Category Archives: Literature

Dostoevsky’s Masterpieces

I am called a psychologist; it’s not true. I am only a realist in the highest sense – I depict all the depths of the human soul.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Around a couple of months back, I finished the two masterpieces by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment and TheFyodor Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. My first interaction with Mr. Dostoevsky was through the ‘sick and spiteful man’ from the underground. Later, I read a couple of his short stories and I knew that this was an author beyond the defines and limits of literature. A master philosopher, a story teller by instinct and a critic of human condition and social relations by accident – Dostoevsky is an important, unique and essential figure in human history.

I had both of Mr. Dostoevsky’s masterpieces on my unread pile for quite sometime. In the meanwhile, I discovered and read The Outsiderby Colin Wilson. Before I could finish and put down this extraordinay book by Wilson, I ws already itching to visit Raskalnikov and Ivan respectively.

I am not going to attempt a review or critique of these two works; in my opinion they deserve to be read and re-read and that’s all. Dostoevsky’s insight into human psyche, particularly into those of the troubled ones, is unprecedented and accurate. Rasalkalnikov’s total failure to live with his crime never makes him doubt the theoretical validity of the ‘idea’ that made him committ that crime. Ivan’s act of returning the ticket causes insanity, but never once does he contemplate religion as an escape route. These are not instances of ‘heroism’ or glorification of atheism. It is sheer intellectual honesty. Dostoevsky knows that a man who has limitless access to logic can never committ himself to an illogical conclusion even if it is a matter of life and death. I doubt if Dostoevsky meant this as a compliment – he meant this more as a psychological and social problem of such men to which he never found an answer, neither has anyone else.
There is more to these two books than can ever be visited in a blog post. With the vitality of Brothers.. and asthetics of Crime.., between these two books, Mr. Dostoevsky has probably travelled the ‘whole nine yards’ of literature.

Don’t believe it then, what’s the good of believing against your will? Besides, proofs are of no help to beleiving, especially material proofs. Thomas beleived not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to beleive, before he saw…And if you come to that, does proving there’s a devil prove that there’s God?
Devil to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov
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Ruthless Roth

For quite sometime now, I have been reading Classics and philosophers. Intermittently though, I have read some literary fiction too. However, given the fact that reading a book for me means investing quite sometime and that choosing to read a particular book is also a choice made not to read a lot other, I have been very careful about what book I am investing my time in. My interests are not limited by genre, but I am definitely more inclined towards fiction; literary fiction, to be precise.
I have devised a method to discover good books about which I have never heard. Whenever I feel like reading a random book, which is at least once every couple of months, I visit a bookstore and scan all fiction by Vintage Books on the racks. It may sound a wierd strategy but has worked brilliantly for me. I have discovered a number of interesting fiction work following this weird method. One of the most recent being the world of Philip Roth.
Following this very method, I picked up Roth’s The Ghost Writer. I am amazed at the ease with which he could grip his reader – no rhetorics, no mystery, just good and simple story telling – in his own style. You should read the book, if not for the sheer pleasure of it, then to see how Roth has cunningly incorporated Anne Frank as a character. There are many more reasons to read it – go figure!

The effect of Ghost Writer was such that I picked up the next in series, Zuckerman Unbound, immediately. I liked the former better, but this was not bad. Specially sequences relating to the death of protagonist’s father were masterpieces.

Since then, I have read another one of his – The Dying Animal. You could almost dismiss this as soft porn but for Roth’s magic. Roth is ruthless while playing with human sexuality and infidel relations.

Thanks to Vintage, I discovered this amazing and distinct voice i literature. I already have two unread Roth titles in my pile (Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater) and am sure many more are coming soon.

Discovering Coetzee

To me, Coetzee was always the author who won the booker prize twice. Despite the intentions to read him, I never happened to pick anything by him. Then suddenly while browsing in a bookstore last week, I stumbled upon two of his titles which I could not resist buying. One was The Master of Petersburg and the other was Youth.

I work full time and am a really slow reader. Despite all the limitations, I finished both the books in 4 days straight (a personal best for me). I know (from whatever I have found on different literary blogs etc.) that these two are not considered to be amongst the best of Coetzee. However, for me, they shall remain the books that I discovered the genius of Coetzee from.Coezee at Work

I do not intend to outline the plot of either, therefore no spoiler warnings.

