Category Archives: Reviews

Lack of Warmth in Summertime (TSS)

SummertimeAs I mentioned in my last post, the news that Coetzee’s Summertime was released sent me immediately to my favourite local bookstore to get my copy. However, I could get to it only a little later and have just read the last page, a few moments back.

When I first heard about Summertime and its theme, I was intrigued and awaited it patiently. It was due to release only in December 2009, but I guess the publishers wanted to cash in on the media coverage it got due to the Booker Shortlist and released it immediately after the shortlist announcement. As someone who has read and loved Coetzee’s work before, I was not complaining.

Summertime had to be a difficult book, for any memoir is difficult. However, Coetzee was no novice in the genre with Boyhood and Youth having been received well before. Still, Summertime had to be difficult. Unfortunately, that shows when you read the book as well.

Coetzee is a master of words, the nobel prize has confirmed it sometime back. For someone as accomplished in his art as Coetzee, his last novel was an inevitable experiment. A fiction that speaks through dated diary entries, without any character voice,  Diary of a Bad Year was an achievement as well. While Summertime is different for sure, it is that same experiment taken forward.

As someone who starts a story every 15 days and has never finished any, I do understand in my limited capacity the pain, discipline, and frustration of baking the final batter. You will see that Coetzee for some reason did not want to go through this process and has served you the batter with no apologies. Summertime is a half attempt. It is not that batter cannot be eaten, but cakes taste better. As one of the characters through whom Coetzee chooses to give a glimpse of himself remarks – Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.

One of the reason I found this was a lazy attempt  is because the other works of his that I have read have left me in awe of him. From that pedestal, Summertime lacks warmth. It is no news that Coetzee shares little about himself or his inspirations in real life. He, I believe, is from the school of thought that does not have faith in public images of authors. With Summertime, Coetzee has taken that inhibition to his fiction as well. While I empathize with the thought that an author’s life has little to do with his works, my question is – Why write a memoir/biographical fiction then?

4 women, 1 colleague/friend, few dated diary entries, and a few undated fragments are what he has chosen as reflections of himself. Summertime begins with the diary entries which give a glimpse into the thoughts of Coetzee in the period (1972-1977) in which the memoir is set. A young biographer is writing a book on the nobel laureate John Coetzee, a white South African author who has recently died in Australia. The second part of the book is an interview the biographer conducts with a women named Julia. She is married, a mother and just out of adventure, gets into an adultrous relationship with Coetzee. She lives in the same neighborhood where Coetzee stays with his father. This part is in the form of an interview, though the questions are few and short and therefore the answers are more like narrations.

The third part of the book involves Margot, a cousin and childhood love of Coetzee. The biographer had interviewed her and is now reading out the narrative that he has culled out from her

Coetzee at Nobel

Coetzee at the Nobel Ceremony

answers. This, I believe, is the most powerful narrative in the book. Coetzee probably intended it so, as it is clear from the words Coetzee chooses to put in Margot’s mouth that she was the alternate that he never was. The only relationship where Coetzee admits some warmth is with Margot, the alter-ego which remained as cut-off from his real self as everyone else.

Adriana, mother of a young beautiful girl whom Coetzee teaches English in extra classes, is the most intriguing of all. In her testimony, Coetzee was in love with her and troubles her to no end. However, she cannot be trusted. Adriana is an emotion that intrigues Coetzee and he presents it to us in all its raw contradictions. He then moves to a colleague/friend who taught in the same university. He is the only person of the same sex that he chose to include, though very briefly, as his mirror. There is not much to suggest as to why is he the one man in company of four rather complex women from his life. You are only left guessing. The last mirror is a lady lecturer from France with whom he taught a course in African literature and had sexual relations for sometime. She is the one who talks about his writing, his books – but too little, yet again. It is almost like Coetzee wrote Summertime to tease his readers, his so called ‘admirers’.

Summertime is not as dry as it may sound from whatever I have said above. Despite all this, it is a book you will read through easily. It has underlying themes of life, of a father-son relationship, of the commerce of life and the soul that pays in the bargain. It is an insight into how lonely a thinking, writing soul can be. It also is a relevant insight into the complex psyche of the white South Africans who were not a part of apartheid but were silently accommodating nonetheless.

