Archive for the 'literature' Category

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

August 4, 2008

Rest in peace, my friend, after showing us what real torture was like under the Soviet Union.


Fforde and Voltaire

December 29, 2007

The Guardian has a fantastic short story “The Locked Room Mystery mystery”, by Jasper Fforde. This humorous parody of the mystery genre is well written and quite an enjoyable read. I loved the way the characters are named: Red Herring, Unshakable Alibi, Cryptic Final Message, Least Likely Suspect, Overlooked Clue, Flashback, and the detectives Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his sidekick Detective Sergeant Mary Mary. I’d borrowed Fforde’s Lost in a Good Book sometime back but never got around to reading it, and slightly regret it now. Sigh.

vc1.jpgI read Voltaire’s Candide last week, a satire on 18th century customs, religious beliefs and politics, while also a criticism of Leibniz’s claim that all things happen for the best and that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire criticizes Leibniz by taking his characters on an odyssey across Europe, Asia and South America, and showing us how utterly misanthropic and unjust the people of each region can be, except well, the lost land of El Dorado, which turns out to be a slice of heaven itself.

By interposing the main story with El Dorado, Voltaire tells us that by comparison, what we see just cannot be the best of all worlds. The story moves down a depressing staircase from the instant Candide is kicked on the back and thrown out of his Westphalian palace and finally ends up at a farm in Turkey. The chapters are very brief and Voltaire never elucidates or dwells on any of the sequences, rapidly moving on to the next chapter of his tale.

Judging from the hilarious first chapter, I expected the rest of the text to follow the same tone, but rarely does Voltaire do so. Candide is more cynical than it is satirical, and Voltaire is like a mad puppeteer manipulating his characters (we see many of them surviving their death), and his readers, almost as if to prove that everything that happens has to be for the worst.

Dead Souls

August 8, 2007

I just finished reading Gogol’s fantastic Dead Souls – an incomplete, but in no way less accomplished work, the structure of which Gogol is said to have constructed according to Dante’s Divine Comedy – namely, Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read and the witty sarcasm of Gogol is contained within an outrageous plot – that of purchasing dead souls. Apparently, in Russia, then, serfs could be bought or mortgaged along with the land.

The book is actually a road-trip of sorts, along the paths of which we encounter all kinds of people – the meek, the shrewd, the cunning, the violent, the helpless, the beautiful, the powerful, the saint, the pragmatic, and so on, every one of which Chichikov (our protagonist) deftly handles with immaculate skill and charm. Dead Souls is also Gogol’s tribute to Russia, but his sad comment being that the Russian culture is slowly being transgressed under the influence of German and French cultures. He acknowledges the weakness of then-Russia (1800’s), but also has hopes of its abilities to surpass every other nation in the world through the dedication and quality of its working class.

His critique is more on the corruption that is prevalent among the higher classes of its lacklustre and jejune society, and its ill-effects on the serfs. And his delightful prose with its Russian adages is simultaneously light but penetrating. Addressing the reader in a preface, Gogol asks him to annotate the book and add to it his own experiences. “Of style or beauty of expression he would need to take no account, for the value of a book lies in its truth and its actuality rather than in its wording.” Here are a couple of excerpts:


Persons of this kind – persons to whose designing nature has devoted not much thought, and in the fashioning of whose frames she has used no instruments so delicate as a file or a gimlet and so forth – are not uncommon. Such persons she merely roughhews. One cut with a hatchet, and there results a nose; another such cut with a hatchet, and there materialises a pair of lips; two thrusts with a drill, and there issues a pair of eyes. Lastly, scorning to plane down the roughness, she sends out that person into the world, saying: “Here is another live creature.”


In time there opened out to Chichikov a still wider field, for a Commission was appointed to supervise the erection of a Government building, and, on his being nominated to that body, he proved himself one of its most active members. The Commission got to work without delay, but for a space of six years had some trouble with the building in question. Either the climate hindered operations or the materials used were of the kind which prevents official edifices from ever rising higher than the basement. But, meanwhile, other quarters of the town saw arise, for each member of the Commission, a handsome house of the non-official style of architecture. Clearly the foundation afforded by the soil of those parts was better than that where the Government building was still engaged in hanging fire!


An excellent review of the book (and Gogol) can be found here. Particularly insightful is the observation that the condition of the landlords and the Russian landscape in the first part is similar to hell while those in the second part are akin to purgatory.

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

July 31, 2007

In the book, his first, Solzhenitsyn writes with an exactitude that puts us through the life of Ivan Denisovich in one single day at a Siberian camp, serving a term of ten years for a crime he did not commit. The sentences are simple and unadorned; but their impact hard-hitting and powerful. First printed in the Russian magazine Novy Mir in 1962, the book quickly became a sensation in Russia. One tiny excerpt:

Shukhov said nothing. He didn’t even nod. Pulling his hat over his eyes, he walked out.
How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?


July 27, 2007

sol.jpgAn excellent interview with the author of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, discussing both past and present Russia. He looks so magisterial in this photograph. Loved the following comment:

SPIEGEL: All your life you have called on the authorities to repent for the millions of victims of the gulag and communist terror. Was this call really heard?

Solzhenitsyn: I have grown used to the fact that, throughout the world, public repentance is the most unacceptable option for the modern politician.

