“Wives and Daughters” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters

After being introduced to North and South, a Victorian classic novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I absolutely loved, I picked up Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, hoping that it would assuage the withdrawal symptoms I was suffering from after finishing North and South and looking for another book that could inspire the same level of emotion. Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last novel before her sudden death in 1865; in fact, she was not able to finish it and it was completed by another writer of that time.

Wives and Daughters is centered around the life of Molly Gibson, a young girl living with her widowed father in a small English town in the 1830s. Her mother died when she was very young, but she still leads a very happy life, adored by everyone in the town, with many friends of her mother who watch out for her, and a very close and loving relationship with her father, who is a highly respected doctor. This tranquil state of affairs is completely upended when her father gets remarried. The new Mrs. Gibson is far from being the “evil stepmother” that is almost a caricature in most stories when the father remarries, but she is somewhat of an airhead, with not much sense, intelligence, and depth of character — all of which Molly has in abundance. This makes it very difficult for Molly to really respect her stepmother, and she finds her very wearying at times, but she puts up with it in good spirit — helped enormously by the fact that her stepmother has a daughter, Cynthia, whom Molly takes to right away. There is even less of the “evil stepsister” angle here that we are used to from our Cinderella fairy tale days — Molly and Cynthia form an instant sisterly bond that only grows stronger as time passes and it is their relationship that is the real highlight of the book.

There is, of course, the obligatory romance, and in Wives and Daughters, it is in the form of Roger Hamley, the son of a local squire who develops a close friendship with Molly but then falls head-over-heels in love with Cynthia when he sees her. This is not surprising, given that Cynthia is exceptionally beautiful and has that effect on most men. However, she does not have Molly’s character and depth of feeling — and she is the first person to acknowledge that. In contrast to Cynthia, Molly’s feelings for Roger are very intense, but she never lets them be known and does not ever feel jealous or envious of Cynthia for capturing Roger’s attention.

Of course, eventually, everything is resolved, and Roger and Molly do get together — it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t. That said, this wasn’t really the point of the book. As evidenced by its title, the story was more about the close relationship between Molly and Cynthia and the experiences they go through together, including how they deal with a somewhat villainous character, Mr. Preston, the aristocratic lords and the ladies of the neighboring manor, and the gossip of the local townsfolk. At over 600 pages, Wives and Daughters is a long, extensive, minutely detailed book that captures much of the life of those times and the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, so much so that reading it is an experience in and of itself. For those who love reading about Victorian times, there’s so much of the book to sink into — the author seemed to be in no rush at all to wrap things up.

On my part, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with North and South, and this brought home to me an important realization — that the inspiration behind any great work of art cannot be manufactured at will. Thus, there is no guarantee that anyone who has created an outstanding book, movie, painting or song will continue to do so with the same level of success. Inspiration has to strike, and while the creator cannot force it, he or she can make the best of it when it comes and create something truly remarkable that can bring joy to millions of others. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, we should appreciate that these could be “once in a lifetime” creations and savor them as such.

Wives and Daughters
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Date: Elder and Company, 1866
Reprint Publisher and Date: Norilana Books Classics Norilana Books Norilana Books, April 2008

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

“Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier


Rebecca is, by far, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book, and while I had read it years ago, I was inspired to read it again after reading My Cousin Rachel a few months ago. Billed as a “classic tale of romantic suspense,” I found this to be very true even though I had read the book before and vaguely remembered what the suspense was. It’s a testament to how good the book was that I still enjoyed it so much.

The story is that of a young girl who gets married to a middle-aged man, Maxim De Winter, whose first wife has died. She meets him in Monte Carlo – where she is employed as a companion to a rich American woman on holiday – falls in love with him, accepts his proposal of marriage, and returns with him to Manderlay, his stately estate in England. However, she finds herself continuously haunted by the presence of his first wife, Rebecca, at Manderlay. This is not a physical haunting – Rebecca is not a ghost story – but an emotional one. Rebecca seems to be everything she is not – beautiful, gregarious, bold, stately, decisive, stylish, with impeccable taste, the life and soul of a party. It seemed that she could do anything and was adored by everyone. The girl, now the new Mrs. De Winter – whose Christian name we are never told – is engulfed by extreme feelings of inadequacy. These are compounded by the housekeeper at Manderlay, Mrs. Danvers, who was devoted to Rebecca and makes no bones about how she feels towards the new Mrs. De Winter, despite continuing to do her housekeeping duties. She, the new Mrs. De Winter, also thinks her husband is still in love with Rebecca and can’t get over her death.

