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Archive for December, 2012

I read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens for Dickens in December hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia. This is also my last book review for the year.

Hard Times By Charles DickensOxfordEdition

There has been a copy of ‘Hard Times’ at my home for many years. My sister read it when she did English literature at university. I used to look at it when I was younger and read the blurb on the back cover of the book and put the book back on the shelf. I haven’t looked at the book in recent years. It has been lying on the shelf gathering dust. It is almost a family heirloom now.  When I thought of reading a Dickens novel for Dickens in December, I looked at different books of Dickens. Most of what Dickens wrote were chunksters with a minimum of 700 pages. I wanted to read a smaller novel and other than the Christmas books (which I don’t count for this purpose), the only small novel of his was ‘Hard Times’. So, I decided to take the family heirloom down from the shelf and give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

 

The plot of ‘Hard Times’ is quite simple. It is set in the middle of the 19th century in smalltown England, where there are factories and smoke and lots of workers. There is Thomas Gradgrind who has a son and a daughter. Gradgrind has this point of view on how children should be educated and how people should think and make decisions and life choices and live their lives. He thinks (not feels) that all these should be done based on facts, reason and logic. And there should be no room for emotion. He tries this system on his children. He also becomes an MP and sings the praises of this way of thinking in parliament. But things don’t go as planned. Because humans are not rational beings, inspite of his best beliefs, but are emotional beings. So Gradgrind ends up with a situation which he doesn’t know how to handle and his reason doesn’t help him in this.

 

‘Hard Times’ is a unusual novel by Dickens’s standards. I had mixed feelings about it. First the good news. I read this passage about the book by Anthony Horowitz :

I didn’t always love Charles Dickens. The first book of his that I read – it was Hard Times – landed on my desk with a dull thud and a small cloud of dust when I was in school, aged about sixteen, and I’m afraid I found it very heavy-going. The industrial setting was grim and depressing. The author seemed to use an awful lot of words to tell his story, and quite a lot of those words had far too many syllables for my liking. There were too many pages. It all felt too much like hard work.

It was pretty intimidating when I read that. But when I read the book, it was not like that at all. The start was wonderful. The story was fast-paced (I never thought that I would say this about a Dickens book), atleast in the beginning. The traditional Dickensian humour and the vintage Dickensian sentences were all gloriously on display. One of my favourite conversations in the book went like this :

Mrs.Sparsit : “What is the news of the day? Anything?”

Bitzer          : “Well, ma’am, I can’t say that I have heard anything particular. Our people are a bad lot, ma’am; but that is no news, unfortunately.”

I loved reading what Horowitz said, but I didn’t agree with him at all. Maybe because I am no longer sixteen.

 

The main theme of the story – reason vs emotion – is a powerful one. It says a lot about the vision of Dickens that the picture he presents and the questions he asks apply even today in our increasingly materialistic world. It looks like things haven’t changed much today when compared to Victorian England, inspite of what we might believe.

 

Now the bad news. Before saying anything further, I will add a disclaimer here. For someone who has grown up with the stories of Dickens, I haven’t read any of Dickens’s novels in full, in the original. Except for ‘A Christmas Carol’. But for the purposes of our discussion, I would say that that book doesn’t count. I have read ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘A Tale of TwoCities and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in abridged form. I have also read bits-and-pieces of ‘The Pickwick Papers’. It is like knowing all the stories from ‘The Mahabharata’ or ‘The Bible’ or from Greek mythology, without having read the original books. So, in some ways I am a Dickens virgin. So, what I am going to say here should be taken with a pinch of salt.

 

So, now on to ‘Hard Times’. I felt that though the theme of the book was powerful, the plot didn’t equal it. Many times, Dickens just puts words into his characters’ mouths and twists the plot in different ways to his convenience to suit the theme. That is what most novelists do. But it looks forced in ‘Hard Times’ and not natural at all. Most of the characters aren’t fleshed out. When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure who the major characters were and who were the minor ones. They all looked like minor characters. It was strange to be reading a book which appeared to have only minor characters. And because of that it was difficult to like or be sympathetic towards any of the characters. I thought maybe it was not Dickens but it was just me, till I read the introduction in the book (by James Gibson, in case you are curious). This was what the introduction said :

 

The fact that it was not a ‘typical’ Dickens novel immediately attracted adverse criticism, and the book had a very mixed reception when it was published in volume form. One critic described it as ‘stale, flat, and unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound.’

