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Three Paths to the Lake’ by Ingeborg Bachmann has four short stories and a novella (the title story). I reviewed the novella here. I finally finished reading the four short stories. Here is what I think about them. 

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The four short stories in the book address different themes.

‘Word for Word’ is about a translator who travels with her friend to Italy. During her travel she thinks about her past and meditates on language. It is a story with a focus on the theme of language and meaning – on how sometimes even if we are able to translate words and sentences from one language to another, the process is mechanical and has no meaning for us.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

‘Problems Problems’ is about a young woman Beatrix, who is lazy, likes sleeping for most of the day, doesn’t like working and who goes once a week to the salon to get her hair done and get herself pampered, before meeting the man with whom she is having an affair. Beatrix is in no way admirable for her work ethic (atleast for most people), but we can’t help sympathizing with her and looking at things her point of view. When the story describes how hard it is for her to get up late in the morning and get ready to face the day and how it is better to go back to sleep, we smile (and we probably want to live that life J) The story doesn’t end well though, for Beatrix. It describes how a perfect day she had planned explodes on her face and she is left to pick the pieces. It is amazing what Bachmann does here – take an everyday scene like a young woman going to a salon to get her hair done and sculpt it into a beautiful work of art.

‘Eyes to Wonder’ is the story about a young woman Miranda, who has a vision problem, but who refuses to wear corrective glasses. Or rather she wears them sparingly and not on a regular basis. She sees the world with fuzzy outlines and she is happy with that. The fact that she doesn’t see the world in a crystal clear way helps her, as she is not able to see the unpleasant things around her. She considers perfect vision as a curse rather than a blessing. The first few pages of the story explore this theme and I loved that part of the story. The story then moves into a narrative, storytelling mode and the story lost some zing after that (atleast for me).

The last short story called ‘The Barking’ is about an old woman and her relationship with her daughter-in-law. The story also touches a little bit on her relationship with her son, who is aloof and ignores her. 

I enjoyed reading all the four stories. My favourites were some of the parts of ‘Problems Problems’ and ‘Eyes of Wonder’. I would have loved ‘Eyes of Wonder’ if Bachmann had focused more on the theme rather than on the plot.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages.

From ‘Problems Problems’ 

…her aversion to this awful normality to which people subjected themselves had coincided with the discovery of a perversion : her sleeping fetish. Granted, it was perverse, but at least she was something special in the midst of all these normal fools. Genuinely perverse. Everything else was such an absolute waste of time, the simple task of getting dressed and undressed was a real strain, but nothing could compare with her addiction to deep sleep, a sleep she had found her way into, could find her way into even fully dressed on the bed with her shoes on. When she considered that childish nonsense in the past, largely provoked by curiosity, and all the rest, which she today believed to be nothing but gross exaggeration, then sleep was the only read fulfillment: it made life worth living. 

From ‘Eyes to Wonder’  

Unlike others, she doesn’t need to see him in a sharp outline, doesn’t fix anyone with her eyes, doesn’t photograph people through her glasses, but rather paints them in her own style, relying on other impressions, and now Josef is her masterpiece and has been from the very beginning. She fell in love with him at first sight, although any eye doctor would have shaken his head at that, because Miranda’s first glances only result in catastrophic errors. But she holds fast to her first glance and of all the men she has known, Josef is the one whose early sketches and subsequent, more detailed drafts – in light, in darkness, and every conceivable situation – truly satisfy Miranda

The book has a beautiful introduction by Mark Anderson, in which he offers a sophisticated exploration of the stories and their themes. He also quotes Bachmann from some of her interviews and I liked a couple of those quotes. My favourite quote was this :

“War doesn’t begin with the first bombs that are launched or with the terror that one can write about in any newspaper. It starts in the relations between people. Fascism is the first element in the relation between a man and a woman…in this society war is constant. There’s no such thing as war and peace, there is only war.”