Summertime lacks nothing when it comes to Coetzee’s ability to put the right words in the right order to make the right strings in your heart or head play the right tune. But it does lack the richness of a Coetzee fiction. It is a biographical fiction by an author who does not want to tell you anything about himself after he started writing. With that disclaimer, it is not a book to let go. Though, if you have not read Coetzee before, go pick his other works. Summertime can wait.

Revisiting the Magic of Dostoevsky (TSS)

After almost a year and a half, I have finally picked up another Dostoevsky. People all over have recommended the company of Prince Myshkin and I think it was high time I finally delved into The Idiot, which I have been intending to read for a really long time now.

While I still have around two-thirds of the book left to finish, I can confidently recommend it to anyone as another masterpiece from my favourite author. After reading his three most famous works – Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, I had the choice between The Idiot and The Possessed. Since I was more inclined to visit Dostoevsky’s inquiry into an innocent mind than his take on the political upheavals in Russia, I fell for Myshkin.

Of what I have read till now, I am thankful to the good sense having prevailed over me to revisit the magical world of Dostoevsky, where gripping stories are not eternally divorced from substantive psychological or philosophical discussion. Starting with White Tiger last year, my reading trend had slowly shifted more towards ‘contemporary fiction’, a genre I had for queer reasons stayed away from earlier. However, in due course the realization has dawned upon me that no reading should be guided by the ‘genre logic’. While the beauty of a Kundera or the relevance of an Adiga deserves all the attention, the omnipotence of a Dostoevsky can be ignored at no cost.

There are very few characters in literature that live with the reader for its impact on his psyche. This is apart from those that become a part, in some ways, of the folklore. Raskalnikov, Ivan, and Alyosha are the kind of characters that will never become as famous as literary characters can be. But for most people who have read and appreciated Dostoevsky’s themes, these live with them eternally; not as people, but as questions. Dostoevsky has the uncanny ability to turn ideas that trouble him or the ones that he contemplates without an answer, into his characters. It is this ‘answerlessness’ that gives Raskalnikov, Ivan, Alyosha, and the like their luster, their opulence. Vision stops at them, the mind is forced to look beyond.

Looking beyond, however, is to be an excercise in comprehension. In the last one and a half years that I have known these three questions, every new round of contemplation has brought fresh insights. These insights in turn serve as clues for those eternally unanswerable questions whose impotrance always lie in the act of the attempt to a solution, and never the solution itself. Maybe, that is why Dostoevsky has always been a very ‘involving’ read.

The way the Prince is going, I am sure at the end of it all, I would have added one more to the question bank. I also have an inclination that these characters of Dostoevsky talk across books. In many ways Rakalnikov challenges Alyosha and Prince, while the Prince has a lot to say to Ivan. That, I guess, is something to investigate.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

Reading a Golden Notebook (TSS)

Inspired by Bob Stein’s email about the ‘integrated reading experiment‘ with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I picked it up way back in early December 2008. Thanks to a lot of other things happening in my life, I have been getting very little time to read compared to what generally satisfies me. Ergo, I am yet to read the last chapter titled ‘The Golden Notebook’. However, this book is so rich with ideas that one may not need to finish to share one’s experience.

It is my personal opinion that though a little background on a work of literature helps our understanding of the intricacies of the work, it is generally advisable to read a book devoid of any preconceived or rather pre-propounded theories about the same. Anyone reading Lessing in our time will be struck by atleast two facts – that she won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 and that she is considered to be one of the leading ‘feminist’ authors of the 20th century. Neither of these are relevant to one’s being able to understand or appreciate her work.

The conciousness that Lessing is a ‘feminist’ author was something I made myself dispel within 20 pages of my reading. I realized that this fact was clouding my perception of every sentence I read. I feel, standing at the epilogue of this monumental work of literature, that Lessing has much more to convey than mere sexist themes. This is not to be misunderstood as an aversion of feminine rights in any way. Only that, I feel it is unjust to sweep away other powerful themes of such an epic merely because the feminist ones shock the male dominated society the most. Should shock and awe be a value to judge literature by?

