Classics

Pride and Prejudice

I have decided to have an October full of re-reading Jane Austen, and it may well spill over into November, because why not? Jane’s books were my entry into the comedy of manners, and I think of her as a friend, who introduced me to that lovely world of ballroom dances, English picnics and good manners.

Pride and Prejudice is perhaps her most famous book, with multiple adaptations in film and television. It remains popular and beloved to this day, after more than 200 years of its being published. The main characters are two strong and different personalities: Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. Darcy has immense pride in his upper class breeding and Elizabeth is prejudiced against him from the beginning of their acquaintance; after he makes a slight comment about her at a dance. Hence, the name of the book, we think; one is proud, one is prejudiced. Now on my fifth or sixth re-read of this book after many years, I realised that, both pride and prejudice are present in both Darcy & Lizzie.

Lizzie is proud (in the best sense, bless her) of her own superior understanding of human nature, which strenghthens her prejudice. She has not expected people to turn out so vastly different from her initial perceptions of them. Darcy is prejudiced against the lower classes in Regency England; he never expects them to be sensible or worthy in any way. The point where the novel achieves its true genius, in my opinion, is in the slight shocks it gives both the main characters and its readers. We see with Lizzie’s eyes; we judge and sympathise where she does, and the reckoning that our dear, brilliant heroine is erring, comes as a shock to us too. Elizabeth slowly learns to look beyond appearances and understands that “fair is foul, and foul is fair”, to quote Shakespeare. Wickham gives all the appearance of fairness, but is a real villain with mercenary motives. Darcy appears haughty and grave, but is truly an honest, good-hearted gentleman. Darcy has his own shocks to experience too. He learns that the upper classes may be ill-bred as well, as his aunt Lady Catherine shows him, with her mannerless behaviour; and that lower classes may be pleasant and sensible, such as the Gardiners. These experiences allow for such character growth in both individuals, and the slow, melting of Lizzie’s prejudice against Darcy is tender and beautiful.

As a contrast to these two, other couples are also shown in the book; Jane & Mr. Bingley, who are both extremely similar; and Lydia & Wickham, who have been binded together by nothing but extreme thoughtlessness and lust. As always, Jane Austen introduces a bevy of side characters, who make us laugh and make us wonder. We see such ridiculous people today too. The haughty Lady Catherine, who always speaks rudely and superciliously to everyone. The pompous Mr. Collins who uses big, flowery words and pays constant obeisance to Lady Catherine. Mr. Collins annoyed me beyond comparison, since I know a family who behave exactly like him, and whom I find impossible to deal with. Just as everyone sensible in the book find it impossible to deal with Mr. Collins! Mr. and Mrs. Bennett too, are characters worth studying. Both are supremely indifferent to the education or feelings of their daughters. Mr. Bennet, because of his extreme indolence and Mrs. Bennett, because she cares only about their marriage.

“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

Elizabeth Bennett, Pride & Prejudice

Manners and behaviours form an important part of any Austen book. Pride and Prejudice, along with all Austen novels, is ultimately a deep satire of the narrow-minded, hypocritical society she lived in. There are many occasions in the book which made me think how much Jane Austen was ahead of her times. Any woman who sticks to her convictions and doesn’t allow society to shake her opinions is my ideal heroine, and Elizabeth Bennett is exactly such a woman. I can’t imagine it must have been easy for her in those days to refuse to “settle” with Mr. Collins or to stand her ground with Lady Catherine. She does so, on both occasions, without losing her temper. Her initial walk to Netherfield Park too: unaccompanied, enjoying the good weather and the rain; appears unconventional and unnecessary to her fellow women. Most unladylike behaviour, I suppose, in their viewpoint. But I like her for it. In such an era, when women were criticised for taking walks alone, or for refusing a ridiculous man, or for speaking up to their social superiors; Austen certainly created a rebel!

What I also enjoy a lot in these books, are the joyous endings and the beautifully-worded confessions of love. These are declarations from another age, which make them all the more magical. I will close with this beautiful statement of Mr. Darcy’s, which is how love feels like, as it creeps up on you; unknowing, innocent and transformational.

