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Archive for May, 2012

I got to know about Sarah Hall when I read reviews of her book ‘How to Paint a Dead Man’. Most of the reviews raved about the author and this book. I went and got the book, but postponed reading it for later. Then I discovered that one her novels ‘The Electric Michelangelo’ was shortlisted for the Booker and so I went and got that too. During one of my subsequent visits to the bookshop, I saw ‘The Carhullan Army’ and I didn’t want to leave that, and so got that too. Unfortunately, all the books ended up on my bookshelf, unread.  You might think that I am crazy for getting so many books by the same writer and not reading them immediately, but I was in one of those book acquiring sprees those days –  if I discovered a new writer who I thought I might like, I went and got many books by the same writer. Those book acquiring sprees were crazy. I am glad I am out of them now. This week when I was looking for a new book to read and I wasn’t happy with any of the choices that were available, I thought I will read ‘The Carhullan Army’. It had all the things I was looking for at that point – a comfortable size which is not very long (207 pages), comfortable font-size and an attractive first paragraph. I read the first page and it was gripping and before I knew I had dived deep into the book and came out only after I had finished it. Here is what I think.

 

‘The Carhullan Army’ is set in a dystopian world in the future. England is ruled by a totalitarian government headed by the ‘Authority’, elections have been suspended, freedom has been curtailed, people are sharing apartments and are in meaningless jobs, women are fitted with contraceptive devices, wars are waged across the world and the country is falling apart. An unnamed woman narrates her story as it happened at this time. She calls herself Sister and refuses to reveal her real name. She seems to be in prison and the story seems to be her confession. Sister has one of the meaningless jobs in a nearby factory. Her husband Andrew works at the refinery. Their marriage is falling apart. One day the government decides that all women should wear contraceptive devices. Sister tries postponing her turn, but she is not able to do it for long. She feels violated. She thinks about all this for a while. She wants to escape from her situation – from the meaningless job, from the restrictive life, from her joyless marriage. She has heard of a place called Carhullan where there is a commune of women who have managed to create a self-sustaining way of life. This community at Carhullan is outside the confines of the official system and they are treated as ‘Unofficials’. Sister yearns to go away from home and join this commune. One day she gets up early, leaves her home and journeys towards Carhullan. When she reaches there, she doesn’t get a warm welcome. She is treated as an enemy and she is put in isolation. But she survives that. When the women who run the commune at Carhullan discover that Sister has come there to join the commune, her isolation ends. She is warmly welcomed, is made to feel part of the commune and she finds something useful to do. She even falls in love – with another woman. But beautiful times don’t last for long. A dark cloud hovers over the horizon and the women of Carhullan have to decide how to handle the threat. What they do and whether this ideal community survives forms the rest of the story.

 

I liked ‘The Carhullan Army’ very much. I haven’t read many dystopian novels (I can’t remember reading any except ‘Matched’ by Allie Condie) and so it was interesting to read one. I liked the main character Sister and how the story describes her escape from the confines of her life into a new world and how it transforms her as a person. I also liked the way the love between her and another person in the commune, Shruti, is depicted. I loved Sarah Hall’s wonderful prose and the many beautiful passages in the book. The last sentence in the book gave me goose bumps.

 

One thing which comes to the top of my mind when I think of this book is that it was gripping from the beginning to the end. It was a real page-turner. I also felt another thing when I read the book. I don’t know whether I am generalizing this without any real evidence – it will be interesting to think about this as I continue reading books by more authors. One of the things I discovered about English women writers was that in their books, the plot always came first. There were no long monologues and philosophical passages unrelated to the story with the plot getting the short shrift. Of course, these books had their beautiful passages, but they were part of the plot and went along with the plot. It is a traditional way of storytelling and it works wonderfully. Whether I read 19th century writers like Jane Austen or George Eliot or modern writers like A.S.Byatt, I noticed this feature consistently in their books. Now I am happy to see that Sarah Hall belongs to the same school of writers who focus on sculpting a good plot. I don’t know when this accent on beautiful passages and philosophical monologues went up and the focus on the plot went down. Many of the literary prize winners these days have plots which can be written in two pages and the rest of the book (that is literally hundreds of pages) is filled up with beautiful passages. I think there is room for both kinds of books in the literary landscape and I hope more writers try to write gripping plots. As for me – I love myself a gripping plot and so I am happy that this book was very satisfying that way. I can’t wait to read more books by Sarah Hall now.