Having said that, let me acknowledge Lessing’s masterful command over the female psyche. Probably, it is the dearth of such powerful and shameless expression by women that makes Golden Notebook relevant even after decades of its first publication. I consider Colin Wilson’s Outsider to be one of the most important books I have ever read and I remember him having observed that female ‘outsider’ artists were hard to come by. Lessing is definitely one of them.

One of the most interesting theme of this novel is the promise and disappointment of the communist revolution. She captures in all its essence, the temptation of communism to the generation of the 50s -70s, in various parts of the world. More than the feminist overtones, being able to capture with perfection the political debacle of communism and its effect on the intellectual youth of that era is the most important achievement of Lessing. Communism holds no temptation to my generation and therefore, to be able to understand its appeal in the past is a tricky task. I believe, Lessing provides an able road-map to all those who would care to.

It is too easy to pretend that communism is an evil; though it is actually insane if we do. Across borders, throughout the wide world, more than a 2/3rd majority of the intellectuals were attracted by it in the last century. Most of them today are professors in various universities teaching either the history of communism or the economics of capitalism. For anyone interested in an understanding of the 21st century world, this political history is the single most important theme to understand. For that alone, The Golden Notebook deserves a very serious read.

The feminist aspect of the book deserves to be read with passion and a will to understand, at least from the male perspective. And that is what I have attempted to do. To be able to read a matter of factly stream of conciousness passage about the various kinds of female orgasm is an education in itself. Not biological, but psychological, and more importantly social. However, I shall hold my guns for now and return to this theme in detail once I have finished the last chapter of the book.

To conclude, a warning. This is a long book and becomes long specially when the diary entries record the dry facts. There are pangs of ‘Let’s Chuck it’. If you survive them, this is a book worth all the time.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

Not So Curious in a Long Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

I know I came to this late, but I had my reasons. I have generally been weary of books that become too famous too soon, even with the people who have never read a book. This was one of those books. It was everywhere – streets, newspapers, magazines, and small talk between friends. Therefore, I dismissed without ever bothering to even find out what the book was all about.

However, I kept stumbling upon this curious one every now and then in the blogosphere. Sometimes the revies were quite good. Some even called it a sensitive book. Then I came to know it about a 15 year old guy suffering with Aspergers Syndrome. So, I said, let’s give it a try.

I first heard about the Aspergers Syndrome through the famous Boston Legal series. However, it was beyond my comprehension what it actually means to be suffering from it. As far as that is concerned, Mark Haddon, I believe has captured the essence in two ways – the pain of both the patient and his family. Imagine if one of your family members lived life by pure logic. It sounds OK, but you need to read this book to understand the what it actually means.

Having said that, I must state that the book reads too easy, sometimes frustatingly so. After about 1/4th of the book, I was about to drop it for it seemed there was too much pointles gibberish. The book is replete with nonesensical passages. If that was meant for the reader to understand exactly how frustrating and difficult it can be to live with a person suffering with this disease, I guess Haddon achieves it successfully. However, if it was meant to sound cute, he fails miserably.

The one interesting thing that this story makes you wonder about is the question that Dostoevsky puts forth in his Idiot. Was Prince Myshkin the idiot or the rest of the world? A person suffering from Aspergers Syndrome has no problems with logic. He is more logical than any of us can ever be. He has problems absorbing or appreciating emotions, people, and social relations. Why? Because, somewhere down the evolutionay cycle, logic was left behind. Being human no longer is synomous to being logical – far from it. We are the most ‘conditioned’ of all species. Probably, those suffering from AS have somehow escaped that conditioning. So, who is the patient?

This is not a book you need-to-read-before-you-die, however, next time you take a long flight, it could be a easy and relaxing read.

