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A review of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’

A singular vision – to the Lighthouse – that which is positioned between now and eternity, which blurs reality and unreality, which braids threads of future from remnants of past, towards which little James wished to go, which holds the center of the novel; a vision that the writer would not allow to slip despite numerous deaths in the Ramsay family, horrors left in the wake of World War, and the decrepitude of the abandoned home following war. While anchored to this vision of the lighthouse, the story visits the politics of patriarchal hegemony, marriage as an institution, male chauvinism, as well as the vulnerabilities of women and the backlash from a roughed-up childhood.

The stream of consciousness writing which Woolf uses extensively in this novel and in many other works where every sentence is a compelling alleyway into a self-contained chapter, creating a rich imagination filled with necessary and provocative distractions, often of the environs of the story – home, ocean, nature, movements of people, and so on. Woolf masterfully uses this style of writing which transforms the book into a moving camera, the result is that while the reader is occupied fully in the foreground plot, there is also peeking attention to the distractions and diversions which appear in the background.

Woolf leaves a trail of details, not only of events and action but of tender emotions and feelings, that are growing, still nascent and unformed. She painstakingly drives every such detail to a finality, finding precise moments in the novel to present them. As years pass, attitudes swing from one end to another – a childhood where James was denied and underappreciated culminating in anger and hostility towards his father; Charley Mansley’s misogynistic remark “women can’t paint, can’t write“ turning Lily Briscoe (painter) into an uncompromising woman; Ramsays’ deepening divide as a married couple; the death of Mrs. Ramsay uprooting the tree of family, leaving behind a sense of loss that all entities in the decrepit and falling house observe, and, thereafter, of the housemaid’s loss of meaning in caring for the upkeep of that house anymore.

This novel is, perhaps, also a contrasting study between men and women – of gender roles, capacity for abstraction, sensitivity, et al. My own reflections of the contrasts ruminated at a subconscious level found in this novel a written proof, or something of a second voice. The widower, Mr. Ramsay, turns to Lily for sympathy, “and so getting in his dream some reflection of the exquisite pleasure women’s sympathy was to him, he sighed and said gently and mournfully,

But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he”

To which Lily’s thoughts bubbled, “That man she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. She on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsay had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died…” A moment, redolent of Cat Person, impinges on the later part of the narrative …” A woman, she had provoked this horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it. It was immensely to her discredit sexually, to stand there dumb. .., his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush.”

In all this, Woolf never forgets to marvel at the beauty of nature, of the serenity of seas, of the allure of jacmanna flowers. Woolf’s description of the waves – enchanting with moments like this…”and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”

Indeed, mother of pearl.

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A review of James Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’

Often, as a reader, I want to hear the author’s voice less and that of the characters’ more. This immerses me thoroughly into the novel, temporally disregarding the fact that it is a piece of work by another person. I get into its hide. I may be reading, alone in a corner, still the characters walk by my vicinity, the stage setup in my mind transforms by every word my eyes pass and the room is filled with sound. In a reverse order, it is the author that was perhaps alone, writing in silence to create in her readers a capacity for imagination of visual, sound, scent, landscape and many more. Throughout the reading of ‘Go Tell It ..’, I was, to my surprise, thinking of the author and allowing him to show me around the book instead of the characters.

One reason to this is that I was moved by the autobiographic nature of the book. Here is a young man, John Grimes, who is grappling with a violent, overtly religious father (step-father, a fact unbeknownst to John), Gabriel, a preacher at Church. John represses his sexuality and irreverence to religion because of the fear, torment and horror that his father evokes. Gabriel is a hypocrite, having violated at least two women, but enshrouds it by telling others that God led him to this path.

While reading the transgressions of John – of him running away from his father, escaping his beatings, I saw through John, the author, Baldwin’s journey, in many ways – an escape from America to France. John “would not be like his father, or his father’s fathers. He would have another life.” The more interesting reason, however, that I chose to walk with Baldwin was because of his language which is suffused with Christian spirituality. It was important to stay with Baldwin because I would otherwise been lost in symbolism and drifted aimlessly. Without understanding Baldwin’s circumstances, it would make little sense for me because it is always difficult to reconcile faith and/in literature.