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

Mr. Darcy, Pride & Prejudice

I hope you find the same joy and enjoyment in Pride & Prejudice as I do. Happy Reading!

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About reading

The Uncommon Reader

At my local library, we had an annual sale for books which no one borrows any more. All the books were sold at 50 cents or so, and I got a bagful for 3 Euros. One of these is The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, in which the Queen of England comes across a travelling library outside Buckingham Palace and begins reading, for the first time in her life, by picking up free books from it. A fitting story, I should think, for an almost free book found at a library.

Alan Bennett is well-known as a dramatist and this book is full of the gentle British humour I enjoy so much. It is about books and the Queen; both topics which I thoroughly enjoy. Goody goody. The Queen it seems has never read literature (atleast according to the book); and though she begins it as a polite courtesy to the owner of the travelling library, she is soon captivated by it. As are all of us, by books and stories. Reading soon develops into a royal hobby; with the Queen making excuses to avoid ceremonies and ribbon-cuttings, because she wants to finish her latest Thomas Hardy. She progresses from the tiny travelling library to the huge state-owned libraries, of which she is the patroness. Her secretaries and equerries hardly know what to make of her; not being great readers themselves. Many plots are woven by them to make Her Majesty lose her books or her interest in reading; but all fail, and her love of books prevails to the end.

Stuttgart’s Neues Schloss

The Queen has as her reading guru, a young boy working in the kitchens at Buckingham Palace. Norman, the kitchen boy, is mostly interested in books by gay authors, but he steers Her Majesty rightly towards what would interest her better. We should all have a Norman in our lives, telling us what to read next. He starts her off with a Nancy Mitford, gently leading her to E.M. Forster and a few months later to Ian McEwan. I found Norman to be an admirable little boy; who is a self-taught reader and someone who, inspite of his poverty, continues to read. There’s a lot to be said for reading resilience such as that, and he proves to be a good reading buddy to the Queen. The Duke of Edinburgh calls Norman a “Ginger-stick-in-waiting” and the rest of the palace think of him as an annoyance, who has gotten the Queen’s attention on an unimportant topic (viz. reading). The Queen calls Norman her “amanuensis” (literary assistant).

Though the story is interesting and funny, it’s the reader’s journey depicted in it, that I found the most fascinating. The Queen begins realising how welcoming books are; how they are truly one’s friends in this world. There is also a sense of lost time, along with a slight regret; having missed many years of reading; of losing a chance of really conversing with writers like Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot. Some of these regrets are remedied, as she meets Alice Munro in Scotland and has a lovely, literary conversation with the famous writer. The Queen devours books and begins making notes, as all serious readers have at some point, and begins writing after a year. Most importantly, she gains a feeling of consideration for others, which apparently has not existed in her before. She becomes a keen observer, and conducts self-reflecting conversations with herself, while writing down her thoughts.

“Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

The Queen, The Uncommon Reader

All readers progress as they read. For me, reading has given me a clearer understanding of human nature and an idea of the kind of writer I would like to be. There is of course, always a feeling of not quite fitting in; since you read, you are always a bit different. The mass interests of crowds do not interest you and shallow conversations always leave something wanting. There is also always a slight fear, of being too literary-minded; of quoting lines no one has heard about; and of being viewed as a “nerd” or a “know-it-all”. In the book, the Queen begins to realise this too.

It is a beautiful little book, and though so slim, it is not a very light read. It made me think of my own reader’s journey and my progress through books. Like the Queen, I too realise, that reading has enriched my life. And also, that there is a growing to-be-read pile, which it may even be impossible to finish in a lifetime. Some reading recommendations from this book that I found interesting and would like to add to my TBR:

  • Thomas Hardy’s poem about the Titanic, “The Convergence of the Twain”
  • Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint
  • Everything by Thomas Hardy
  • Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  • Dictionary of Quotations

The end is a twist, which leaves the reader giggling. We are glad to see that the Queen finds her own unique solution, to carry on her love of reading and writing. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.

Happy Reading!

