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Archive for September, 2012

I read‘Pereira Maintains’ for Antonio Tabucchi week hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

 

 

 

‘Pereira Maintains’ is a slim book with comfortable fonts and nice spacing between lines. It is also a breezy read even though the subject matter is complex. The story is set in Portugal of the 1930s. The editor of the literary section of a newspaper meets a young man one day who wants to contribute articles for that section. Then the young man brings his attractive woman friend one day for one of the meetings. Then mysterious things start happening – the young man talks over phone and through letters and he seems to be on the run. Once he brings a supposed cousin who comes from Spain and is recruiting Portuguese fighters to fight on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil war. Strange things start happening to our hero, the editor. Suddenly his telephone is monitored and his editor-in-chief wants to look at his article choices more carefully. There is a suggestion of censorship. One day our hero the editor, who is middle-aged and fat, decides to rebel against the system.

 

I found ‘Pereira Maintains’ quite gripping and a breezy read. I finished it in one day. In his beautiful introduction, Mohsin Hamid asks this about the book – “How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? Put differently, how could this most literary of novels also be such a thrilling page-turner?” I couldn’t have put it better.

 

I found the structure of the book quite interesting. It is in the form of a confession or testament given by the main character, Pereira. The dialogues are not within quotes and there are not many paragraph breaks and one sentence continues after another. The tone of the novel is light though the themes it addresses – freedom, love, sacrifice, taking on an autocratic system – are deep. In some ways, ‘Pereira Maintains’ reminded me of the great novels of the past which also cover the theme of one small man deciding to take on an autocratic system – the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Hans Fallada.

 

I have one small complaint about the book though. As it is structured in the form of a testament, the phrase ‘Pereira maintains’ comes up in nearly every paragraph. Initially, I felt it was okay, but after sometime it became irritating and later it even became annoying. But I think probably Tabucchi didn’t want the reader to forget that it was a testament. So, I ignored the annoying feeling after a while and decided to experience the beauty of the book.

 

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

 

Philosophy appears to concern itself only with the truth, but perhaps expresses only fantasies, while literature appears to concern itself only with fantasies, but perhaps it expresses the truth.

 

…he doubted if the Portuguese papers reported the event the waiter was referring to. Rumours simply spread, news travelled by word of mouth, all you could do was ask around in the cafes, listen to gossip, it was the only way of keeping in touch with things, other than buying some foreign paper from the newsagent in Rua do Ouro, but the foreign papers, if they arrived at all, were three or four days old, so it was useless to go hunting for a foreign paper, the best thing was to ask.

 

Goodbye Father Antonio, said he, I’m sorry to have taken so much of your time, my next visit I’ll make a proper confession. You don’t need to, replied Father Antonio, first make sure you commit some sin and then come to me, don’t make me waste my time for nothing.

 

Have you read ‘Pereira Maintains’? What do you think about it?

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Today, I started reading ‘Narcopolis’ by Jeet Thayil (it has been shortlisted for the Booker prize this year), for book club. The first page went like this :

 

 

“Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire dust – wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world – and now you’re getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country….”

 

And on and on it went – one sentence stretching on to six more pages. Who said that the long Proustian sentence was dead? It is alive and kicking! Thanks to Jeet Thayil for showing us that. Can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

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This is the fourth week of the readalong of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe that I am doing with Delia from Postcards from Asia. You can find the previous posts of the series here – part 1, part 2, part 3.

 

In volume 3, Emily had escaped from the castle of Udolpho with her friends and now she is at the Count Villefort’s home and has become friends with his daughter Blanche. Valancourt also makes an appearance there. Unfortunately, Emily discovers that he is not the same person with whom she parted and after Valancourt had gone to Paris, he had got into debt and had been keeping the company of not-so-good women. At the end of the third volume, we had left Emily on the verge of her meeting with Valancourt when he is expected to explain his conduct.