P.S: Neither do I, nor has Mark Haddon in the book made any claims to having known much or understood at all, people suffering with Aspergers. Mark Haddon actually doesn not name the disease at all. I have never met anyone with the syndrome and can not even begin to understand what a person having it would be like. This is in response to a reply to this post.

Murakami’s Magical Madness

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

It happens rarely, but when it does, all the effort that reading takes is justified ten times over. Less than 20 pages down while reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I knew I was in company of a mastermind – in all senses of the word.

Murakami has been one of the many authors whom for some reason I just kept ignoring despite intending all the time to read him ‘a little later’. Finally, after Murdoch’s painfully real Under the Net, I needed some respite from reality. Of what I had read about Murakami, I ventured hoping he would give me some. And lo! he did not disappoint; on the contrary he surpassed all expectations.

Murakami is not a fantasy, fairy-tale, or sci-fi novelist, yet he hangs you at the edge of reality throughout the journey of his book. In terms of a sense of the real, it’s niether here nor there. As his protagonist himself wonders while Murakami takes him on a roller coster ride where the next turn is invisible – truth is not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.

The real genius of Murakami lies in the fact that not only does he weave a magical ‘on the edge of reality’ tale but does it in a way that even the skeptics are bound to love this magic. For the cynics who equate life to mathematical certainity, Murakami is the devil. For venturing into the ‘unreal’ with such precision and logical flow would shatter all the conceptions of our mathematical cynics.

Along the fun ride that Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, Murakami plays around with a quite a few difficult themes – marriage, relationships, loneliness, war, reality, existentialism, et all. He deals with such themes as if teasing the reader to go on to a new one. He challenges your intellect and when you respond, he defies your logic in progression of his plot. 

Many compare him to Kafka, but I do not think that is right. I find him to be original. It is true though that if Kafka’s literature had not been witnessed by the world before his, it would be difficult to the critics to understand him. He might have risked the chances of him being dismissed as nonsensical.

In literary fiction, I believe, it is more common to have a story founded on certain very strong characters, plot taking a second seat. However, Murakami’s characters are far from strong. Except the protagonist and a couple of other ladies in his life, the rest of them are just sketches. All focus is on the plot. Characters come and go, abruptly. But in that brief time, they have moved the plot to another level. You need to read him to understand how magically he makes his characters tell the story without, almost, being a part of it. He’s magical. He’s maddening. He’s Murakami

This was my first Murakami and I am already itching for another one. Any suggestions? Kafka on the shore or Norwegian Wood? Or should I jump to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World?

Are book-bloggers killing journal reviewers?

Lisa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post has drawn the book-blogosphere into a debate as to whether they are replacing the book-reviewers from journals and magazines. The crux of her piece satirically titled “Will Blogs Save Books?”  is that unprofessional, shabby, opinionated book-blogs are killing the book editors’ jobs as various newspapers are downsizing their book-review sections and laying them off. The piece also implies that this is a blow to literature and the literary culture.

Lissa Warren’s piece in Huffington Post is an expression of professional frustration. The only way

Huffington Post itself is an alternate medium experiment

Huffington Post itself is an 'alternate medium' experiment

 the post is useful is by triggering a debate on an issue that might be of interest to all ‘lovers of literature’ who blog. However, the response to her piece on various blogs has been as disappointing as her piece itself. We bloggers have responded out of sheer anger than logic. There are, however, some exceptions – like this piece at edrants which gives another aspect to the debate, and logically so.

The simple fact is that the purpose served by professional reviews in journals or newspapers and that by book-blogs is different. I may love to read the New York Review of Books and yet want to pick up suggestions from a blog. Moreover, the whole experience of reading a blog and a professional article is different in so many ways that I can not describe them in this post. 

The journals are supposed to carry literary pieces. More than opinion on books, they are an academically researched and reliable overview of a subject, author, or book. On the other hand, blogs carry personalised pieces on what one has read and what thought process such reading might have triggered. An academic piece being opinionated is a hint of bias. On the other hand, a blog without opinion is a man without soul. Reading a blog post about a book or an author you might be interested in at that point in time is like a friend talking to you about something you want to know. How did one come to read a particular book and what his/her family thinks about it would be absurd in a journal but fits perfectly in a blog.

