Monday, May 26, 2008

C S Lewis - Narnia Series and The Problem of Susan by Neil Gaiman

I still remember where the set of Narnia books were kept, in our house in Bangalore. In a cupboard in the dining room, all stacked up in order. I was not more than 13 then. I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The three things appear in a reverse order in the book. We see the magical wardrobe first. Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children sent out of London to escape the bombings during the IInd World War, discovers the wardrobe first. She finds a magical world behind it, Narnia, where it is perpetually winter. She wanders ahead, comes to the Lamp Post and runs into the faun Tumnus who entertains her for the afternoon and drops her back to the Lamp Post. Next to appear is the White Witch, the terrible ruler of Narnia. Edmund is bewitched by her and promises to bring all his brothers and sisters to her. The Lion, Aslan, the creator of Narnia, appears in time to restore peace to the magical land.

Charmed by the simple parable, and entirely missing the message of Christianity behind it, I devoured the other 6 books in the order they should be read. However, years have passed and only LWW, The Magician's Nephew (which explains the birth of Narnia, and how the wardrobe came to be made), The Horse and his boy and fragments from the The Last Battle remained in my mind. When I found the LWW was being made into a movie, I delved back into some of the books.

However, the movie raked up old memories about the books in the press, and I got to read about the latent symbolism and the criticism heaped on them. The most interesting arguments concerned the The Problem of Susan.

It's like this, in the last book in the series, The Last Battle, all the children who had ever been to Narnia reassemble there, with the exception of Susan. In a flippant statement one child says "She is too interested now in nylons and lipstick and invitations to bother about Narnia.'

This statement became a handle for a lot of arguments about the denial of a sexual/feminine choices allowed to a woman. And among lots of literature devoted to the issue emerged this short story by Neil Gaiman - The Problem of Susan,-by-Neil-Gaiman.html

The Last Battle also tells us that the entire Pevensie Family, with the exception of Susan was killed, and reassembled in Heaven (Narnia). It is implied that heaven was denied to Susan because of her silly indulgences. The short story deals with the problems faced by Susan and also questions a God who would punish a young girl so bitterly - leaving her an orphan on earth, for her preference for nylons/lipstick/invitations.

The whole argument is a riveting read, and loosens quite a few bolts and nuts in your head.

C S Lewis - Prince Caspian

I scrolled the mouse up and down on the list of my blogs. Should I write about Prince Caspian/Narnia/CS Lewis/Neil Gaiman on my book blog or the movie one! The train of thought and research started from the movie surely.

The Chronicles of Narnia - Prince Caspian is 2nd in the series after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensie children are feeling miserable away from Narnia. The way they talk about Narnia makes you feel as if they are on some kind of drug, which they are deprived of. Lo and Behold, Susan's magic horn is blown in far away Narnia and the kids are transported back to Cair Paravel. They don't recognise it anymore, and realise after a bit of sleuthing, that time in Narnia has taken a quantum leap. They find Narnia has gone underground and the wicked Talmerines rule it. The silver lining is that they can help restore Narnia to its former glory if they reinstate Prince Caspian to the throne.

Thus begins the battle between the remaining Narnians and Talmerine. After the intervention of Aslan, the battle favours the Narnians and the children can return to London to catch their train to the school.

Some good special effects, a nice story, (and Ben Barnes) manage to keep the movie afloat. Fantasy aficionados agree that the movie could be better. It is certainly better than LWW.

We can look forward to the third in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This time around Peter and Susan Pevensie will be missing. Lucy, Edmund and a nasty cousin Eustace Scrubb are the ones who will make it Narnia and join the delicious Prince Caspian on an adventure to the end of the world. Ok, this is the movie part. Now over to for the book part of it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Vikram Seth - The Golden Gate

Published by Vintage
Bought @ English Book Store, Sector 17, Chandigarh

If I were talented enough, I would write this in verse. Alas, I am not. Vikram Seth is. He chose to write a whole novel in iambic pentameter quite in the manner of Edmund Spenser and Pushkin. A novel has to succeed in two ways. One - the content should be good enough to grip the reader. Two- the style should be good enough to charm the reader. Seth scores on both counts.

The story is a very modern, a very American, a very eighties story of four friends, John, Paul, Liz and Jan. John Brown is a square IT engineer, workaholic, rather unscrupulous young man in search of a mate. Jan is his current best friend, ex-girlfriend, a sculptor and a musician who lives a solitary life with her two cats - cuff and link. Jan helps John find Liz through the Personals column in the paper. Liz is a rare combination of beauty and brains, the girl is a lawyer and goaded by her mother, is looking for a mate too. Liz and John get along like the house on fire, and start contemplating a future together. Paul is John's college friend, an activist and a sensitive, thinking man. He has recently been divorced and is a single father. The story brings the four friends together and changes their lives forever.