 

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

 

But now I was safely away, beyond exposure and explanation. I was alone. Here in the empty Lakeland village I couldn’t have explained to anyone exactly how secure I felt, even if there had been someone around to listen to me. The village reverberated with silence, with human absence. There was not a soul to be found and I liked it. It had been so long since I had felt that. Even on the Beacon Hill above Rith I could see people moving in the streets and I knew they were close by. Here I was breathing air that no one else’s breath competed for. I was no longer complicit in a wrecked and regulated existence. I was not its sterile subject.

 

Sitting beside me she seemed too inanimate for her voltage, too kinetic under her restfulness. It was as if her skin could barely contain the essence of her.

 

Our company seemed defined by a gentle sadness now, as if we had never really had the opportunity to fall out of love, and everything begun had been curtailed instead of aborted.

      I might have walked away completely, avoided her around the farm, to make it all easier, for myself at least, attempting to convert the relationship into a mistake in my head. But she made a point of maintaining a bond. She offered to wash my clothes with hers, left flowers on the crate next to my bunk. There was more grace in her than I could have managed, and without hers I would have found none. It brought a gentle ache to my chest to have her hug me at the end of a dinner shift and then walk away to her bed, or rest a hand on my shoulder and ask if I was faring OK when she saw my cuts and bruises, my newly shaved head…Shruti held back, as I did. Instead, she offered me a quiet, spiritual friendship.

 

Have you read ‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall? What do you think about it?

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After reading Steve’s and Kelly’s post on Roger Ebert’s top-10 greatest movies of all time, I decided to make a top-10 list, because I thought it will be fun. Writing down a list should be easy – it would start with the first movie and end with the tenth. Unfortunately, life is not so simple. So, you have to endure with me, during this long introduction at the beginning and a long apology at the end. I am sorry for that.

 

I wasn’t sure whether I can separate the meanings of ‘favourite’ and ‘greatest’. It was too hard. It was difficult to leave out favourites in the pursuit of ‘greatness’. So, I will call my list ‘My top-10 favourites’. However, I decided to not include romantic comedies, action movies, thrillers, horror movies, spy movies, animation movies and the like. I love all these genres (I can watch ‘The Transformers’ and ‘The Transporter’ any number of times), but I thought that I will include only ‘arty’ kind of movies. (Now please don’t pounce on me and tell me that there are ‘arty’ romance movies and ‘arty’ action movies and kill me 🙂) I also decided to include only American, European and Japanese movies on this list. I would have loved to include Indian movies but then I decided to make a separate list of favourite Indian movies. I also ignored Oscar nominees of recent years – selectively, of course.

 

So, subject to the above caveats, here is my top-10 alltime favourite movies, in no particular order.

 

(1) Hamlet – This film version of Shakespeare’s play is faithful to the original. Laurence Olivier as the tortured Prince of Denmark is peerless. The last scene where Horatio says – “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” – still makes me cry.

 

(2) Casablanca – I had to include a Humphrey Bogart and an Ingrid Bergman movie – two of my favourite movie stars – and which one better than the one in which both of them had acted together. One of the great love stories of all time. It still makes me happy and sad.

 

(3) Burnt by the Sun – Set in Russia during the time of the purges brought out by Stalin, this tells the story of a retired army officer who is living the happy Russian life in his village with his young wife and children when the boyhood sweetheart of his wife arrives on the scene. But appearances are deceptive and this man is not what he seems. This movie showed me that things can change in an instant and then we will spend the rest of our life or whatever is left of it, yearning for the past. I am a big fan of Nikita Mikhalkov who has acted in and directed this movie. I love all his movies but I think this is his best. It won the Jury prize in Cannes and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film – both in 1994.