The target audience, purpose, and effect of the two are different and there is no competition here. No one is shifting because of one to the other. Both have there own exclusive readerships, which may overlap. And if there are blogs which have equally literary pieces and are serious about what they do as a professional, then it is just another free and fair competition. If you think its the medium that’s in demand, float a professional blog and post the same well crafted articles here and compete. No points complaining.

Not only does Lisa Warren’s article miss the point altogether but also it is factually and statistically incorrect. It is a blatant figment of her imagination that bloggers mostly link to professional reviews and provide cogent commentary to the same. In my experience of reading literary blogs in the last couple of years, I have rarely found this to be true. It is also understandable why a book publicist is more bothered about this phenomenon than the critics themselves. Because if you can write good pieces, you will find brilliant readership on blogs. However, for a book publicist, the important target audience is the not-so-iclined reader who stumbles upon a review. For that, we are sorry. Be creatvie, think of alternate ways.

And to the frustrated professional outburst of Ms. Warren, my last word – book editors are being laid off because reading habits are dwindling. Majority is no more interested in reading books let alone book-reviews. Book industry as a whole has been facing this problem. It’s not because we bloggers are fooling your readers into shifting their reading habits. Did it ever occur to you that 90% of your readers are these bloggers themselves? Because we are the ones who actually read.

Under the Net of Iris Murdoch

People used to the metro lifestyle would definitely recognise this phenomenon, where you know a stranger quite well and yet he remains a stranger nonetheless. As in, let’s say some guy you have never spoken to, who happens to take the same train or bus every morning for work. There is a similar phenomenon for readers who read about books and reading almost as much as they read the books themselves – an author sounds so familiar as if you have been reading him/her for ages. Whereas, in fact, you may not have read a single word penned by him. At least, this happens to me a lot. To remedy that situation, I have been picking up certain authors at random just because they have been floating in my head for quite sometime. Iris Murdoch happened to be one of them.  

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Under the Net impressed me from the beginnig, however, if I said I was dazzled by the book and it turned out to be one of the best I have ever read, that would be lying trough my teeth. The first reaction at finishing the book was “What was the point?”. However, if you let it sink in, Under the Net does cast a spell, though not as ‘magnificient’ as you may have expected from Murdoch’s only title in the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century List by the Board of the Modern Library (a division of Random House). 

There is nothing ‘fantastic’ about the plot or the characters. On the contrary, all is quite normal. However, probably to add that magical hmour, there definitely are events that you may not expect to experience every day. Having said that, let me add that the element of humour hangs at some little corner throughout the story, even at times when you are made to wonder at some profound implications of certain conversations.

Iris Murdoch’s existential inclinations are well-known. It is my belief that the novel is a marvellous achievement in that respect. It is in the character of youth to be dazzled by the ever prominent struggle between action and ideas in life. Whereas all within feels profound, everything tangible is uninspiring. This gap that has prevented so many potentiatialities from being realized is so vague that to be able to describe it in a story as simlple as this one speaks volumes about not only the literary skills of the author but her clarity of thought.

The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“. This simple sentence is the essence of all that Murdoch has woven the novel around. Throughout the book, there is a mention of ‘extraordinary, profound, and interesting’ conversations between the protagonist and his best friend which just eludes us till the end. This best friend happens to be one of the most interesting characters of the book, and in a frustatingly teasing manner, Murdoch keeps him silent most of the times.

A failure to find inspiration to act has been the nemesis of many great artists and thinkers and many others who never shall reach that stage of recognition so as to be categorised even as a ‘failure’. The life of the ‘ordinary’ in the wake of great potential is probably one of the most difficult. Somewhere on these lines, Murdoch kepps you under her net throughout the journey of this book and when you least expect it, lets you go. Disappointed we sulk and ask – What was the point. Murdoch answers, “The trouble with you is that you are always expecting something“.

Contemplating Blake

For quite sometime now, William Blake’s Poems and Prophecies had been Everyman's Library Editionstaring at me from my bookshelf. Therefore, I finally have started reading it. I have finished the Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Each word of Blake seems to be worth contemplating for ages.

