“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South

I picked up North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell based on the premise that this book would be about the Hale family and their decision to leave the South of England. I wanted to know what struggles or personal convictions Mr. Hale faced with the Church in order to resign his position as parishioner and move his family to the North of England, to a manufacturing town.

I was quite disappointed that the story did not develop this reason at all. However, all my disappointment was forgotten as I continued reading and learned more about the character of Margaret Hale, Mr. Hale’s daughter. She had initially struck me as someone gentle and kind as she interacted with her mother. But as I continued reading, I soon learned that she was also very bold in communicating her thoughts/disapproval when she felt it was necessary.

This story largely focuses on the misunderstanding and conflict between two groups. One group was the factory owners and their mill workers while the other group was the Hale family, who are from the South and the people of Milton, from the North. Throughout this story, we meet different characters which give us insight into the issues of each group and what biases each group must overcome to understand one another. This was probably one of my favorite parts.

The author, Mrs. Gaskell, does such a fair job at allowing each side to plead their case through dialogue between characters. The dialogue was kind of heavy, at times, for me because it contained a lot of references to how unions and factory businesses’ work, which I am not too familiar with. However, it was coupled with compelling events that demonstrated just how much each person’s life was affected by the environment at Milton such as illness, poverty, hunger, work strikes, death, etc. Again, all very striking and heavy social issues relative to the culture and time. Mrs. Gaskell was able to sustain me as a reader, as I grew to love each and every one of her characters to whom she gives so much depth to as they interact with one another.

Going into the story, I knew that Margaret’s love interest would be Mr. Thornton, which is what intrigued me to continue reading. Amidst all the societal issues, I was so curious to know how Margaret and Mr. Thornton resolved their prejudices towards one another and move on to becoming more than acquaintances. There were many times Mrs. Gaskell created such opposition between them and allowed us, the readers, to be aware of events that maybe the other party was not, which really magnified the tension causing me to ask, “Why, Mrs. Gaskell. Why?!” In a good way, of course.

Overall, this story has left quite an impression on me, especially Margaret’s character. I was so inspired by how strong of a woman she was throughout her experiences at Milton. Mrs. Gaskell did an excellent job at crafting this story together.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Publisher: Penguin Classics, Revised edition
Publication Date: June 1996 (Originally published in 1855)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis

I was in Prague in the summer and Franz Kafka’s name came up somewhere somehow. The Czechs are incredibly proud of him. He is among the 20th century’s most celebrated authors and many of his quotes are mind-blowing. Consider this one: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” One hundred years after the Russian Revolution we can clearly see what he means – but Kafka died seven years after 1917.

When I started reading The Metamorphosis, a sense of deja-vu set in almost immediately. I began to feel that I’ve read this book before. I was an avid reader in my schooldays, so perhaps I must have read it, though the memory is nebulous. The creepy feeling, however, subsists to this day, as I soon found out. The book takes you on a bizarre journey into an unfamiliar domain. Wonder how the author dreamed this up. Should I call it science fiction? But no, the story line is too well-grounded. And it does bring home some home-truths. It is fiction that touches both science and sociology.

Gregor Samsa is a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into an ugly beetle. Until then he had been a conscientious worker, doing the daily grind, bringing home the bread and butter, supporting his parents and sister, and living a mundane life. But everything changes in a horrific instant. As Gregor’s life changes, the people around him are compelled to readjust their lives rather abruptly. His home-bound father starts going to work. His sister Grete starts taking care of him. His mother keeps a distance.

The cast of characters is minimal. A colleague from Gregor’s office who comes in search of him on Day 1 of the horrendous transformation, and three bearded paying guests who are taken in to supplement the family’s dwindling resources are the only other players in the game.

The original novella was written in German and published in 1915. There have been innumerable translations since. The text is barely 56 pages. The rest of the compendium is comprised of the Introduction, a whole lot of critical essays (some of which I didn’t bother to read) and some key documents including a letter from Kafka to his father (with whom he had a troubled relationship).