 

Volume 4 starts with the meeting between Emily and Valancourt. The meeting doesn’t go well. Valancourt says that he is unworthy of her without getting into the details, while Emily assumes the worst that she has heard about him. Valancourt leaves. Then the story starts moving at a rollicking pace. Volume 4 is the ‘good’ volume – in the sense that good things happen to all the good characters in the story. Emily and her friends get to know that Montoni has been imprisoned and then later he dies in prison. Emily’s aunt’s estates come to her. Emily stays for some time in the convent in St.Clair, but later moves on to her own childhood home. All the mysteries which are described in the earlier volumes are all revealed in this volume – the secret behind the veiled picture in the castle of Udolpho, the identity of the person in the mini portrait that Emily has, the mystery of the music which comes out in the night, whether the different castles are haunted by spirits or not, what was there in the mysterious papers that Emily’s father asked her to burn. Radcliffe is on the side of reason when all these mysteries are revealed – she gives logical explanations for all of them, even for the supposedly supernatural events. Towards the end of the fourth volume, it also turns out that Valancourt, though he is in debt, is otherwise a nice person and he and Emily unite. All’s well that ends well, Emily and Valancourt get married, Lady Blanche and St.Foix get married and everyone lives happily everafter.

 

One of the things that I liked about the fourth volume was that all the loose ends were tied and all the mysteries were revealed. There was not one loose end left. It showed that Ann Radcliffe had meticulously planned the story. One of the issues I had was on the way the mysteries were revealed. Emily doesn’t really discover the secrets by luck or after pursuing them, but the author describes them to us in her omniscient voice. She doesn’t ‘show’, but she ‘tells’. It takes away part of the enjoyment somewhat, because in my opinion, the beauty of a mystery is partly in the way it is revealed.

 

My favourite parts of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ are the one which describes Emily’s life in Gascony with her parents and the beautiful descriptions that Radcliffe gives us here, Emily’s time in Venice which are also filled with beautiful descriptions (this is the part of the book that I want to read again) and the part where Radcliffe evokes the scary, gothic atmosphere of the castle of Udolpho where Emily is imprisoned.

 

I read the introduction to the book after I finished reading the main story. I do it this way, rather than reading the introduction at the beginning, because most of the time introductions have spoilers. The introduction was by Jacqueline Howard and I liked it very much. One of the things that I liked about the introduction was what it said about how the story combined two different time periods – though the story happens in the sixteenth century, the good characters in the story all have eighteenth century liberal values, while the bad characters have sixteenth century ‘medieval’ values – and though some of it anachronistic, how it still works. The way Jacqueline Howard put it was by describing how Radcliffe was ‘imbuing her Catholic heroine with Protestant enlightenment’.

 

I think if ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ had been published as a serial in a magazine, it would have worked better, as there would have been a lot of time for readers to enjoy the beautiful descriptions, linger over the beautiful sentences and enter and stay in the beautiful world that Ann Radcliffe had created.

 

Many thanks to Delia for hosting this readalong. Eventhough I took six weeks to complete a four week readalong, I was glad to be part of it and read this interesting and beautiful book. You can find Delia’s thoughts on volume 4 for ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ here.

 

I want to read ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen now and find out what she has written about ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ in it. I also want to read ‘The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which has (according to the introduction here) “an animated portrait, bleeding statue, walking skeleton and dramatic appearances of gigantic Piranesi-like fragments of the murdered Alfonso…”. It looks like a book which should be read over a dark and stormy night 🙂

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I watched ‘Babette’s Feast’ today. It is directed by Gabriel Axel and is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, who also wrote‘Out of Africa’.

 

 

The story is about two Danish girls, Martine and Philippa, whose father is the local pastor. When young men show interest in these two girls, who are very beautiful, and ask for their hands in marriage, their father typically rejects them. The young women grow up and become old and continue their father’s good work. One day a younger woman arrives at their place. She is French and her name is Babette. She gives our heroines an introduction letter which is from an old French singer who courted Philippa when she was younger. The letter says that Babette had to leave France because her family was killed in the civil war. He requests the sisters to help her. The sisters take her in. Babette’s initially learns the chores from them and then is able to handle everything on her own, including the cooking.

 

One day a letter arrives from France for Babette, which says that she has won ten thousand Francs in the lottery. The sisters think that Babette will go back to France. Babette says that she wants to organize a French style feast for the sisters and their friends and congregation to celebrate their father’s hundredth birthday. The sisters, after some initial reluctance, agree to the plan. Babette goes to France, gets her lottery winnings, and comes back with the ingredients required for the French feast. When the sisters see the ingredients – which include a live turtle, quail and French wine – they get uncomfortable. Martine has nightmares about it and feels that having a feast like this is sinful. The sisters gather together their friends and tell them that though they would all go to the feast, they won’t think or talk about the food and they will ignore the taste.