It made me remember something similar that Michael Haneke said about his film ‘The White Band’. Being a fellow Austrian, I wonder whether he was inspired by Bachmann when he said that.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I enjoyed reading ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. My favourite story from the book was the title novella, but I also liked the other stories.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

Ingeborg Bachmann is one of my favourite authors, though I have read just one of her books – the short story collection The Thirtieth Year. This year, for German Literature Month, I was hoping to read atleast one of her books. So, I started reading her second short story collection, ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. This book has four short stories and a novella, which is the title story. I finished reading the novella yesterday. This post is about that novella. I will post about the other short stories separately. 

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‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is a novella of around a hundred pages and occupies around half of the book. It is about Elisabeth, a fifty year young woman. Elisabeth is single, she is Austrian, is a journalist and works in Paris. She is seeing a younger man who is twenty two years her junior. Her father lives in a small Austrian town called Klagenfurt. Her brother is recently married and lives with his wife in London. After attending her brother’s wedding in London, Elisabeth comes home to visit her father. She spends a week with him. During that time, she tries to live the country life which she lived during her childhood, goes on treks in trails which lead to the lake, reads the newspaper with her father and occasionally meets old neighbours. During her time there, she also looks back on her life, her relationships with her father and with her brother Robert and with the other men in her life – some of whom were friends, others who were lovers, who left her and broke her heart, and one of whom she married, but who was gay and who was more a friend than a husband. At the end of the week, she goes back home to Paris, and she and her latest boyfriend decide to breakup with each other (she is calm about it while he is upset because she is not upset), and it seems that her life will take a new direction the next day and the story ends with that.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

Like any other Ingeborg Bachmann story, ‘Three Paths of the Lake’ is not about the plot. Though it has an interesting plot with events from the current time and the past intricately and masterfully blended together. ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is more a commentary on life, on the relationships between parents and children, on the relationships between siblings, on the relationships between lovers and partners, on love and how elusive it is, on the complex relationships between men and women, on how our deepest beliefs can come unravelled when we stare truth on its face, on how we forge our identities and how we belong to a place, on how things change every moment and every day and every year, on how it is impossible to travel back to the past as everyone and everything has changed – the story is about this and other things. It is a beautiful meditation on life. Many times I felt that it might have been Ingeborg Bachmann’s own memoir, with the names changed and some of the events probably fictionalized for our benefit. But like in any great piece of literature, the main characters look like us. They could have been any of us. Or someone we knew.

 

The description of Elisabeth’s father at the beginning of the book reminded me of my own father. It went like this.

…there was nothing, absolutely nothing Herr Matrei needed, and in this respect he made things difficult for his children. It wasn’t just something he said, it was actually the truth : you couldn’t give him Dunhill pipes, gold lighters, expensive cigars, ties, extravagant gifts from extravagant stores, or useful things, either; he refused to accept anything, took good care of all he had, from pruning shears and shovel to the few household appliances an old man needed. He didn’t drink alcohol, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t need any suits, silk scarves, cashmere sweaters, or aftershave lotions and even Elisabeth, who over the years had developed an inimitable imaginativeness in finding the right gift for each and every kind of man, didn’t have a clue when it came to her father. His lack of needs wasn’t a quirk, it was congenital, and he would hold fast to it until his dying day.

When one of Elisabeth’s colleagues dies while trying to report from a war zone and she is having a conversation on it with her lover (her favourite of all her lovers) Trotta, he says this – one of my favourite passages from the book :

“The war you photograph for other people’s breakfasts hasn’t spared you either in the end. I don’t know, but I’m unable to shed a single tear over your friends. If someone jumps into the middle of crossfire to get a few good shots of other people dying, then getting killed is nothing special, considering the sportsmanlike ambition it involves, it’s merely an occupational hazard, nothing more.”

A pretty hard-hitting passage and one which is extremely difficult to disagree with.

My most favourite passage in the book though was this. It is about the relationship between women and men.

There was only one hope she didn’t and wouldn’t allow herself to hold on to : that if, in almost thirty years, she hadn’t found a man, not a single one, who was exclusively significant for her, who had become inevitable to her, someone who was strong and brought her the mystery she had been waiting for, not a single one who was really a man and not an eccentric, a weakling or one of the needy the world was full of – then the man simply didn’t exist, and as long as this New Man did not exist, one could only be friendly and kind to one another, for a while. There was nothing more to make of it, and it would be best if women and men kept their distance and had nothing to do with each other until both had found their way out of the tangle and confusion, the discrepancy inherent in all relationships. Perhaps one day something else might come along but only then, and it would be strong and mysterious and have real greatness, something to which each could once again submit.