 

…a critic wrote : ‘Hard Times is the one of all his works which should be distinguished from the others as specially wanting in that power of real characterization on which his reputation as a vivid delineator of human character and human life depends.’

 

Such criticism, based to some extent upon the belief that Dickens had unfortunately moved away from the formula which had brought him success in the past, meant that Hard Times came to be one of Dickens’s least known and least respected novels.

 

When I read this, I felt happy – not happy because someone criticized Dickens, but happy that there were other people who agreed with me. It also looked like the book was a big hit when it was serialized in a magazine, but when it came out in book form it was panned. One of the reasons given for this lack of characterization is that the book was published in weekly installments rather than in monthly ones and so Dickens had to tell a story which was shorter than his other ones. This appears to be true, because the edition of ‘Hard Times’ which I read was around 250 pages – hardly Dickensian. Modern critical opinion towards the book seems to be more positive, because of the theme it addresses.

 

So, if I have to think what my overall impression of the book is, I would say that ‘Hard Times’ is not my favourite Dickens book. I don’t think it is his best book either. As a writer Dickens needs space. He needs a lot of pages. We can’t put a tree in the living room and hope that it will grow well. It doesn’t. It needs fertile land. If not forest land, atleast the land in one’s garden. The suppressed size of this book definitely seems to have inhibited Dickens. When I compare ‘Hard Times’ with ‘The Pickwick Papers’ I feel this strongly. Because in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there is hardly a dull chapter. And the difference between the two books is that ‘The Pickwick Papers’ is a chunkster – it has unlimited space when compared to ‘Hard Times’ and it gave enough room for Dickens to showcase his genius. However, having said this, I have to also say that I liked the theme of ‘Hard Times’ very much. The questions it asks are very significant even today. And the vintage Dickensian sentences and the wonderful Dickensian humour make the book worth a read. I am glad that I read it – it was like taking out a family heirloom and checking it out and finding out that it is still glittering after it gets a polish and it passes the test, though only barely.

 

You can find the contributions of other participants of Dickens in December, here.

 

Have you read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens? What do you think about it?

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I read Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia, as part of Dickens in December. Here are the readalong questions and my answers to them.

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens

Is this the first time you are reading the story?

This is the second time I am reading ‘A Christmas Carol’. I read it the first time on Christmas Day a few years back. It was an interesting and a different experience re-reading it.

 

Did you like it?

I liked it very much, but in a different way, when compared to the first time. The first time I read it, I didn’t know the story. So, I was looking forward to finding out what happened next. This time when I read it, I knew the overall story, though I had forgotten the details. I was looking forward to discovering things that I missed the first time. For example, a couple of interesting things that I discovered was that the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’ in the first page of the book must have inspired the title of Charlaine Harris’ book of the same name. And the Ghost of Christmas Past inspired the title of the movie ‘Ghosts of Girlfriends Past’.

 

Which was your favorite scene?

This is a really tough question to answer. I think it would be one of these three – Belle breaking off with Scrooge because she feels that he has become a person greedy for money, the Fezziwig family celebrating Christmas with their family, friends and employees and how at the end of that scene Scrooge says that happiness comes from things which are impossible to add and count, Bob Cratchit celebrating Christmas with his family.

 

Which was your least favorite scene?

I don’t think I had a least favourite scene. Because I think every scene was important to the story and was there for a reason, even if some of the scenes depicted characters who were not really nice or circumstances which exposed the not-so-good part of some of the characters’ hearts. I also wish that the third ghost had spoken. Just pointing the finger was not enough for me.

 

Which spirit and his stories did you find the most interesting?

