Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Wall Jumper [1982]

During the shadowy, paranoia-laden era of the Cold War, Berlin Wall was arguably it’s most iconic, enduring and tangible symbol. While politically it was a potent representation of two crazy superpowers at loggerheads in their pursuit for world domination, on a more philosophic note, it showed how the same person – a German – evolved depending on which side of the wall he existed. Peter Schneider, the rare West Berliner of his times who made the Wall a prime motif of many of his works, was both a writer and a journalist – and both these dimensions were wonderfully on display in The Wall Jumper. A brilliant amalgam of taut reportage and deadpan storytelling, presented through a series of vignettes, anecdotes, observations and reflections, and laced with wry, brittle, tragi-comic humour, it presented from the perspective of an anonymous narrator – possibly the author himself – the various ironies and absurdities of life in the divided city. Schneider wonders that it is difficult to ascertain where the state ends and the self begins, and this blurring of boundaries between the political and the personal formed a central tenet and a running gag in this kaleidoscopic work, and a fascinating zeitgeist too, that alternated between moody, melancholic meditative commentary, and droll satire. While the nameless narrator floats between the two Berlins in his quest for Wall stories, we hear of Robert who has defected from the East but is unable to adapt to life in the West, Pommerer who is clinging on to the East even though he might soon switch to the West, his coldly enchanting ex-lover Lena from whom he’s forever trying to escape, and various characters, through short sketches where it’s impossible to chaff fact from fiction and where truths have evolved into myths, who’ve jumped the wall for various reasons, or in one case, for no reason at all – simply “because”, to quote George Mallory, “it’s there”. The perennial yet futile desire for escape, therefore, formed another key element of this dazzling novella.

Author: Peter Schneider
Genre: Memoir/Political Satire/Political History/Montage
Language: German
Country: Germany

Monday, July 25, 2016

Go Tell It on the Mountain [1953]

Renowned African-American author James Baldwin had a complex and turbulent personal history with religious orthodoxy (his abusive stepfather was a preacher with the Pentecostal Church, and he became a junior Minister at the age of 14, only to be left completely disillusioned before long), racism (he experienced prejudice, abuse and discrimination along racial lines from a young age and would go on to become a spokesperson for the 1960s Civil Rights Movement) and sexuality (he managed to come out of the closet during his stay at Paris but had to deal with homophobia throughout his life). All three facets, in degrees of the above order, featured in his celebrated, ferocious and deeply semi-autobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. While boasting of an ambitious multi-character, multi-era and multi-locational narrative arc, it was nonetheless fiercely rooted to the events of a day in the life of 14-year old Harlem-resident John Grimes, as a means of adding intricate and far-ranging socio-political context to that day, and was filled with the distinctive cadence of Ebonics (the politically incorrect synonym of which is “Negro Speak”). Chronicled through 5 chapters, the beginning and ending sections addressed the “present” – John’s troubled relationship with his harsh and ultra-orthodox father Gabriel who’s a deacon at the local church, the daily poverty and violence of their lives, and the deep dilemma surrounding the role of Biblical faith in his life; the elaborate middle-sections, meanwhile, travel back in time in the inter-twining and tragic lives of his rebellious aunt, Gabriel who’s his stepfather (he’s never met his biological father), and his loving mother. An intensely personal work of bleak and unflinching realism, brooding urban grit and powerful social commentary, and filled to brim with searing Biblical references, it is considered a seminal piece of African-American literature, as indicated by its inclusion by both Time magazine and Modern Library in their respective lists of Best English-language Novels of the 20th Century.

Author: James Baldwin
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Religious Drama/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Tenth Man [1985]

Like the similarly titled The Third Man, The Tenth Man, too, had been drafted with a movie script in mind (interestingly, Greene mentioned in the Introduction, that, in many ways, he preferred this to the former, though I'd beg to differ on that) – it had initially been conceived as set during the Spanish Civil War, but then, while developing it further, the setting was changed to occupied France during the waning days of WWII. He’d written it for MGM under contract in 1944, but when nothing much came of it, he’d sold the rights for the manuscript and had completely forgotten about it; a whopping 4 decades later, when MGM offered it for sale without even bothering to inform Greene, it was the buyer who didn’t just contact him, but also allowed him to revise it (if he so felt) and then publish this forgotten work. This terse, bleak and atmospheric novella was written in similar veins as what he used to cheekily refer to as entertainers (the intent here, after all, was to earn a quick buck), but was infused with elements from his so-called “serious” works (symbolically-laden undercurrents of guilt, redemption and fatalism characteristic of his Catholic novels) – a mish-mash which worked, alternately, both for and against it. When the 30 convicts in a Nazi prison, in the tale’s terrific opening section, are informed that 1 in every 10 men are to be executed, they draw lots to decide; Chavel, a well-off Parisian lawyer, upon being chosen as one of the 3 doomed men, offers his familial wealth and property to anyone willing to swap places with him, which Janvier, a fellow prisoner, accepts. Post the end of the war, Chavel, now a free but weary, unemployed man, takes refuge using a false name at the house now inhabited by Janvier’s aged mother and young sister who passionately hates her benefactor. He starts falling for this angry, vulnerable girl, but things complicate when an imposter arrives calling himself Chavel.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/War
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933]

