29 December 2012

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham

Among all his works, Christmas Holiday published in 1939, counts as Maugham's most political novel. It still has all the central themes of love and coming-of-age which the author engaged with, but certainly, here, Maugham was keener to make a political point.

Written just before the outbreak of World War 2, the entire novel can be seen as an allegory of the situation that was unfolding in Europe, post the Russian revolution. The novel gives you an overview of the history of the time, and acquaints you with some people that this troubled age could well have produced. The action of the novel is Paris, which is one of the cities where many White Russians immigrated. Like all immigrants, they had left behind their property and wealth under the Bolshevik regime. Many of them belonged to affluent families but were now penniless, desperate for work. The second generation Russians in Paris now had only a faint idea of their motherland, and were holding on to any crumbs of nostalgia.

The French population viewed the ever increasing Russian émigré with distrust, and slowly with lack of opportunities, the Russians were pushed into fringes of society doing lowly jobs.  The novel's young protagonist, Lydia is representative of this class.  A White Russian, she works for a dressmaker for a while but when she is introduced in the book she has become a prostitute called Princess Olga (because the idea of going to bed with a Russian queen is appealing to men) . She is disturbed and  over-worked. She has individuality and a naive intelligence to make conversation that is unaffected and straight from the heart.

The novel  however moves by way of Charley Mason, the 24 year old male protagonist of the novel who has arrived to Paris on a short Christmas holiday. The trip is a gift from his father and by extension his loving family in England.  A good many pages at the start of the novel are devoted to an elaborate description about the Masons. The family which came up through modest means, now finds itself in its most prosperous phase. Charley has parents who are interested in art and culture and have taken pains to inculcate in their children a taste for the finer things in life. Their dining tables are well-laden with expensive silver and healthy, nutritious food. The comfortable rooms, with well-appointed fire places and cushy beds, the drawing rooms, with paintings of the great masters displayed on the walls, have an effect of a decorous, well-ordered home that envelops its family of four in a smug blanket of security and warmth. It is in this home that Charley grew up. An exemplary English boy, well-bred and genuinely nice, Charley is attracted to alternative cultures and there is some charm for the risqué in him. His friendship with Simon, a childhood friend, who is drastically unlike him, explains this. Simon talks and talks, much of it to use Maugham's phrase is 'confused eloquence' His ideas are grand, confusing, bizarre, mean, contradictory. But Charley is enamoured by his quixotic appeal.

Charley wants to have a good time, and a visit to a brothel is in order. Simon has a familiarity with the place, more as a journalist and less because he is a regular. He brings together Charley and Lydia, and thus begins the story.

The book works on parallel narratives from here. One is Charley and Lydia's own interaction in a hotel. Both spend a good part of a week together which passes in a surreal round of sleep, breakfast and then lunch and again sleep.

Between the course of this, a fascinating story is revealed of Lydia's past.  A prostitute narrating a sob story to a client is a clichéd situation and Maugham makes this observation himself through Charley, suspecting that most of these tales are untrue. Yet,  Maugham creates a mood of thrill and suspense and allows Lydia to tells her story, not telling us whether to believe her or not. This works well because the novel here takes the form of a murder mystery (the influence of the many detective books Maugham read would surely have come in handy).

The story itself is riveting, and makes up for almost 2/3rd of the novel. You get to know a bit of Lydia's background, and then comes the big soul-crushing romance in her life. She falls for a handsome French man, Robert Berger. He is charming, jolly and belongs to a respectable family. Yet, he himself has the temperament of a rake and would ideally like to drop all pretentions of  decent, upright living.  He loves Lydia, but she considers him so above her own station that she is cautious not to suppose he would marry her. But he does propose, and Lydia is delirious with joy.
"She had never known such happiness; indeed, she could hardly bring herself to believe it: at that moment her heart overflowed with gratitude to life. She would have liked to sit there, nestling in his arms, for ever, at that moment she would have liked to die. But she bestirred herself."
Her passion corresponds with Maugham's idea of love and the height of sacrifice a human being is capable of in this state.

This is really the centrepiece of the novel. But Maugham also allows the story to be a political one.  Charley listens to Simon talking about revolutions and how potentially he was preparing for one in England also. This denotes the totalitarian ideology among fringe elements that were forming. There is destitution all around and Maugham's  idea here is that England could no longer be insulated from the happenings in rest of Europe. There are many scenes where Maugham forwards this idea of the immense disquietude and turmoil that was eating at the roots of society, which would eventually raise its ugly head and destroy any illusion of calm and beauty.

When Charley talks about his family back home, it is with a great affection. Lydia can see it is a life of dignity and grace, something she cannot have. And yet, she has faced enough set backs to be unsure if these things really last.

"If Lydia saw how much of their good nature, their kindliness, their unpleasing self-complacency depended on the long-established and well-ordered prosperity of the country that had given them birth; if she had an inkling that, like children building castles on the sea sand, they might at any moment be swept away by a tidal wave, she allowed no sign of it to appear on her face.”

Charley himself is only too conscious of this inequality between him and Lydia, and feels a sense of shame.  " He felt awkward and big, and his radiant health, his sense of well-being, the high spirits that bubbled inside him, seemed to himself in an odd way an offence. He was like a rich man vulgarly displaying his wealth to a poor relation"

 Maugham portrays Charley's parents with a good deal of sarcasm, and scoffs at their pretentions about knowing art. He sees them as decent folk but views their preoccupation with art as phoney and nothing but the idle pursuit of the rich. In contrast, Lydia's instinctive comments about a painting at a gallery she and Charles visit, is sincere and heart-felt.

What strikes most about Christmas Holiday is the phenomenal writing. Maugham is always an elegant writer, but one is amazed by the sheer power of the pen in this novel.

The characters all come alive beautifully, and Maugham has delineated them with a great deal of affection. Charley is generous and kind, even if a little condescending. His good-heartedness towards Lydia is more than anything else a prevailed man's largesse towards the poor. And yet, Charley is a wonderfully likeable fellow and not insensible to the unfairness of the world. He is the most humane, unprejudiced and compassionate person to be confronted with the sadness of another world.