Like I said, the story is very 80s. It was a time when the term 'politically correct' was in vogue. Unlike the preceding decades, no one raised an eyebrow if a hero was a gay or a bisexual. In fact the novel also has a description of a homosexual love affair, the first I ever read about. Will and Grace came a whole decade later. It was uber-cool then, to be committed to some cause. In the novel, Paul is against big corporations because they promote nuclear war-fare, and also left his lucrative job because of that. Environmental issues and animal rights are deemed important topics. Although all the leading characters are strong independent people, Liz gets married and has a child to please her mother who yearns for a grandchild. So there is and endearing bit about loving and caring for your parents in there.

Apart from the leading cast, there are a number of other endearing and real characters in the book, that add to the landscape and make the book sound cheery.

Now for the style. Seth has a vast vocabulary in English and he knows how to use it well. Very handy when you are trying to rhyme words and make sense at the same time. Never ever does the rhyme ever sound laboured! The words trip off easily, readily describing the serious along with the cheesy. There are some amazing alliterations here (examples later). The verse sounds so effortless, that you scarcely notice that it is a novel in verse.

Whether it is love between Liz and John that is being described, a scene that lends itself naturally to poetry, or whether it is a peacenik march that is being described, a scene that does not lend itself naturally to poetry, the effect is always pleasing. I think that is the true success of this novel in verse.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Guy de Maupassant - Bel Ami

The novel traces the upward curve of the life of Georges Duroy from near starvation to riches and power. The son of poor innkeepers in Canteleu, his parents want him to be a gentleman and educate him well. He joins the military and serves for a time in Algiers. He leaves the army and comes to Paris to try and get ahead in the world. When the novel begins, he is working as a clerk in the Railway and barely able to survive on his salary, often giving up either lunch or dinner. He runs into an old army mate Forestier who is working as a journalist. Forestier gives him a break in journalism and Duroy begins his second life that finds him indulging in all the seven deadly sins, except sloth.

He comes face to face with some remarkable women who succumb to his irresistibile charm. He forgoes shame to accumulate wealth, and plays politics with a seasoned hand to bring himself to the top in any situation.

The chapter where Georges attends the fete thrown by Walter to exhibit his purchase of an expensive painting, is study in the cross currents of sexual and political power fuelled by wealth that run through the party.

There are a wealth of characters that are fullblooded, unholy, flawed and extremely real. Madeleine Forestier, who wants to rule by proxy. She wants wealth and power as much as the next man, and does not hesitate to use sex and manipulation to get it. She is almost like the female counterpart of Georges Duroy. If Georges Duroy finds himself outwitting her, it is merely because he is a man and has some unfair advantages because of it.

Then there is Clotilde de Marelle who shares a lustful relationship with Georges throughout the novel. If women want to learn about how to hang on to their man, they should study Clotilde for the Do's, and Verginie Walter, who lets her passion overrule her reason, for the Don'ts.

If the novel is by Maupassant can humour be far behind? The novel is an ironical study of success and what makes it so. The shenanigans of the ruling (or nearly ruling) class and the moneyed people are exposed blithely. There are passages and whole chapters that are so comic, so funny that they are a delight to read. The humour is cerebral and simply amazing. The chapter where the poor but upcoming Georges Duroy is turned to Georges du Roy de Cantel is so brilliant that you are left speechless.

It is a gem of a book, something all book-lovers MUST possess.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Some Short Stories

Short stories are like little gems, Cadbury Gems that look pretty, taste good and vanish without cloying. You can eat many at a time and again and again with renewed pleasure each time. Choosing 5 best short stories is an impossible task, and quite self defeating. How can you choose 5 best pearls out of an ocean-full of treasure? It is like picking 5 best stars out of a glittering sky. Leave alone 5 best short stories, it is not even possible to choose 5 best short story writers! Anyhow, I am picking these stories strictly on basis of the ones which have lingered in my mind the most. This is, again, not a very good benchmark. For instance, after I compiled my list, I was reminded of War of the Worlds by HG Wells. What a magnificent story that was! So awfully massacred by Steven Spielberg. Why can’t any filmmaker have the courage to make it exactly like it is? Idgah, by Munshi Premchand, that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Most stories I have picked, barring two, were originally written in some other language, and translated into English. But I read them in English, whereas I have always read Idgah in Hindi.

The only thing to do is to excuse me for the ones I have ignored and just savor the ones I list here. Here goes my list, which is not in any order, I wouldn’t dare!

The Selfish Giant – Oscar Wilde

Now what can one say about Oscar Wilde? His witty writing, short stories, plays, poems are all delightful. His story, The Portrait of Dorian Grey is a masterpiece. His wordplay sparkles, makes you chuckle, and read on and on and on without tiring. But in this little morality tale, he adopts almost a biblical tone:

And the Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom, and the birds came and sang on it, and the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant's neck, and kissed him.