My first introduction to Blake’s words was through Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Colin Wilson in this masterpiece not only described the social problem of ‘the outsider’, but also studied the various solutions lived by certain outsiders. One of the solutions was Blake. Blake happens to be one of those first artists who lived what has today become famous as the ‘spiritual religion’. His poems deal quite often with life’s ultimate questions, but with majestic simplicity. Like all artists, ‘truth’ holds a special position for him and after some arguments, he declares as a primary truth – Energy is eternal delight. Complete dismissal of all dogmatic religious practices, Blake lives in his own world where “Man has no body distinct from his soul“. “If the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake probably was the first of the Prophets amongst the artists.

Every single poem in the collection titled Songs of Experience is a human portrait painted in beautiful words with Blake’s extraordinary insight into human condition. Some lines from the collection as evidence:

(Nurse’s Song): Your spring & your day are wasted in play, / And your winter and night in disguise.

(The Garden of Love): And Priests in black gown were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.

(A Little Girl Lost): Know that in a former time / Love! Sweet Love! Was thought a crime.

I was amazed while reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell for itshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/ surprising parallels with Nietzsche’s thought. Energy is eternal delight. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free. Blake’s Energy is Nietzsche’s Pure Will. As Blake says, Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

Finally I leave you with a few lines from my favourite poem by Blake called The Fly. Interpretation of these are mysteriously wide and vague – insights into which are welcome:

If thought is life
And strength & breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly
If I live
Or if I die.

Caligula by Camus – Absurdity’s Illogical End

I recently read Caligula and Three Other Plays by Albert Camus. I limit myself to the play Caligula in this post. TheCaligula plot is unique, though simple. Caligula is a young prince who becomes the all powerful emperor of Rome. Death of his cousin, who he was in love with, pushes him to the realisation that men die; and they are not happy. He says, “I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible…Things as they are, in my opinion, are far from satisfactory…this world of ours, this scheme of things as they call it, is quite intolerable…I want the moon, or happiness, or eternal life – something, in fact, that may sound crazy, but which is not of this world…All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs.” Bottomline, he wants to be free, even from the gicen, from the scheme of things. If you note, he equates ‘happiness’ with ‘wanting the moon’, in effect implying that happiness is impossible in the ‘scheme of things’ or in the ‘world as it is’. This is one of the fundamental errors in his premises. Also note that this is not Camus’s view of life. In his The Stranger, Merasault when awaiting his death sentence realises that he was happy, that he had always been happy. Men are not not happy, they just fail to realise. An act of consciousness is required.

Camus introduces his concept of ‘the absurd’ in his The Myth of Sisyphus. However, he does not say human life is absurd as such (a common misunderstanding). This is not true. Absurdity contains in itself man’s rationality. The world, events, fate etc. are illogical and random, but it’s not absurd by itself. It’s the interaction, inevitable and imminent for any life, between this random world and human logic and it’s need for order that produces a result that is absurd – that result is the ecosystem (not in the environmental sense) we live in, which includes in itself us and the world.

Camus says that the solution lies in doing two things simultaneously – first, being conscious of the absurd as of day and night. Second, to maintain the absurd. This means, on an individual’s level one keeps the rationality, love for order, and need to be happy intact without letting the random events bother him, because he knows it’s nature. This kills almost all misplaced expectations one tends to have in life. Gradually, it may lead to the ability to scorn fate.

Caligula’s fault lies in his inability to accept the absurd, the given. He wanted to defeat it by his logic taken to its rational end. He confirmed to the absurd in the process, instead of maintaining it. He wanted the impossible, to change the ‘scheme of things’ in order to prove to himself that he was free. He did everything to feel that freedom, even momentary, including unpunished murder. In the end he fails. He gats trapped, knowing he would (it was mostly a fearless life experiment where he knew he should fail) but did it for that ounce of expextation that he might just be right. He might just get the moon. He is defeated in the end, not by the unknown but by the scheme of things itself. Camus himself said that Caligula’s mistake was that he negated what bound him to other humans – one could not destroy all without destroying oneself. Camus says one cannot be free at the expense of others. He rightly calls it ‘a tragedy of the intelligence’.