Lydia again is etched with sympathy, and a tenderness that is appealing.

Maugham's depiction of Madame Berger's character ie Robert's mother is masterful. You get a complete sense of her personality - she fights for her son as only a mother can.

Robert is a regular guy for all purposes but with an unconventional crime fetish deeply imbedded in his system.  His motives are unusual and unpardonable, but Maugham who knew the vagaries of human character so well, is sympathetic.

His tone of partiality is clear in the compelling court scenes, where Robert is given a lawyer who is beyond extraordinary.  The description of the lawyer, Lemoine is merely a page, but it is so thrilling, it takes your breath away.

"I wish you could have seen the skill with which he treated his hostile witnesses, the sauvity with which he inveigled them into contradicting themselves, the scorn with which he exposed their baseness, the ridicule with which he treated their pretentions. He could be winningly persuasive and brutally harsh...."

"He spoke generally in an easy, conversational tone, but enriched by his lovely voice and with a beautiful choice of words; you felt everything he said could have gone straight down in a book without alteration"

His talent has a devastating impact on the public prosecutor who came across as cheaply melodramatic.

 "It was grand to see the way Lemoine treated him. he paid him extravagant compliments, but charged with such corrosive irony that, for all his conceit, the public prosecutor couldn't help seeing he was being made a fool of. Lemoine was so malicious but with such perfect courtesy and with such a condescending urbanity, that you could see in the eyes of the presiding judge a twinkle of appreciation."

Passages of such brilliance dot Christmas Holiday, and it is extraordinary how the book manages to touch upon so many issues in the span of 200 odd pages. The book is full of quotable quotes and stunning insights on life. Quite easily a masterpiece. 

14 December 2012

Real-life stories need fictional plausibility too

Realism in movies or books is a confusing term. One wonders if it means to portray life as it is - in its bare, unpolished form?  Often you see a film that completely defies logic but is sold to you as a 'real life story'.  One is confused as an audience what to make of this. 

Some of Maugham's literary ideas here come to our aid. The author saw no reason why implausibility in story should be condoned even if it was taken from real life.   Maugham in his book of essays 'The Vagrant Mood' commented about many crime thrillers that were directly lifted from real life stories. But some of these cases were rather far-fetched and hence  offered no reading satisfaction. "That something has occurred in real life does not make it a fitting subject for fiction. Life is full of improbabilities which fiction does not admit of." 
Life may be stranger than fiction, but even the world's greatest fantasies need a grain of truth in them to succeed.

In 'Ten Novels...' also he had similar views about Stendhal's novel - 'Le Rouge et le Noir'.
He found the book to be extraordinary overall, but felt disappointed with the climax. Stendhal had written the novel inspired by a news report.  Maugham was wonderfully impressed with the author's acuity and psychological insight into his lead character. But the climax he felt was a terrible let down.  He remarked that he couldn't think of a worse ending. This happened apparently because Stendhal chose to give the same ending that happened in the actual case, from which he was inspired. This required Stendhal to make his central character behave in a way that was foolish and out of character.  It was a grave flaw in an otherwise great book, says Maugham.

What could have prompted Stendhal to dilute such an enthralling character?
Maugham felt that  "the facts from which Stendhal was inspired exercised a hypnotic power over him from which he was unable to break loose".  He felt himself under compulsion to pursue the story, against all credibility, to its wretched end.  This, Maugham felt is a wrong approach for fiction.

"By God, fate, chance, whichever you like to call, the mystery that governs men's lives, is a poor story-teller, and it is the business , and the right, of the novelist to correct the improbabilities of brute fact."

Clearly, Maugham here implies that art, to qualify as one, must be able to rise above its bare facts and say something universal about human nature and life. The individual's life story, however exceptional, would have to be plausible enough for the reader or audience to picture themselves in the character's position and feel his/her emotion. When the character acts too unreasonably, the audience detaches itself and the sympathy is over. Art is not life itself. It cherry picks from life what it thinks is beautiful and arresting. Art's ultimate goal is to engage and entertain.

Facts and real-life are an artist's raw material, not art itself is Maugham's point. There is a wonderful piece, 'The Rolling Stone' in 'On a Chinese Screen' by Maugham where during his travels, he was told of a man who had a remarkable career. He had been to different lands, lived with the most unlikeliest of people, and on the whole boasted of extraordinary experience. When Maugham saw him, he was a little surprised because the man's face was so blank and indistinctive. The man indeed had travelled to all the places and partaken in all the experiences he was credited with.  As a job,  he was offered the chance to write about his journeys in an English language paper in China. The man's difficulty was now to choose from the fullness of his experience. He wrote many articles, and though they were not unreadable, Maugham felt they were merely observations. "But he had seen everything haphazard, as it were, and they were but the material of art. They were like the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores," he said.

"They were a mine to the imaginative man, but the foundation of literature than literature itself. He was the field naturalist who patiently collects an infinity of facts, but has no gift for generalisation: they remain facts that await the synthesis of minds more complicated than his...his collection was unrivalled, but his knowledge of it slender."

Maugham in this piece also points out how in writing, the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.  

Maugham himself was inspired by stories of real people. He did not adapt what was humdrum and routine -which he admitted was how most people live. When he heard a story, he obviously looked for some singularity of characters or circumstances. Something that stoked his interest. Naturally then, most of his short stories  are very dramatic, with shocking outcomes. But there is a structure and plot. And the characters are all believable. So even if Maugham was inspired by real-life, he only took what was useful to him in telling his story and conveying the inevitable truth in it.