The repeated use of the word “and” is in the style of the Bible. The sentences are short and descriptive “He was a very selfish Giant”. The simple little tale of a selfish person who realizes the importance of sharing and loving his fellow creatures is timeless, a classic.

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

If I were to choose the best short story ever, this would be it. The pathetic tale of Gregor Samsa tears your heart out. It makes you wonder at the fragility of our closest relationships, with our parents, our siblings, which seem so strong, but are often based on a mutual need. Good as long as they are fulfilling, cast out the minute they are not. The story has a chilling start

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”

From being a good son and brother, who works hard to support his family, he turns into a hated creature that needs constant attention. At first, his sister pitches in lovingly to care for him. But as time passes, he becomes a useless burden and is shunned by his own loved ones. Kafka paints an inexorable picture of Gregor’s travails that take us through emotions of pity and disgust, but also make us realize that we are human and possess all the frailties associated with our kind.

The Necklace – Guy De Maupassant

One of those tales with a twist in the end, like the Gift of Magi, which was bittersweet, borne of love, ending with a little laughter and love. But The Necklace is almost like a morality tale, chiding and punishing the heroine mercilessly for her vanity. Mathilde Loisel is a young pretty girl who yearns for good life. She is married to a poor man and is discontented with her life. Her husband brings home an invitation to a party, and Mathilde is besieged by the question familiar to all womenfolk, “What will I wear!” With great difficulty she puts together a desired ensemble that is worthy of her beauty. And for that night, she gets all that she wished for.

She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart.

Alas, this is the last happy night of her life. But then, didn’t DH Lawrence say “Let man go on his way to perdition”?

Old Fashioned Farmers – Nikolai Gogol

Gogol has written umpteen, magnificent short stories. What is so special about this one? In my mind this story is almost like a stately painting, with lovely detailing, that brings an old couple alive. Yes, there is a lot of romance in painting young and beautiful figures, but the painting of the old couple is like looking at LIFE.

Afansii Ivanovich and Pulcheria Ivanova are old-fashioned farmers. Their life has settled into a series of routines and habits. In their own way, they are a very devoted to each other. They spend their day tending to their farming affairs and household matters. They love welcoming guests into their house and are full of the old world charm. What happens when one of the couple dies? Gogol compares a mad passionate love of youngsters with the staid habits of an old couple who have been together forever.

Which wields the most powerful sway over us, passion or habit? Or are all our strong impulses, all the whirlwinds of our desire and boiling passions, but the consequence of our fierce young growth, and only for that reason seem deep and annihilating?" However that may be, all our passion, on that occasion, seemed to me child's play beside this long, slow, almost insensible habit”

A Municipal Report - O Henry

This is one story I am very very fond of. I read it through again yesterday while looking for quotes to pull out. Oscar Wilde and O Henry are the only ones on this list to have written in English. In their stories, nothing is lost in translation and we get the full impact of whatever they intend to convey. I could wax eloquent forever about his writing style, if only I could find words to describe it. Is it hard to sketch a character so well in a few lines that it jumps out of the pages of the book to come alive? Yes, but, O Henry can.

Nashville is a dull place that the narrator is commissioned to visit. He has to sign a contract with a lady, Azalea Adair, binding her to write for a journal at 2 cents per word. He also runs into a black cab driver called Caesar whose regal ways seem out of sorts with his ramshackle cab (horse-driven) and tattered clothes. He also runs into a despicable gentleman called Major Wentworth Caswell. There is also a dollar bill in this story, which is almost like a character itself.

I gave him two one-dollar bills. As I handed them over I noticed that one of them had seen parlous times. Its upper right-hand corner was missing, and it had been torn through the middle, but joined again. A strip of blue tissue paper, pasted over the split, preserved its negotiability.

Then there is button which is again a very important element in the story.

"The lone button was the size of a half-dollar, made of yellow horn and sewed on with coarse twine.

Our narrator is surprised when he finds a gem in Nashville in the shape of Ms. Azalea Adair.

While she talked to me I kept brushing my fingers, trying, unconsciously, to rid them guiltily of the absent dust from the half-calf backs of Lamb, Chaucer, Hazlitt, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Hood. She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much - oh, so much too much - of real life.

Expecting to be bored to death during the visit, the narrator finds excitement aplenty. A murder is done, and the narrator helps in shielding a murderer. To find out the rest, go read the story.


There are so many other excellent short story writers that I have missed here. Saki, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Chekov, Dosteoveksy, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry to name just a few. I do hope the ones I have listed above whet your appetite for good writing.