In the final paragraph of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas the book’s actual author Gertrude Stein cheekily reveals that she wrote the book on behalf of her partner and mock-narrator Alice Toklas, in the same vein as Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe’s autobiography. Formally audacious, playfully modernist, freewheeling and  irreverent, this fascinating memoir – on a hilarious note, which only the readers would be able to appreciate, Wives of Geniuses that I Sat With was one of the potential titles that was played with – chronicled with deadpan humour, disarming irony and infectious charm, not just the life and times of Stein in Paris which the expat American had made her home, including her experiences of writing and publishing the most important novels of her career – in particular Three Lives, Tender Buttoms and The Making of Americans, her war-time efforts, and her life-long passion for art collection, it was, and perhaps more importantly, filled to brim with lively anecdotes worth their weights in gold of some of the most celebrated Parisians and expats who came to the city in early 20th century – vanguards of modern art, literature, sculpture, poetry, photography and so forth – who regularly visited her residence at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Thus, as one reads through this amusing, enchanting and satirical piece of work, deliberately written in broken English in keeping with its experimental formal choice and presented as series of loosely connected tableaus, one is apprised of the personal quirks and foibles, artistic struggles and breakthroughs, professional friendships and rivalries, whimsical encounters, and so much more, over a massive time-frame of 3 decades, of such iconic and disparate personalities as Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Braque, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Picabia, Mildred Aldrich, André Derain, Alfred Stieglitz, T.S. Eliot et al. It is considered, and rightly so, by both Time and Modern Library as one of the most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century, and was a rare best-seller for Stein given the obscurity of her more “serious” works.

Author: Gertrude Stein
Genre: Memoir/Modernist Literature/Autobiography/Non-Fiction
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Chokher Bali (A Grain of Sand) [1903]

Chokher Bali was the first important novel by Tagore, although, compared to most of the art-forms that the prolific Bengali polymath practiced, novels perhaps remain among the least acknowledged today. This intricately structured chamber-piece, set within Calcutta’s ‘Bhadralok’ class in British India at the cross-roads between restrictive Hindu conservatism and progressive liberalism, was a tale of intense and inter-twined emotional relationships – romantic vis-à-vis conjugal, passionate vis-à-vis platonic – and had a strong feminist sub-text. The rather complex love quadrangle, realized through a mix of third-person narrative, extensive dialogues and shifting points of view, comprised of the heady interplay between four diverse characters – Mahendra, a pampered and fickle-minded young man belonging to a wealthy feudalistic family, after rejecting marriage proposal to Binodini, the Convent-educated daughter of a Zamindar, gets married to Ashalata, a demure and half-educated orphaned girl; when, after a few years, Binodini, who had eventually got married and was widowed thereafter, is offered refuge in Mahendra’s house, the impulsive Mahendra is gradually seduced and becomes obsessed by her explosive beauty, striking intelligence, and incredibly headstrong nature; Binodini, in the meantime, finds herself falling for Mahendra’s childhood friend and fellow medical student Behari, a level-headed man with a balanced disposition, who, in turn, finds himself struggling between his silent comradeship towards Asha, to whom he was briefly engaged before her marriage to Mahendra, his long-standing loyalty towards Mahendra’s family, and the overt advances of Binodini. Emotions in their various forms featured in the book, and they were realized through Tagore’s magical flair, flourish and flamboyance as a litterateur. The somber ending apart, where Tagore might have compromised anticipating backlash from the conservatives – a facet that he readily outgrew in his later novels as evidenced by the profoundly haunting Chaturanga, this was nevertheless radical in an era when extra-marital affairs were as severely frowned upon as a widowed lady who has the gall to fall in love and even confront her sexuality.

Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Genre: Classic/Romantic Drama/Marriage Drama
Language: Bengali
Country: India