 

The day of the feast arrives. An army general, who courted Martine, when he was a young officer, also comes to the feast with his mother. Everyone is apprehensive when the food is served. And then magic happens. The feast is divine. Each dish is a work of art – in colour, in appearance, in taste. The guests lose themselves in the sensual pleasures of food, which also brings them together as people and makes them remember their lives, their past, their loves. The feast magically transforms everyone’s hearts. After the feast all the guests go outside and hold their hands and dance in a circle while gazing at the beautiful twinkling stars. Martine and Philippa thank Babette for her wonderful feast. They then discover that she was a famous French cook. They also realize that she has spent all her lottery winnings on the feast to make them and their friends happy and also to practise her art to the best of her ability one last time. They also realize that she is not going to Paris but is going to stay with them.

 

I loved ‘Babette’s Feast’. It is a celebration of food – almost spiritual in its intensity and vision. It is also a celebration of love and art and beauty. When Babette says towards the end – “I don’t cook. I practise art” – it gave me goose bumps. I wish I was there at Babette’s feast, taking a sip of the ‘Clos de Vougeot 1845’ and trying out Babette’s delicious works of art.

 

I read an essay on the movie, after watching it. It had this beautiful passage which I loved – “The spectacular repast that crowns the film conjures up a vision of spiritual well-being created by the transcendent artistry of a chef who sacrifices all for her art and, through that art, recreates her country. This restitution of place and resurrection of time makes the most powerful case yet for the intimate drama of culinary metamorphosis.”

 

‘Babette’s Feast’ won many awards when it came out, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1987. I can see why. If you like movies which celebrate the pleasures of food, you will love this. Recommended J

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My book reading has been going quite poorly for a while now. And so my blogging has come to a standstill. I haven’t even finished the fourth part of my ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ readalong yet and I am feeling quite bad about it (Sorry Delia!). So, I thought instead of waiting till I finish my next book, I thought I will write about something else. I have been watching a lot of movies lately, and I thought I will write about some of them. So, here is the first post of this series.

 

 

I watched ‘Terminal Station’ today. It was directed by Vittorio De Sica. And yes, it is a Hollywood movie! I didn’t know that De Sica directed Hollywood movies. This one had Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift in lead roles. The story is about an American housewife, Mary, who goes to Rome on a holiday to meet her sister and her family and falls in love with an Italian (and half-American) teacher, Giovanni. When I heard the haunting initial score by Alessandro Cicognini (which I am listening to, on repeat mode now – do check out from 0.14 to 1.25 at the link), I knew that things were not going to end well, for the main characters.

 

The movie was initially released in English with the title ‘Indiscretion of an American Housewife’ which is a very poor title, in my opinion. The Italian title ‘Terminal Station’ is far better, as all the action in the movie happens in the Rome Terminal Train Station.

 

An odd thing for me is that Jennifer Jones is not one of my favourite Golden Age Hollywood actresses. Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis are. With honourable mentions to Joan Crawford and Lizabeth Scott (Yes, no Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe!) Somehow I don’t think Jennifer Jones’ acting is up there. But this is the third consecutive movie of hers that I have liked very much. The others are ‘Portrait of Jennie’ and ‘Since You Went Away’. She must be doing something right. I want to watch three movies of hers that I have – ‘Duel in the Sun’, ‘The Song of Bernadette’ and ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’, for all three of which she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and won for ‘The Song of Bernadette’. I should then upgrade her status in my favourite actresses list.

 

In the last scene, when the lovers are parting, probably to never meet again, the conversation goes like this :

 

Giovanni : “I guess maybe I better be getting off.”

 

Mary : “Not yet. It’ll begin soon enough…the wondering. All my life I’ll wonder, “Where is he? Where, just this moment…just now? What is he looking at? What is he thinking? Is he well? Is he in love? Is she beautiful?””

 

Giovanni : “He is in love…and she is beautiful.”

 

It was heartbreaking. (You can watch the scene here, if you like. It starts from 5.25.) Movie connoisseurs say that the scene from ‘The Philadelphia Story’ where Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) says : “Put me in your pocket, Mike” is the most romantic scene ever. I haven’t seen ‘The Philadelphia Story’, unfortunately. For me, though, this last scene from ‘Terminal Station’ is up there on top, as the most romantic, heartbreaking scene ever. It is going to be tough to beat this one.