 

(4) A Special Day – It is a movie set during World War 2 Italy. Hitler has come to Italy and Mussolini is welcoming him with a parade. Everyone in a particular apartment complex has left to see the parade except for the building caretaker. And two people. One of them is a housewife who has work at home. Another is a mysterious man who is packing stuff in his house. When the two meet accidentally, something happens. Sophia Loren is brilliant as the housewife – I didn’t know that she was such a brilliant actress. Hollywood has totally wasted her talent casting her in sexy-siren roles. Marcelo Mastroianni as the mysterious man is wonderful too.

 

(5) Rashomon – A man is travelling with his wife through a forest and he gets killed. Who is the murderer and why was he killed? The court assembles witnesses who each tell a different story. Which is the truth? Is there something called the absolute truth? The movie asks these interesting questions. I have seen this Akira Kurosawa movie many times and it is wonderful each time. One of my dear friends who has probably watched all the best movies ever made, told me that Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ is better than ‘Rashomon’. I can’t see how Kurosawa could have improved on ‘Rashomon’. I want to watch ‘Ikiru’ now and find out.

 

(6) Wild Strawberries – A retired professor goes on a long trip by car with his daughter-in-law to get a honorary degree. During the trip he meets many people who remind him of his own past life. He takes a trip down memory lane. This interplay of what happens during the current time and the professor’s trip down memory line form the rest of the story. I haven’t seen many of Ingmar Bergman’s movies, but this is my favourite out of the ones I have seen.

 

(7) Things We Lost in the Fire – Shows the relationship between a young, widowed mother and her husband’s closest friend who is a drug addict. For some reason I have never warmed up to Benicio Del Torro before but loved his performance here. Halle Berry as the young widowed mother has done brilliantly. This movie also taught me a new phrase ‘God’s Kiss’

 

(8) 12 Angry Men – How a juror convinces the rest of the jury of the innocence of the accused is the story.  I have mostly seen Henry Fonda as a villain, most memorably in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. So it was interesting to see him as a juror in this movie. Fonda is brilliant in that role. I fell in love with director Sidney Lumet after seeing this movie.

 

(9) Pulp Fiction – I love all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. But this one – the most studied and analysed movie of his – has to take the cake. It was a close race between this and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ though. Samuel Jackson is brilliant in this movie. Uma Thurman played her perfect role to date. And Tarantino shows that violence can be art.

 

(10) The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – I had to include a Clint Eastwood movie 🙂 ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ is one of my top two favourite westerns, the other being ‘Django‘. Coincidentally, both of them spaghetti westerns. Film critics and connoisseurs of westerns might look down on spaghetti westerns (westerns made by Italians and non-Americans), but Sergio Leone showed that the imitation could be better than the original. When people tell me that John Wayne was the greatest hero of westerns, I ask them – ‘Have you watched Clint Eastwood?’ J

 

Some of the movies that I really wanted to include, but had to leave out were ‘Juno’ (a movie I love watching again and again. It is about teen pregnancy), ‘The Reader’ (I really wanted Kate Winslet on the list), ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (which has one of my favourite golden-era actresses Gene Tierney), ‘The Little Foxes’ (starring another of my favourite actresses Bette Davis who plays the role of an awesome villain in the movie), ‘The Petrified Forest’ (in which I loved all the characters including the charismatic robber played by Humphrey Bogart), ‘The Piano’ (Jane Campion is a genius), ‘The Godfather’ (It used to be one of my favourite movies but for some reason the power of the movie has waned in recent times.), ‘Before Sunrise’ (I really felt bad at leaving this one out), ‘Crimson Tide’ (the conversation on Lippizaner horses by Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington was enough for me), ‘The Band’s Visit’ (beautiful movie about Egyptian musicians who travel to Israel for a concert and lose their way there and end up in the middle of nowhere and have some pleasantly surprising experiences as a result), ‘Stromboli’ (I had included one Ingrid Bergman movie and so had to leave this out), ‘Irony of Fate’ (probably my most favourite Russian movie. Unfortunately it is a romantic comedy and because this was an ‘arty’ movie list, it was pipped by the artistic credentials of ‘Burnt by the Sun’), two Clint Eastwood movies ‘Gran Torino’ and ‘A Perfect World’ (there was room only for one Clint Eastwood movie), ‘An Unfinished Piece on the Mechanical Piano’ (a movie based on a Chekhov play called ‘Platonov’. The long unwieldy title hides behind it a beautiful work of art. Unfortunately, there was room for only one Russian movie), ‘The Weakness of the Bolshevik’ (a Spanish movie which tells an achingly beautiful story of love between a bank executive and a teenage girl), ‘Dr.No’ (the first Bond movie might be viewed as just an entertainment vehicle. But the first scene where Bond is introduced is one of the best character introductions I have seen. It gives me goose pimples even now! Sean Connery is so masculine and handsome –  it is no wonder that he is frequently voted as the sexiest man alive! The film nearly excelled itself on this aspect with the introduction scene of Ursula Andress as Honey Rider. The Bond introduction was better though, in my opinion), ‘Amelie’ (a beautiful, funny French love story which made me fall in love with Audrey Tautou), ‘No Man’s Land’ (a film based on the Bosnian war which I really loved and for which I should really have found room in my list) and ‘The Curse of the Golden Flower’ (directed by my favourite Chinese director Zhang Yimou, it is a grand movie with sweeping sets and depicts palace intrigue during the Tang dynasty).