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of forty. He never married, though he had several known liaisons with women. He did not attain fame during his lifetime. He was a Jew and his three sisters perished in the Holocaust. There have been speculations that Kafka suffered from a schizoid personality disorder and/or anorexia nervosa. He was believed to be a loner with suicidal tendencies.

Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod was responsible for turning Kafka into a celebrity. Kafka’s wish was that his works should be destroyed but Brod ensured their publication instead. The Trial was published in 1925, followed by The Castle in 1926 and Amerika in 1927. Max Brod fled to Palestine in 1939, taking Kafka’s papers with him. In 1988, two decades after Brod’s death, an original manuscript of The Trial was auctioned for $2 million.

“A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light.” Wow, Kakfa! What a quotable!

“I can prove at any time that my education tried to make another person out of me than the one I became.” Yes, he proved it. He was trained to be a lawyer, worked for an insurance company, and look what he became!

Overall Assessment: Eerie and thought-provoking.

The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung)
AUTHOR: Franz Kafka (translated from the German by Stanley Corngold)
PUBLISHER: Bantam Classics
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1972 (first Bantam Edition) (German original published in 1915)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel is a book by Daphne du Maurier, who is most well known for her 1938 novel, Rebecca. While I have read Rebecca, years ago, I don’t remember much of it except that it was mysterious and suspenseful – and very good. I don’t think, however, that I got a chance to read any other novels by Daphne du Maurier at that time, perhaps because she never reached the kind of fame and ubiquity that novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Somerset Maugham enjoyed, whose books have become enduring literary classics. Lately, however, Daphne du Maurier has re-emerged in public consciousness with another one of her books, My Cousin Rachel, being made into a movie that has just been released. (Rebecca was made into a movie in 1940 by none other than Alfred Hitchcock). It provided me with the incentive to go out and get a copy of the book to read before watching the movie, as I hate it when my own visualizations of the characters in a book – usually the best part of reading – become overlaid by the actors playing those roles in the movie adaption. I found the book so good that I finished it in the course of a weekend.

My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a young man, Philip, who becomes infatuated with an older woman, Rachel, whom he was all set to detest. Philip is an orphan who has been brought up by his cousin, Ambrose, a wealthy landowner in England. Philip aspires nothing more in life than to be like Ambrose, and is very much like him in looks and in nature – shy and reserved with no social graces as such and little interest in material comforts, yet hardworking and generous to his servants and tenants. The story is set in the 19th century, at a time when there were still estates and landowners and large houses with many servants. Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor and has no interest at all in romance and marriage, until he travels to Italy one winter to escape the damp English weather that is making him unwell. (It was very common at that time for the English to go abroad every winter, typically somewhere warm and dry.) In Italy, he meets a widow, Rachel, marries her, continues to stay in her villa for several months, and is in the seventh heaven of bliss until his health rapidly deteriorates and he suddenly dies. All of this is communicated to Philip back at home through letters, which initially show how besotted Ambrose is by Rachel and subsequently, as time goes on, become darker and more paranoid. Ambrose starts to think that Rachel is a spendthrift, that she is too close to the Italian man who is her friend and financial advisor, and finally, when he has become extremely sick, that Rachel is trying to poison him. Philip rushes to Florence as soon as he gets Ambrose’s last few letters foretelling doom, but it is too late – Ambrose is already dead.

Naturally, Philip is devastated – and furious with Rachel, who is now his cousin. He is told that Ambrose might have suffered from a brain tumor similar to that which his father died from, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling almost a murderous rage towards Rachel. But that is before he meets her. She comes to visit, and Philip is soon as besotted with her as Ambrose was, to the extent that he eventually signs over all of his considerable property to her and gives her all his family jewels, which are worth a fortune. He doesn’t care – he is in love with this woman, and despite their age gap, wants to marry her. They have a one-night tryst, an occurrence which makes him think that she has agreed to marry him, when in fact, for her, it was just a “one-night stand” – as we would it now – with someone she has affection for and who has just given her a fortune in jewels. Naturally, she shoots down the idea immediately. Philip falls ill, and while Rachel continues to stay on in England to nurse him, things are different between them now – she remains affectionate, but also distant and firm. At the same time, her Italian friend comes to visit, and Philip, like Ambrose, hates him, thinking they have something going on between them. The final straw is when Philip finds some poisonous seeds in her bureau – is she trying to poison him like she did Ambrose?