This weaknesses of getting carried away with one's real-life impression was something Maugham too suffered in two of his novels in my opinion. This did weaken the respective plots of the novels, both considered his best works, Cakes  & Ale and The Razor's Edge. That both are extraordinary in their own ways is nothing to debate.  However, both have a central character (Rosie in 'Cakes And Ale', and Larry in 'The Razor's Edge) who is shadowy and vague.  Maugham is terribly fond of these two people, whom he knew as acquaintances in real life.  His characters are normally treated with sharp irony but Maugham in these cases was somewhat reluctant to fictionalise these characters and pointedly analyse their motivations.  Especially Larry in 'The Razor's Edge' gets extreme leeway, and there are long, meandering passages of his monologues. At one time it gets confusing and you wonder if it is Maugham or Larry speaking. The novels gets painfully tangential in these parts. As a reader you struggle to get a grasp of Larry's mind. He is too detached and confused a figure to ever completely draw in the reader's sympathies. Larry and Philip in Of Human Bondage are comparable. The latter is Maugham alter-ego.  There, Philip's struggle and wretchedness is wonderfully conveyed, mainly because it was written in first person. They were Maugham's own emotions.  The author was essentially describing his own life, and though in 'Of Human Bondage' too there are episodes (the Mildred one) which astound you, and there are parts which stretch one's logic somewhat, Philip's character on the whole is plausible. Larry was someone Maugham related with, but he was still another person, and Maugham did struggle to translate his personality on to the pages, especially since he was predisposed to only believing the best of him.
But on the whole, Maugham always did a stellar job of adapting from life and presenting his stories convincingly.  Few authors lay as much emphasis on creating credible stories and characters as much as him.  

19 September 2012

The Big Book Shelf - Sunil Sethi

Author: Sunil Sethi
Pages: 240
Publishers: Penguin
Price: 350

With the opening up of the publishing industry in the country and the rapid flowering of desi writing in English, the interest around books and authors has but naturally intensified. The Jaipur literature fest that has ballooned into a hugely successful event in its last six years further underlines this feeling of enthusiasm and intellectual leaning among the modern, literate Indian.

In such a context journalist-presenter Sunil Sethi's effort to compile a book of some of his best interviews with present-day, renowned authors is timely and useful. Sethi is a familiar face on television with his show Just Books on NDTV.  In his eloquently written introduction he reveals how he had ample doubts about the viability of the show when the idea was first suggested. He wondered whether a half hour show on books would be sustainable given how much of a visual medium television is. Also writers as a breed can be shy and elusive. But Sethi's fears proved unfounded and the show caught on. Over the last few years many illustrious authors have appeared on it. And it is some of these rare interviews that find a place in Sethi's elegantly penned book. The purpose, he says, was to document these conversations and for that reason, and many others, this is a completely valid exercise.

Sethi chooses 30 of his best interviews with internationally acclaimed authors where facets of their craft and motivations are revealed. More than anything they open up a window into the world of these thinking, imaginative people. To say they are the ultimate representatives of the larger corpus of literature being produced currently in India or other countries may not be accurate but their lives and work are clearly a source of education and inspiration to readers and aspiring writers alike.

What is revealing through these interviews is of course a well-established fact. That opportunities of education and travel are central to the evolution of a writer. Most of the authors covered are second generation Indians who belonged to fairly affluent families and studied and travelled around the world. So from Vikram Seth to Salman Rushdie to Amitav Ghosh to Suketu Mehta to Anita and Kiran Desai - all spent a considerable time away from their countries, which enabled them to have richer experiences and exposure.

The same holds true for Pakistani novelists - Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Nadeem Aslam. Most of them were academically brilliant and blessed with an imaginative, fertile mind. But it's also true that being part of different worlds provided them with larger perspectives and a greater facility with the English language. Importantly, this problem of being caught between two worlds (moving from their third world motherland to the first world) - fed their creative impulse - and they were naturally drawn to themes such as exile, identity and belonging in their writings. Today with such massive changes coming about in India in the last one decade - where it is economically more empowered and global travel/education has become a trend - the complexion of Indian writing in English has understandably changed and a variety of literature is coming to the fore.

Yet, what is revealed through the worlds of non-fiction writers like William Dalrymple, Patrick French, Ramachandra Guha and Paul Theroux is their intense passion for history, research, academics and travel. Dalrymple was a student-backpacker who took off to Northern China for his book In Xanadu. He briefly passed through India and those memories lingered. And thus began his invigorating journey into Delhi, along with his artist-wife Olivia, out of which City of Djinns was both. More journeys followed, and then came the grand centre-piece of his work - While Mughals and The Last Mughal. What comes through in Dalrymple is his infectious energy and peseverance, as he goes through delving into his subjects with a genial mix of curiosity and affection.

Ramachandra Guha's intitiation into being a writer is equally interesting. His studies in anthropology prompted a research on political activist Verrier Elwin. He proved to be such a potent influence on Guha that the latter decided to write a full-fledged biography of Elwin. "I discovered the joys of working amongst forgotten, buried and dusty documents," he says. That stoked such a strong interest in academic non-fiction that Guha since then has produced some extremely valuable books on politics, leaders and sports. The author of books such as The Picador Book Of Cricket (2001) and India After Gandhi (2007) also gives a complete perspective on non-fiction writing. He sees tremendous scope for non-fiction in the coming years.  So far, he says, the writing of Indian history has been inward-looking and self-referential and paid no attention to literary elegance to reach out to a wider audience. Patrick French calls Indian biographies 'self congratulatory and flattering portraits' "There's no point in researching and writing in stilted sociological prose. And there's no point in just writing fun stories without deep research," says Guha.
The author/columnist also stresses that non-fiction involves artisty too. "The hisorian is a researcher who digs deep in the archives and gets good material, but he is also an artist and a writer who constucts his story in an appealing, intersting, evocative and accessible way," he says.

- Ramchandra Guha

Again, each of these writers was greatly drawn to the world of letters, and were heavily into reading since childhood. For authors like Bapsi Sidhwa and Ved Mehta, it was their physical handicap that provided the creative impulse for writing. Sidhwa was struck with polio at the age of two and could not be sent to school for long. She says it was her feeling of intense loneliness that made her seek refuge in books. An unhappy marriage followed and there was separation from her children. It was only after her second marriage that the Pakistani author could actually start writing. She poured out her emotions into her stories and found a sense of inner liberation. She says she wouldn't have turned writer at all if her life would have been a normal one. "Had I lived in a milieu where I could have had boyfriends, gone to dances and had fun, I don't think I would have written. because at certain times in my life, I was going through period of great despair, anguish in a way, it eased me into writing, Writing took me out of a very severe debilitating twitch I used to have," says the writer of books like Ice Candy Man (made into the Aamir Khan starrer Earth 1947) and Water - both by Deepa Mehta, among others. Ved Mehta used his blindness to feed his imagination and write books.