Yes, if we are not able to find the person of our dreams, it is better to just be friendly and as Voltaire says in ‘Candide’, live a simple life and tend to our own garden. That is not a bad life – it is simple and beautiful and rewarding.

When I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s other short story collection ‘The Thirtieth Year’, I found it philosophical and intellectually demanding. I was thinking that ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ would be similar. But it wasn’t. It was definitely philosophical. But it was more accessible. (It is either that or I must have become a more sophisticated reader in the short space of a year). Bachmann’s prose flows beautifully and though there are long sentences with multiple clauses, while reading them, one doesn’t notice their length or complexity. Bachmann makes reading a difficult book seem quite easy with her brilliant prose style. I don’t know how she managed to achieve that.

With every story I read, Ingeborg Bachmann keeps getting better and better. I think ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is my favourite Ingeborg Bachmann story yet. I loved it. I will be definitely reading it again. I am looking forward to reading the other stories in the book. And if I have time left still, I hope to read her novel ‘Malina’.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I can’t finish this post without saying this. One of my perennial regrets will always be that dear Inge left behind only a small body of work – two slim short story collections, one novel, two novel fragments, one collection of poetry, one slim war diary and one collection of letters. I wish she had written more. I wish she had lived longer. But I am grateful that she wrote what she did and left behind these beautiful, slim, literary masterpieces. My life would have been poorer without them.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

My German Literature Month this year hasn’t gone well so far. I have been able to read just one book till now. Today, I thought I will try to do something about it. I thought I will read one of my old favourites and hope that it will bring back my reading mojo. So, I read ‘Immensee’ by Theodor Storm. 

Immensee By Theodor Storm

‘Immensee’ is around forty pages long. So, it is closer to a long short story or a short novella. The story starts with an old man getting back from a long walk to the place that he is staying. He goes into his room, sits on a chair and rests. After a brief while he looks at an old picture of a beautiful woman and says ‘Elisabeth’. His mind goes back to his younger days. The story then takes us back to the past when the old man was a boy of ten called Reinhard and his best friend and sweetheart was a girl called Elisabeth who is five. They are always together, he tells stories to her, they play at the forest near their homes, they go on picnics together with other children and pick strawberries. Unfortunately, the time comes when the boy has to go to a bigger town to study. He promises the girl that he will write to her regularly and will come back soon. The boy writes down all the stories that he used to tell the girl – her favourite ones – and keeps sending them to her. He also keeps a notebook in which he writes poems about the girl, about all the experiences they have gone through. Both of them are very much in love, though they don’t articulate that explicitly. But as in all the best love stories, things don’t go according to plan. The physical distance creates a barrier between a boy and the girl and they try bridging it every time they meet, but it becomes harder and harder. What happens to Reinhard and Elisabeth? Does the story have a happy ending? I can go on and tell you what happens next, but I think you should read the story to find out. After all, it is only forty pages long :)

I first read ‘Immensee’ three years back and loved it at that time. So, I was a bit worried when I read it again, because I was afraid of what will happen if my re-reading experience was not as good as the original one. Well, I needn’t have worried. The book was beautiful during my re-read too. It was beautiful in a different way though. I noticed things that I didn’t notice the first time – for example a gypsy singer who comes at the beginning of the story makes an appearance in the end, singing her favourite song which intensifies the poignant mood of the story. I also loved Theodor Storm’s beautiful descriptions of nature – the trees and the forest and the bees and the larks and the linnet and the canary and the river and the early morning and the mist and the dew and the first rays of the morning sun – it was vintage Storm. The story was worth reading for this beautiful evocation of nature alone. Nature was there even in the title – a footnote said that ‘Immensee’ stood for ‘Lake of the Bees’ (though some readers have a problem with this translation). Theodor Storm’s prose also gives an atmospheric, melancholic feel to the story, which makes one’s heart ache. Not the heartbreaking kind, but the mild, melancholic ache, which refuses to go away.