I liked the second spirit very much, because it showed how people celebrated Christmas with a lot of joy and happiness whether they were rich or poor and how the spirit itself added to the happiness by its magic. The Christmas celebrations of the Fezziwig and Cratchit families were my favourite scenes from that part of the story.

 

Was there a character you wish you knew more about?

Probably Belle. Wish she had met Scrooge again and they could have become friends again.

 

How did you like the end?

I found the ending quite heartwarming and nice. I liked it very much. Though I knew the ending already, even while re-reading, it made me very happy. It was the perfect ending to the story.

 

Did you think it was believable?

I think from the perspective of a Christmas story, the ending was believable. But if I look at it as a real story, it is possible that a person might undergo such a major change in personality when he / she goes through a crisis. But it may not happen always. But it does happen sometimes

 

Do you know anyone like Scrooge?

One of the things I really liked about the story was that it doesn’t depict Scrooge as a completely selfish, miserly person, but shows that there are two sides to his character and one of the sides has been suppressed because of different reasons and circumstances. I think there are people like Scrooge everywhere or people who have some of his personality traits. For example, I have seen people who have money but who don’t know how to use it to make themselves happy or get themselves creature comforts. The disturbing thing though is that Scrooge’s indifference to the world, his refusal to become friends with anyone, his suspicious behaviour towards anyone who invites him for a dinner / party, the way he has constructed walls around his heart so that it is not accessible to anyone around – these are things which we see everyday.

 

Did he deserve to be saved?

I think he deserved to be shown a different perspective of life other than the cold, logical way that he looked at it. I am glad that the three spirits did that and I am glad that it changed Scrooge’s heart and made him a better person. I think everyone deserves an opportunity to become a better person.

 

You can find Caroline’s post on the readalong here and Delia’s post on the readalong here. You can find the answers by other participants in Caroline’s post.

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I discovered Simon Van Booy’s ‘The Secret Lives of People In Love’ through a review of the book that I read. Reviewers raved about the book and it left an impression with me. I remembered it suddenly a few weeks back and so thought I will get his books – there are just three of them – and read them. This is the first of his books that I read.

The Secret Lives Of People In Love By Simon Van Booy

‘The Secret Lives of People in Love’ is a collection of nineteen short stories. Most of them are about love and loss, sometimes about love regained. But mostly about loss. Most stories are between five and ten pages long, except for the last one which is twenty pages long. Simon Van Booy sculpts each sentence in each of his stories with lots of love and with the wisdom gained from all his life, like a master sculptor. Every story has many sentences which are very beautiful. Van Booy prose is spare with vivid images and metaphors. It is a pleasure to read. Reviewers raved about it. One of them said – “These stories have at once the solemnity of myth and the offhandedness of happenstance.” Another said – “Abandon your family, your children, and your friends; resign from your work and your voluntary engagements; let your dinner burn in the oven…and plunge into this book. Real life tastes plastic next to the words of Simon Van Booy.”  I loved reading these reviewer’s comments as much as I loved reading Van Booy’s beautiful sentences.

 

For such a beautiful work of art, the book also had one problem. Many of the stories were a collection of beautiful sentences and images and metaphors. The story was there as an afterthought. Or it was not important. After I finished the first couple of stories, I felt this again and again – that the book was a collection of beautiful sentences and thoughts. But once in a while, the beauty seeped out of those glittering words and sentences and covered the whole story and the whole story glowed with that beauty – like a beautiful green meadow reflecting the sun’s light in a warm summer or a clear winter sky covered with glittering stars. Those stories were the best ones in the book and I read them more than once. My favourites out of these were :

 

Little Birds – It is about a young boy who is brought up by a man who is not his father and his thoughts on his life on his fifteenth birthday.

Where They Hide is a Mystery – It is about a young boy who has lost his mother and how this creates a distance between him and his father and how a chance meeting with a stranger helps him cope with his grief and get back to his father.

The Still But Falling World – This is about a young man who thinks about his life in his village when a strange girl arrives and introduces herself to his family as a long lost cousin of his and how there is more to her than meets the eye.