 

There are no movies by Stanley Kubrick (one of my alltime favourite directors – I really wish I had found room for ‘Paths of Glory’ on my list), Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese on my list, which is really disappointing.

 

 If I try making a top-10 list tomorrow, I am sure I will have a different set of movies on that list!  It is so hard to make just one top-10 list! I think I should make separate lists for American, European, Indian, Asian and ROTW movies.

 

What do you think of my list? Which are your alltime favourite top-10 movies?

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I read Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) wonderful review of ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach (‘Verbrechen’ in German) recently and couldn’t resist getting the book.  I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think about it.

‘Crime’ is a collection of eleven true-life stories. They are told by an unnamed narrator (who I assumed was Ferdinand von Schirach) who makes an appearance in each of those stories. Each of the stories touches on a distinct or interesting point of law. In some stories the murderer is not the real villain. In some stories it is not apparent whether a crime has been committed. In some stories though we know who committed the supposed crime, we don’t know the identity of that person – in the sense that the concerned person refuses to speak and reveal even his name. There are a few stories where the main character has a psychological issue. It is interesting to read how the law treats such people who have supposedly committed a crime.

 

The first thing that appealed to me about the book was the writer’s name. I always thought that Ferdinand was a Spanish name. I didn’t know that it could be German too. The second thing that I liked very much was the introduction by the author. After talking a bit about his uncle who was a judge, he talks about the book. My favourite passage in the introduction went like this :

 

I tell the stories of people I’ve defended. They were murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers and prostitutes. They all had their stories, and they weren’t so different from us. All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick.  The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me. If we’re lucky it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we’re lucky.

 

Beautiful, isn’t it?

 

The third thing that I liked about the book was how von Schirach presents some of the subtleties and processes of the law and shows how things are not as black-and-white as they seem from outside. For example in ‘Fähner’, he says this about oaths :

 

The most recent reform of the code of criminal procedure has dismissed the oath as an obligatory component of any sworn testimony in a criminal case. We ceased believing in it a long time ago. When a witness lies, he lies – no judge seriously thinks an oath would make him do otherwise, and oaths appear to leave our contemporaries indifferent.

 

In another place in the same story, von Schirach talks about punishment :

 

With regard to the practicalities of the case, there was nothing to defend. It was, rather, a problem of judicial philosophy : what is the meaning of punishment? Why do we punish? I used my summation to try to establish this. There is a whole host of theories. Punishment should e a deterrent. Punishment should protect us. Punishment should make the perpetrator avoid any such act in the future. Punishment should counterbalance injustice. Our laws are a composite of these theories, but none of them fitted this case exactly.

 

In ‘The Ethiopian’ he continues on this topic :

 

We punish according to someone’s guilt; we ask to what extent we can make him responsible for his actions. It’s complicated. In the Middle Ages, things were simpler : punishment was only commensurate with the act itself…Punishment in those days was a form of mathematics; every act carried a precisely established weight of retribution. Our contemporary criminal law is more intelligent, it is more just as regards life, but it is also more difficult.

 

In ‘Summertime’, von Schirach compares real-world crime with what happens in detective novels.