Baldwin piquantly brings out racism in the passage describing John’s walk through Harlem and then to 42nd Street past the Public Library. “And then everyone, all the white people inside, would know that he [John] was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity. He would enter on another day, when he had read all the books uptown, an achievement that would, he felt, lend him the pose to enter any building in the world.”

Rainy day forecasted

For the next day.

Eyes are tiring to rest and

No more after this article since

Nights need to be slept.

A reportage on the

Rise of a megalomaniac monster

Baffle the droopy eyes to

Uncontrollable flickers, to trace

Truth from carefully laid facts.

Oblivious for years to the

Monster’s ownership of media

Failing to see the charade

I once ignored, the flickering eyes are

Stunned to a stroke on evidence of the truth.

A city leopard spares children, a mere exchange

For pets, but soon there will be

No pet left. This monster is on a slow prowl:

After media comes political parties

And then the Constitution itself.

Sooner or later, children will die

Or leopard is chased away. Before Rajeev Chandrashekar,

(The nom-de-plume of the monster,)

Splits into a thousand little Rajeev Chandrashekhars,

Oh Sleepy town, “Wake-up! There is a monster on the run.

When rain arrives tomorrow,

The monster shall hide in the jungle.

Don’t wait till you forget tomorrow.

Get away from the Tele now.