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About reading

My poly-reading habits

There’s a scene in the popular Netflix series Gilmore Girls, where the teenage lead, Rory, is packing her bag for school. She complains that her school backpack is too small, and her mother comes over to look. The problem is that Rory has packed too many books, and has no space left. She has a bus book (Edna St Vincent Millay’s biography); another bus book (Faulkner), in case she is tired of the biography; and a lunch book (Gore Vidal’s essays). She also has Eudora Welty’s short stories, just in case! Her mother exclaims this is a sickness, but Rory is what we bibliophiles like to call a “poly-reader”.

Not that such a term exactly exists. A serial reader is someone who reads one book at a time, then moves on to the next. A poly-reader is the only term I could find on the internet for a reader who reads multiple books at the same time. Not simultaneously, of course, but poly-readers have an increasing pile of books on their To-be-read list, and they often lug it around like poor Rory from the show.

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.”

Dr. Suess, children’s author

I was a serial reader all through childhood, but suddenly in my teenage years; I turned into a poly-reader. Even now, as an adult, I usually have a long fictional work going on (currently it’s Anna Karenina); then some sort of a business read, which would help me in my work (currently: Nudge); a mental health or self-help related book, so that I learn some calming techniques (currently: Ikigai); a funny book which makes me laugh out loud (always a PG Wodehouse); and a book from my childhood, because those take me back to happy times (currently: Heidi). I honestly don’t know why I do it. I don’t do it to cover more books or to achieve some sort of a reading goal. I suppose since my mind has always gone from A to 49, and not A to Z; it helps to have multiple channels to focus my brain. Also, poly-reading sometimes reveals unknown links between different sorts of books, and the connections explode and dance in your brain; like a giant kaleidoscope merging different patterns. It does make reading a lot slower, because no book gets finished as quickly as it would when one reads a single book at a time. But I don’t mind that a bit. Since so much of life is already filled with rules and judgement; one of the things that can grow freely and abundantly, is my TBR pile.

In this week itself, I have discovered some unread books lying about my shelves. There is a Malcolm Gladwell which has been left unread for too long; a Brené Brown from last year, which I would really like to finish; and an Alan Bennett from my local library, picked up last week. There are also my current reads to pay attention to. I am on the third part of Anna Karenina; on the second part of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (he has temporarily replaced PG Wodehouse as my funny book); and on the second part of The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith (who is making me reminisce the Anglophilia of my growing-up years).

I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been reading. It was also so much a part of my upbringing, because our house growing up was always filled with books. My parents both read a lot, and so did my grandparents; books were omnipresent, no matter which house I stayed at. It was always admirable to read; except in a few nasty circles in India where it was laughed at. Surely, if it is nerdy or bookish to read; it is also uncouth and barbaric to not read. I hope all of us readers remember this message, whenever we are laughed at for reading. In Germany, where I live now, reading is encouraged and taught, right from childhood. The children’s sections in libraries are absolutely beautiful; with child-size desks, colourful shelves built for a child and scientific books with gorgeous illustrations. German children are taught to love books from an early age, something which is now forgotten in India; even though it once was a land of ancient texts and prolific writers. In my opinion, it does not take long for a culture to degrade, once we begin laughing at books and reducing libraries to petty little corners. Perhaps I can write more on book-saving at another time.

Coming back to poly-reading, I wonder if anyone who reads this blog is also a poly-reader. If you are, do feel free to reach out. If not, reach out anyway! I am always happy to talk to fellow readers. I look forward to hearing what you are reading currently.

Happy Reading!

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Inspirational Books

Manual of the Warrior of Light

I am a big fan of Paulo Coelho’s works and this one is every bit as inspiring as the others. It is, however, more philosophical than his other books, and it does not have a story.

Imagine if your refrigerator broke down, and you wanted to fix it yourself. You would probably open up the refrigerator’s manual and use that to try to fix it. Manual of the Warrior of Light is just such a manual for your worn-out mind. I pick this book up whenever I’m looking for answers and whenever I’m feeling blue. And like a good friend, it never fails me. Thank you, Paulo, for your wonderful creation!

This book was a gift on my 24th birthday and hence it will always be precious. The book starts off with a lovely and mysterious story about a seaside village, which I suspect is Paulo’s true story. Here he defines a “Warrior of Light” as someone “capable of understanding the miracle of life, of fighting to the last for something he believes in”, which makes me think that the warrior is a defender of hope and a believer. It doesn’t matter what he believes in or whom. But his own personal brand of faith, is what carries him through all pitfalls and perils.