 

I also spotted a reference to India in the story, which made me smile. It went like this : 

Elisabeth : Are there no lions either?

Reinhard : Lions? Are there lions? In India, yes. The heathen priests harness them to their carriages, and drive about the desert with them. When I’m big, I mean to go out there myself. It is thousands of times more beautiful in that country than it is here at home; there’s no winter at all there.

One part of that dialogue is totally true. There is no winter in India. One of my college professors used to joke that there were only three seasons in India : hot, hotter and hottest!

There were many songs and poems scattered throughout the book like pearls. They were all beautiful. My favourites were the song which the gypsy girl sings in a tavern during Christmas Eve (it ends with ‘I must die alone’) and the poem which Reinhard and Elisabeth read towards the end of the story, ‘By my mother’s hard decree’. I think the poems and the songs must be more beautiful in the original German.

I also loved the fact that many of the important things in the story are implied but not explicitly stated. It doesn’t mean that they are ambiguous and left to the reader’s interpretation – they are clear enough but implied. Theodor Storm does that masterfully. In the last scene a new character makes an appearance in one sentence and we can’t help asking ourselves what that meant – is there a twist in the story here? Who is this Bridget? Is there something here that Storm implies? Isn’t this a straightforward story but one in which a lot of stuff happens in the gap between the last and the last-but-one chapters? I would love to hear your thoughts on it, if you have read the story 

 

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

 

Elisabeth : And who, pray, made all these pretty songs?.

Eric : Oh, you can tell that by listening to the rubbishy things – tailors’ apprentices and barbers and suchlike merry folk.

Reinhard : They are not made; they grow, they drop from the clouds, they float over the land like gossamer, hither and thither, and are sung in a thousand places at the same time. We discover in these songs our very inmost activities and sufferings : it is as if we all had helped to write them.

 

I am glad I re-read ‘Immensee’. I fell in love with it all over again, with the beautiful Elisabeth and the wonderful Reinhard and the kind Eric and the beautiful landscape that Theodor Storm creates. I think I will be reading it again. Maybe after a few years.

Have you read ‘Immensee’? What do you think about it?

One of my favourite friends told me about ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ last year. And when I got it as a present sometime back, I was really excited. Now, when German Literature Month arrived, I thought it should be the first book that I should read. 

The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats By Jan Philipp Sendker

The story told in ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’ is the story of a quest. Julia Win is a successful lawyer. When she graduated from law school her whole family – her father, mother and brother – celebrate it. Then the next day her father says that he is going on a business trip and never comes back. That is the last that Julia sees of him. After being shocked and heartbroken, the family puts their life back together and move on. Or try to. But Julia is not able to forget her father and four years after his disappearance, she goes on a quest in search of him. Julia’s father is of Burmese origin, while her mother is American. No one in the family knows what her father did in the first twenty years of his life before he came to America. Julia thinks of trying to find that out to see if it would help her find her father again. She tracks her father to a small Burmese town called Kalaw. There in a teahouse, she meets an old man called U Ba. U Ba tells her that he knew her father and his story and proceeds to tell Julia about her father’s initial years. What follow next is Julia’s father’s story, her reaction to it, and some surprising revelations in the end. How U Ba knows so much about her and her family is another thing which is revealed in the end.

So, what do I think of the book? The story is a beautiful, touching love story. It is also the story of the quest. What is not to like in that? That is the kind of story that has appealed to us humans for centuries. The story flows smoothly without any unnecessary pauses and there are some real surprises in the end. A couple of them atleast. I could guess one of them. Sendker’s prose is simple and so the pages fly. But also, there are beautiful passages throughout the book – beautiful thoughts which make us re-read those passages again. The depiction of Burmese culture of a particular era is fascinating. I don’t know whether Burma is the same today as it is depicted in the book, but it was an insightful window into a new culture for me. The novel uses a fairytale frame to present the whole story which was quite interesting too. In some ways the whole book was a fairytale too. And, of course, there is a main character called Su Kyi. You would have guessed that, of course, this being a novel about Burma and all.