 

In detective novels, the person who did it confesses when he or she is screamed at; in real life, it’s not that simple. And when a man with a bloody knife in his hand is bent over a corpse, that means he’s the murderer. No reasonable policeman would believe he had only walked past by chance and tried to help by pulling the knife out of the body. The detective superintendent’s observation that a particular solution is too simple is a screenwriter’s conceit. The opposite is true. What is obvious is what is plausible. And most often, it’s also what’s right.

 

In one of my favourite stories, ‘Self-Defence’, von Schirach contemplates on how much self defence is acceptable when one is attacked.

 

When you are attacked, you have the right to defend yourself, and there is no limit to your choice of means. You may respond to a fist with a cudgel, and to a knife with a gun; you are under no obligation to choose the mildest form of counterattack. But equally, you may not overreact : if you’ve already rendered your attacker helpless with a pistol shot, you may not cut off his head for good measure. The law does not tolerate such excesses.

 

I loved that passage 🙂

 

In ‘The Ethiopian’, the author talks about the prosecutor’s role in Germany, which I found quite fascinating :

 

In a trial, it is the prosecutor who presents his closing argument first. Unlike in the United States or England, the prosecutor takes no position; he or she is neutral. The prosecutor’s office is neutral; it also establishes exonerating circumstances, and thus it neither wins nor loses – the only passion in the prosecutor’s office is for the law. The law is all it serves – that, and justice. That at least is the theory.

 

This was one of my favourite passages in the book.

 

The fourth thing I liked about the book was the cover. I found it very beautiful. (I loved Lizzy’s interpretation of the cover picture in her review.)

 

After starting the book, one day I was on my way to the grocery store and thinking about the book while walking. For some reason I started thinking about the translator’s name. And I wondered whether her name was Carol Brown Janeway or Carol Jane Brownway. The two seemed to be philosophically different (the first one had a middle name which was closer to a last name, while the second one had a middle name which was closer to a first name) and I pondered which one of them was the right name. After thinking a bit, it seemed to me that Brownway seemed to be more plausible than Janeway. Then I came back and I looked at the book cover and discovered that her name was Janeway! Have you heard of this last name before?

 

Ferdinand von Schirach’s prose style is simple, plain, uncomplicated, down-to-earth. The focus is on narrating the story and conveying the subtleties of law and justice. Not a single word is wasted. I thought of Hemingway’s prose when I read this book.

 

My favourite story in the book was ‘Self-Defence’. A middle-aged man who looks like a bank clerk is sitting on a bench near the railway station. Two thugs come by. They sense a prey there. They want to bully the man and have fun. They come near and try to have a conversation with him. The man is quiet. One of the thugs pulls out a knife and tries to hurt the man mildly so that he will talk to them. Our bank clerk looks at the two men without any expression on his face. The thugs don’t know that they have opened a bottle and a genie is going to come out. Before they know our bank clerk hero delivers lethal kungfu kicks on them and in no time they are lying on the floor. What our bank clerk hero did – whether it was legally the appropriate level of self-defence or it was excessive – the answer to this question forms the rest of the story. I loved the mysterious bank clerk hero – he rocked 🙂

 

Another favourite story of mine was ‘The Ethiopian’. I liked it because of my Ethiopian connection. I also liked ‘The Thorn’ for showing how a man who lives alone and does a solitary job can change fundamentally across years, ‘The Hedgehog’ where a young man who is bullied by everyone around has a parallel life as an intelligent genius and how his genius saves his family members (this story had one of my favourite lines – “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog only one thing. The judges and the prosecutors might be foxes, but he was the hedgehog and he’d learned his skills.”), ‘Tanata’s Tea Bowl’ for showing an interesting glimpse into Japanese culture and ‘Summertime’ for this line – “He told his friends that when she drank, he could see the water running down inside the throat.”  I have heard someone actually say this when he wanted to impress another about a girl’s beauty.

 

‘Crime’ is a wonderful addition to literature on true-crime. I can’t wait to read von Schirach’s second story collection ‘Sin’ (‘Schuld’).

 

I will leave you with links to other reviews of this book.

 

Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review

Priya’s (from Tabula Rasa) review

Lizzy’s (from Lizzy’s Literary Lives) review

 

Have you read ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach? What do you think about it?