Everyone is capable of these things. And, though no one thinks of themselves as a warrior of light, we all are.

Prologue, Manual of the Warrior of Light

The book gently talks about a philosophy which is similar to the Law of Attraction. For those who do not know: we attract that into our lives which we think and obsess about. It makes sense that Paulo would write about this; his most famous book The Alchemist, is all about the willpower and belief of an individual. It can be exemplified by this quote from the Manual, “The warrior of light is a believer. Because he believes in miracles, miracles begin to happen. Because he is sure that his thoughts can change his life, his life begins to change.”

Another detail which struck me in a recent reading of this book: it is also about following one’s passion; another cause greatly advocated by Paulo. The eminent psychoanalyst Carl Jung says that art seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. How apt! In this book too, the warrior is polishing his sword, following his path and seeing a light when he reaches his path. He is thus bound by his art to follow it through, and has little or no choice in it! The same point is highlighted by encouraging the warrior to be vulnerable and even a little mad.

One essay is not enough for me to say all that I would wish to about this beautiful blue book. There are so many nuances in it, that each one would require its own separate analysis. Perhaps that is a project for another day.

Happy Reading!

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Inspirational Books

The Other 90%

Though not particularly fitting into my definition of lyrical literature, this work of non-fiction has created a lot of ripples in my head. The Other 90% by Robert K. Cooper is a wonderful book, recommended by an old professor of mine, which has now been on my bedside stand for years.

How many of us have wondered – how can I fire up my inner talents and live up to my real potential? In this book, Robert K. Cooper gives sensitive insights about honing our gut, focusing on consistent routines and asking ourselves an important question: “Have I done something exceptional this week?” The author’s writing is akin to a person guiding us calmly and softly through our thoughts, without being didactic. Though it would fall in the self-help category at bookstores, I think it is an inspirational book, especially in such strange, troubling times. To everyone, who thinks about constant improvement, I highly recommend this book.

An independent spirit is never something to take lightly. Without it, no one stands out from the crowd.

Robert K. Cooper, The Other 90%

Since its difficult to wax lyrical about a non-fiction book, this will be a shorter post than usual. I will share a small list of mechanisms from the book, that have proved useful to me. I haven’t implemented them all yet, but then continuous improvement is a lifelong process. At the end, I also want to follow up with some quotes from the book that I found interesting. So here goes..

Some inspiring call-to-action points from the book:

  • Keeping a day journal. Writing down thoughts, worries and ideas in it. This calms the mind and puts a stop to all worries. Personally, this technique has helped me the most!
  • Lighten up when you get competitive. Stop. Remind yourself of why you’re into this task or project or art. Get back into the cycle of inspiration, fun and challenges of the project.
  • Ask yourself two questions every week: “What’s the most exceptional thing I’ve done this week?” and “What’s the most exceptional thing I will do next week?” Here exceptional means anything that has personally stood out for you, something which made a difference to someone around you, or which allowed you to stretch yourself.

Now for some motivating quotes from the book:

  • Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows – Henry David Thoreau
  • Hope is like that. It comes from the big picture of life more than the blemishes.
  • We are shaped and guided by what we love – Goethe

That’s all for this one. I hope it motivates all of us and helps us to be stronger. Happy Reading!

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Classics

Sense and Sensibility

There are different ways to express our emotions and that’s what Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen primarily focuses on.

The story has two heroines – Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who are sisters and are as different from each other as chalk and cheese; but are still very loving towards each other. This is a Jane Austen contradiction, since usually the sisters in her books are quite mean and nasty to each other. The story starts off by intelligently showing the differences between the two women: Elinor is the one with the most “sense”; she makes rational judgements and thinks deeply before acting; while Marianne possesses more “sensibility” (in today’s world she would be called impulsive and rash) and shows her emotions freely without restraint or without any attention to social graces. Both come to realise, through the course of the novel, that just neither way of expression is completely wrong or completely right. Austen gently points out that if one need not be overly expressive like Marianne (who calls out loudly to her supposed suitor in a crowded ballroom full of strangers); one need not be robotic like Elinor either (who undertakes extreme efforts to hide her broken heart). There is also a much younger sister, Margaret, who is often used as a plot point when she unknowingly reveals secrets.