Almost unanimously, each of the writers have had a deep engagement with the socio-political world around them. South African novelist and nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer was an early champion of the anti-apartheid crusade. Many of her novels were banned for long periods, as they dealt with intense political and sexual relations between black and white people. The same holds true for Mahasweta Devi who broke from domestic confines and got fascinated with the life of Rani Jhansi. She produced a book. That in turn took her to the hinterlands, and her various journeys made her conscious of the suffering of marginalised communities. In her fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Mahasweta Devi has relentlessly taken up their issues. Similarly, Guha, Amartya Sen, Khushwant Singh, Mark Tully, Gunter Grass, Patrick Fench - all in various measures been the wellspring of modern intellectual thought.

Another aspect that aspiring writers might take heart from is that writing is not always a spontaneous art. It is arduous and requires a great deal of discipline and dedication. Khushwant Singh talks about how he has never missed a deadline for an article ever. "I get up at 4 am...It's regulated by a stop-watch. I have also learnt how to be ill-mannered. People don't drop in. I don't see them without an appointment,a nd when i invite them it's strictly between 7 and 8. I can be very rude to anyone who stays even a minute after 8," says the journalist/columnist/writer.
Upamanyu Chatterjee (English August, Weight Loss) who balances a high-profile civil service job and his calling as a writer, sets himself a certain number of words a day, or how to resolve an idea or problem in a plot as his target everyday. Kiran Desai 'retreated into a world of almost monastic discipline' for seven years to produce her Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss.

(Upamanyu Chatterjee)

Others writers included in the book are each unique for what they represent. There's Jaaved Akhtar, Chetan Bhagat, Jeffrey Archer, Imberto Eco, Alexander Mc Call Smith, Ken Follett.

The interviews focus on certain specific books that the authors were writing or had written when the interview was taken, so there's some detailed and illuminating talk on that. Vikram Seth speaks at some length about Two Lives, Suketu Mehta on Maximum City, Dalrymple on Nine Lives and Paul Theroux and Patrick French about their controvercial biographies on V S Naipaul.

Not so long ago, it was only established NRI names who got published in India. But today, with the floodgates opening up, anyone with some writing talent could give a shot at bringing out a book. Naturally, Sethi's book provides valuable cues to aspirants. "Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age," says Nadine Gordimer. Theroux's tip is, "Go away. Yes. Leave home, leave your parents and all the comfortable things that hold you back..."

- Nadine Gordimer

Sethi himself is an erudite interviewer with striking introductions for each author. His forward for Dalrymple indicates his own excellent narrative abilties as a writer. By an unexpected chance Seth was acquainted with the British author when he first came to Delhi. Dalrymple didn't have a place to stay and Sethi lent him the barsati in his family house. Recollecting those days Sethi writes about the author who has gone on to make India his second home. "Even then, he was an electrifying presence. Thumping the table over an impromptu dinner, he would pose questions like, 'Do you realise the deposits of history that lie unrecorded, here, in Delhi? or 'Why have stories of this great magical beast called India that has lain on the globe for millennia not been told as they should be? Questions I had to answer after a long day's work. What I remember most of those evenings is our 3 year old daughter becoming hysterical with delight at this large, pink person 'banging on'. She would dissolve into paroxyms of giggles and refuse to go to bed." Now when as I simultaneously read City Of Djinns, that same exuberance and indomitable drive gleam through the pages.
When books are written on books, it's a healthy sign which indicates that there is a growing interest in the subject. One hopes Sunil Sethi's book is a harbinger of that movement.

The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham

 Author: Selina Hastings Pages: 550 Published in: 2010

Not a rollicking read, but Selina Hastings' biography on Maugham is balanced, credible and engaging enough

Given that Maugham reveals so much of himself in his works and has given such a vivid description of his childhood, his views on art, love, marriage, life and sundry things, there's only so much more that a biography on him can reveal.

Selina Hastings' work therefore has nothing drastically new to say. But the book picks up with her description of Maugham's stunning professional ascent as a playwright after several years of struggle. She throws light on each of his works, the circumstances surrounding them and the public and critical response they elicited. Selina describes the plot line of most of Maugham's major works with a brief analysis and is spot on most of the time. None of her reading is particularly brillaint or insightful, but it is clearly from someone who has enjoyed studying Maugham.

She of course focusses amply on the author's private life which is what stayed under covers. Most of this is revealed through the letters that Maugham wrote, some of them being to his male lovers. The author, the biography says, distroyed all his private correspondences and even urged his friends to do the same. But his friends were no fools and opportunistically preserved the letters knowing they would fetch them handsome returns. Maugham was a biosexual, and appears to have had many affairs but thankfully Selina maintains a balance, never going overboard with salacious personal information. This despite the title of the book suggesting otherwise. This naturally lends the biography more credibility and if nothing more, it is an excellent chronicle of his life and work.

Her authorial voice is fluid and elegant but also a wee bit too restrained, so that at times the biography tends to drag.  Yet, Selina has one admirable quality. Much like Maugham, Selina is able to see things from multiple persepectives and understands the compulsions under which characters act.  Though Maugham disliked his wife, Syrie, and hated acknowledging her, terming his marriage as a very insignificant detail in his life, Selina is able to view Syrie's predicament and takes an empathetic view of her situation.
 Maugham who enters the marriage  never fully convinced about it soon realises his mistake. He becomes eager than ever to take up long travels with his male companion, Gerald, staying away from home for extended periods. Syrie by now is in love with Maugham and feels despondent and lonely. This results in ugly, loud scenes that unsettles and infuriates the author. The marriage ends in spite of resistance from Syrie and Maugham till the end resents having to shell out big amounts in allimony. This despite the fact that he was otherwise quite generous with money throughout his life. They have a girl child, Lisa and though Maugham is fond of her, he is never particularly close. Selina also suggets that the author might have preferred to have a son. Selina similarly also gives a rounded perspective of the two men in Maugham's life, Gerald Hastings and Alan Searle.

