Pastoral and I Married a Communist were largely focused in that they were centered on the Vietnam War protests and McCarthy Witch-Hunts, respectively, the scope was stunningly broad in The Human Stain where he touched upon such diverse topics as racism (and its evolving nuances over the decades), the dichotomy between personal and social identity, and the damaging scars left behind by America’s involvements in one bad war after another. Further, while Roth’s literary alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s role was largely passive in the earlier two novels, re-constructing the lives and times of their protagonists, viz. Swede Levov and Ira Ringold, here he also played an active part in propelling the narrative forward. Septuagenarian Coleman Silk, a revered professor of classics and former dean at Athena College (the same place where E.I. Lonoff was a faculty in the 1st Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer), suddenly became a pariah when he’s accused of racism, and more so when, after his wife’s unanticipated death, gets embroiled in an affair with Faunia Farley, a 34-year old illiterate janitor with a tragic past. Zuckerman, who’d enjoyed a brief period of friendship with him, starts putting the pieces together by conjecturing upon the various players involved – Coleman’s children, Faunia’s emotionally scarred former husband, and most interestingly, a fast-rising French émigré who develops a rather surreal tussle with Silk – and also goes deep into Coleman’s past unknown to nearly everyone who knows him, and unravels his radical act of jumping across the seemingly insurmountable racial line through his conversion from an African-American to a white Jew. Intricately structured as a memoir and a multi-dimensional political history, with elements of investigative reporting and psycho-analysis thrown in, this stately, ironic and tragic novel might just remain as the most ambitious and powerful work in this gripping and turbulent trilogy.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Ministry of Fear [1943]

Greene often classified his books into “novels” and “entertainers”, and he’d written one of each category set on devastation of the Blitz in London. The End of the Affair, which belonged to the former category, remains one of his most well-known works, while The Ministry of Fear, sandwiched between two of his other most well-known “novels”, viz. The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter, with its heady dose of passion, intrigue and betrayals, distinctively belonged to the latter. However, even when he composed fast and engaging narrative-driven entertainers, the thinking novelist in him – for whom dilemmas, anxieties and existential crises of the 20th century man, the moral bankruptcy and intrinsically untrustworthy nature of nation states, and the inherent hypocrisy and dubious ambiguities of nationalism and patriotism – was always at play; this running thematic strand was regularly evident here as well, even if it never reached the dizzying heights of the likes of The Quiet American and The Human Factor where, as in this, international political conspiracy formed a central aspect of the storyline. Arthur Rowe, a rather boring and straightforward man living a staid and uneventful life, is thrown into the dead-end when he ends up winning a delicious cake at a charity fête that he wasn’t supposed to win. From an attempt on his life to being forced to go on the lam upon a murder, from encountering amnesia to experiencing suicidal impulses, from trusting the wrong guys to falling for an Austrian refugee – he life becomes a series of unsavoury and unanticipated shock-developments as he unwittingly finds himself enmeshed in a Nazi plot to smuggle a microfilms containing state secrets. Even a lesser Greene manages to keep one on tenterhooks with gripping storytelling, gray characters, moody atmosphere and pervading fatalism, and this was no exception; it also had a strong cinematic quality about it – no wonder Fritz Lang turned it into a movie one year later.

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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana [1957]

A quick study on the bibliography of Carlo Emilio Gadda – an Electrical engineer who, among other assignments, was in-charge of the Vatican Power Station,  but went on to become a darling of Italian literature – provides a common thread in terms of the great sense incompleteness that pervades most of his works; and that teasing almost-there-but-deliberately-not-so feel is evident in possibly his most well-known book, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. A dense, illusive, rambling, muddled and digressive novel of considerable formal bravado; filled to its brim with rich allusions, socio-cultural symbols, political critique, philosophical asides and oftentimes vague, ambiguous and obscure metaphors; alternately cheeky and serious; and laced with bleak worldview, deadpan humour and a touch of the grotesque; this baroque and modernist tour-de-force turned out, simultaneously, a rewarding and an exasperating read. Set in the teeming Fascist Rome of 1927, with Mussolini’s powers on the rise, the tale, in its most stripped-down form, is about the investigation by Detective Ingravallo, also known as Don Cicco, into two disparate crimes connected by their occurrence in the same apartment building – the robbery of a neurotic widow’s jewels, and the grisly murder of Liliana Balducci, a ravishing married lady who Ingravallo secretly admired. The morbid, borderline necrophiliac and incredibly elaborate depiction of Liliana’s dead corpse, from the cop’s perspective, had Gaddo at his most sublime and outrageous best; the aggressive interrogation, seeped in obsessive jealousy, of Liliana’s nephew Giuliano, who the detective suspects of having been her secret lover and killer, also ranks right up there. Italo Calvino, in his lovely introduction, called this a philosophic novel, in the guise of a murder-mystery story; interestingly, the way the text underwent changes – from its serialization in ’46 and ’47, to its publication in ’57, to its multiple film treatments, scripts for which Gadda himself wrote – remains a fascinating commentary on the shifting nature of truth, as much in this book as in life itself.