Art Versus Life Debate – Is Marriage An Interference?

Recently read Henry James’s short story The Lesson of The Master. Underlying theme being whether an artist can pursue perfection alongside a ‘normal’ family life. Let’s dwell on that after introducing the story.

The Lesson of the MasterThe story revolves around three simple and fictional literary characters – Mr. St. George (an old and celebrated author, being the master here), Paul Overt (a young novelist, admires St. George but can see through his failings, despite the glamour around him), and Ms. Fancourt (an ardent reader of both, both are in awe of her beauty and, she is very young). I would not dwell into the plot as it is irrelevant, both for the purpose of this post and probably, the story itself. There are just three events that defines the author’s purpose – one, when St. George gives Mr. Overt a short speech regarding his own failure as an artist and the spark of that possibility he could see in Overt. Relying on this, Overt travels to Switzerland, stays there for two years to finish his next book. Second, when Mrs. St. George dies, Mr. George writes Overt a letter expressing great remorse and loss, very inconsistent with his last speech. Third, when, on his return, Overt finds out that St. George and Ms. Fancourt are getting married, he starts doubting the validity of master’s lesson as well as the possibility of the whole thing being a plot to dupe him. However, the story ends with St. George sticking to his speech and Overt sticking to his resolve to achieve perfection, at least for the time being.

In that great speech, St. George declares that an artist’s purpose is to draw “from his intellectual instrument the finest music the nature has hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t – and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of“. Elsewhere he says “The artist has to do only with that (gold) – he knows nothing of any baser metal“. When Overt questions him further, specially as to why he had said that children were a curse, St. George rambles, “On the supposition that a certain perfection’s possible and even desirable – isn’t it so? Well, all I say is that one’s children interfere with perfection. One’s wife interferes. Marriage interferes“.

Overt wanting to leave no doubt as to his perception asks him directly, if he thought artists should not marry; and St. George says they would do so at their own peril. Overt : Not even when his wife is in sympathy with his work? St. George : She never is, she can’t be! Women haven’t a conception of such things. Later during the conversation, Overt: Are there no women who really understand – who can take part in a sacrifice? St. George : How can they take part? They themselves are the sacrifice.

Mostly, one would tend to agree. It’s no new theme in literature. Man’s business is art, creativity and women’s primary business is men. This is no male chauvinist pig speaking. Shaw in his play Man and SupermanMan and Supermanhas dealt with this (and many other themes) in good humour and style. Someone as free and individualistic a women as Ayn Rand believed that women’s primary business was a man. A women’s conception of heroism is always through a man. But then, are not these two contradictory – that man is hindered in his artistic pursuit by marriage and that women need men for fulfilment of their own artistic hunger. I do not have an answer, I can only say that the problem lies in looking for the right pair, and that remains the most difficult pursuit amongst daily chores.

However, I personally believe that a man’s primary business of being an artist can only be fulfilled if a corresponding need for a man-hero exists among women. For, to insist artists to stay away from propagation of race is to want to lower our genetic pool to non-existence.

But even to the possibility of a perfectly understanding, compatible, and artistic lady being a non-interfering wife for the artist is given a jolt by this very valid argument by Henry James :

Overt asks what if she has ‘a passion for the real thing, for good work – for everything you and I care for most‘. St. George laughs and replies, “‘You and I’ is charming, my dear fellow! She has it indeed, but she would have a still greater passion for her children – and very proper too. She would insist on everything’s being made comfortable, advantageous, propitious for them. That isn’t the artist’s business“. To this, I don’t think there is an answer. Moderation, probably seeps in the best of women after marriage and moderation is no virtue for an artist. At one place, James’s fictional master says, “He (artist) must be able to be poor“. I guess, he should be able to moderate selectively too. I don’t know if that is possible, but that seems to be the only possibility. Doesn’t it?