One recurrent theme in the book is of Maugham's increasing wealth and him moving into bigger and lavish homes. Though he belonged to reasonaly well-off parents he was left with very little money when they died. For many years Maugham was forced to live frugally. He was a novelist but money only trickled in at this point. Then almost overnight his career as a playwright took off and Maugham was famous. The cheques flowed with many added zeroes now. Maugham posessed shrewd wisdom with respect to his craft,  and knew best how to satisfy an audience. His set-up was light and entertaining that appealed to the masses, and yet there was a cetain complexity, a dark core he provided to his characters and themes (extra-martial affairs...)so that the thoughful man in the audience too had something to chew on  This meant that Maugham wasn't producing any high art, but he wasn't selling his soul either. What he wrote was perfectly acceptable entertainment. Today the author is remembered for his novels and short stories which is where Maugham's heart always was and he wrote them with unfliching honesty and passion. But it was his plays that brought him his millions.

As money poured in, the author was able to fully devote his time to travel, leisure and writing. Having made so much wealth on the dint of his genuis, Maugham was not only an inspiration for everyone around, he weilded a rare creative and personal power leading life entirely on his own terms.
Maugham of course had an active personal life but that never seems to have interfeared with his writing career which he 'ruthlessly protected.'   He liked stimulating company and sex but his daily schedule where he spent most of his morning hours writing was never disrupted till the end. He entertained guests, enjoyed tea times and dinner but promptly went to bed at a fixed time. It is this discipline to his craft that is inspiring about Maugham's life.

His passion for places and people, combined with his need to be productive and relevant at all times is what prompted him to take up assignments as a British secret agent during World War 1 & 2. Maugham soaked himself in the thrill of new experiences as it was all finally material for writing. He hated dullness and constantly sought change.

What do you take home about Maugham after reading Hastings' biography? For someone with such deep insight into human behaviour and a pragmatic, clever grasp of life,  Maugham's success was expected and most deserved.
His marriage was miscalculated and this was a bitter irony for someone who was so curiously fascinated by marriage and wrote about all kinds of complexities in relationships. But he also believed that it was almost always tipped to fail, only with a slim chance of escaping that fate. Even with that knowledge his marriage was a disaster. The important moral here is that all of us, no matter how intelligent or shrewd are prone to misjudge and make mistakes.

Did his own soured marriage impact his writing? Hard to say because Maugham's stories depicting the doomed nature of love and marriage, like Mrs Craddock, Liza Of Lambath, Merry-Go-Round,   including many of his plays were written before he tied the knot. It is very likely that some of his feelings to do with his vexing marriage may have found an expression in his stories. Selina attempts to draw constant parallels and a few examples do seem to mirror Maugham's thoughts on his marriage. But nothing very substantial.

A gifted story-teller who could enthrall his listeners even as a child, he was clearly born to write. Beyond his complex relationships and conflicted sexuality, Maugham's life essentially speaks of great persevearance, discipline and drive. His constant travel and reading ensured he had a wealth of experience and wisdom from which he drew upon to create unforgettable stories.

31 July 2012

Duo On Discovery Path

The husband and wife writer duo, Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha went backpacking through the length and breadth of India on a daily budget of Rs 500. The couple is currently turning their travel experience into a book called 'The Heat And Dust Project'
The idea of taking off and getting a real taste of India and its people was long lingering in the minds of this bright, young couple. But taking that decision, which meant having to give up their cushy jobs in Delhi, came with its share of anxiety. More than a year ago, the lovely Devapriya Roy, all of 27, wrote her debut novel, 'The Vague Woman's Handbook' , a theme that refreshingly looked at the younger woman-older woman friendship. Much of the story was inspired by Devapriya's own life, especially parts where she describes the bitter-sweet moments of her 'just married' life with her college sweetheart.

Saurav Jha, energy analyst and columnist, she met while studying for her M.Phil in English at JNU, Delhi. Both fell in love as students and promptly got married. They settled in comfortable jobs, with all the trappings of a successful lifestyle. But in a few years, both started to feel weary within the confines of their bourgeois lives. "Since we got married in our early 20s, we also began our domesticity early. All the restlessness that comes with having to buy a house, pay EMIs we had already gone through. And then we tried figuring out what our options were. We could very well stick to our jobs and let it own us. By then our first books got commissioned. That is when we did some serious soul-searching and the 'Heat And Dust Project' was born," says Devapriya.

Now after the couple has travelled for months and covered over 18,000 kms across India, both have taken a break, after which phase two of the journey will begin. The travel was carried out on a tight budget of Rs 500 per day, and this Saurav says was not a "philosophical indulgence" but a "grim economic reality". "But this all too real state of affairs also ensured that we kept our feet on the ground and saw India the way we had always wanted to because there is just no one 'perfect' time to set out on a journey like this. And that motivation i.e to see India as it is, here and now was what prompted us. We set forth looking to ask some questions, find some answers and completely step away from the India of Delhi studio discussions, which frankly speaking have become shambolic echo chambers," he says.
The couple started from Delhi and chose the places on the fly. From Agra to Pushkar to Junagadh to Jaisalmer to Kolhapur and down South to Kerala and Kanyakumari, the travel packed a lot. And if anyone gets a whiff of another touristy adventure here, Devapriya says it was not meant to be so. Which is why the whole journey happened by bus, she says. "Our next destination from anywhere could be chosen on the basis of historical interest, because it was a name that was heard but little explored and of course on the basis of local suggestions. We also bowed in deference to the wishes of some on Facebook," says Saurav.

The Facebook group started as a page on the networking site where Devapriya and Saurav wrote on their travels, giving out funny stories, pictures and confessions while the journey was on. Devapriya, who doesn't always share Saurav's austere habits, says the biggest challenge for her was the long hours in the bus and relentless journey without stopping anywhere for too long. "We were following this Buddhist idea that you must not sleep under the same tree for over a day, as it sprouts roots and holds you back. Just when we would reach a place after hours of a bus journey, I would learn it was time to move on to the next destination. That was tiring, but we were soaking up the sheer excess of the experience. It also unlocked and brought us face to face with many unknown fears, but the travel also came with the sobering thought that no trouble is insurmountable, especially when you see people battling with bigger difficulties, " she says.

