14 December 2009

The Moon And Sixpence

Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 215
Publishers: Vintage Classics
First published in the year: 1919

A Moon and Sixpence is a story that Maugham wrote inspired from post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin's tumultuous life. There was a sense of notoriety around Gauguin because he left his regular job and deserted his wife and children just like that! He rejected European civilization calling it 'artificial and conventional' and moved to the island of Tahiti where he created paintings that went on to become masterpieces after his death.

He was drawn to primitivism as an art form and his paintings -- characterised by bold experimentation of colours and geometric designs -- changed the course of modern paintings and after his death, Gauguin became one of the most influential artists of his times. (his painting below)

Having only recently read Maugham's Ten Novels and Their Authors and The Painted Veil, I for many reasons felt he was combining the themes of both these books in A Moon And Sixpence. In Ten Novels.... Maugham describes with great fascination the life of famous authors and what went into the making of their classic novels. It is with the same sense of curiosity and ear for scandal that he approaches the life of Gauguin. The other important theme in the book - much like The Painted Veil – is marriage and entrapment. Maugham is decidedly cynical about the institution and every couple he describes in A Moon And Sixpence has a secret sorrow and is caught in a trap of undefined misery. This is a constant theme with most of Maugham's works where a marital union never really reaches fruition because one of the partners feels dissatisfied.

The first few pages of the novel are a bit difficult to get by,
as they are somewhat turgid. But once the story begins and takes a sharp turn with the disappearance of Charles Strickland (modelled on Gauguin), you are gripped by the narrative. His desertion of his comely wife and adorable kids is shocking to everyone who know him. The story is described by Maugham himself, who much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is the sincere, wise but detached narrator-character in the book. He is not an active participant in the tumultuous lives of the people around him but he is a trusted confidante and each character reveals their innermost feelings to him.

The story takes you through Strickland's unconventional life – he is brusque, loutish, cruel and eccentric to a maniacal level. Having foregone his cushy life, he lives in the most wretched conditions, striving to paint and give vent to the artist in him. He borrows money constantly as if it wer his right. In spite of his brutal ways he still finds enough people to care for his undiscovered genius. One of them is the goofy Dirk Stroeve, an inferior painter, who can recogonise superior art. He provides home and shelter to Strickland when the latter takes violently ill. But his compassion means nothing to Strickland who makes no effort to resist Dirk's wife, Blanche when she falls for his roguish charm. What others think of him means nothing to Strickland and he doesn't bat an eyelid when Blanche dies.

His happiest and saddest days are in the gorgeous island of Tahiti – where he is somewhat at peace with himself. While everywhere else his behaviour is considered deviant, in Tahiti, odd balls are accepted for what they are since there are many around. Tahiti also brings a painful end to his life when he is struck by leprosy. The book says that Strickland created dazzlingly beautiful paintings on the walls of the house he lived in. But when he was about to die, he asked his wife, Ata (who he married there) to burn it all down.

It's hard to say how much of the novel is entirely based on Gauguin's life, and Maugham has said, he took the basic framework of the painter's life and worked around it. Maugham's book materialised when the author went to Tahiti and spoke to people about Gauguin.
As it stands, Strickland is so abominable, cruel and so wholly negative that it's a bit difficult to accept him as a real character. Also, his life prior to being a painter is never clear. Maugham could have at least given some indication of his artistic bent of mind but he's portrayed exactly as the opposite. His sudden transformation as an artiste is not convincing. Even Gauguin in his life as a stockbroker, is understood to have painted on and off, so it's surprising why Maughan could not incorporate that aspect into the story. This is a jarring point in the novel, one that threatens to ruin the experience of the book.

Yet, the novel offers an incisive, penetrating view into what possibly goes into the making of an artist, his unique temperament and his unrelenting search for inspiration. Still, Strickland cannot be a representative for all artists since Maugham's portrayal of him is deliberately sketchy and overly negative. It's like knowing only one part of a story.
Amidst the outrageous and tragic events that unfold, what keeps the narrative rooted and real is Maugham's sane, controlled presence. His vivid description of characters, his acuity in identifying their nature and compulsions, his ability to spell out universal human truths, makes the novel a compelling read.

The book, like most of Maugham's other works teems with quotable quotes. This is what he says of women and the perverse thrill they derive from suffering. "A women can forgive a man for teh harm he does her, but can never forgive him for the sacrifises he makes on her account"

On his inability to be angry with Strickland for too long, Maugham says, "It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogethr dislike anyone who make me laugh."

Apart from this, there are countless reflections on art and life - which are all profounding inspiring.