 

So, did I like ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? Yes, I did. I loved the beautiful thoughts in it and the fairytale love story. I will be reading those beautiful passages again. The book also asks some interesting questions – on whether we really know who our parents or partners are and whether we are comfortable in getting acquainted with their pasts. I loved that part of the book. I also think that the book will make a good movie. Hope one of the producers is looking at it.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

     And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next. The moment when a lover confesses that there’s someone else and that he’s leaving. Or the day we bury a father or mother or best friend. Or the moment when the doctor informs us of a malignant brain tumor.

      Or are such moments merely the dramatic conclusions of lengthier processes, conclusions we could have foreseen if we had only read other portents rather than disregarding them? 

      And if these turning points are real, are we aware of them as they happen, or do we recognize the discontinuity only much later, in hindsight?

 

“It’s odd, Julia, but a confession, a disclosure, is worthless when it comes at the wrong moment. If it’s too early, it overwhelms us. We’re not ready for it and can’t yet appreciate it. If it’s too late, the opportunity is lost. The mistrust and the disappointment are already too great; the door is already closed. In either case, the very thing that ought to foster intimacy just creates distance.”

 

Tin Win knelt motionless before the old man, listening intently. It was not the words or sentences as such that transfixed him. It was the voice. A gentle and melodic intoning, subtle and well-tempered like the soft ringing of bells of the monastery tower, bells that needed only a breeze to set them ringing. It was a voice that reminded Tin Win of birds at dawn, of Su Kyi’s quiet and even breathing as she lay sleeping next to him. He did not merely hear the voice; he felt it on his skin like two hands. He wanted nothing more than to entrust the weight of his body to that voice. The weight of his soul. Something happened then for the first time that would happen ever more frequently in the future. Tin Win saw the sounds – saw them as smoke rising from a fire into the air and spreading throughout the room, wafting back and forth in gentle waves, moved as if by an unseen hand, curling and dancing and slowly dissipating.

The soft rustling of leaves intermingled with the voices. It was more than a simple rustling, though. Tin Win realized that leaves, like human voices, each had their own characteristic timbre. Just as with colors, there were shades of rustling. He heard thin twigs rubbing together and leaves brushing against one another. He heard individual leaves dropping lightly to the ground in front of him. Even as they drifted through the air, he noticed that no two leaves sounded alike. He heard buzzing and blowing, chirping and cheeping, rushing and rumbling. A daunting realization was creeping up on him. Might there be, parallel to the world of shapes and colors, an entire world of voices and sounds, of noises and tones? A hidden realm of the senses, all around us, but usually inaccessible to us? A world perhaps even more exhilarating and mysterious than the visible world?

 

Have you read ‘The Art of Hearing Heartbeats’? What do you think about it?

Other reviews

Michelle (from my books. my life)

I have never read a book by Nabokov. I had hoped to read ‘Lolita’ sometime as Nabokov connoisseurs have said that it is a great literary work. I have seen the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of the novel and liked it, but the common consensus is that the book is better. So, this was where I stood on things when one of my favourite friends gifted me a copy of ‘Lolita’. So, now there was no excuse to postpone reading it any further. When I was discussing the book with fellow blogger Delia from Postcards from Asia, we thought it would be a good idea to do a readalong. So, like me, if you have wanted to read ‘Lolita’ for a long time but have procrastinated on it, and you would like to read it and discuss it with a bunch of bookish bloggers, you are welcome to join us. 

Here are the details of the readalong.

      Readalong start date – December 7th, 2014

      Readalong posts and discussions start from – December 27th, 2014

You can continue posting till the end of December.

If you would like to participate, do leave a comment either here, or in Delia’s readalong post, here. We will link to your blogs and readalong posts. In case you don’t have a blog, you can leave your thoughts on the book at the readalong posts either here or in Delia’s blog.

Delia was kind enough to create a couple of beautiful badges for the readalong. You can use them while posting about the book. Here they are.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

Lolita Readalong Badge 2

 

‘Lolita’ doesn’t need an introduction, but in case you are interested in it, here is the book blurb (copied from the inside flap of the edition I have).