“Sense will always have attractions for me.”

Elinor Dashwood, Chapter 3, Sense and Sensibility

Speaking of other characters, Jane Austen introduces some zany ones here. She always has minor characters in every book, who somehow interrupt the plot or at the very least, give us something to think about. There is the officious but good-hearted Mrs. Jennings, the lazy Lady Middleton, the miserly husband-wife pair of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood and a typical attention-seeking young woman, Lucy Steele. Then of course there are the heroes of the book: Edward Ferrars, who is as sensitive, shy and calm as Elinor herself; and Colonel Brandon, who is much older and serious, but is still capable of tender, loving feelings and genuinely cares for the Dashwood girls. The story also boasts of a proper villain (sorry about plot spoilers!), Willoughby, who causes great pain to Marianne and is more interested in money than in her. At the end, as is usual with Austen, the virtuous are blessed, the nasties are punished and there is a happy ending thrown in. Austen’s acid-sharp prose is comic; it gently and subtly mocks the world around her. She eventually awards the truly good and leaves her readers with warm feelings towards some characters and a slight irritation towards others.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s books, though romantic, are not typical romances, since they offer food for thought. The social commentary present in all her books speaks about the happenings in the life of women and about the behaviours of people. The Regency era of the late 18th and early 19th century is reflected in the story through relaxed picnics and exciting balls; the over-long stays in London and at friends’ country houses; the snobbery of looking down on people who have made their way in society through trade; and the undeserved attention reserved for the titled rich, who dictate the society’s norms. The society feels strangely and hauntingly contemporary. Sensible, poor people are laughed at and vapid, rich people are emulated. Not much has changed in around 200 years has it?

Jane Austen is a perfectly comforting read on any day, and Sense and Sensibility has one advantage over other Austen books – a happy and supporting family at the book’s centre. Even though the archaic English puts people off, it is worth reading for the shot of hope it provides.

Happy Reading!

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Inspirational Books

Man’s Search for Meaning

Does depression have any meaning? Does suffering? Most of us rarely think about these points on the best of days; yet when the tornado hits, almost all of us have pondered on similar questions. By a tornado, I mean the sudden arrival of a terrible event; something unforeseen, which was never experienced before. This is an event beyond human control; something which cannot be explained by human intellect, no matter how much of a genius this person may be. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, writes about his thoughts during such a time in his life; three years at concentration camps in Germany, including Auschwitz and Dachau.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Vienna, during its occupation by the Nazis. The book begins with his reasoning as to why he did not leave occupied Austria for the United States, when he had an open immigration visa. It is a reverse miracle story, which explains how Dr. Frankl prayed for a sign to end his dilemma; whether he should leave his parents to their fate and head to the States, or whether he should perform his duty as a child and protect his parents. He found the answer to his question on a marble Commandment, rescued by his father from a Viennese synagogue burned down by Nazis, which said “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother that Thy days may be long upon the Land.” He decided at that moment to stay with his parents on his land. I describe this story in so much detail, because it explains to us the kind of man Viktor Frankl must have been; aware, sensitive enough to understand when his prayers were being answered, and brave, because he faced his fate with full knowledge of the consequences, without complaints.

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp, Man’s Search for Meaning

The book contains his experiences at the concentration camp and how in the face of death, he came to propound his own theory, Logotherapy. His essential argument differs from past psychoanalysts like Freud or Adler, who claim that life is a search for pleasure or power respectively. Dr. Frankl states that life is a quest for meaning. In 1945, right after the war, he wrote this book in nine consecutive days in Vienna and wanted to publish it anonymously. His friends coaxed him into putting his name on the title page, just before publication and it turned out to be the biggest success among all his books. It is a tiny book, packed with hope and optimism. It is not easy to write about it, because apart from the stories of the Holocaust and the horrors of concentration camps; this book sketches the spirit of man, when he is facing almost certain death and disaster.