06 December 2009

Shashi Tharoor's Bookless In Baghdad

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Year Of Publishing: 2005
Price: 325
Publishers: Penguin

Shashi Tharoor in his present role as Minister may have come under sharp attack for a variety of reasons. When he recently put himself up at a five star suite for months on end because the government bungalow was not ready, many thought it was unbecoming of a public representative. I felt the same. The intellectual elitism and the accompanying lifestyle that perfectly complimented him all these years while he worked for the United Nations started to stick out like a sore thumb in his new role.

However, what emerges clearly from reading Bookless In Baghdad is Tharoor's acute literary bent of mind. One is aware that he has constantly stolen time from his busy schedules to write all his books – most of which have won rave reviews. And Bookless... which is a rare and exceptional collection of his literary columns over the years, doubly confirms his deep passion for books. He himself mentions it more than a dozen times saying his literary pursuits are as important to him as his (erstwhile) role at the UN. He couldn't possibly give up or live without either. In any case a true literary enthusiast can be sniffed out only by another – that unique breed that can't pass a bookstore without entering it. The kind who are thrilled by a clever turn of phrase, or a refreshing epigram. That is certainly true of Tharoor.

Spread over 40 essays, Bookless In Baghdad offers Tharoor's excellent commentary on all matters literary. He talks about the authors he loves and dislikes, offering delightful anecdotes. He expounds on topics like literary criticism and reviewing patterns. Also, for those who have read his earlier books like Riot, Show Business and The Great Indian Novel, there's a great deal about them here, where Tharoor explains the themes he tried to tackle and even puts up a spirited defense for one of his books that was not well-reviewed in India.

One of the things to admire about Tharoor's writing, besides his immaculate language, is his ability to make a definite point at the end of every essay in the most lucid manner. And even if the book focusses on writing and books, it is underlined by Tharoor's serious concerns about society, culture and politics.

The author acquaints his readers with the utter joy he derived from reading books all through his childhood. He started very early. At 3 years he was reading Noddy and soon moved on to other stories by Enid Blyton. He says he preferred British books to American ones in his growing up days. “We had access to Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, but there seemed to be something brash and spurious about them. British books, we were brought up to believe, set the real standard,”

The other great British passion for Tharoor is P G Wodehouse for whom his admiration and warmth brims over. He analyses Wodehouse's popularity in India when elsewhere in the English speaking world, he is no longer much read. Is it because of a lingering nostalgia for the Raj? Tharoor doesn't believe so. He says it is precisely the lack of politics in Wodehouse's writing, one based in an idyllic world...a never-never land with stock figures, almost theatrical archetypes that charms and attracts Indians to his books.

The other very interesting essay is his observations on R K Narayan. Tharoor does not hold back from expressing his utter disappointment with Narayan's prose, calling it 'flat and monotonous' among many other things.
“Some of my friends felt I was wrong to focus on language – a writerly concern - and lose sight of the stories, which in many ways had an appeal that transcended language. But my point was that such pedestrian writing diminished Narayan's stories, undermined the characters, trivialised their concerns.” he writes.

That is no malice in Tharoor's observations, merely candour and straight-talk.

There is an essay on Winston Churchill, where Tharoor calls him an 'overweening imperialist” whose fame primarily rests on his bombastic speeches – revisionists since then have called it 'sublime nonsense'
Then there is a sharp criticism of the late Nirad Chaudhari for his nauseating allegiance to the British, while looking down upon his own people.

Tharoor pays rich tribute to authors like Pablo Naruda, the Russian author Pushkin and V S Naipaul. But his most passionate and heart-felt essays are those about Salman Rushdie, who he respectfully addresses as “the head of my profession”
He expresses his deep anguish about the fatwa on the writer who he says revitalised and stretched the boundaries of the possible in Enligh literature. “Mention Rushdie, and some see a stirring symbol of the cause of freedom of expression in the face of intolerant dogma, others, particularly the Islamic word, find a blasphemous crusader for secularist social subversions. Neither image may be inaccurate, but reducing him to this emblematic figure has only served to obscure his true literary contribution”
He also regrets him being reduced to “a haunted symbol of Western literary freedom under assault from Oriental despotism”

From the 'illiterate' reader of America, to the French who know how to honour their literary geniuses, Tharoor offers a complete world-view of the literary scene.

But the most touching chapter is the title one, where he describes his visit to Baghdad and a book bazaar where a cornucopia of books were laid out for sale. Crippled with US sanctions and with their greatly diminished currency, many Iraqi families were selling off their precious books. Many things come to light in this chapter. For one, the Iraqis are a highly literate population and lovers of books. There is something very poignant about this essay, where Tharoor had gone as representative of the UN, but the book lover in him was clearly moved by what he saw.