Author: Carlo Emilio Gadda
Genre: Crime Drama/Mystery/Romantic Noir/Police Procedural/Modernist Literature
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Ravelstein [2000]

Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein, was also his most self-referential work. Seeped in personal history, memories, and thoughts ranging from politics to polemics, and from marital woes to mortality, got coagulated into this funny, rambling, self-deprecatory and quietly affecting book. Tonally, stylistically, and in his depiction of the principal protagonists, it remains in many ways a companion piece to Humboldt’s Gift – particularly in that both provided bawdy, yet poignant, fictionalization of real-life friendships. The book’s vividly etched titular character Abe Ravelstein – based on philosopher Allan Bloom who was Bellow’s colleague and friend – is a gregarious, learned, opinionated, hedonistic and libidinous philosophy teacher whose love for larger-than-life existence has received a grandiose thrust thanks to tremendous financial windfall from a recently published book of his; he’s also dying of AIDS, and as a last wish asks his closest friend Chick, the narrator and the author’s stand-in, to write a memoir on him. Bellow structured the book into three distinctive parts – in the first the reader is literally thrown right into Ravelstein’s drawing room and into his conversations that meander from Great Politics to Greek mythology to Jewish history, while he’s splurging on high-life; in the second, and best, section, the narrative becomes tad impersonal, and melancholic too, as Chick starts delineating Ravelstein from a distance, while also recounting his collapsing marriage to his beautiful, icy wife based in no small parts on Bellow’s 4th wife Alexandra Bellow; the final part, and the most personal of the trio, gives us a peek into Chick’s, and in turn Bellow’s then current marriage to a soothing, much-younger wife, and his close-shave with death that brings him face-to-face with his imminent mortality and propels him into finally deciding to get on with his promise to his now long-dead friend. That an 85-year old man, at the fag-end of his life, could compose such a formally and textually ambitious work as this – a freewheeling intermingling of fact and fiction – speaks volumes about Bellow’s intellectual vitality and artistic bravery.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Existentialist Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Life and Hard Times [1933]

My Life and Hard Times, first published (albeit, in parts) in The New Yorker, the magazine which James Thurber was associated with for close to three decades, and often referred to as his greatest work, serves as an indelible and unforgettable introduction to the celebrated American humorist, satirist, caricaturist and chronicler of everyday foibles. Comprising of a series of colourful, lively, zany, rambunctious and hilarious vignettes from his early life – his days of growing up in Columbus, Ohio, with his parents, grandparents, siblings, maids, dogs, neighbours and whatnot, and ending just after his graduation from college – this madcap novella, which seemed (on hindsight) straight out of a quintessential Woody Allen back-story, is a memoir like no other. The memorable introductory note, by the author himself, where he spelt out, with disarming and self-deprecatory humour, why he’s ill-suited to write an autobiography, brilliantly set the tone for what followed. The sketches, told through deadpan comedy, wit, irony and irreverence, chronicled the idiosyncrasies and foibles of a host of quirky and eccentric cast of characters, through marvelously chosen and depicted episodes – a stoic father whose life seems defined by cosmic jokes, a neurotic mother who’s fond of their pet-dog which just can’t stop biting everyone, an aunt who’s afraid of electricity leaking out of sockets, a grandfather who’s confused WWI with the Civil War, a maid who’s always under fear of being hypnotized, James who just can’t seem to pass his botany course in college, and then, unwittingly, becomes a regular at the Draft Board, and a town full of oddball residents who embark on an exodus on the mistaken assumption that the dam has broken. That commonplace and mundane everyday-life and people can be turned into something as remarkable and extraordinary as what’s contained in this slender gem of a book, with the author’s drawings as juicy accompaniments, is indeed a reflection of Thurber’s fecund mind, incredible storytelling prowess and unbridled comic genius.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Memoir/Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US