Wake-up!”

~~~

On reading a Caravan article on Rajeev Chandrashekhar’s mission to control media, political parties and the country, I descended into gloom. The power-money equation scares me endlessly. With news media becoming enterprises run by powerful businessmen including Ambanis, the equation needs to be shaken urgently.

http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/rajeev-chandrasekhar-mission-secure-power-media-and-politics

A review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

Han Kang has produced a novel whose sentiments are encased in the body of a woman. With each self-inflicted brutality on the body, the reader discovers a chilling truth about the nature of violence and the incurable scar left on the victim it visits. The novel is divided into three chapters put together from three published novellas about the events of the story with a mix of first-person narrative employed in the first chapter and third-person narratives in the second and third chapters. The structure remains fluid throughout the novel with segues into the individual lives of family members of the woman and the role they play in her life. The writing is ethereal often relying on nature motifs to bring out emotions of sadness. The work is also a reflection on sexuality as more than a carnal pursuit to balm violence with a chapter dedicated to this exploration.

It is hard to read this novel unflinchingly and if so, to not be moved. The turning pages cry a song of lament as Yeong-hye falls into a self-destructive path of violence inflicted on her body. Marriage to a man who considers the complacency of the ordinary as an advantage casts on her the role of a wife who exists for his gratification. Does this constitute an act of violence in itself can be a moot point to the readers. But the fact that it is deeply misogynist cannot be doubted. Yeong-hye starts having dreams of “murder. Murderer or murdered…hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin…Only the violence is vivid enough to stick…Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing I’ve always tried to mask with affection.” Flooded with visions of blood and animal violence, she turns to become a vegetarian which is a starting point which really is only a point on the locus of a spiral of violence inflicted on her. Her body initially deteriorates which prompts the husband to seek help from Yeong-hye’s parents, sister and brother-in-law. During a family dinner, when her mother forces meat into her mouth, her father bashes her when she refuses with all her force. The subsequent chain of events have overtones of society’s inhibitions to woman’s nakedness. The obedience to a set idea of femininity precludes freedoms asserted by feminism. The writer then presents an intensely provocative, erotica-like chapter suffused by the resigned nonchalance of Yeong-hye’s acceptance of her bodily exploitation by her brother-in-law who is a whimsical artist at best. On learning of it, her sister, In-hye separates from her husband and has her sister admitted to a hospital. What follows in the last chapter called “Flaming Trees” is an abstract poetry-infused psychologically disturbing prose laid with surreal images of nature. Imagery is the modality of the last chapter.

“What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hye (her sister) recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’s been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the au down to earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, has the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventual to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

What the reader discovers as the reason of this self-destruction is startling. She had been the victim of her father’s violence. Being a docile child, she hadn’t been able to “deflect their father’s temper..merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones”. It seems a revisit of Freud’s theory of psychological repression that Yeong-hye would turn her father’s violence meted out to her as a child on herself in a way which harmed her own existence. Conversely, is it her respite? Did the childhood trauma nihilate a sense of living from her? What do the recurring dreams tell about that abuse? The manifestation as articulated by In-Hye is not specific to Yeong-Hye. If Yeong-Hye “hadn’t smashed through all the boundaries”, In-Hye would be the one who would have “broken down”. The sisters share the pain of an abused childhood – one in dying and the other in living.

A review of William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”

The striking aspect about the William Faulkner masterpiece, “The Sound and the Fury” is the multiple narrative voices around which the plot is built with each voice giving a slice of the story and the others filling the space-time around the slice which is iterated over the different narratives established. The story of the novel is one of filial matters of the Compson family habiting a town in the Southern area with a reflection on the attitude of white Compson family members towards Black care-takers and maids.

It wasn’t an easy read with the novel divided into four chapters, thereby four different narrative voices, with glimpses of pieces of the plot distributed helter-skelter across the pages, with constant interjections of quite literally “piece of mind” stream of consciousness sketches of some of the characters. It is an onerous task to remain sane at the scrambling laid in front of your eyes as a work of literature. But if one manages to persevere or just sit through the absurdity of making sense, a meaning emerges not until the last two chapters, and maybe at the cost of re-reading the earlier chapters and a bit of help from summary guides.

All this is not to say that the book is difficult alone, but to emphasize on the complex narrative structure which the reader will emerge to feel quite satisfied to have understood towards the end of the book. The structure is its strength. It heightens the complexity of the subject tackled -of incest, racism, suicide, the general decay of the Compson family, of dealing with a deranged person in the family and so on. The Compson family includes the father, mother Caroline, four kids – Caddy, Jason, Quentin, Benjy and Quentin. There is a Black family which takes care of the Compson family. Dilsey, the grandmother maid, her grandchildren Frony, Luster, sons TP, Versh and so on. The abuse and subservience the members of the Black family face by their “masters” is extremely disheartening. Also is the decay and the disintegration of Compson family itself.