….And this parting comment adequately serves as a description of the above photograph:

SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.
Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

Also, Book Covers reviews the cover of the new abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago here. I’m hoping to start One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich sometime this weekend. Been putting it off for close to a couple of months now.

Chinua Achebe

July 12, 2007

The photograph on top is an excellent portrait of the recent Man Booker International winner, Chinua Achebe (photo: Frank May/AFP). What is so captivating about this photograph is the way it stares back, challenging and questioning the viewer, while simultaneously looking sullen. Achebe’s brooding face is perfectly complemented by his glasses that look just as downcast. Reminds me of the photograph on the bottom, of Igor Stravinsky, taken by Arnold Newman, who used to capture photographs of famous people with their milieu.

The Guardian has a nice article on Chinua Achebe (and their cropping of the same photograph makes him look even more intense). Some excerpts from a fairly detailed interview with the Nigerian author:

ACHEBE: There are bottlenecks in life, impossible situations, there are things that cannot be explained and if you think about them too long you get into a state of depression. You can’t make this or that happen, the futility of death, and all that. How do you deal with all these things, and still go on living? The way man attempted to deal with this was to create, to create stories and visions so that he could handle difficult, intractable problems.

MORROW: The second question is this. Is there a moment in a man or woman’s life where art becomes no longer necessary, where the bottlenecks disappear sufficiently so that art becomes useless?

ACHEBE: I don’t think so. Art is like a second handle on reality, on our life and the world. That is an alternative that is provided by art. It does not cancel life, it does not eliminate life. It gives us this possibility for contrast, even for escape. So if a life is going to be meaningful — I don’t see a point where life is going to be simpler; I think we can dream of such a period, but I doubt that it will come — it is our destiny that we must wrestle with difficult problems. The very nature of life is struggle. That’s why this need for an alternative — something that can be used as a foil — will always be a necessity to a life well-lived.

Wikipedia has an overview on the Nigerian Civil War and the formation of the ephemeral Republic of Biafra.

To the Lighthouse

July 9, 2007

Reading To the Lighthouse, I felt myself entering a labyrinth of disconnected thoughts and emotions that are jumbled with time and memory within the minds of the characters. Admittedly I’ve read very few works of literature, so there is nothing I can compare Woolf’s prose with. Most parts of the novel are exquisite similes and metaphors, with an overarching stream of consciousness that moves seamlessly from the mind of one person to the next, binding them together and also with the reader.

The novel’s passivity imposes a deeper connection both within itself and from the outside. In this small article that has excerpts from Auerbach’s essay “The Brown Stocking” (from his book Mimesis), Auerbach calls it as “the design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times)”.

Further, “In Virginia Woolf’s case the external events have lost their hegemony, they serve to release and interpret inner events, whereas before her time…inner movements preponderantly function to prepare and motivate significant external happenings”. One of my favourite things with the book is its triptych structure – the three parts, “The Window”, “Time Passes” and “The Lighthouse”, each describing a different time period. Also, it was not as feminine as I initially expected it to be. Here is just one of the many, many beautiful passages:


Mrs Ramsay sat silent. She was glad, Lily thought, to rest in silence, uncommunicative; to rest in the extreme obscurity of human relationships. Who knows what we are, what we feel? Who knows even at the moment of intimacy, This is knowledge? Aren’t things spoilt then, Mrs Ramsay may have asked (it seemed to have happened so often, this silence by her side) by saying them? Aren’t we more expressive thus? The moment at least seemed extraordinarily fertile. She rammed a little hole in the sand and covered it up, by way of burying in it the perfection of the moment. It was like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past.


One hundred years of solitude

May 18, 2007

Just finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude. Frequently thought to be one of the best illustrations of “magical realism” writing, the book’s self-indulgence actually makes it quite easy to read. I’d expected it to be a little more philosophizing or didactic, so it was a bit disappointing that the book does not comment as much as it dictates. Still, that’s just a minor quibble. Marquez’s writing is self-referential, forging connections to itself both forwards and backwards in time – the former expressing clairvoyance while the latter is more nostalgic, both central themes of the book. I’ve also picked up my next book – The Tin Drum from another magical realist, Gunter Grass.


May 15, 2007

This is a nice article on the Guardian that covers the translation aspect of novels. The author also coins a term – “generalizations”, for all those adages and aphorisms that we encounter in some works. One of my favorite ones is also mentioned here – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”, from Anna Karenina. Like the author mentions, “Not to read in translation – unimaginable, almost unforgivable”. Isn’t that why we watch foreign films with subtitles, not understanding a word of what’s spoken, the warmth or bitterness of the voice lost into the 26 characters that we constantly read on the screen? It’s for the love of the art and can be for nothing less.


May 7, 2007

I’ve started reading a few plays lately. Their structure and length makes them easier to read while juggling books around. But their content is far from being simple. I’m also ecstatic that so many plays are available online; far easier than scouring the local bookstore. Here are just three of them I read over the last week:

The brilliant existential play by Jean Paul Sartre Huis Clos (No exit). (Skip the comments in between the text during the initial reading).

Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which comments on desperation and regret.

Luigi Pirandello’s mildly judgmental and deviating work Six Characters in search of an Author.