The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 23 comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

Steinbeck’s famous quote about Route 66

October 21, 2014 Leave a comment

route_66

HIGHWAY 661 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City, and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the Panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexican mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico. And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.


route66_2

 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

October 12, 2014 10 comments

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 2008 French title: Le premier qui pleure a perdu.

Alexie_DiaryI’ve already read Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie and I really enjoyed it. I thought I’d read another one by him someday. End of September, I discovered on Twitter that it was Banned Books Week, an event organised in the US to celebrate the freedom to read. Check out here the Top 10 of frequently challenged books. Browsing through the tweets, I became aware of two puzzling facts: there’s a need in the USA to organise such a week and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was on the list of banned books in several high schools in Idaho, Missouri, Texas and other states  because it was judged offensive. Call it a pavlovian-voltairian reflex if you want, but when I hear about banned books, I want to become a knight in shining armour and rescue all these books in distress. (Yes, women have the right to picture themselves as knights in shiny armours, this is the 21st century)

So, on principle, because a big democracy like America shouldn’t need a Banned Book Week and because no writer deserves to be banned, I decided to buy The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and read it right away. That’s my way of protesting and I sure hope this billet will get retweeted and reblogged and advertised because the book community should be rebellious against censorship.

Imagine me starting Alexie’s YA novel, banned or challenged for the following reasons “Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group”. I expected some Indian Portnoy’s Complaint or some Justine or the unhappiness to live on a reservation or a Spokane On the Road. Actually, I’ve read the diary of fourteen year old Arnold Spirit, an Indian living on the Spokane reservation. One day, pushed by his math teacher, he decides to leave the reservation high school in Wellpinit to attend the high school outside the reservation in Reardan to have better chances to succeed in life. The novel relates his year as a freshman in Reardan, his struggle with his identity as he turned his back to his community in hope of a better future.

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.

There’s no explicit language except one or two mentions of a boner and masturbation. But isn’t that part of adolescence, along with acne, squeaky voices and fear of blood stains on trousers? Arnold’s journey in Reardan is difficult due to his different background or to his poverty but nothing really bad happens to him in school. He’s not molested, bullied or insulted. There’s no more violence than on many TV shows. It’s a coming-of-age novel dealing with the usual dilemnas of adolescence. Who am I? Except that the answer is more difficult to find when you change of world. So what? Portnoy’s Complaint is not on the challenged books list and it’s a lot more challenging than Alexie’s book. Either these fools ban books they haven’t read or they’re not literate enough to notice there are lots of more explicit books about sex, booze or drugs than this one. Madame Bovary is more sexual than this!

My opinion is that Alexie’s tone bothers them. Arnold has a spitfire tongue, an incredible sense of humour and the novel is full of passages like this:

But she was lying. Her eyes always got darker in the middle when she lied. She was a Spokane Indian and a bad liar, which didn’t make any sense. We Indians really should be better liars, considering how often we’ve been lied to.

Or

“Jeez,” she said. “Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?”

Or

This guy was in love with computers. I wondered if he was secretly writing a romance about a skinny, white boy genius who was having sex with a half-breed Apple computer.

Or

Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer. It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC. A way-old dude. In one of his plays, Medea says, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” I read that and thought, “Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.” But it’s more than that, too. I mean, the thing is, Medea was so distraught by the world, and felt so betrayed, that she murdered her own kids. She thought the world was that joyless.

The last one stings a bit, just like the one questioning Indian’s habit to celebrate Thanksgiving. As Arnold points out: what should Indians be thankful for? I suspect these bigots can’t forgive Alexie for not using the mild Native American term or for bringing up topics they’d like to forget. –Note that Toni Morrison is also on the “challenged books” list. And she does exactly the same: her books give a voice to the history of black people in America.

Yes Alexie calls a spade a spade and he does it on a witty tone. When Arnold depicts Reardan, he sounds like the narrator in The Plot Against America when he describes the non-Jewish neighbourhoods in Newark. It’s genuine curiosity and he’s got the self-deprecating sense of humour one sees in Woody Allen’s films. Arnold has the exaggeration of a teenager; he’s loud, sends direct punches and questions the adults around him.