I have owned a copy of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ for many years, but I only properly read it (and really understood it) in the summer of 2019, in the face of extreme mental anguish and an irreplaceable feeling of loss. A risktaker’s life is almost always punctuated with small and large mental crises, failures and heartbreak. Of course, along with it, the risktaker also experiences exceptional joy, highly fueled moments of creativity and an unending optimism. However, there are times in life when one forgets the pros and focuses on the cons, and the mind finds it easier to sink. It is at times like this, that one can turn to Viktor Frankl and his “classic tribute to hope”. As he says, sensitive people may suffer more in life from difficult circumstances, but they can also retreat to a rich inner world and overcome suffering. I honestly worship Viktor Frankl. I believed, prior to experiencing deep suffering, that suffering holds no meaning and is something which must be ignored. But this book has taught me that, life is meaningful, because suffering can be made meaningful by our response to it.

I encourage everyone to read this book, because it is an ever hopeful message; an experience which is humbling and inspirational for everyone in the present era. I shall end with what I consider to be his ultimate message, and one which has lifted me up many times: “When we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves”.

Happy Reading!

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Children's Literature, Classics

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Rebecca was a character whom I was intrigued with in childhood and I recently read her again, thanks to the Coronavirus lockdown. This is the story of an imaginative, adventurous child called Rebecca, who comes from a sunny farm to a bigger town to live with her aunts and gain an education. She is the second in a family of seven children being raised by their tired mother. The father, after squandering away the mother’s money, has died.

We see Sunnybrook Farm only once (which disappointed me very much as a child), and the rest of the story is set in the fictional town of Riverboro in Maine. Rebecca’s aunt Miranda tries very hard to curb her independent spirit, while her Aunt Jane treats Rebecca as her own child. Rebecca is a slightly dark-skinned, green-eyed, Hispanic-looking child, thanks to her part-Spanish father, and there is a lot of curiosity among the all-white neighbourhood about her “unique beauty”. She is always writing funny and thoughtful poems as a child, showing her sensitive nature. This sensitive and imaginative nature often leads her into very different situations in life, such as making friends with a carriage driver or praying with missionaries. These were the parts of the book I liked best, because it shows an unique transitional period in a girl’s life; she is determining now who she wants to turn into as a grownup. The book begins when Rebecca is 12 and ends when she is about 18; an important narrative in a young girl’s life. Rebecca is a thinking child with an imagination, and as she grows up she begins to understand her responsibility to her family and to herself. Her ideals are clear: she is not someone who will go around college flirting with boys; she has dreams to follow. She is often mocked for this by other girls at college but admired by many for her writing and her straightforward nature.

I am now beginning to see a sort of formula in the classics written for children and especially for young girls, though its terribly robotic to try to find formulae in literature. In many of these books, right from Austen and the Brontës to Little Women to Rebecca, there seems to be a prescribed set of family life. The father is usually dead or absent, the mother is working hard to clear away his debts or to build a normal life for her children. If they are daughters, the eldest is usually very prim and proper, with “correct” ideas and behaviour. The second daughter is the “fun” one in the family; think of Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March. This girl is more aware of the realities of life, is usually quite brave and forward thinking, and is almost always the story’s heroine. There are generally a bunch of rich relatives or neighbours, helping out the girls or taking care of their education. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, published in 1903, follows the same set of family life of her predecessors. She is also the independent second daughter being helped out by rich relatives. But the most beautiful thing about these classics or old literature is, that inspite of this template of family life, every story is completely different and each has its own unique message.

Obvious comparisons will arise between Rebecca and Anne of Green Gables. Anne’s adventures in the book ‘Anne of Green Gables’ by L.M. Montgomery (published 1908) are more of a typical child getting in scrapes, with her hyperactive imagination getting her into a lot of trouble. Rebecca is also a cheerful child who is always thinking up ideas to make life better. She wants to make Christmas happier for a neighbouring family, whose father is a conman and hence the family is looked down upon by the neighbourhood. She sells soaps to the nearby towns to achieve this and during this makes a friend of a young millionaire. She is shown to have an open, egalitarian nature and the growth curve of her thoughts and character is quite different from Anne’s.