The Mute Ventriloquist – It is about how a young man loses and regains the love of a woman. It is also about the small things in life that bring happiness.

 

The edition of the book I read also had an extra section in which Van Booy talks about his life, his journey as a writer and shares his thoughts on the writing process.

 

If you like a book constructed out of beautiful sentences, you will love this book.

 

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

 

This morning I woke up and was fifteen years old. Each year is like putting a new coat over all the old ones. Sometimes I reach into the pockets of my childhood and pull things out.

 

He stirred the tea until they were both silent – as though from its sugary bottom, something delicate had risen and usurped language.

 

Edgar drifted farther away from his father. They communicated through silence that flowed between them like a river. In the months that followed her death, the river widened, until Edgar’s father was a motionless speck in a wrinkled suit watching him, arms akimbo, from the opposite bank…By the time winter passed and the earth began to soften, the river of silence between Edgar and his father had become a sea – but it was not rough, nor did the tides bring news of change. Beneath the surface swam unsaid things.

 

In a child’s handwriting, language is exposed as the pained and crooked medium it really is.

 

In this village with its damp shoes and Sunday hymns, you are old the moment someone you love dies.

 

You might say that praying is useless if I don’t believe in God anymore, but let me tell you my opinion : praying for someone is a way to love them without ever having to know them.

 

I realized that it wasn’t God, the Devil, or death that terrified me – but the fact that everything continues on after, as though we’d never existed.

 

Serge was learning English slowly like an old man entering a sea. He enjoyed it because there were so many secrets entrenched within the meanings and in the pronunciation of each strange word. Like butterflies, new words flew from Serge’s mouth and fluttered about the classroom for everyone to admire.

 

She told me that love is when a person introduces you to yourself for the first time.

 

But Drake found nothing so strange about someone unable to find words for life. Children spend the mornings of their lives in a sea of imagination before being hauled out onto rocks by jealous adults who’ve forgotten how to swim.

 

Alzheimer’s is like having your entire life written out in chalk and then washed over by the sea at every tide.

 

He called them dreams because they happened at night, but they seemed too vivid to have been imagined. It was as though they were imagining him. That he was their dream.

 

When small drops began to fall and darken the world in penny-shaped circles, no one around him scurried for cover. For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched.

 

Drake looked at the other drivers…and realized that anyone could be anyone’s father, that anyone could love anyone under certain circumstances, and that life is a museum of small accidents.

 

…the city of Brooklyn itself fell asleep and dreamed it was once a wild, deep forest where owls looked out from trees into windy plains.

 

Have you read Simon Van Booy’s ‘The Secret Lives of People In Love’? What do you think about it?

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After reading Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ sometime back, I decided to read another Julian Barnes book. As ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ seemed to be the most celebrated book of his, I thought I will read that. Though it was a thin book at around 190 pages, I read it slowly across a week. Here is what I think.

Flauberts Parrot By Julian Barnes

‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is described as a novel. It also has a narrator called Geoffrey Braithwaite who tells the story in the first person. But the book is not really a novel. It is a love letter to Gustave Flaubert – the man who wrote such diverse books as ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Sentimental Education’ and Salammbô’. Some regard Gustave Flaubert as an innovator who broke away from the romantic school of writing and introduced a realistic school of writing in French literature. He himself, disputes it. He also gave a lot of importance to style – to finding the perfect sentence, the perfect word to describe exactly what he wanted. Well, how do I know all this? Am I an expert in Flaubert? No. Have I read his biography? No. Or have I read essays on him by his contemporaries? No. Then how? Well, I got all this from this book J For such a slim book, it packs in a lot of information. Information which we can use as a base to learn more about Flaubert. The title is based on the parrot which is a character in Flaubert’s short story ‘A Simple Heart’. The underlying story in the book is about how the narrator, who is a sixty-five year old retired doctor who has lost his wife, explores the real life origins of this parrot. Through the narrator’s words, Barnes explores different aspects of ‘things Flaubert’ – a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different, interesting perspectives, what would happen if a secret collection of Flaubert’s love letters to his fiancée (who is not suspected to have existed) are found, about the animals that Flaubert wanted to be, about critics’ opinions on Flaubert and how even if they are telling the truth they are missing the point, Flaubert’s opinions on trains and the important train moments in his life, the books Flaubert wanted to write but couldn’t, Flaubert’s life as told by his mistress and lover Louise Colet, how the narrator’s own life is connected to Flaubert and ‘Madame Bovary’, how Flaubert’s works and thoughts will make an interesting examination paper. The chapter on chronology was quite interesting because it provided a chronology of Flaubert’s life from three different perspectives – the first was a regular chronology made up of the important events in Flaubert’s life, the second was made up of all the tragic and sad events in Flaubert’s life and the third was a collection of his diary entries across his life. The three versions read so differently that one felt that it is impossible to sum up a life with a chronology.