I’m against censoring books for teenagers. Everything can be read with the proper explanations. Personally, I put my hands on a Sade book in high school. Did it disgust me? Yes. Did it scar me for life? No. Thinking our teenage children don’t think or talk about sex is ridiculously naïve. (And forgetful of what we used to be) Thinking they don’t know about homosexuality is equally silly. Censoring a book that mentions the disaster alcohol brings on the reservation is plain stupidity. Teenagers will try alcohol, Sherman Alexie or not. And this book doesn’t mention under-age drinking but shows what kind of ravages alcohol do to families and lives. Isn’t it a proper message to convey to our children? And what about this:

“The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.”

Is it bad for a teenager to read this? I don’t think it is. So I support Sherman Alexie’s book to the point of buying it again, in French, for my thirteen year old daughter. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks about it.

Holland, the other country for cheese.

October 2, 2014 12 comments

Cheese by Willem Elschott. 1933. French title: Fromage (Translated from the Dutch by Xavier Hanotte)

Pour aborder les problèmes sérieux, le lit conjugal me paraît l’endroit le plus approprié. Là au moins, on est seul avec son épouse. Les couvertures amortissent les voix, l’obscurité favorise la réflexion et puisqu’on ne peut pas se voir, aucune des deux parties n’est soumise à l’émotion de son interlocuteur. Là, on aborde toute ce qu’on n’ose pas vraiment dire à visage découvert, et ce fut donc là que, bien allongé sur mon côté droit, après un silence inaugural, j’annonçais à ma femme que j’allais devenir négociant. To tackle with serious issues, the conjugal bed always seems the most appropriate place. There, at least, you’re alone with your wife. The blankets cover the voices, the darkness makes thinking easier and since you can’t see each other, no party is subjected to the emotions of the other. There you can deal with anything you can’t say face to face. So this is where, lying on my right side and after an inaugural silence, that I disclosed to my wife that I was becoming a merchant. (My translation)

 elschott_cheeseLast year I visited Brussels and of course ended up in a bookstore. I wanted to read something Belgian that wasn’t a comic book. That’s where I bought Cheese by Willem Elschott, attracted by the title and the quote by Le Monde saying “C’est Woody Allen au pays du gouda. Un véritable regal!” (It’s Woody Allen in the land of Gouda cheese. A real treat) The sole mention of Woody Allen would have sold me the book. The cheese did the rest.

The other day Max told us about his days as a pick-and-mix employee. I had mine as a fromage à la coupe employee. It’s working in a supermarket and sell cheese that you cut on demand for customers. That’s probably a French thing. While I was fulfilling my school obligation to have a sales internship, I learnt several things about cheese: Roquefort leaks, Munster leaves your fingers stinking and Holland cheeses are bloody difficult to cut, especially mature Mimolette. But back to the book.

Frans Laarsmans works as a clerk at General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerp. When his mother dies, he strikes an acquaintance with Mr Van Schoonbeke, a friend of his brother Dr Laarmans. Frans becomes a frequent visitor at Van Schoonbeke’s house where he mingles among bourgeois from Antwerp. They’re out of his league, he struggles to keep up with them and Van Schoonbeke pushes him to become the sales representative of the Dutch firm Hornstra in Belgium and Luxemburg.

C’était sans doute un peu cavalier de sa part, car à mon avis, personne n’avait le droit de voir en moi l’homme de la situation avant que je ne m’y sois vu. It was without a doubt a bit cheeky from him. In my opinion, no one had the right to see the man of the situation in le before I’d seen myself as such. (my translation)

elschott_cheeseA little pushing from Van Schoonbeke and here’s our Frans loaded with ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses to sell in his sales territory. The poor man doesn’t even like cheese. The novel relates with a great sense of humour the adventures of a clerk in the land of commerce. Frans is our narrator and his candidness shows that he’s totally delusional about the world he lives in. Frans is completely at loss as how to start the business, cover the territory. He knows nothing about selling, visiting clients, setting up a sales plan and shipping cheeses. The Edam whole cheeses are heavy and he’s barely able to lift one. He has no client database and knows nothing about sales techniques.