“When it was published in 1955, Lolita immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist, Humbert Humbert, and his two principal interlocutors, the pre-pubescent Lolita, and the magnificently weird playwright, Mr.Clare Quilty. But Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes it stature as one of the twentieth century’s classic novels not to the controversy its material aroused, but to the fact that its author used that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness.

Welcome to the readalong and happy reading

My favourite reading event of the year is back for the fourth season :) I am very excited! (Do check out the hostesses’ introductory posts by Caroline (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) here and by Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life) here.) Every year I make reading plans for German Literature Month – make a list of books, buy new ones and stock my bookshelf and then wait for the event to start. This year I didn’t really buy any new books. That is not true – I am planning to buy one and I hope it arrives on time (it is ‘The Giraffe’s Neck’ in case you are curious). But, other than this, I am planning to read some of the unread German books in my shelf. I got one or two new German books since the last German Literature Month and they were all gifts given by my favourite friend. I am hoping to read atleast one of them this time. 

GLM Badge

I did make a list of books to read though. My main mantra while making the list was that the book should be short to medium size (less than 300 pages). So there is no place for ‘The Magic Mountain’ or ‘The Glass Bead Game’ or ‘Perlmann’s Silence’ or ‘The Man Without Qualities’ – all books I want to read but they have to wait for another time.

To make the booklist look nice, I created a spine poem out of some of them :) This is how it looks like.

GLM4 Spine Poem

Three Paths to the Lake

Nowhere Ending Sky

Flight Without End

Every Seventh Wave

The Piano Teacher

Elective Affinities

The Taste of Apple Seeds

Flights of Love

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

 

Have you read any of these books? Did you like the spine poem? Are you participating in German Literature Month? What are the books you are planning to read?.

I have been on a blogging slump for a while now, because the Bard’s prophecy as he stated it in ‘King Lear’ came true, that sorrow doesn’t come single, but it comes in battalions. First both my computers crashed at around the same time and then I went into a reading slump and before I knew time flew. I got back into reading, but haven’t posted reviews of what I read. I thought I will write separate views of each book that I read in the past two months, but I know that if I try doing that, I will postpone blogging for more time. So I thought I will just post a list of books I read and brief thoughts on them. So here they are – the books and my thoughts, in the order in which I read them.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

I got this in a used book sale last year. It is a story set in ‘60s London. It is about a young, single woman who is a literary researcher at the university. She discovers one day that she is pregnant. Should she keep the child, or should she have an abortion? If she decides to keep her baby, will her decision adversely impact her freedom and lifestyle? Should she tell the father of the child about it? What are the choices open to a single woman who wants to have a child when the society around her doesn’t really encourage that idea? The book explores this and other related issues. I loved the story, the themes it explored and Margaret Drabble’s prose. One of my favourite books of the year. This book definitely deserves a separate review. I later discovered that Margaret Drabble is the sister of A.S.Byatt and they have a long running feud about a family tea service. How amazing a coincidence is it that one of my favourite writers and a newly discovered favourite writer are related? And they are at war? Life never ceases to surprise!

The Millstone By Margaret Drabble

Here is the first passage of the book, in case you are interested.

My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice : almost, one might say, made by it. Take, for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel. I was nineteen at the time, an age appropriate for such adventures, and needless to say I was not married. I am still not married, a fact of some significance, but more of that later. The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating. Confidence, not cowardice, is the part of myself which I admire, after all.

50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane

This was the book which helped me get out of the reading slump. So, happy, happy, happy! I have had this book for years, but never got around to reading it. I am very happy that I finally gave it a chance. This collection was compiled nearly sixty years back and so it reflected the taste of that era – it had mostly stories by American and British writers with some French and Russian writers thrown in. The classics were all there (just trying to impress you that I know one or two things about short stories, which clearly is not true) – ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Standard of Living’ by Dorothy Parker, ‘The Masque of Red Death’ by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. Many of the big writers were covered – in addition to the above, there were stories by Ernest Hemingway, V.S.Pritchett, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, Virginia Woolf, Katharine Anne Porter, among others. Because of the era in which it was compiled, there were fewer women writers featured than men – from what I could count there were only nine women writers featured (that is just 18% – bad, bad!) Also, there were no writers who were not European or North American. Also, some of the legends were missing – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Alice Munro – but this was probably because they weren’t famous or around when the book was published. But if we ignore such things, using which we judge books and people in the twenty-first century, the collection is quite good. 