Many of the observations will make its way in the book. "There is one India. But there are several ages of India which are terribly intertwined with each other sometimes in harmony and sometimes out of sync," says Saurav.

The couple has some more travelling to do, but the book has been taking some shape meanwhile.Both being writers, they don't quite know who will really pen down the book, but they do know what it will be about. Says Saurav, "It is a travelogue - a funny hysterical sort of a travelogue but it would also engage with various books on India that have been authored by mostly foreign writers in English - from V S Naipaul to Patrick French and William Dalrymple - which attempt to make sense of India. But in addition to being by Indians, it is also meant for Indians, especially, young Indians, if they would care to read it."

13 March 2012

Shobha De's Spouse and Surviving Men

 Shobhaa De's latest 'Spouse - the truth about marriage' is a surprisingly tame book on the evergreen subject of Indian family politics. Many years ago she wrote the controversial hot-seller, 'Surviving Men'(1997), an entertaining book with brazen titled chapters like 'How To Hook A Man' , 'How To Dump A Man', 'Is It Possible to Love a Man', 'Men And Their Uses', 'How To Train Men' to others like 'Men at Work', 'Men at Home', 'Men in Bed', 'Men and Their Mothers', 'Men as Buddies' and 'Do Men Have Morals'.
All of these contained De's satiric take on gender-politics. Much of the book is pure fun and meant to shock. There are plenty of dos and don'ts she offers in a careless, flagrant manner, but some things she says do stick.
 "Women desperately want to believe in love, even though it's in an abstract sort of way. Without love,  life loses its meaning and motivation. They want to believe in it so desperately, they'll love anyone or anything - even the world's worst creep, a habitual wife-beater, a Scrooge or an abusive sob. They don't want to stand out in a world teeming with love-sick ladies. They want to conform and be one of the girls. They want a man to hang on to. Men realise this soon enough. And use it to their advantage. They learn to manipulate their women without even trying....It works both ways. Women manipulate men too. As long as this tug-of-war remains at a manageable level, the marriage endures."

To survive men and marriage means to make well-timed, crafty moves in De's world.  

 Within a decade since 'Surviving Men,  the once-divorced De is a changed person.  In 'Spouse -the truth about marriage' the popular columnist-writer is cheerfully married second time, and admittedly has found the marital union to be highly beneficial.  The joys of a large, bustling family with a caring husband and her children give her a wonderful sense of belonging. Which is why, her views have also altered beyond recognition.  Now, 'Spouse' and 'Surviving Men' barely look like books written by the same person. De is the same modern career-woman, but as the years have progressed, she has come to see marriage as a workable, even likable institution. 'No one has come up with anything better anyway," she remarks.

The sense of togetherness that she shares with her spouse is what she enjoys most. A measure of her attraction for her husband is that she finds little meaning in dressing up if he's not around. She mentions an incident when she wore a salvaar-kameez for a function, and Mr De remarked what an unflattering garment it was. "It does nothing for you," he said dismissingly. De immediately rushed to change into a sari, and has not wore a salvaar-kameez since then.
"My friends find this strange...that someone like me should conform to a man's image of how a wife should be. Frankly, their 'surprise' surprises me. I think it is the most natural thing to do. And there's absolutely no shame in it. Reserve your ego battles for something far more important," she writes

When hubby gets back home at 4 pm, De, no matter how occupied, rushes to fix him toast and snacks. Every single day.  Her affection, she feels, is perfectly natural in a marriage which remains her number one comfort zone.
 The book is sincere, and offers sober advice. There is the occasional wit De throws in. 'Carats over carrots" she advises women on domestic wars. Her views and tone on tackling in-laws have also dramatically altered since 'Surviving Men'.  This could well be because De is conscious of turning mother-in-law herself one of these days. She's unusually sympathetic to the senior woman's position here, whereas she had mercilessly lampooned the mom-in-law and mamma's boys in 'Surviving Men' . ( 'Men love their mothers, Men only love their mothers, Men love their mothers only.)

The restrained voice also makes 'Spouse' less interesting. It has little to offer in terms of research and originality, and De could not have spent more than a week writing it. She talks about her own journey of marriage, and uses a few examples of other people she knows.   De is sincere and means what she says, but it's just that the book offers nothing new. In that respect, De is turning into a conventional, practical woman, having understood the joys of joys and benefits of marriage.

It helps that the view comes from someone like her, a celebrity-writer who has always believed in setting trends rather than following them.  She makes an accurate final assessment of the reasons to marry.  "Do not marry because you feel you must, you have to, it's the done thing. Do not marry because you want children but not necessarily marriage. Do not marry for the sake of some imaginary 'security', for none exists. Marry because you want to marry. Because you believe in it. Because you want to share your life with someone you care about. Only then will your marriage survive and thrive."

19 February 2012

Collected Short Stories: Vol 4

Pages: 576

Much of what Maugham wrote was always greatly influenced by the numerous travels he made. In the course of his momentous writing career, there were few countries and cities that he did not visit. Yet, by his own admission Maugham found it difficult to open up and talk to the many strangers he encountered during his journeys. At the core he was a shy and introverted man. This, Maugham believed was an unfortunate handicap for a writer. Especially because no one could have been more interested and fascinated than him by the oddities in the men and women he met. Yet, he seemed to have managed rather well, as these experiences provided a rich source material for his stories.

And of course he had his fecund imagination. Maugham has been quoted saying that he could spend an hour with a person and quite comfortably come up with a decent enough story. But not everyone became a subject-matter for the writer, and what Maugham looked for in people was a singularity of character or circumstance.
Though a naturalist, Maugham laid a fair emphasis on making his stories engaging and entertaining and had a natural instinct for drama. Hence all the stories you see in this Volume (as is the case with all his writings), have something extraordinary in them, one way or the other.

As always, Maugham gives a lush description of his characters' physical self, surroundings, background. Often what the characters reveal in the end is an entirely unknown and unlikely facet of their personality. It is this hidden possibility in people that interested Maugham the most. Like a pathologist in a chemical lab, he liked to mix substances in various kind of solutions and watch the reactions that could take place.