 

The blurb said that the book was a ‘compelling weave of fiction and imaginatively ordered fact’. So, I was expecting some fact and a lot of fiction. When I did some research and read a few essays on Flaubert and some of his letters from a different book, I discovered that there was more fact than fiction in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. For example, I discovered that Louise Colet is a real person. I also discovered, much to my surprise, that Enid Starkie, who is the critic whom the narrator Braithwaite has a problem with, is an actual Flaubert expert. This knowledge made me like the book more. Clearly Barnes is a lover of things Flaubert and has done his homework.

 

‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ is not a book for everyone. If one is looking for a plot with a beginning, a middle and a surprising end, this is not that one. If one is looking for long, beautiful passages and philosophical commentaries on the modern world, like ‘The Sense of an Ending’ so beautifully provides, one won’t find them here. But as a love letter to one of the great writers of the 19th century, this book is unparalleled. It is beautiful, passionate, intelligent, literary and an absolute pleasure to read. I loved reading every page and every sentence in it. It was like reading a memoir, a biography, a collection of essays, literary criticism, all in one book. It is no surprise that it didn’t win the Booker though it was shortlisted (I don’t know a Booker prize winner which is similar to ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’), but it is also no surprise that it won the Prix Médicis (French readers would have loved it because of the theme of the book). If you like a book which is a love letter to a writer – a bibliophilic book and a literature lover’s dream – you will love this book.

 

I have fallen in love with Flaubert after reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’. Now I want to read his short story ‘A Simple Heart’. And after that ‘Madame Bovary’ and after that ‘Sentimental Education’ and after that Salammbô’.

 

After reading ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’, I read a few essays on Flaubert by his contemporaries – Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant and Henry James. I liked Zola’s essay very much. In a short space of around nine pages, Zola talks about his first experience of meeting Flaubert, about the differences between Flaubert the writer and Flaubert the person, about Flaubert’s views on modernity and progress, on how Flaubert worked on his prose, searching for the perfect sentence and the perfect word and how he would wait for days and weeks for it to arrive. It is a perfect essay and an education in essay writing.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book and from Zola’s essay.

 

From ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’

 

Is it ever the right time to die? It wasn’t for Flaubert; or for George Sand, who didn’t live to read Un cœur simple. ‘I had begun it solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of the work. So it is with all our dreams.’ Is it better not to have the dreams, the work, and then the desolation of uncompleted work? Perhaps, like Frédéric and Deslauriers, we should prefer the consolation of non-fulfilment : the planned visit to the brothel, the pleasure of anticipation, and then, years later, not the memory of deeds but the memory of past anticipations? Wouldn’t that keep it all cleaner and less painful?

 

You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on our point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did : he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.

 

When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.

 

Nowadays we aren’t allowed to use the word mad. What lunacy. The few psychiatrists I respect always talk about people being mad. Use the short, simple, true words. Dead, I say, and dying, and mad, and adultery. I don’t say passed on, or slipping away, or terminal (oh, he’s terminal? Which one? Euston, St Pancras, the Gare St Lazare?), or personality disorder, or fooling around, bit on the side, well she’s away a lot visiting her sister. I say mad and adultery, that’s what I say. Mad has the right sound to it. It’s an ordinary word, a word which tells us how lunacy might come and call like a delivery van. Terrible things are also ordinary. Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional.’