The author's sharp wit comes in full force when he defends his second book, Show Business, which many believed was a comedown for him since it wasn't as ambitious as his first, The Great Indian Novel. Tharoor uses the opportunity to talk about reviews and critical assessment, all of which makes for great reading.

This is a must read for those who love books, authors and all things literary. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge, insight and ideas here.

- Sandhya Iyer

05 December 2009

Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy

Author: Hanif Kureishi
Year of Publishing: 1998
Pages: 155

Hanif Kureishi is known for his controversial, soul-baring and highly sexed up prose. The way Kureishi sees it, life is the proverbial Wasteland, everything is ‘fu*ked up and there is no way out.

Kureishi started out by writing pornography. He went on to write novels. His relatives and people close to him constantly complained how personal details of their life cropped up in his stark novels. His book, Intimacy was especially embroiled in controversy, because it was intensely personal and the events that happen in the book are supposedly what Kureishi went through himself.

Intimacy is about a man on the verge of leaving his wife of ten years and two adorable sons. His idea is to slink away quietly in the darkness of the night and never come back. In the very first page, the protagonist (Jay) makes his intentions clear. The whole book is in fact a long emotional outpouring of male angst and the unbearable loneliness and emptiness that has crept into his marriage and life. Jay's emotional response is to bid goodbye to this meaningless existence where he feels claustrophobic, unloved. His wife Susan, by Jay's own assessment is a dexterous woman, who can cope well with things. Her range of feeling is narrow and hence she can keep things simple. Like most busy mothers, robust practicality overrides other concerns for Susan and her toughened stance on daily matters stands in contrast with the protagonist’s lax, carefree, desultory mind that wants to escape the grind of domesticity and its accompanying rigours.

There are deeply affecting thoughts and incisive enquiry into the human heart with passages such as these, "Susan often accuses me of lack of application. It was what my teachers said, that I didn't concentrate. But I was concentrating. I believe the mind is always conentrating - on something that interests it. Skirts and jokes and cricket and pop, in my case. Despite ourselves, we know what we like, and our errors and distracted excursions are illuminations. Perhaps only the unsought is worthwhile..."

In most of the book, the protagonist is making a case for why he should leave his marriage. His cynical mind argues the futility of a social bond in which no love exists any more. The thought of his sons holds him back, but he convinces himself that they will be fine.
He compares his life with two of his friends, Alex – a committed married man, who has learnt to live with the occasional unhappiness in his domestic life. He’s proud that he’s sticking by one woman and advices Jay to do the same.
At the other end of the spectrum is his friend Victor, who has left his wife and is currently enjoying his promiscuous life as a bachelor.
Jay's mind is also occupied with thoughts of Nina, an attractive, young girl who he has been dating. But now he doesn't know where he stands with her either.

The author Hanif Kureishi has been a student of philosophy in London and expectedly he takes the opportunity to dwell on the institution of marriage and how ultimately it becomes an entrapment, extracting a heavy price through the denial of personal hope and dreams.

Kureishi is most assuredly cynical about his marriage and the institution in general, but he's also conscious of the larger human condition where loneliness is inevitable. Even if he were to leave his wife, would the love he finds outside last at all? "Suppose it is like an illness that you give to everyone you meet," he asks.

The book teems with quotes on marriage, desire and life in general. Talking about his parents' relationship, the protagonist says, "Both he and mother were frustrated, neither being able to find a way to get what they wanted, whatever that was. Nevertheless they were loyal and faithful to one another. Disloyal and unfaithful to themselves."

His protagonist's act is clearly irresponsible, but there is a touch of poignancy in his need to be accepted and loved. He says he will not leave, if only his wife were to touch him in bed tonight and make him feel wanted.

Writers always express best that which is close to their heart. Intimacy could only have been written by a man who felt all those emotions and who lived through a period of moral, social and personal dilemma.
At less than 150 pages, the book is an intimate and personal exploration into a man's mind, torn between conflicting feelings. The book was possibly written at one go in a stream -of-consciousness narrative, wherein thoughts travel back and forth in time.
The book puts forth questions but attempts to provide no real answers. It's one person's point of view from a singular prism, which means it eschews the larger issues in marriage. This book confirms your worst fears about marital bonds but there is no larger exploration of the institution in today's context.

Men might relate to the book more, most women will despise it. Intimacy is like reading only one half of a more complicated story. But for what it is, the novella gives you a penetrating, insightful view into the male psyche and to that extent, it is a worthy read.

PS: The book was adapted into a film by Patrice Chereau, titled, Intimacy