There is an entire neighbourhood of characters around her, but some of them stand out since they make the most difference in her life. Her aunt Miranda, always angry or complaining about something, is the one who puts Rebecca through school and college. She is beyond cantankerous and is definitely not evil, but is mean almost everyday to Rebecca and anyone who does not share her view of life. I really dislike such characters in books and in real life. One actually prefers real villains to them, because of their causeless complaining and meanness. The next is kindly Aunt Jane, who is actually the mother figure in Rebecca’s life. She is loving and devoted to Rebecca, always gentle and understanding. Another couple who also provides the same love and care to Rebecca are old Mr. & Mrs. Cobb, the horse-carriage people, who love her as their own child. Another pair which helps Rebecca’s intellectual growth, are Miss Maxwell, the literature teacher at her college and Adam Ladd, the young millionaire who befriends Rebecca. The teacher takes care that Rebecca gains her rightful opportunities, while the young man helps with his friendship and money.

Another reason I like the book is that at the end of the book, Rebecca is poised to follow her dreams; she is writing, making some money from teaching, and wants to help out her younger siblings. It is a fitting end and makes you yearn for a sequel, but unfortunately there isn’t one. The author wrote another book about Rebecca, which has more stories of her childhood adventures, but I would like to know more about her grown-up future. I often wonder how imaginative children turn out as adults. Looking at Jo March and Anne, is it safe to imagine Rebecca is also a successful writer with a brood of happy children around her? I like to think so.

Happy Reading!

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Classics

Anna Karenina – Part 2

“A novel by Leo Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life.”

Matthew Arnold, 19th century British poet

Matthew Arnold’s words will make complete sense to everyone who reads Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is said to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Tolstoy accurately conveys each passing thought of each character and documents it. It is an uncanny quality for an author, but it also makes you fall completely in love with his book.

The second part of Anna Karenina begins in St. Petersburg. The statesmen and aristocrats here are even wealthier, if it can be imagined, than those in Moscow. On the face of it, this is a book about the adulterous affair between a married woman, Anna Karenina, and her young lover, Count Vronsky. Everyone is having affairs in the Russian society of the 1870s, but what makes this affair so scandalous is the woman, who has till now appeared to be above worldly temptations. Anna and her extreme shame about the affair, her guilt towards her young son, make us wonder. Is she lonely? Or bored? She is surely not stupid, so why does she enter into this affair? Perhaps she needs the attention and devotion she gets from Vronksy. Her husband is always busy in his statesman duties and never displays his feelings. He is aware that he is losing her, but even then he cannot open up to her; so strong is the conditioning of the society. She wants to awaken some reaction in him every time; and while he feels this trigger, he is unable to display his feelings. In this lost communication, we see their marriage falling apart.

Using a horse race and Vronsky’s favourite mare as a metaphor, Tolstoy slowly unravels Vronsky’s character. The chilling race scene makes the reader realise how shallow and self-centred Vronksy is, and how little thought he will later give to those he has easily destroyed. Instead of writing about this blatantly, Tolstoy brilliantly gives the reader two examples to consider, the young debutante Kitty and the French mare Frou-Frou, both of whose reputations Vronsky has easily ruined, without thought or consequence. Vronsky forgets his worries in horse races and soldierly duties, but Anna has no such activity to lose herself into. The sight of her son only amplifies her shame, but Vronsky is considered a hero in the military for his very “modern” affair.

Moscow railway station, where Anna and Vronsky first meet

We see both Levin and Kitty, dealing with heartbreak differently. Kitty, who has realised that artificial (yet stylish) Russian life is not enough for her, wants to change but does not know how. She has been ordered by doctors to visit the thermal baths abroad to overcome her sadness. Once out of Russia, she wonders how she will lead the rest of her life. There appear to be only two options – remain depressed or give yourself up to good deeds. Levin, on the other hand, has found peace in his work. He is a thinker who finds it easier to overcome his great sadness at his farm, with his animals and his crops. He thinks about everything in depth (in today’s world, he would be known as an overthinker); and is actually equally rich and noble as any of the others, but lacks their capacity of deception and artifice. Through his sympathy towards the peasants, we understand that serfdom has been abolished in Russia, but it is not enough. Clearly, the nobles have too much and the peasants nothing, and a social revolution is on the way.