Benjy, through whose perspective the first chapter is told, is a mentally challenged man of thirties but of a child’s behavior who is constantly seen as pain and burden by his brothers, Jason and Quentin. Caddy, the sister is sympathetic and loving towards Benjy. Benjy bellows when his fond ones turn away from him, like when his sister leaves him momentarily. The first chapter is a series of unconnected, anachronistic events as seen by Benjy, of the length of the plot. If the reader finds this chapter difficult to follow and swallow, she will have to wait till she hits the wall with the second chapter told by Quentin. Quentin, who has an incestuous relationship with his sister, Caddy is suicidal. A Harvard student who gets into unfortunate crime, gets arrested, and then released is wallowing in sadness. He detests Caddy’s relationship with other men. The stream of consciousness writing comes through clearly for the uninitiated readers in this chapter, when Quentin reflects on the family, the incest with his sister, the failure he was turning out to be. The third chapter is narrated by Jason, the disgruntled, maximally racist sibling who becomes the sole breadwinner of the Compson household and now has a new task of nursing Quentin, not the brother but Caddy’s daughter born out of wedlock to an unknown father. Caddy is ostracized by her husband after he finds out he did not father the baby. Quentin and Jason have a strange relationship, something that remains unworkable to the end. The last chapter is told from a third person narrative which rounds up the plot and presents the tragic ending.

The characters in the novel leave an indelible print. Notwithstanding the moroseness of the story, there is an intimacy between Benjy and everyone else around him especially Caddy, which makes the storytelling full of verve. It is one of those books where every reading becomes that much more intriguing than the previous one.

ulgauri_lankesh
Shine on you crazy diamond

Gauri –

The sound of your name
Breaks through the venomous air,
Darts out the closed minds,
Wings hope as ideas are burnt at stake.

The breath of your dying
Blows like leaves in flight,
Stirs brains of hollowness,
Flares the flame of free expression.

The water of your blood
Evaporates into clouds of dissent,
Rains red hailstorms of voices,
Floods and breaks the barriers of division.

As you take a journey to eternity,
Your mind shall remain in this land.
Crushing the binds of unquestioned faiths and beliefs,
And making in its place spaces of love and freedom.

 

The poem is a tribute to Gauri Lankesh, a progressive, liberal journalist from Bangalore, who was murdered on a dreadful evening within her house’s compound by two men on motorbike who shot her for ideological reasons seeking to drown her voice. Gauri’s voice has been growing resoundingly among other artists, intellectuals and the denizens in general. Time to say, “Naanu Gauri” – I am Gauri!

A review of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

In a society where actions are never without a consequence, desire too meets its harsh consequence. That of disgrace. This consequence puts off the fire of life. Life is to be normalized to the terms set by a few. Those who cannot rather who do not, acknowledge the poetry, the harmonics and the music in discordant notes of desire. And what of a person who is mortified after his pursuit of desire? – ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’

The other end of the pursuit of desire is harm. Harm as a consequence of desire. There will be no Blake or Byron who shall romanticize such a pursuit. It is rather revengeful and falls out of the legitimacy of romance. This book explores the spectrum of desire and how an actor and a spectator construe the morality of it.

J.M. Coetzee presents the society’s moral opposition to desire in the Booker winning novel, Disgrace. His writing is sharp and sympathetic. With numerous invocation of romantic poets like Byron and Blake, the writer is making a case for love and romance in the face of morally dictated boundaries, but not without presenting its dichotomous argument of seeding harm as a follow-up to abuse manifesting as desire.

While David Laurie, a professor of literature in Cape Town, is dismissed from his job after a steamy consensual affair with a young student, his daughter, Lucy suffers rape by a group of young black men in their vengeful act against white’s repression of blacks viz. Apartheid. In contrast to these two extremes of desire is what appears to be the median – based on poet Lord Byron’s affair with a married lover, Teresa. David reflects on the humiliation and disgrace that he met with after the illicit affair was exposed to the university board by writing an opera for “Byron in Italy”. There is a martyr’s voice being extracted through this process. David wants to feel justified, so far as him being passionate of his desires. An adulator’s crisis. An adulation of romanticism.

disgrace

Yet, when this story is analyzed outside the throes of emotions created in the book, things seem uncomfortable. A professor’s affair with his student seems controversial. Seems. Seems.

While David is David, a character with no regrets or remorse in his actions, his daughter Lucy who chose to live in the agrarian countryside for better or for worse, evokes pity. A victim of violence, abuse and hatred. Hatred against a race taken out on a member of a race who shares no other representation apart from being white. Lucy lived and worked alongside blacks, far from her parent’s city lifestyle. Abuse and desire cannot be reconciled. Yet, Lucy’s body becomes the ground for such an unpleasant reconciliation. She accepts her victimhood. To continue to live among the beasts. To seek refuge in Petrus, a man who wielded sexual attack on her with the help of three young black me. Yet her conversations with her father reveal wild courage. The courage is inexplicable but it exists. The courage stems from the acceptance of crime and her mental make-up to look ahead. This is quite unsettling. Resignation to hope in the face of violence.

The writer seeks a similar resignation in the act of putting down animals which are no longer viable to remain alive. David returns to Lucy’s village where he fatefully turns to do a job nobody else wants to do. This can be understood as a metaphor to the viability of emotions of life. They appear to come with a shelf-life and a society orchestrated form factor. The romantic poets are dead, after all.

He opens the cage door. ‘Come,’ he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags his crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’

Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would save him for another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’

‘Yes. I am giving him up.’

In this way, the two separate narratives of Lucy and David are put down.