What exactly happened to Rebecca? How did she die? Why does Maxim look so haunted at times? Why is Mrs. Danvers so sinister, and so contemptuous of the new Mrs. De Winter? What does Frank Crawley, who handles the affairs of the estate for Maxim, know about Rebecca? And who is the shady Jack Favell, who comes to Manderlay to meet Mrs. Danvers and is supposedly a cousin of Rebecca, but is strongly disliked by Maxim and has therefore to keep his visit a secret?

While Rebecca is not a detective story — there is no “investigator” as such — it does have a strong element of mystery about it, with so many lingering questions that persist for most of the book. While that, in and of itself, is not unique to a novel, what sets this book apart is the masterful quality of the writing. It gradually builds up the suspense and captures the increasingly haunted feeling experienced by the protagonist — and thus, by extension, the readers — so vividly that I could almost viscerally experience a growing feeling of dread as I was reading it. And this is despite having read it before and guessing what the suspense was.

I can see why Rebecca has secured Daphne du Maurier a secure place in the annals of literary history. It is truly a timeless classic.

Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2006

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

“Villette” by Charlotte Brontë


I decided to read Villette by Charlotte Brontë because I wanted to become more familiar with her works. I had only read Jane Eyre before.

I’ve also always been intrigued by Charlotte Brontë’s life. She was a woman who experienced a lot of sorrow through the loss of some of her family members. It also seemed like she experienced rejection by people who held to certain religious views. This is why I was really interested in reading another one of her works.

Another thing that caught my attention was the idea that this story took place in a fictional town, “Villette.” I was interested to see what kind of town she would create. I imagined that she would create a fictional world, so that I thought it would be something entirely different from Jane Eyre.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t what I expected. Although she did create a fictional town, Villette actually turned out to be another novel largely inspired by real events in her life. Which made it, in some ways, very similar to events that occurred in Jane Eyre. If you have read Jane Eyre, you might enjoy picking up on these similarities and figuring out how each of the similarities could have been inspired by events that were real to her.

I must say that it was really hard for me to get into this story because it was so confusing to me. At first, I thought that a lot of the earlier chapters were pointless. The main character, Lucy Snowe, spends a lot of time talking about two other characters, Graham and Pauline, and I couldn’t understand why. But everything comes together in a lovely way eventually. Every component serves its purpose in bringing the characters and novel together. Something that I learned through reading this book is to be patient in allowing the story to unfold and the characters to develop.

Another thing that made it really confusing for me, at first, was that there was a lot of dialogue in French (as the story is set in France). It wasn’t until halfway through the book that I decided to read using a translation app on my phone which did a great deal in helping me understand and enjoy the story a lot more.

Once I was able to sort out all the confusion and understand the story, I began to enjoy this book so much! Very much like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë creates a strong passionate woman named Lucy Snowe. What intrigued me about Lucy Snowe was the circumstances she found herself in. She was lonely young woman who had to find a way to support herself.

“Thus, there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides.”

This is when I first became gripped by the novel. I wanted to learn about how she would survive. This to me, was the central idea throughout the novel and as events unfold surrounding this issue of her finding a way to support herself, she proves herself to be so resilient which was truly an inspiration to me.

A few things that stood out to me were her descriptions with battling depression due to loneliness. This story is told through the perspective of Lucy Snowe, so we are following her journey through her mind and how she perceives people and experiences around her. She’s also very poetic and passionate in her expressions, which was also something I enjoyed. There were many memorable quotes and descriptions very much like Jane Eyre.

I also think Charlotte Brontë did a great job at bringing her characters to life. Although we are in Lucy’s mind, she helps us understand those she encounters through Lucy Snowe’s dialogue and interaction with others. It was really pleasant to read about the relationships she develops with some of these characters. There were lots of moments that I laughed.

There were also scary moments! Several times, she describes Lucy Snowe’s encounter with a scary apparition that makes its occasional appearance throughout the story.

I almost forgot to add that there is a “possible” love interest in this story. However, it wasn’t quite clear who it might be until much later in the story. Therefore, the ambiguity between the two possible characters that could be the male protagonist caused me to stick with the story to see who it might be.

All in all, it was so pleasant to follow Lucy Snowe’s story. She was another woman who I found to be very strong. I really admired her work ethic and her resilience in finding a way to sustain herself and overcoming any emotional hardship. She was also true to herself and her convictions, and a sincere friend. It was definitely worth all the initial confusion and the brain work that went in to understanding this one.