50 Great Short Stories By Milton Crane

My favourite stories in the book were these – ‘The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse’ by William Saroyan (a beautiful evocation of childhood and summer), ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor (made me remember my favourite Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) movie ‘The Petrified Forest’), ‘The Man of the House’ by Frank O’Connor (in which the roles are reversed and a young boy takes care of his mother when she falls sick), ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler (with every story I read, Schnitzler keeps getting better and better. This is another story of his about an affair, told in the quintessentially gripping Schnitzler style – I should really read all his works one day), ‘The Tale’ by Joseph Conrad (a classic Conrad story in which the sea is the most important character and the atmosphere it evokes is mysterious and the plot is interesting but not really important – atleast for readers like me), ‘Putois’ by Anatole France (about the power of imagination), ‘A.V.Laider’ by Max Beerbohm (a surprising discovery for me. I want to read more of Beerbohm’s stories) and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck (about a woman who yearns to be free).

I also read Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ one more time and couldn’t get it once again, though this time I appreciated Mansfield’s prose and loved it. I also got to read a story by the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller for the first time. I first read about Steegmuller in Anne Fadiman’s essay collection ‘Ex Libris’ in which Fadiman describes how Steegmuller and his wife, the novelist Shirley Hazzard, frequently read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ together and how that was the book they read together on the day he died. It was nice to finally read a story by him.

If you are looking for a solid, traditional short story collection, you will love this.

Short Shorts edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe

Short Shorts By Irving Howe And Ilana Wiener Howe

This had short stories which were really short – most were less than four or five pages long. It is a book which we can easily read while commuting to work on a bus or on a train. The book was not great in terms of the women writers featured (just six of the 38 stories featured were by women writers – bad, bad!), but in terms of diversity, it was pretty good (25 out of the 38 stories were originally not written in English – there were quite a few German and Italian writers covered and there was even a Japanese writer featured). I didn’t like this collection as much as the previous one, as I felt that it didn’t fulfill the potential of the idea. I think there are better short shorts out there which could have been featured. My favourite stories from the book were these – ‘Alyosha the pot’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘Swaddling Clothes’ by Yukio Mishima, ‘Homage to Isaac Babel’ by Doris Lessing, ‘The Blue Bouquet’ by Octavio Paz, ‘Wants’ by Grace Paley, ‘The Laugher’ by Heinrich Boll, ‘News from the World’ by Paula Fox.

The Newton Letter by John Banville

The Newton Letter By John Banville

I have had this novella by John Banville for years. Thought it was time to read it now. The plot is quite simple. A writer, who is working on Isaac Newton’s biography, moves to the countryside so that he can quietly work on his project. There he has an affair with the landlady’s niece. Then he discovers that he is not really in love with the niece, but is actually in love with the landlady. But with John Banville, it is rarely about the plot, but it is everything about the prose. With every book of his that I read, I love his gorgeous prose more and more. There were passages like this :

…she would break away from me and be suddenly strange and incomprehensible, as sometimes a word, one’s own name even, will briefly detach itself from its meaning and become a hole in the mesh of the world.

And this :

In moments like that you can feel memory gathering its material, beady-eyed and voracious, like a demented photographer. I don’t mean the big scenes, the sunsets and car crashes. I mean the creased black-and-white snaps taken in a bad light, with a lop-sided horizon and that smudged thumb-print in the foreground. Such are the pictures of Charlotte, in my mind. In the best of them she is not present at all, someone jogged my elbow, or the film was faulty. Or perhaps she was present and has withdrawn, with a pained smile. Only her glow remains. Here is an empty chair in rain-light, cut flowers on a workbench, an open window with lightning flickering distantly in the dark. Her absence throbs in these views more powerfully, more poignantly than any presence.

And this :

I left the room and closed the door carefully behind me, as if the slightest violence would scatter the shards of something in there shattered but still all of a precarious piece.

And this :

Spring is a ferocious and faintly mad season in this part of the world. At night I can hear the ice unpacking in the bay, a groaning and a tremendous deep drumming, as if something vast were being born out there.