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A few weeks back, I thought I should open some old boxes and check what books were there inside. One should never do this, because one is never sure what is going to come out of an old box. One can get lost in a different world for a long, long time. But unfortunately I didn’t follow my own advice and I took the first box and opened it. And out jumped dozens of books. All of them were unread and all of them were good. I didn’t know what to do then. If I take all the books out of the box and put them out, they will crowd my already bookishly crowded room. If I put them back in the box and banish the box to the place where it came from, I will always be thinking about the books in it. So, I thought I will take some of the books out of the box and keep them out. I thought that maybe I will read a little bit of each of them and then read one or more of them fully. Out of the books which I took out, the one which really grabbed my attention was ‘Essays in Love’ by Alain de Botton. I remember buying it in my favourite bookshop during the days when I used to spend my Saturday evenings in bookshops, before the guard at the bookshop chased me out 🙂 For some reason, I never got around to reading this book, at the time I bought it. I decided to read the first chapter and see how it went. I got hooked into the book by the time I had finished the first chapter. I read the book slowly and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

‘Essays in Love’ is about a young man and a woman falling in love. The book charts the course of their love from the time they meet accidentally on a flight from Paris to London till the time they fall out of love and part with tears. It covers all the events which are part of a modern day real-life romance – the first meeting, the mutual attraction, the first telephone call, the first dinner, the first time spending the night in the other person’s home, the realization that one is in love, the first declaration of love,  the first meeting with each other’s parents, the highs and lows and the pleasure and the boredom of romantic lives, how sometimes the past comes hounding into a couple’s romantic life, the kindness and cruelty that lovers show each other, how love sometimes fades without any reason, how one of the lovers makes the speech and how it breaks hearts and how one learns to get up and start a new chapter in one’s life. During the course of this journey, Alain de Botton describes what philosophers, writers and artists say about love in all its complexity and he gives his own take on it.

 

I loved ‘Essays in Love’. It talks about love from a philosophical, mature, psychological perspective in addition to talking about how it from a romantic perspective. I liked the lines that de Botton quoted from philosophers, writers and artists and I liked his own insights on this fascinating topic. While reading the book, I saw the movie ‘500 Days of Summer’ in between, and I found both the movie and this book to be remarkably similar. Towards the end of the movie my heart ached and the ache refused to go away. The same thing happened when I reached the end of the book – my heart ached and it hurt so badly. ‘Essays is Love’ is one of my favourite reads of the year and I will keep coming back to it again and again.

 

If you have fallen in love, fallen out of love (oh, how I so hate that phrase!) and have had your heart broken, you will like this book. ‘Like’ is probably not the right word to describe it. When you read de Botton’s wise words, you will see yourself in those pages. I think that describes it better.

 

The American edition of this book has a different title – ‘On Love’. I still don’t understand why American and British publishers keep changing the titles of books published on the opposite sides of the Atlantic. Most of the time the original title is good and the new title is not. But in this case, the title of the American edition seems to be equally good. This is a rare exception though.

 

I will leave you with Linda’s wonderful review of this book and some of my favourite passages from the book. 

 

When we look at someone (an angel) from a position of unrequited love and imagine the pleasures that being in heaven with them might bring us, we are prone to overlook a significant danger : how soon their attractions might pale if they began to love us back. We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as ideal as we are corrupt. But what if such a being were one day to turn around and love us back? We can only be shocked. How could they be divine as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us? If in order to love, we must believe that the beloved surpasses us in some way, does not a cruel paradox emerge when we witness this love returned? ‘If s/he really is so wonderful, how could s/he love someone like me?’

 

A long, gloomy tradition in Western thought argues that love is in its essence an unreciprocated, Marxist emotion and that desire can only thrive on the impossibility of mutuality. According to this view, love is simply a direction, not a place, and burns itself out with the attainment of its goal, the possession (in bed or otherwise) of the loved one. The whole of troubadour poetry of twelfth-century Provence was based on coital delay, the poet repeating his plaints to a woman who repeatedly declined a desperate gentleman’s offers. Centuries later, Montaigne declared that, ‘In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us’ – an idea echoed by Anatole France’s maxim that, ‘It is not customary to love what one has.’ Stendhal believed that love could be brought about only on the basis of a fear of losing the loved one and Denis de Rougemont confirmed, ‘The most serious obstruction is the one preferred above all. It is the one most suited to intensifying passion.’ To listen to this view, lovers cannot do anything save oscillate between the twin poles of yearning for someone and longing to be rid of them.