 

…perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a  definite shape, which never needs be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

 

…when readers complain about the lives of writers – why didn’t he do this; why didn’t he protest to the newspapers about that; why wasn’t he more involved in life? – aren’t they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question : why isn’t he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer : it’s as uncomplicated as that.

 

Ellen. My wife : someone I feel I understand less well than a foreign writer dead for a hundred years. Is this an aberration, or is it normal? Books say : she did this because. Life says : she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.

 

‘The whole dream of democracy’, he wrote, ‘is to raise the proletariat to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeoisie.’ That line often makes people edgy. Isn’t it perfectly fair? Over the last hundred years the proletariat has schooled itself in the pretensions of the bourgeoisie; while the bourgeoisie, less confident of its ascendancy, has become more sly and deceitful. Is this progress? Study a packed cross-Channel ferry if you want to see a modern ship of fools. There they all are : working out the profit on their duty-free; having more drinks at the bar than they want; playing the fruit machines; aimlessly circling the deck; making up their minds how honest to be at customs; waiting for the next order from the ship’s crew as if the crossing of the Red Sea depended on it. I do that criticise, I merely observe; and I’m not sure what I would think if everyone lined the rail to admire the play of light on the water and started discussing Boudin. I am not different, by the way : I stock up on duty-free and await orders like the rest of them. My point is merely this : Flaubert was right.

 

‘In the ideal I have of Art, I think that one must not show one’s own, and that the artist must no more appear in his work than God does in nature. Man is nothing, the work of art everything…It would be very pleasant for me to say what I think and relieve Monsieur Gustave Flaubert’s feelings by means of such utterances; but what is the importance of the said gentleman?’

      This demand for authorial absence ran deeper still. Some writers ostensibly agree with the principle, yet sneak in at the back door and cosh the reader with a highly personal style. The murder is perfectly executed, except that the baseball bat left at the scene of the crime is sticky with fingerprints. Flaubert is different. He believed in style; more than anyone. He worked doggedly for beauty, sonority, exactness; perfection – but never the monogrammed perfection of a writer like Wilde. Style is a function of theme. Style is not imposed on subject-matter, but arises from it. Style is truth to thought. The correct word, the true phrase, the perfect sentence are always ‘out there’ somewhere; the writer’s task is to locate them b whatever means he can. For some this means no more than a trip to the supermarket and a loading-up of the metal basket; for others, it means being lost on a plain in Greece, in the dark, in snow, in the rain, and finding what you seek only by some rare trick such as barking like a dog.

 

From Emile Zola’s essay

 

My first visits to Flaubert were a great disillusionment, almost an ordeal. I arrived with a complete image of Flaubert already in my head, an image based on his work of a Flaubert who was the pioneer of the century, the portrayer and philosopher of our modern world. I saw him as clearing a new path, founding an orderly state in the province conquered by romanticism, marching into the future with strength and confidence. In short, I went expecting to find the man of his books, and I encountered a shameless joker, a paradoxical thinker, an impertinent romantic who made my head spin for hours with a deluge of astonishing theories.

 

When he set himself to write, he began by rather rapidly writing a passage, a whole episode, five or six pages at the most. Sometimes, when a word would not come, he would leave the space blank. Then he would attack the passage again; and there would follow two or three weeks, sometimes more, of intense work on those five on six pages. He wanted them perfect, and I assure you that his perfection did not come easily. He weighed every word, examining not only the sense, but the structure. Avoiding repetitions, rhymes, roughness – that was just the coarse part of the job. He reached the point where he did not want the same syllables to occur in a sentence; often one letter exasperated him, he tried to find words in which it did not appear; or else he needed a certain number of r’s to make the period roll. He did not write for the eye, for the reader who reads silently to himself by the fireside; he wrote for the reader who declaims, who pronounces the sentences in a loud voice; indeed, this is the key to his whole working method. To test his sentences he would “bellow” them, alone, at his desk, and he was not satisfied with them until they had come out of his mouth with the sound he wanted them to have.