While, of course, I can’t give away the ending, I would have to say that the book was so suspenseful that I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it, despite the fact that it was not a thriller or a murder mystery. I also found it beautifully written, very evocative, almost haunting. It is told from Philip’s point of view and captures all of his emotions – his diffidence, rage, jealousy, infatuation, and confusion – so authentically and in so much detail that we seem to be inside his head, actually experiencing all these feelings. I also found it such a welcome change from contemporary novels, many of which attempt to be “clever” but end up just being obscure and convoluted, not to mention pretentious. My Cousin Rachel is a wonderfully crafted story, told in a straightforward manner and without any artifice whatsoever. I wish people still wrote books like this today.

My Cousin Rachel
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1952
Reprint Publisher and Date: Sourcebooks, Inc, 2009

 Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham

the-razors-edge

Somerset Maugham has always been one of my most favorite authors. Growing up in India at a time when the British influence was still very strong, most of the books written in English were by British authors and they seemed very much a part of our culture. We grew up on adventure stories by Enid Blyton, murder mysteries by Agatha Christie, Victorian-era romances by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, classics by Charles dickens, and turnoff-the-century stories by Somerset Maugham. In fact, I still have my original copies of most of these books, and every once in a while, I go back and re-read them to find out if I still like them as much as I did before. One such book I just finished re-reading is The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. While this is not his most famous novel, it remains one of my enduring favorites, and re-reading it brought into sharper focus why I had liked it so much in the first place.

The Razor’s Edge is primarily the story of a young man, Larry, and his spiritual quest to find the meaning of life after his friend, a fellow fighter pilot, dies before his eyes during a flight mission they are on that goes awry during World War 1. Unlike his friends, and to the dismay of his socialite fiancée and her family, Larry does not want to settle down and work and lead a normal life after his return from the war. Instead, he wants to “loaf” – which, in his case, really means traveling around the world, working odd jobs, getting varied experiences, and reading extensively, often for over 10 hours at a stretch, all in an effort to understand life and make sense of what had happened to him. What made The Razor’s Edge especially appealing to those of us in India was that Larry’s quest ultimately drew him to India and that he found the answers to what he was looking for in an ashram there under the guidance of a guru. In fact, the name of the book comes from a verse in the Katha Upanishad which says “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” For those of us who were not just looking at The Razor’s Edge as a work of fiction, the fact that Larry’s spiritual awakening came from the Vedantic philosophy of Hinduism was both an affirmation of it and gratification that it was being recognized and given voice to by one of the foremost novelists of that time.

Of course, the book is not just the story of Larry. Brilliantly woven in are other characters including Isabel, Larry’s childhood friend and fiancée, who ultimately could not give up her society life and join him in the alternate (simple but “rich in spirit”) life he had to offer: Gray, his best friend who ultimately ends up marrying Isabel; Sophie, another childhood friend, who, after a horrific tragedy of her own, becomes an alcoholic and nymphomaniac and finally cannot even be redeemed by Larry, despite his best efforts; Elliot, Isabel’s rich uncle who is a strong influence in her life; and finally, Maugham himself, Elliot’s friend who unwittingly becomes everyone’s confidant and is the narrator of the story.

What I like most about The Razor’s Edge, and all of Maugham’s books – even today – is how simple the telling of the story is and how it is riveting inspite of it. There are no literary gimmicks here, no examples of “stylistic” writing that critics could pick out and hold it up before us to justify what a great writer Maugham was. Instead, the focus is completely on the story, and the language is used entirely at the service of telling it. In short, the story is so brilliant that the writing is almost invisible!