 

The dismay that greater acquaintance with the beloved can bring is comparable to composing a symphony in one’s head and then hearing it played in a concert hall by a full orchestra. Though we are impressed to find so many of our ideas confirmed in performance, we cannot help but notice details that are not quite as we had intended them to be. Is one of the violinists not a little off key? Is the flute not a little late coming in? Is the percussion not a little loud? People we love at first sight are as free from conflicting tastes in shoes or literature as the unrehearsed symphony is free from off-key violins or late flutes. But as soon as the fantasy is played out, the angelic beings who floated through consciousness reveal themselves as material beings, laden with their own mental and physical history.

 

Yet whatever her enthusiasm for independence, with time Chloe nevertheless began leaving things behind. Not toothbrushes or pairs of shoes, but pieces of herself. It began with language, with Chloe leaving me her way of saying not ever instead of never, and of stressing the be of before, or of saying take care before hanging up the telephone. She in turn acquired use of my perfect and if you really think so. Habits began to leak between us : I acquired Chloe’s need for total darkness in the bedroom, she followed my way of folding the newspaper, I took to wandering in circles around the sofa to think a problem through, she acquired a taste for lying on the carpet.

 

Perhaps it is true that we do not really exist until there is someone there to see us existing, we cannot properly speak until there is someone there who can understand what we are saying, in essence, we are not wholly alive until we are loved.

 

At the end of a relationship, it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.

 

      Then, inevitably, I began to forget. A few months after breaking up with her, I found myself in the area of London in which she had lived and noticed that the thought of her had lost much of the agony it had once held, I even noticed that I was not primarily thinking of her (though this was exactly her neighbourhood), but of the appointment that I had made with someone in a restaurant nearby. I realized that Chloe’s memory had neutralized itself and become a part of history. Yet guilt accompanied this forgetting. It was no longer her absence that wounded me, but my growing indifference to it. Forgetting, however calming, was also a reminder of infidelity to what I had at one time held so dear.

      There was a gradual reconquering of the self, new habits were created and a Chloe-less identity built up. My identity had for so long been forged around ‘us’ that to return to the ‘I’ involved an almost complete reinvention of myself. It took a long time for the hundreds of associations that Chloe and I had accumulated together to fade. I had to live with my sofa for months before the image of her lying on it in her dressing-gown was replaced by another image, the image of a friend reading a book on it, or of my coat lying across it. I had to walk through Islington on numberless occasions before I could forget that Islington was not simply Chloe’s district, but a useful place to shop or have dinner. I had to revisit almost every physical location, rewrite over every topic of conversation, replay every song and every activity that she and I had shared in order to reconquer them for the present, in order to defuse their associations. But gradually I forgot.

      My time with Chloe folded in on itself, like an accordion that contracts. My love story was like a block of ice gradually melting as I carried it through the present. The process was like a film camera which had taken a thousand frames a minute, but was now discarding most of them, selecting according to mysterious whims, landing on a certain frame because an emotional state had coalesced around it. Like a country that is reduced and symbolized by a certain pope or monarch or battle, my love affair refined itself to a few iconic elements (more random than those of historians but equally selective) : the look on Chloe’s face as we kissed for the first time, the light hairs on her arm, an image of her standing waiting for me in the entrance to Liverpool Street Station, her white pullover, her laugh when I told her my joke about the Russian in a train through France, her way of running her hand through her hair…

      The camel became lighter and lighter as it walked through time, it kept shaking memories and photos off its back, scattering them over the desert floor and letting the wind bury them in the sand, and gradually the camel became so light that it could trot and even gallop in its own curious way – until one day, in a small oasis that called itself the present, the exhausted creature finally caught up with the rest of me.

 

Have you read ‘Essays in Love’ by Alain de Botton? What do you think about it?

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