Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sabbath's Theater [1995]

Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth's most scandalously famous book that turned him into a literary superstar overnight, was a brilliant overture to the stupendous masterpiece he would compose 26 years later in the form of Sabbath’s Theatre, which won him his 2nd National Book Award. A raging, ribald, rambunctious, bilious, subversive, bitingly funny and yet surprisingly profound novel, and with an outrageously amoral, twisted, libidinous, misanthropic, transgressive and brazenly antagonistic outsider as its anti-hero – very few authors, leave alone anyone at the ripe age of 62, would have had the gall and dare to write a defiant book such as this. Morris “Mickey” Sabbath is an ageing, disgraced, death-obsessed and arthritic former puppeteer who is at direct odds with the norms and expectations of the world he lives in – he’s the classic “dirty old man” and the original “rebel without a cause”. Drenka, his Yugoslav-born mistress of last 13 years with an unmatched propensity for adultery and carnality, and who was his true soul-mate, has tragically died of cancer, and this propels him towards an unforgettably self-destructive journey that might just seal his extinction (he even composes his own epitaph, and a hilariously unconventional one at that). Sabbath’s first wife was a fragile girl-woman who obstinately refused to part with her mother’s corpse upon her death and disappeared from the face of earth one fine day, his current wife is perennially under the shadows of her abusive farther who committed suicide when she left him, and his mother lost her sense of proportions fifty years back when his elder brother got killed in WWII, and whose ghost now keeps haunting him; no wonder he is a man with a brutal and grotesque existence. Yet for all his infamy and his singular ability to alienate, he’s also a grieving, lonely and an incredibly complex person, grappling with mortality, loss, failures, memories and existential crises. Brimming with extraordinary power, anarchistic vitality and heartbreaking undercurrents of melancholia, this virtuoso epic will possibly remain as the single greatest display of Roth’s genius and bravery as an artist.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Existentialist Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Trial [1925]

Franz Kafka belongs to that rarified group of authors, along with the likes of Dostoevsky, Dickens and Orwell, whose names have evolved into potent terminologies representing world orders – social, political, psychological – that resonate with the ideas and themes of one or more of their works. And if one intends to appreciate what a Kafkaesque scenario alludes to, his slender but powerful novel The Trial would make that amply clear. A nightmarish and existentialist adult cousin to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this intensely disconcerting work painted a world which is marked with ominous foreboding and absurdism, and where invisible forces, like the tentacles of an infinite octopus, sucks a person into an increasingly bizarre vortex from which there is no escape. Joseph K, the tale’s rather unlikeable protagonist and an arrogant official at a bank fast rising through the ranks, wakes up one morning to realize that he’s under arrest. No explanations are provided either to him or to the reader as to who or what led to this development; and, over the course of the book, despite his multi-pronged efforts, his situation becomes more and more precarious as he finds himself trapped in a bleak, grotesque and near-surreal bureaucratic machinery. Like Bleak House, the novel provided an unsettling and darkly funny indictment on the impenetrable and oppressive modalities of legal systems – what with courts being located on the attics of decrepit buildings, and the ironic possibilities of actual and apparent acquittals and prolongation, etc.; and like the dystopian, totalitarian and paranoia-laden Orwellian world of 1984, which was possibly, at some levels, inspired from this prophetic masterpiece, every action and aspect of K’s life is under constant surveillance. It isn’t inconceivable that Kafka found the seeds of his idea from the political turmoil of his time, considering that WWI started in the same year in which this was written (though it was published a decade later, after Kafka's death), and the political developments across the world over the course of the next century have only certified the disturbing relevance of this book.

Author: Franz Kafka
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Absurdist Fiction/Dystopian Novel/Philosophical Fiction
Language: German
Country: Germany

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Black Spring [1936]

Miller’s groundbreaking debut novel Tropic of Cancer captured with a dazzling splash and rapturous glee his days as a penurious bohemian in Paris, while in Tropic of Capricorn he recounted, with an increasingly venomous and embittered tone, his formative years in New York City. Black Spring, the middle chapter in his so-called Obelisk Trilogy, flanked on either side by the afore-mentioned works, formed the bridge between the two distinctive timeframes in his life as well as the two great cities of the world. This semi-autobiographical memoir, akin to the two Tropics, was episodic, subversive, anarchistic, self-revelatory and freewheeling – Miller used free-association as his formal choice for constantly shifting between the real and the dream, narration and rambling, chronicling and ranting, the grimy streets of New York and the seedy apartments of Paris, and most importantly, between unbridled, irreverent humour and phantasmagoric, hallucinogenic philosophizing. Thus, true to the author’s unbridled, chaotic style and wacky sensibilities, one gets to read about his idiosyncratic all-American buddies in the Fourteenth Ward of Brooklyn who were, for him, more “real” than Napoleon, Lenin and Capone, his momentous introductions to Vergil and syphilis, the lovely urinals of Paris, the profound joy of reading while ensconced within filthy toilets – both public and private, the outrageous, unforgettable and incredibly-etched men who would frequent the tailor shop that was run by his father, a crazy French poet, the joie de vivre he felt when he seamlessly traversed from trying to write book to ending up painting a surrealist water-color picture, which starts as one thing and ends as something else altogether, while gorging on cheese and wine in a sun-splashed Parisian cafĂ©, and his myriad ravaging thoughts on poetry, modern civilization, death, human madness and God, among a plethora of intermingling topics. This is a difficult, devilish, disjointed, and disconcerting work that, I suppose, one would do well to read after the two Tropics.

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