These were stories that Maugham wrote during his stay in the Far East (Singapore, Malaysia). The place was under the rule of the British and the period setting is somewhere before WW2. The land at this point is dotted with Englishmen, as consuls, planters, skippers, captain and others. Their lives in the colony, interaction with the local Malay populace forms the subject matter for many of the stories. The steam ships that made travel so much easier in later years and completely altered the Englishman's attitude to his stay in colonies (he saw it as a temporary abode now as opposed to earlier), was yet to come. The long and dry ship journey also forms a significant backdrop to the tales.

This was a time when once an Englishman left for a colony, he spent almost his entire lifetime there. Often he took in a Malay wife as well, though the relation had no legally binding, and many left the woman and children behind (albeit well-provided for) if they did think of going back to England.

The White officers had important positions in the native land with spacious houses and a retinue of servants to do their bidding. This was convenient as well as flattering to the Englishman, many of whom took the posting out of some constraint back home. Suddenly now, they had power and enough money. Where they would have to follow the strictest austerity to make ends meet in England, here they could
almost be counted as rich. Naturally many looked upon with nervousness the prospect of going back to their homes after the end of their tenures. Many just stayed back,since by then they grew so comfortable in the skin of the native atmosphere. In fact, many of them didn't even relish the idea of confronting another White man after all these years.

Every story in Vol 4 is a gem. 'The Outstation' about two White men, a superior and his deputy, and the corroding effect of their mutual hate, is especially brilliant. These two men staying and administering an alien land, far away from their own country, despise each other, as both are offended by the other's peculiar bearing. Warburton, the colonial officer, is widely considered a snob, because he adores aristocracy and replicates the same English habits in the colony. Yet, he is fair and reasonable in his duties, and very fond of the natives. He isn't very thrilled on being told that a White man would be joining him in the district. The anxiety turns into a severe irritation when he meets the man who would be his deputy. Cooper, having heard of Warburton's elitist bearings, is determined not to appear subservient in any way. Believing offence to be the best form of defence, Cooper gets outspoken and rude. Warburton is positively shocked and offended by his junior's words but is keen to appear fair and dignified at all times. Their hatred grows with time with each being consumed with a gnawing anger for the other. Maugham achieves great narrative constancy, and the story is a marvel in character build up.

There's a pattern that starts to emerge with the stories. Just when things appear all hunky dory - and Maugham sadistically builds up an enviable image of felicity - a change in circumstance occurs that upsets the original status quo. It initially causes irritation and finally gives way to a deep seated resentment. From there on things quickly begin to spiral downwards. Repressed anger and despair finally end in a shocking catastrophe.

Appearance v/s reality is also another recurring theme in Maugham's stories. Things are never as they seem, and appearance and bearing often belie a dark, complex and unexpected side. ('Red', 'The Letter')

The other important theme is the impermanence and doomed nature of love and marriage. Infidelity is a running theme in most of the stories. (A Casual Affair, Neil Mac Adam, Episode, A Woman Of Fifty, The Letter, The Back Of The Beyond.)

Many of the stories point to the inherent confusion among humans, where situations are strangely always at odds, This makes men and women fickle, impulsive, and drives them to act in mysterious ways. This is true in Maugham's fiction, as much as it is the case in real life. One wonders if this is the greatest tragedy God inflicted on man where he would never get what he truly desired, and if at all he got it, he would stop desiring the very same thing.

As always, Maugham writes with tremendous skill and heart. The descriptions are slightly more lavish, given that the book is a travelogue of sorts. There are some elegant passages about setting and nature. But Maugham's greatest strength as a writer remains his ability to be lucid, and stick to his point without ever rambling. Every line he writes adds to the cumulative power and impact of these unforgettable stories.

17 February 2012

The Dutch Treasure Trove

Renee Ridgway recently unveiled an archival find, a 17th century book on medicinal plants created by the then Dutch governor in Cochin. The event, held at David Hall, Fort Kochi aimed at looking at the fascinating impressions the Dutch left behind

In the 17th century, when the Dutch came to Cochin for trade purposes, and eventually became its rulers, an interesting episode took place.

The then Dutch governor Hendrik van Reede undertook an unexpected and novel project. Probably impressed with the lush verdure around, he grew interested in medicinal plants and collaborated with the local Keralite doctors, botanists, translators and artists to bring out a book on the findings. People were sent far and wide across the state to gather plants. Local doctors would then assess their medicinal properties, after which drawings would be made in water colours. The King of Cochin also helped him in this endevour. It was between 1678-1693 that this 12-volume work, illustrating as many as 700 indigenous plants, was published in Amsterdam.

(Dutch governor to Cochin, Hendrik van Reede)

This is undoubtedly a fascinating piece of archival history. And it is not surprising that 350 years later it should have caught the attention of visual artist Renee Ridgway, a keen student of history. Though a proud American in every sense, Renee was always interested in Dutch colonial history “I grew up in a Dutch colony in the US. Also, it also has something to do with my mixed ancestry,” she says, as we sit for a chat at David Hall on a hot, sweltering day.

She went to Netherlands for her studies, which further helped her understand the Dutch culture and history some more. Some time later Renee was battling with her migraines and sinus problem. No treatment seemed to be working. This is when someone suggested an ayurvedic doctor, Kochi-based Thomas Punnen to her, who was then in Netherlands. She was cured, and this instilled in her tremendous faith about the line of treatment. This reference somehow got her acquainted with Hortus Malabaricus, ‘the book’ that was compiled in the 17th century.

Her passion for history, her faith in traditional Indian medicine, and love for nature (“I worked in a flower shop in Netherlands”)all came together, and Renee decided to get to the heart of the matter. “I had come to India before, but never to Kochi. I knew there was a Dutch settlement here, and it was while I was staying at the Kashi Art Residency at Fort Kochi in 2007, that I became determined to find more about it. David Hall, that has now become a hub for art and food events, was in ruins then," she says. Ironically, this Dutch heritage building is where the entire project was undertaken, says Renee. “There’s good evidence that the project was carried out at David Hall. Where else could it have been?” she says. And now this is the venue for the unveiling of Renee’s own project on Hortus Malabaricus that she along with her filmmaker-friend Rick van Amersfoort undertook.