The Master of Petersburg has Dostoevsky as the protagonist. As if that was not enough, Coetzee has delved into deep and tricky themes such as a father-son relationship, death of a young son, marriage, relationships, sex, politics, revolution, communism, et all. Whether you like the plot or not, and I believe you will like it, this book deserves your time for the sheer pleasure of literary courage. I am in awe of Coetzee to have attempted and masterfully executed a fiction based on Dostoevsky with such difficult themes. After finishing Crime and Punishment and The BrothersKaramazov, I was a little disappointed that the world of Dostoevsky was over for me. With this book, I felt like I was visiting the dressing room area of that world.

Youth on the other hand will remain special forever for the connection that I could make with it. The theme is – a young guy, an artist by inclination but not by profession or training and his venture into the world. It is not possible for me to describe here, but anyone who has thought of himself as an ‘artist’ waiting for the right moment but-continuing-with-the-shit-for-the-time-being in his youth will be surprised to see how much of him Coetzee has been able to portray in the book. It is an honest, scary, but true description of how we let things happen to us despite best intentions; about the insane circle of reality that makes us let our desired life stay away from us. Coetzee beautifully portrays how an artist by inclination not pursuing art is not an artist-in-the-waiting; he is dead.

There is not much that is required to be said about Coetzee here, people have said enough. I only confirm that in my experience in these two books – he is better than his name.

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?

Jude the Obscure – Hardy’s absurd hero

jude.jpg

You are Joseph the dreamer of dreams, dear Jude, and a tragic Don Quixote. And sometimes you are St Stephen, who while they were stoning him, could see Heaven opened. O my poor friend and comrade, you’ll suffer yet!

– Sue, in a letter to Jude in Jude the Obscure

This timeless classic happens to be Thomas Hardy’s last prose. It was first published, in an abridged form, as a series in Harper’s Magazine, in 1894, drawing a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. Leaving aside the complex characterisation and strange thread of relationships that Hardy had sewn together, the critics were hung up on the fact that the protagonist falls in love with his distant cousin.

Jude, as most of Hardy’s hero, remains a failure; but a dreamer nevertheless. You may never find another author with more respect for potential than accomplishment. As most of the classics of this era, it is a masterpiece, to be read and re-read. However, in my view there are two things most distinct about this one – the characterisation of the female protagonist, i.e Sue (ably played by Kate Winslet in the movie format) and the dream that used to be Christminster.

Sue remains, in my view, one of the most complex female characters in literature. Readers may find it difficult to reconcile her contradictory moral positions. Perhaps, the reason being that she is a character portrayed way beyond her times, and therefore keeps succumbing to the failings of her era.

Hardy travelled way beyond any author of his time in writing the last part of the book, “At Christminster Again”. He is aesthetically and painlessly interwoven so many themes into this part, that in the first reading, one misses it completely. Without ever being preachy, keeping intact all the essentials of popular fiction, he ventures into ideas as deep as existentialism.

One of the underlying themes of the novel, and probably the one that caused all the scandal and misgivings, is Hardy’s take on the institution of marriage and the Christian dogma. With all the pretensions of secularism, liberty, and free speech of our age, this book is as relevant to us today as it was to the English society at the beginning of last century. However, thanks to these pretensions, there is no scandal anymore.

Disappointed that both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and then Jude drew more the attention of moral critics than literary, Hardy never wrote anything but poetry after this book. Jude remains dear today, to all its readers, for the sheer passion of dream that Hardy so beautifully shares with them.

But I feel I could do one thing if I had the opportunity. I could accumulate ideas, and impart them to others. I wonder if the Founders had such as I in their minds – a fellow good for nothing else but that particular thing?

– Jude in Jude the Obscure

Notes from the underground

Notes from the UndergroundThis short novel by the celebrated Russiona author Dostoyevsky is a must read for anyone interested in the basic questions of life. I have never read a book that is so disgustingly true yet honest about the human psyche. The narrator of Notes…, who starts off his story with the statement, “I am a spiteful man”, maynot be a man-next-door character, but shades of him can be found everywhere; and if you look carefully enough, you may not have to look beyond yourself. I would say Dostoeyvsky’s strength lies in the ability to put before you, in white and black, all those dark thoughts that so often cross human mind, even if for a fleeting moment, with unprecedented clarity. It is both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. What you may not be able to tell yourself, he tells in print, with no apologies.