 

Have you read Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Sleeping Patterns’ by J.R.Crook through Andrew’s beautiful review of it. Andrew also interviewed the author and after reading that fascinating interview, I decided that I had to read this book. At around a hundred pages, it was a slim book and I finished reading it in a day. Here is what I think.

Sleeping Patterns By JR Crook

‘Sleeping Patterns’ is an unusual book. It starts with a dedication to the memory of the author, implying that the author is dead. Then there is an introduction written by Annelie Strandli, who is one of the characters in the story. Annelie says in the introduction that she knew Jamie Crook (the author) quite well, which interestingly means that the author is also a part of the story. Annelie says in the introduction that she got the chapters of this book from Jamie one after the other and they arrived, apparently, in a random order which made sense to her only after she had read the complete book. The book starts with chapter 5 and then goes to chapter 1 and then to chapter 9 and then to chapter 11 and then continues in this vein. The story has multiple layers and sometimes characters jump across layers making the reader contemplate on which is the real story and which is the imagined one.

 

The main story – well, before I finish this sentence, I should add a qualifier, a huge one, to that ‘main’. As the book has multiple layers, it is difficult to tell which is the main story and which are the supporting ones. It is all a matter of perspective and so it will differ from reader to reader. So, when I say ‘the main story’, I am meaning that it is the main story from my perspective. So, let me finish the sentence I started then. The main story is about a few people who live in an apartment complex. The main character is Berry Walker, an unambitious and unconventional man who lives a rich, dreamy internal life and who is also an aspiring writer. The other main character is Annelie Strandli, who has newly moved into the apartment complex. Then there are the other characters who live in the same building, the author Jamie Crook, Berry Walker’s friend Jack Fleeting and Annelie’s friends Catrina Bloodly and Molly Colour. Jamie Crook doesn’t seem to play a major part in the story but seems to watch events from a distance with the occasional interaction with one of the characters. Berry appears to like Annelie. Annelie is intrigued by Berry and wants to discover him through his writings. She manages to gain access to his room and finds printed papers hidden in his desk. She finds fragments of a novel there and starts reading it. The rest of the book is about how the story in that novel progresses and how the real life story of Berry and Annalie evolves. That is putting it simplistically.

 

I have to say something about the layers in the book. There is the main story of Berry and Annalie. There is also the story in Berry’s novel that Annalie is reading. That novel is about the life of a character called Boy One. Then there is a dream that Boy One has and the events that happen in that dream. I could discover atleast these three layers in the story. It will be interesting to take a character and track him / her across these different layers. For our example, if we take Annelie as the character for study, I could discover this. She is one of the main characters in the main story. Then there is the book that she is reading. In that book Boy One has a dream. In that dream there is an ideal woman who appears to him. Then this ideal woman appears in his office in real life. And something makes me think that she is really like Annelie. And so we have this situation :

 

There is a beautiful woman in Boy One’s dream – she appears in real life in Boy One’s work place – the woman who is reading Boy One’s story, Annelie, looks like the beautiful woman in his story – Annelie writes the introduction to the novel in which she is a part of, which makes Annelie a real person and so a part of our real world.

 

The character of Annelie seems to jump through four different layers, the three layers of the story and then into real life. If we look at the character of Benny Walker more closely, we discover the same thing too, which leads to some interesting surprises. The author cleverly combines reality with imagination – the main story and with the-story-within-the-story and with the dream in this last story –  and makes it all seem like a seamless web. The dividing lines between reality and imagination and dreams are clearly blurred. After some point we don’t know which is which.

 

I found the random ordering of chapters quite interesting. Throughout most of the book, I kept looking at the present chapter number and then finding the chapter numbers closest to it out of the ones I had already read and trying to sequence the events in linear form. Sometimes this sequencing worked. At other times it didn’t work – for example, sometimes a later chapter was set during an earlier time period or sometimes consecutive chapters weren’t really connected. At some point I stopped thinking about chapter numbers and went on reading the story. But my experience of trying to find a linear narrative made me think. It made me think on whether we do this naturally – trying to order events chronologically or in some other way like in the ascending order of chapter numbers – or are we conditioned to think this way, to find a narrative in random scenes where none exists? It was an interesting thing to ponder, because at some point of time, the chapter numbers didn’t seem to matter to me.