This new experience as a cheese merchant after a 30 year time as a clerk will be an eye opener. Frans is a funny character but not always likeable. He loves his wife but despises her…on principle, because she’s a woman. He’s not much impressed by his teenage children even he’s a loving father. He didn’t think much about his former job but will discover a side of his colleagues he never imagined. His wife is a lot less stupid than he thought and his children are supportive in his new career.

In appearance it’s light and funny. Yet it shows in a comical way all Frans’ flaws and it lashes out on the bourgeois society in Antwerp who need to puff up their members to respect them. Status is a virtue in itself. Without Van Schoombeke’s shame of Frans being a simple clerk, he wouldn’t have suggested that he started a business. It was written in the 1930s but so many details are still true about people avid search for status and about business practices.

Bref, I had a lot of fun reading this little gem and I have a new incentive to put a photogenic grin on your face : “Read Cheese !”

PS: The English cover is a lot better than the French. It represents the book: Frans overwhelmed by a huge quantity of cheese.

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov

September 27, 2014 20 comments

The Awakening by Gaito Gazdanov. 1965/1966. French title: Eveils (translated from the Russian by Elena Balzamo)

François dévisagea son ami avec compassion. Il l’examinait comme s’il le voyait pour la première fois : ce visage ordinaire, ces yeux tristes, ces mains très blanches, très propres, aux ongles coupés court, cet air de propreté que dégageait tout son être. Pierre donnait toujours l’impression d’avoir tout juste pris un bain, de s’être fraichement rasé, de sortir tout droit de chez le coiffeur, d’avoir mis un costume qu’on venait de repasser. A part ça, il n’avait rien, même pas un métier, qui le distinguerait de milliers d’autres individus et qui rendrait son existence moins banale que la leur. Ce sont ces êtres-là que sociologues et journalistes appellent le « Français moyen ». François looked at his friend with compassion. He examined him as if he saw him for the first time: his plain face, his sad eyes, his very white and very clean hands with his nails cut short, this impression of cleanliness that oozed from him. Pierre always seemed to have just taken a bath, just shaved, just come out of the hairdresser, just put on a freshly ironed suit. Otherwise, he had nothing, not even a job, that could single him out of thousands of other individuals and that would make his life less ordinary than theirs. These people are the ones that journalists and sociologists called the “Average French” (my translation)

You’ll make up your mind about Pierre while you read this billet but to me Pierre is not the average Frenchman.

Gazdanov_EveilsEveils opens with Pierre leaving Paris to visit his friend François in Provence for the holidays. Pierre’s mother just died, he feels lonely but almost regrets accepting François’s invitation. François has an old house in the country and when Pierre arrives there, he stumbles upon Marie. François found her unconscious on the road in Provence in 1940 during the Exode. She suffers from amnesia and has become like a wild animal. François lets her live in a cabin near his house and feeds her. She’d been there for six years when Pierre sees her. Something in her tugs at Pierre’s heart and he decides to bring her home with him, in Paris. There he starts a slow process of giving Marie her humanity back. Will her condition improve? Will she learn again how to behave in society? Will she remember who she is and where she comes from?

It is hard to write about Eveils without spoilers. The French title is a give-away, Eveils is plural, contrary to The Awakening. Pierre and Marie are awakening together. Pierre had a quiet childhood with ill-matched parents. His father wasn’t good at keeping a job and tended to waste money on gambling. When he discovered he wouldn’t get the heritage he was expecting, he let himself die, all hopes of a better life extinguished. Pierre decided to take care of his mother and found a job as an accountant. Working for his mother’s well-being was Pierre’s only purpose in life. After she died, he’s disoriented and his life makes no sense anymore. In Pierre’s mind, his place on Earth is to nurture someone. So when he sees the filthy Marie in her stinky cabin in Provence, he cannot turn a blind eye and let her be while thinking he could take care of her.

Eveils relates Marie’s progress, her re-awakening to the world but also Pierre’s awakening through her. She’s not a pet project. While helping her with infinite patience, Pierre opens himself to others, finds a reason to live and builds them a nest. His apartment becomes a home.