And this :

When I search for the words to describe her I can’t find them. Such words don’t exist. They would need to be no more than forms of intent, balanced on the brink of saying, another version of silence. Every mention I make of her is a failure. Even when I say just her name it sounds like an exaggeration. When I write it down it seems impossibly swollen, as if my pen had slipped eight or nine redundant letters into it. Her physical presence itself seemed overdone, a clumsy representation of the essential she. That essence was only to be glimpsed obliquely, on the outer edge of vision, an image always there and always fleeting, like the afterglow of a bright light on the retina.

Well, if you want to read more such gorgeous passages, read the book. There are worse things to do in life than reading a John Banville book.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I haven’t read an Edith Wharton book before. So I thought I will start with this slim novella. The story is about a man called Ethan Frome who lives in the countryside with his wife who is permanently unwell because of real and imaginary illnesses. His wife gets one of her cousins to help her out with household work. And Ethan and this cousin, Mattie, fall in love. What happens next – such stories never end happily – is the rest of the story. I loved Edith Wharton’s prose and her description of smalltown America of a bygone era. Though the story was mostly bleak and grim, it had a surprising ending. You should read it to find out what it is. I will be reading more Edith Wharton books.

Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton

A sample of Wharton’s beautiful prose :

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

I have wanted to read a James Baldwin novel for a while and I thought this was one. But it turned out to be a nonfiction book. It seemed to be Baldwin’s manifesto for the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s. The prose is simple, the ideas are powerful and the book is inspiring.

The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin

My favourite passage from the book is this :

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life : It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

As this is the centenary of the First World War, I thought I will read a novel which is set during the war. And which better novel to read than Erich Maria Remarque’s classic. I even pushed it as a book club choice last month. Unfortunately, most of my book club mates didn’t read the book. But I did. And loved it. I think I can say this – this is my most favourite literary war novel till date. This is more a statement of my ignorance (I have read very few literary war novels) than anything else. But still. I couldn’t stop highlighting while reading book. I think every page has a quotable quote or a beautiful passage. The book takes us through the whole life of a young soldier from the time he enlists to what happens on a daily basis at the front. Remarque is quite frank about his portrayal of war and the insights that the book delivers are beautiful and relevant even today. There are similarities between the book and the Stanley Kubrick movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ – I am guessing the novelist who wrote the book on which the Kubrick movie was based on was originally inspired by Remarque’s book. This is a book that I will be reading again. If I have to give it a rating, I will give it five stars out of five.

All Quiet On The Western Front By Erich Maria Remarque

Two of my favourite passages out of the many I loved :

Kropp, on the other hand, is more philosophical. He reckons that all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music, like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner. That would be simpler and fairer than things are out here, where the wrong people are fighting each other.

The silence spreads. I talk. I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly. ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in her again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, comrade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert. Take twenty years from my life, comrade, and get up again – take more, because I don’t know what I am going to do with the years I’ve got.’

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I have wanted to read this book for the past few years because it was highly recommended by a friend. I got to read it finally. There are two story arcs – one is set in the present time (that is 2059-60 AD) and the other is forty years before that. In the present time, news comes out that a group of Jesuit priests and scientists have gone on a mission to a distant planet in another solar system and some strange things happened there and only one priest was able to come back. No one knows what happened. This priest refuses to speak. We are told the story of what happened through events in the past and through the story told by this priest Emilio Sandoz. The things I liked about the book – the story is interesting, the characters are real and likeable, the descriptions are beautiful and the dialogue is snappy, fresh and stylish, like it is in the best movies. I loved the character of Anne Edwards – in my opinion she was the heroine of the whole story. The thing I had problems with – the book explores the theme of faith through science fiction and I am not sure whether that worked well. I don’t think it did. But other readers feel differently.

The Sparrow By Mary Doria Russell

Some of my favourite passages :

“You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love? You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.”

There are times, when we are in the midst of life – moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness – times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth.

 

So, that is what I read during the last two months. Or rather, that is what I read this summer :) What did you read this summer? Have you read any of the above books? What do you think about them?

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