The characters are also artfully captured, with all the foibles that make us human. In fact, I would say that in retrospect, the only trouble with The Razor’s Edge is that Larry seems to be too good to be true – he is portrayed with a little too much saintliness. (Also, some of the miracles he could perform after his return from India seemed to be playing to the stereotype and could have been avoided.)

Maugham died in 1965, and I really miss his books. They don’t write like this anymore.

The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: William Heinemann (Parent company: Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: 1944

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A House for Mr. Biswas” by V S Naipaul

A House for Mr Biswas

This is a rather ancient book by 21st century standards, penned in the late fifties and published in 1961, by Trinidad born, Indian origin, Oxford educated, UK citizen, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Then why read it at all? Well, for one thing, this guy is no ordinary writer. All his life he did nothing but write, write and write. Many of his books are extraordinary. He won the Booker prize in 1971 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He was knighted in 1990.

This book is a magnum opus spanning over 600 pages. The master storyteller brings to life each of the characters and locations in such explicit detail that everything becomes familiar to the reader as if the persons and places were all in his own backyard. Those who love fast paced action thrillers, murders and mysteries may not be fascinated by this one. It is a down to earth account of the daily lives of down to earth people, sons and daughters of a little British colony where many mixed races live together in harsh if not pathetic circumstances. The author manages to paint a perfect portrait without exaggeration or unnecessary recourse to sentiment. The reader is often left wondering whether to feel sorry for the central character or laugh at him.

The humour is typical of an English gentleman – subtle, tongue-in-cheek and greatly amusing. Take this for instance: “The house was alive but subdued when he got back. He found four children on his bed. They were not his. Thereafter he occupied his room early in the evening, bolted the door and refused to answer knocks, calls, scratches and cries.”

Naipaul offers some friendly advice for aspiring journalists: “Even people with outstanding writing ability say they cannot find subjects. But in reality nothing is easier. You are sitting at your desk. You look through your window. But wait. There is an article in that window. The various types of window, the history of the window, windows famous in history, houses without windows. And the story of glass itself can be fascinating. Already, then, you have subjects for two articles.”

Every now and then Naipaul makes a dig at Hindu rituals but the implied criticism is not unfounded. Nearly one fourth of the population of this tiny nation is Hindu (even half a century after Naipaul wrote the book.) They went to the colony as indentured labourers in the mid 19th century and their descendants have remained there ever since. Having little or no contact with India, they are left to practice Hinduism in their own unique ways. The author notes every religious ritual with amusement. Consider this: “In his thin voice, Hari whined out the prayers. Whining, he sprinkled water into the hole with a mango leaf and dropped a penny and some other things wrapped in another mango leaf.”

Naipaul does not hesitate to make cheeky remarks about well-know personalities, particularly Indians. And of course, he makes his characters do all the talking. Here’s an example: “Scathing was one of his favourite words and the person he had handled most scathingly was Krishna Menon.” Naipaul must have had a well-developed sixth sense or perhaps he bumped into Menon in London. This was before China invaded India and inflicted a humiliating defeat and Menon as Defence Minister drew a lot of flak.

How Trinidad-born Indians perceive India-born Indians is interesting too. “Owad disliked all Indians from India,” the author observes. “They were a disgrace to Trinidad Indians; they were arrogant, sly and lecherous; they pronounced English in a peculiar way…..” He goes on and on, making the reader double up with laughter (or red with indignation if his national pride is invoked). Incidentally the book is replete with umpteen examples of Trinidadian English which could give Indian English a run for its money. It is also peppered with politically incorrect words like ‘negro’ but we need to concede that in those days nobody called the blacks ‘blacks’ – and Naipaul was perhaps using common parlance.

If you have an interest in the Indian diaspora, do read this book. It takes patience, but it’s worth the effort.

A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS
AUTHOR: V S NAIPAUL
PUBLISHER: PICADOR
PUBLICATION DATE: 1961

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.