 

This is a must watch movie for romantic movie fans 🙂

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This is the third week of the readalong of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ by Ann Radcliffe that I am doing with Delia from Postcards from Asia. You can find the first post of this series here and the second post of this series here.

 

We left the second part of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ with Montoni imprisoning his wife, Emily’s aunt, in a remote part of the castle and Emily spending everyday in dread and fear. In the third part, one of the guards tells Emily that he will help her meet her aunt. But he has his own nefarious intentions and tries to get Emily out of the castle into the hands of Count Morano. Emily doesn’t realize this and goes to the remote part of the castle where the guard takes her and suddenly discovers that she has been locked into a dark room. Then she is taken outside the castle to be delivered into her captor’s hands. But before this could happen, her aunt’s maid Annette alerts Montoni and his friends and they come and drive away the new villains. This relieves Emily, but then she realizes that this is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Her imprisonment in the castle continues. Montoni gives her permission to see her aunt, and Emily discovers that her aunt’s health has declined considerably. Her aunt doesn’t survive this and dies one day. Then Montoni starts harassing Emily, asking her to sign away her aunt’s estates to him. Emily declines to do that. Montoni removes his protection on her and Montoni’s friends start stalking Emily. Emily finds it too hard to fend off these ruffians and so signs away all her aunt’s estates in return for a safe trip to France. Unfortunately, Montoni doesn’t keep his side of the agreement. Then Emily hears songs in the castle which are from her hometown Gascony and she suspects that it is that of Valancourt. She fears that Valancourt might be imprisoned in Montoni’s castle. Many things happen after this. Montoni seems to be the head of bandits who plunder nearby towns and castles. One of the owners of the nearby castles puts together a force and raids Montoni’s castle and besieges it. Montoni sends away Emily to a distant village to the care of one of his trusted men. Emily befriends this couples’ daughter Maddeleine. When the siege is over, Emily comes back. Then Emily discovers that the person who is imprisoned in the castle is not Valancourt, but another French admirer of hers called du Pont, who is the person who has written a poem admiring her in the fishing hut in Gascony. Emily, du Pont, Emily’s maid Annette and Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico hatch an escape plan and at one point escape from the castle in a couple of horses. The reach a port and get into a ship and sail for France.

 

At this point, Ann Radcliffe suddenly has an inspiration to create another heroine. She is Lady Blanche who is nearly the same age as Emily, who is beautiful and sensitive like her and who touches everyone around her with love and kindness like Emily does. She loves nature and writes poems on nature like Emily does (My favourite poem in volume 3 was ‘The Butter-fly to his Love’ written by Lady Blanche). She looks like Emily’s twin sister. I am hoping that towards the end of the story she will turn out to be the twin sister. Lady Blanche and her brother and parents have moved into a castle in the countryside from Paris, near the place where Emily’s father had died. One day a storm blows near the sea there and a ship is blown ashore. Blanche’s father, the Count, asks his people to help out and try to save the ship and the travelers in it and they rescue – surprise, surprise – Emily and her friends. Emily and Blanche become thick friends. Emily writes to her uncle and Valancourt and states that she has arrived back and is planning to join a convent. Valancourt comes back in search of Emily, but she discovers that he is a changed person. He also says that he is not worthy of her. Blanche’s father, the Count, also says the same thing to her and he gives supporting evidence for that. It seems Valancourt is no longer an innocent youth and has become a gambler and a man who hangs out with women of suspicious reputation. Emily is heartbroken. Valancourt wants to have a conversation with her and tell her about what has happened in his life and part 3 of the story ends on the eve of this conversation.

 

Too many fantastic things happen in part 3 and the story moves to different locations – from Montoni’s castle to the Italian countryside and then back to Montoni’s castle and then to the French countryside. I don’t know why Ann Radcliffe had to create another noble heroine in Lady Blanche. Maybe that will help unveil some of the suspense and tie some of the loose ends of the story later. It looked a bit artificial to me. Like some of the old movies where the hero or heroine suddenly discovers that there is someone else who looks exactly like him / her.