Author: Charlotte Bronte
Original Publication Date: 1853
Edition: Penguin Classics, December 2004

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

“North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South.jpg

Two of my all-time favorite books are Victorian classics — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – and I have been so starved of books in this genre that discovering North and South was like coming across a gem I never even knew existed. I stumbled upon its 2004 BBC adaptation — in the form of a four-part miniseries — on Netflix last week, remembered the recent write-up of the book by Nathalie Dorado-Fields, and started watching it – and couldn’t stop. It made me then get the book which I first obsessively read cover to cover, and then went right back and re-read it. It was simply that good.

As with most Victorian classics, North and South is, at its heart, a love story, and as with most books like it, the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine is sustained throughout the book, literally right down to the last page. The heroine here is Margaret Hale, the daughter of a clergyman who is forced to move with her family from the idyllic pastoral community in the south of England to the gritty industrial and manufacturing community in the north. The hero is a mill-owner in her new surroundings, John Thornton, who is taken with her right away, but whom she finds too harsh and unfeeling until it is almost too late.

While it would be easy to write North and South off as just another romance, what makes it so much more is how it captures the weighty social issues of that time related to industrialization — the growth in manufacturing, the increase in factories, the economic disparity between the mill owners and the workers employed in them, and the class divide. It provides an unflinching look at the lives of the mill workers, their extreme poverty, and their poor health, attributable in large measure to the unhealthy working conditions and polluted air inside the mills. A large portion of the novel is centered around a strike by the mill workers, and the part played in it by the workers’ union. This was when unionization was first starting, and while the strike didn’t end up benefitting the workers in this case, the perspectives of both the workers and the mill owners are the subject of extensive debate and discussion between the various characters. Also, the book does not shy away from the harsh realities of life at that time — there are quite a few deaths and even a suicide. It reminded me a lot of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which portrayed the brutality of criminals and the pitiful treatment of orphans in mid-19th century London in the same heart-rending vein. You feel like you are there and can viscerally experience the pain.

Usually, novels like this are written entirely from one point of view, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre. But North and South was unique in that respect — it takes you inside the head of both the hero and the heroine. You can feel both of their feelings, their emotions, their reactions to each other, and to the world around them. It made the book so much more richer and the story so much more vivid.

I am thrilled to have discovered a new book to add to my much-loved collection of classic literature as well as another author in this genre that I so much admire. I have already added Elizabeth Gaskell’s other books to my reading pipeline.

North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Publication Date: Chapman & Hall, 1855
Edition: Norilana Books, Nov 2007

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

“The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine

I had the privilege of reading this book along with a friend. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, since I didn’t know too much about it except from what the title suggested, that it would be about time traveling.

When I first started to read this story, it reminded me a little of the Sherlock Holmes’ series because we are introduced to the time traveler through the perspective of another character, very much like how Watson recounts his observations of Holmes. The time traveler is passionately proposing his idea of time traveling and introducing the machine he has invented to a group of men who are very skeptical of him.

On their second meeting, the time traveler shows up late to their dinner meeting and when he arrives, he is looking very haggard. It turns out that he had just returned from visiting the future. What follows from then on is the time traveler sharing the story of his journey into the future and what he experienced there.

I was really excited and curious to know what happened to him over there. Why was he looking the way he was? Would they finally believe him? Was he even telling the truth? Those were some of the questions that sustained me throughout this book.

Another thing that intrigued me about this story was that it was a science fiction book written in the Victoria Era. I was curious to know how science fiction would play out during that time period. Moreover, it was my first science fiction novel. Some of the science fiction aspects that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of the actual travel into the future and the descriptions of the world and inhabitants he encounters over there. I look forward to continuing to explore this genre thanks to this book.

The author, H.G. Wells, seemed to be very passionate about issues and changes that were going on during his time period due to industrialization. His beliefs come through heavily in his story. It seemed like he believed that the type of progress that was happening during his time would bring about moral decline. These are themes and questions that arise throughout his story. I enjoyed this part as well because I was able to understand what aspects of society were important to him, and it caused me to question where I stood on the issues he would bring up.

This was something I wasn’t expecting. I thought it would mostly be fantasy-like but I enjoyed that he was able to create a fantasy world that symbolized real issues. It was fun to read about this world and imagine it, but it was also interesting to think about the heavier issues that each of these aspects represented.

Overall, it was a fun book to read, especially since I read it with a friend. It was fun to briefly be part of this world and also discuss the heavier topics that were brought up. It was also a short book. If you enjoy the morality aspects that are often brought up in Victorian literature, along with the fantasy elements from science fiction, you might enjoy this book.

The Time Machine
Author: H.G. Wells
Original Publisher and Publication Date: William Heinemann, 1895
Edition: Signet Classics, October 2002

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

“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


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.


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