Eveils is a beautiful novella for its sensitivity and its subtlety. It’s quiet. Pierre is a quiet person but he’s also dependable, caring, loving. He’s someone you want to be friend with because he’s the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night and he wouldn’t let you down. He’s an honest and lucid guy. He questions his motives, analyses his relationship with Marie and knows how to put her interest first. He wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He doesn’t have a hero complex. He’s being Human and that’s the toughest goal to achieve.

So if I refer to the quote before, no, Pierre isn’t the average Frenchman. Who would take on the responsibility of a woman who doesn’t talk, forgot how to take a shower, go to the toilets, eat with cutlery? Who would be that selfless?

In addition to Pierre and Marie’s story, Gazdanov puts the spotlight on ordinary people who are extraordinary for the people around them. Sure they’ll remain anonymous, like most of us but they still make a difference in their friends and families lives. Eveils and The Golden Gate have this in common: they picture our ordinary frailty and put forward the place we have in this world. These books are moving; they don’t display grand passions and dramatic scenes. They ring true because they don’t have big declarations, soul-searching conversations and spectacular epiphanies. Honestly, while they’re great plot devices, do we often have these in real life? Eveils and The Golden Gate convey deep feelings through small gestures and show the unsaid.

Eveils is great material for a French film, I insist on the French before film. This novella reminded me of the atmosphere you find in French films exploring off-the-mark relationships, like Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. Not much is said but a lot of the characters’ thoughts are visible through their actions. I would love to see it with Sandrine Bonnaire as Marie and Grégoire Colin as Pierre.

The only slight thing that bothered me about The Awakening is Pierre’s clichéd job. Why do writers make characters be either civil servant or accountants when they want a character with a boring job? Trust me from experience, accountants, controllers, CPAs and CFOs can be quite feisty.

Anyway. The Awakening was our Book Club choice for September and apart from my earlier little complain, it was a great pick. In France, it’s published by Viviane Hamy, an excellent publisher. They have Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Fred Vargas on their catalogue. I couldn’t find trace of English copies of The Awakening. Please leave a comment if you found its English translation. If you’re interested in Gazdanov, you might want to read Guy’s reviews of An Evening With Claire or The Spectre of Alexander Wolf.

In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

September 20, 2014 26 comments

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) French title: Golden Gate, translated by Claro. (It should be good)

 “…Don’t put things off till it’s too late.

You are the DJ of your fate.”

Seth_Golden_GateThe Golden Gate is a novel and it relates something quite banal, the lives of a group of friends in the San Francisco area. They are named John, Janet, Philip, Liz and Ed. They’re you and me. John, Janet and Phil were at the same university. At the beginning, they’re single and lonely. John works in an office, has a great job, is good at it but his life is empty. Janet decides to push him into dating by placing an ad in a paper. This is how he meets Liz and who later brings into their group her siblings Ed and Sue. Phil is now raising his six-year old son Paul by himself after his wife Claire fled to the other side of the country. He quit his job after Claire’s departure to take care of Paul and because he was working for a company designing weapons. Phil is an anti-nuclear war activist. Although things weren’t exactly perfect between them, he doesn’t understand why Claire left and more importantly how she could leave her son behind. He’s still recovering from his divorce. Janet is part-musician, part-sculptor and she tries to make a name on the art scene. She used to be John’s lover at university. She hides her fragility behind an apparent strength and a proclaimed autonomy. Ed is homosexual and a fervent Catholic, an explosive combination for his peace of mind. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

Now, that seems quite banal and simple. Except the interwoven relationships between the characters aren’t conventional. Except that each character is troubled and flawed. That would be enough material to write a good novel. This novel is exceptional in its form and its style.

As the Appetizer showed you, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, more precisely in tetrameters. It’s divided in 13 chapters, all composed of poems of 14 verses. (sonnets, right?) For example, the second chapter is made of 52 poems. I’m sure I missed part of the beauty of the text because my English isn’t good enough, especially my pronunciation. We French people never know where to put the stress on English words and I’ve just discovered in my English literature manual that it’s important for poetry and the construction of verses. (Plus in French, as far as I know, we only have syllabic verses) Well, I loved it anyway.