 

My favourite part of the third volume was the atmosphere which Ann Radcliffe creates throughout – the dark, scary, creepy, gothic atmosphere of the Castle of Udolpho and the labyrinthine corridors and rooms in it, in which one can get lost never to be found again, where unknown dangers lurk in every corridor and every room and where dark and deep secrets are hidden in rooms behind veils and screens. Radcliffe keeps on piling up the dark, scary, terrifying scenes one after the other that transports the reader into a medieval castle and gives the reader many a sleepless night.

 

I continued to keep an eye for interesting spellings of words and this is what I found in the third volume – ‘controul’ (for ‘control’), ‘enterprize’ (for ‘enterprise’), ‘secresy’ (for ‘secrecy’), ‘centinels’ (for ‘sentinels’), ‘antient’ (for ‘ancient’), ‘depictured’ (for ‘depicted’ – I love ‘depictured’, because it is a version of ‘pictured’ and seems more meaningful and rich than ‘depicted’) and ‘phrensy’ (for ‘frenzy’).

 

Some of my favourite passages in volume 3 were those spoken by Lady Blanche. One of them is this :

 

      ‘And have I lived in this glorious world so long,’ said she, ‘and never till now beheld such a prospect – never experienced these delights! Every peasant girl, on my father’s domain, has viewed from her infancy the face of nature; has ranged, at liberty, her romantic wilds, while I have been shut in a cloister from the view of these beautiful appearances, which were designed to enchant all eyes, and awaken all hearts. How can the poor nuns and friars feel the full fervour of devotion, if they never see the sun rise, or set? Never, till this evening, did I know what true devotion is; for, never before did I see the sun sink below the vast earth! To-morrow, for the first time in my life, I will see it rise. O who would live in Paris, to look upon black walls and dirty streets, when, in the country, they might gaze on the blue heavens, and all the green earth!’

 

Another one is this :

 

      ‘Who could first invent convents!’ said she, ‘and who could first persuade people to go into them? And to make religion a pretence, too where all that should inspire it, is so carefully shut out! God is best pleased with the homage of a grateful heart, and, when we view his glories, we feel most grateful. I never felt so much devotion, during the many dull years I was in the convent, as I have done in the few hours, that I have been here, where I need only look on all around me – to adore God in my inmost heart!’

 

This is a beautiful conversation between Blanche and her father which I liked very much :

 

Blanche : Did these scenes, sir, ever appear more lovely, than they do now? To me this seems hardly possible.

 

The Count (Blanche’s father) : They once were as delightful to me, as they are now to you; the landscape is not changed, but time has changed me; from my mind the illusion, which gave spirit to the colouring of nature, is fading fast! If you live, my dear Blanche, to re-visit this spot, at the distance of many years, you will, perhaps, remember and understand the feelings of your father.

 

Another of my favourite passages in this volume was about Emily trying to read. It went like this :

 

…Emily sought to lose the sense of her own cares, in the visionary scenes of the poet; but she had again to lament the irresistible force of circumstances over the taste and powers of the mind; and that it requires a spirit at ease to be sensible even to the abstract pleasures of pure intellect. The enthusiasm of genius, with all its pictured scenes, now appeared cold, and dim. As she mused upon the book before her, she involuntarily exclaimed, ‘Are these, indeed, the passages, that have so often given me exquisite delight? Where did the charm exist? – Was it in my mind, or in the imagination of the poet? It lived in each,’ said she, pausing. ‘But the fire of the poet is vain, if the mind of his reader is not tempered like his own, however it may be inferior to his in power.’

 

I can’t wait to read volume 4 now and find out what happened between Emily and Valancourt. As of now, Valancourt has gone down in my estimate and I don’t know whether Emily will forgive him for it. I also can’t wait to find out more about the secrets which have still not been revealed – how Emily is related to the lady in the mysterious portrait, what was there in the papers that Emily burnt and what did Emily see behind the veil in the Castle of Udolpho.

 

My questions for Delia on volume 3 of the story are :

 

(1)  Did you guess that the mysterious admirer of Emily, who visited the fishing hut in Gascony was not Valancourt?

(2)  Was the character of Lady Blanche required in the story? Doesn’t she look like an exact replica of Emily? Do you think the introduction of this new heroine was required for tying up the loose ends of the story?

(3)  Does Valancourt deserve Emily’s forgiveness (irrespective of what actually happens later)?

(4)  Which of the three volumes is your favourite till now, with respect to the gothic atmosphere and scary events?

 

You can find Delia’s review of volume 3 of the book here.

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