On a smaller and more personal note, I am happy to discover Germany being introduced in the second part of the book. Kitty has been ordered a rest-cure at Baden in Germany (which is possibly Baden-Baden of today?) and they arrive here in the spring. Levin finds his rest-cure through work, which he gives a German name “Arbeitskur” (rough translation: cure through work).

The second part proved to be as equally gripping as the first. The psychology behind each character comes slowly alive through the Russian life of that time. It brings us to ponder on some questions – why is there a different social treatment for men and women when both have done the same deed? Why is everything is forgiven to the wealthy, but the poor have no respite? Tolstoy brings that world to life for us now, and sadly many of the sentiments seem strangely relatable. And our world seems more bearable, after having read Tolstoy. If people overcame these troubles once, so can we, with all our modern advantages. There is still hope for us!

Happy Reading!

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Classics

Anna Karenina – Part 1

Any serious reader of English literature and English classics, has in most cases, read the Russian classics too. In fact you are almost expected to, by the Invisible Literature Police who enter your dreams and question you, “Why is the Tolstoy still unread?”, “Why is the Chekhov gathering dust?”, “Why are you wasting the Dostoevsky your mother so lovingly gifted you? Have you no shame at all??” Finally, two months ago, these mad whispers of the night took their toll on me .

Till now, I too had never read these Russian masters. In early April I decided, to celebrate almost 3 weeks of being home (because of the partial lockdown in Germany), by reading my first Russian classic. Having never been one of those who take up any venture lightly, I decided to jump right off the edge of the cliff into the deep waters of Russian literature. So I chose Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. And am I glad I did! It is absolutely Sublime. There is simply no other word for it. The language, the length, the setting, the characters, that old Russia…everything about it is simply glorious.

Moscow, where the first part of the book is set.

Firstly, the length and the style. To call this book, just a book, would be unfair. It is an absolute tome, with 8 parts, each part containing about 35 chapters. But the story and the characters are so interesting, that you breeze through it. I will only write about the first part in this post, to do justice to this delicious book. Surely, each part deserves its own post! There are 10-15 main characters, with about 50 supporting characters. Most books introduce us to 4 or 5 characters at the most and have maybe 2 or 3 lead characters. And in life, we encounter about 2000 characters around us; not 4 or 5. It is the same in this book. Leo Tolstoy extracts the essence of life and puts it down on paper for mere mortals like us. Every character’s actions, thoughts, feelings and even their unspeakable terrors are quietly laid down for the reader. It is almost as if someone is softly reading this book to us at night and we just have to listen. I can only imagine how exquisite this book must be in its original Russian, if it is already so beautiful in English.

Anna Karenina was written in 1877, yet it feels strangely contemporary. It depicts a Russia on the brink of revolution (indeed, within 4 years of the book being published, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries), and Tolstoy brings that world to life. It is a strange world. The Russian aristocrats are wealthy beyond measure. They each have French maids, German governesses, English nannies and German watchmakers on their household staff. Everyone speaks Russian, French, English, German and they even use some specific phrases from each language at times. Money flows like water. Communism is not yet on the rise but there is the constant talk of peasants and their place in the society. Against this backdrop, we have all our characters, most of whom are Russian nobility or statesmen.

The character Levin is introduced as a village bumpkin, whom we later discover to hold great philosophical depths, and he is turning into my favourite character. Prince Stepan is introduced as a wealthy man with endless charms and many friends, but we later discover him to be a cheating rascal, hiding behind his title. Anna Karenina herself is introduced as a beautiful, delicate, sensitive woman and soon we discover her true colours too. I can only attempt to explain some of Tolstoy’s brilliance here and I would say that, just as we realise in life many times, we do in this book, that all is not as it appears. Many cruelties and a lot of wickedness are hidden underneath a pretty face and good manners, just like in real life. The first part only goes so far as to describe the secrets and habits of rich Moscow society, and to uncover some masks.

Leo Tolstoy, I bow down to you. I am eternally grateful you wrote this book! I can hardly wait to discover the next parts and the constant mirroring of life in it.

Happy Reading!

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