(A copy of the book, Hortus Malabaricus)

The launch of the book, and an extensive discussion held between Feb 15-22 aims to focus on the cultural exchange that has occurred over the past 350 years on the Mallabar Coast between the Dutch and the local population.

The research also allowed Renee to delve deeper into the Dutch social ethos. "The average Dutch person is a very business-oriented person. Unlike the British or Portuguese, the Dutch did not have any emotional ties with the colonies they ruled. Neither did they aspire to propagate their religion. All they were interested in was trade. They came to Cochin for the spices," she says.

(an illustration from Hortus Malabaricus)

So what could have prompted the then Dutch governor to come up with the project?Renee is reluctant to answer, simply because she would like one to draw inferences from the vast footage of documentary she has gathered. She relents, "I think there were a couple of things. He could have been genuinely interested in the field of plants and medicine. He also found the local population very fit, and perhaps wanted to know how. But the real reason appears to be that he wanted the Dutch soldiers to be healthy, and traditional, local medicines would work out cheaper than procuring it all the way from Netherlands," she says.

The book was more recently translated in English, and is now more accessible to people. “The stunning thing is that the contents of the book have been in circulation one way or the other," she says.

07 January 2012

Somerset Maugham's Liza Of Lambeth

Liza Of Lambeth (1897) is perhaps Maugham's only novel which I don't have the heart to revisit. Not because it is poor, but because it is so chillingly tragic. It isn't as if his other novels are all light and sunshine. Maugham in fact always had a great eye for human tragedy and unfailingly took up themes about the impossibility of love and the doomed nature of marriages. Almost every single novel of his has a grim death in it, but nothing is as brutal as what one witnesses in Liza of Lambeth. The graphic violence and the extreme misfortune of the lead character evoke a deep sense of horror.

The book was written by Maugham when he was all of 23. It was his first attempt at writing a novel, and this he did while practising as a doctor. His work took him to the doorsteps of the poor and needy in the slums of Lambeth, and it is his experience and observations here that gave him the material for the book. To his own surprise, the novel was fairly well-received when it was published, and soon Maugham got more offers to write.

The novel is Maugham’s shortest, and also most unlike his other works. Liza of Lambeth appears distinct because it is so removed from the world the author generally sets his stories in ie upper class London. Here, in a ghetto, where the labour class resides, the mood and tenor are vastly altered. Also, a large part of the book comprises of conversations in the local slang, which makes it that much tougher to read. Yet, the story is engaging, and in the end, fans of the author will recogonise many things in the novel that only Maugham could have written.

Liza Kemp is one of the prettiest girls in Lambeth, a veritable lotus in the muck. Her life is not all rosy though, as she works as a labour girl in a local factory and then comes home to a sick, nagging mother who never has a kind word to say to her. Tom is a young, honest man, madly in love with Liza. She, however, only looks upon him as a friend and is repulsed with the idea of romancing him. Her good friend Sally is excited about going on a boat fair with her boyfriend and urges Liza to accompany them. Tom is willing to pay for her, but Liza doesn’t think it appropriate that she should take favours from someone she has no intention of marrying. Tom reassures her that he’s fine even if Liza is not interested for the moment. That instantly cheers Liza, who joins everyone else hoping to have a great time. Another reason for her happiness is the presence of Jim Blackeston, a handsome man who has recently come to stay in her neighbourhood. Jim is married with an imposing looking woman and three children. Liza feels an instant attraction towards him, and the feeling is reciprocated. Ignoring Tom, Liza tries her best to be around Jim. This angers Tom, while Jim’s wife, probably too preoccupied in other domestic thoughts doesn’t notice much. The attraction grows into a full-fledged affair and slowly tongues start wagging. Jim talks about deserting his wife, whom he says he cannot stand.

The situation starts to get messy as the women-folk refuse to take kindly to the affair. They naturally sympathise with the wife and see Liza as a callous husband stealer. When Jim’s wife senses that her husband might be leaving her for good, she unleashes her anger on Liza, giving her a fatal beating in full public view. The scene is grotesque, but it is just the kind of violence one would expect in such a place.

Jim Blackeston is pained by Liza’s death, and in anger beats up his wife. But there is every indication that he would go back to his same shoddy life and forget about the chapter with time. Liza’s mother is more concerned that she would have no one to look after her henceforth. Liza is a picture of such youthful exuberance and optimism in the novel that the reader feels an intense sadness at her life being snuffed out with such brutality. One of earliest scenes in the book has Liza exultantly walking down the street, like a diva. She stirs up a sensation and the men nearly faint with excitement. To then see her beaten black and blue on the same crowded street with no one coming forward to help in the climax leaves you with a feeling of cold disgust.

For its striking differences with Maugham’s others work, the novel still has all of his favourite themes – the mundane pattern into which marriages invariably slip into, and the all-consuming power of passion that makes individuals blind to its risks and short-comings. And Maugham since the very start seemed to understand that for many, ‘the important thing was to love rather than be loved’ Like in his other novels, here too Liza can very well go for a respectable match by way of Tom. But she simply is not drawn and cannot help it. This is a recurrent theme in almost all of the author’s books – the inability to love what is gettable, and an idealisation of a potentially destructive relationship.

Again, the disillusionment of marriage, a recurrent theme in Maugham’s oeuvre, finds a distinct voice in Liza of Lambeth too.
Jim Blackeston’s marriage has slipped into dull, domestic monotony, which is why it doesn’t take him long to fall for a younger woman.
Contrasting Liza's uncertain, desperate state is her friend Sally, who is smug and happy with her relationship and is all set for conjugal bliss. But as usual, Maugham builds a perfect apple cart only to upset it. Post marriage, Liza discovers that Sally’s husband beats her up regularly, and that all traces of love had evaporated. Sally though is too proud to admit this.

Even though the book is too grim for me, I don’t see it lacking in merits. The story is engaging, the conversations are credible, and the situations unfold with perfect plausibility. Importantly, it reveals that Maugham’s ideas about love and marriage – the two central themes of his novels – remained more or less unchanged till the very end.