Vikram Seth achieves a tour de force. As the poet pulling the strings of the story and the pace of the narration, he’s present in his text as the bard, the man who tells the story and interacts with his readers. For example, he intervenes just after he’s described John and Liz’s young love. His description of John and Liz’s new relationship reminded me of the fantastic scene played by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in I’m not there and illustrating the song I want you. I was indeed thinking that the passage was heading towards corny when he disarmed all criticism with this:

Judged by these artless serfs of Cupid

Love is not blind but, rather, dumb.

Their babblings daily grow more stupid.

I am embarrassed for them. Come,

Let’s leave them here, the blessed yuppies,

As happy as a pair of puppies,

Or doves, who with their croodlings might

Make even Cuff and Link seem bright.

Let’s leave them to their fragile fictions—

Arcadia, Shangri-La, Cockaigne—

A land beyond the reach of pain—

Except for two slight contradictions,

To wit…but what transpires next

Is furnished later in this text.

Seth knows it’s time to move on and he does.

Self-deprecating humour and witty interactions with the reader are one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s the sound of his poetry, the way he depicts San Francisco and his incredible gift to put human feelings into words. The text is light, sad, deep, funny and witty. It is set in San Francisco and like the Golden Gate, the characters wander in life with their feet in the clear and their nose in the fog. Seth’s words drizzle in a lovely mist and envelop the events and the characters of the text in a special aura.

This group of friends has fairly common inner struggles: what’s my part in this world? Who would remember me if I died? How do I deal with death and grief? How do I recover from a broken relationship? How do I reconcile my job with my beliefs? While exploring his characters angst and making them move forward with their lives, he also discusses nuclear war, homosexuality, marriage, feminism, civil disobedience.

He shows John’s prejudice and inflexibility of mind, Ed’s struggles between his earthly love for a man and his faith, Phil’s honesty with himself and Liz’s internal conflict between her job and her convictions. For me John is the most troubled, the one who has the strongest mental barriers to isolate him from happiness. He lives his life with sadness sitting on his left shoulder and the weight of miscommunication on his right shoulder. He’s grounded in loneliness. With his poetry, Seth conveys the sensation of these toxic hands on John’s shoulders. You’d want to hug John to ease his pain. Phil is living in a cloud of loneliness but he’s better equipped to fight it and reach out for the companionship he craves.

It’s a lovely text, for its take on human experiences and its bright description of our world’s beauty:

It’s spring! Meticulous and fragrant

Pear blossoms bloom and blanch the trees,

While pink and ravishing and flagrant

Quince bursts in shameless colonies

On woody bushes, and the slender

Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,

Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground,

And blue jays croak, and all around

Iris and daffodil are sprouting

With such assurance that the shy

Grape hyacinth escapes the eye,

And spathes of Easter lilies, flouting

Nomenclature, now effloresce

In white and lenten loveliness.

It’s difficult to write anything after that. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I really recommend this book. It’s 300 pages long but let yourself ride the tide of Seth’s poetry.

PS: Cuff and Link are cats. There’s another cat in the book, Charlemagne. He’s Liz’s pet and the description of his jealousy of John’s place in Liz’s life is absolutely hilarious.

The Golden Gate : Appetizer

September 19, 2014 9 comments

5.1

A week ago, when I had finished

Writing the chapter you’ve just read

And with avidity undiminished

Was charting out the course ahead,

An editor –at a plush party

(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)

Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook

Where my Tibetan travel book

Was honored–seized my arm: “Dear fellow,

What’s your next work?” “A novel…” ” Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr Seth–“

“…In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.

“How marvelously quaint,” he said,

And subsequently cut me dead.

 

5.2

Professor, publisher, and critic

Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.

A writer is a mere arthritic

Among these muscular Gods of Taste.

As for that sad blancmange, a poet–

The world is hard; he ought to know it.

Driveling in rhyme’s all very well;

The question is, does spittle sell?

Since staggering home in deep depression,

My will’s grown weak. My heart is sore.

My lyre is dumb. I have therefore

Convoked a morale-boosting session

With a few kind if doubtful friends

Who’ve asked me to explain my ends.

 

This reader to Mr Seth just says: “Thank God writers are stubborn and do as they please.”

To the readers of this post, she promises “See you soon with a billet about this luminous book.”

But more importantly she cries out THANKS SCOTT!!! :-)

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