 

I have to say something about the physical aspects of the book too. The pages of the book were thick and smooth and soft (I love thick pages in books) and the cover was thick but had a soft, leathery touch. The font was big and beautiful. In terms of physical perfection, the book was up there on the top. So, it was a pleasure to touch the cover, flip through the pages and enjoy the look and feel of the book. I keep looking at a beautiful book like this and wonder how the Kindle will ever replace it.

 

‘Sleeping Patterns’ is an interesting and unusual book. (I haven’t read many experimental novels, but if you are interested, you can find a list of similar novels in Andrew’s review.) For a first time writer, it is a wonderful book. It is a good ‘book club’ book as it will lead to many fascinating discussions. It is also an interesting book for literature enthusiasts who like Barthes, Derrida and the like. If you like reading experimental novels you will like ‘Sleeping Patterns’.

 

After reading Andrew’s ‘On the Holloway Road’ and now J.R.Crook’s ‘Sleeping Patterns’, both of which are Luke Bitmead bursary winners and both of which I liked very much, I feel that I will like the other books which have won this award too. So, I want to read the other winners, Ruth Dugdall’s ‘The Woman Before Me’ and Sophie Duffy’s ‘The Generation Game’, next. I also can’t wait to find out what J.R.Crook comes up with next.

 

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

 

The hallway she would reach on the seventh floor would be dimly lit and grey. She would walk along it and from underneath each of the closed doors she passed by, feel rushes of cold air on her bare ankles that would make her shiver.

 

      There was not so much as anything wrong with Boy One, rather his priorities were opposite to what is generally considered right. He was a dreamer. To him, it seemed as if the people he was surrounded by – his parents, his peers, the residents of the small town where he lived – all held the act of dreaming in little regard. They had all consigned dreaming to the small hours, to times of nocturnal abandon. They only dreamt in secluded places, in blanketed corners. They paid little, if any attention toward the theatre of the naked mind and preferred, upon daybreak, to forget their times spent wandering in the clouds.

      For Boy One however, the arena of sleep was wide, and the dreams it contained were without walls or recipe. He believed there to be no quilted nest, or daytime routine that could ever stop him from dreaming whenever he pleased. The difference between Boy One and his peers was that he always contested his alarm clock and allowed his dreaming to overflow into the daylight hours.

 

…he discarded his finished cigarette and, as he moved back, blew his last stream of smoke towards the window. He observed how the smoke crashed against the glass, spread out like a wave and broke at the frame.

 

Some of her best qualities were ones of childhood – of earthy sweetness, of smiles for simple things, of concerning herself without prejudice to small matters of empathy – as if she had somehow managed to smuggle them, without losing their potency, into her emerging adulthood.

 

He was a self-saboteur, whose internal life was a party without noise or lights. Prescribing to himself certain medicines that made the spaces beyond it easier to neglect, he stayed mostly upon his bed and unconcerned with the surrounding tides. He was happy to spend whole days doing nothing but lying back and ambling about mazes of his own making.

 

Have you read J.R.Crook’s ‘Sleeping Patterns’? What do you think about it?

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I liked Zoran Drvenkar’s Tell Me What You See’, which I read in November, so much, that I decided to read his thriller ‘Sorry’. This is my last contribution for German Literature Month this year. Though the event ended in November, my reading crossed the month as it took me more than my normal time to finish reading this book.

Sorry By Zoran Drvenkar

‘Sorry’ is a story told through different viewpoints. Or rather it presumes to tell a story through different viewpoints. Two points of view are quite clear – one in the second person, using which Drvenkar cleverly tries to co-opt the reader into the story, and the second one told in the first person where the identity of the narrator is not revealed till the end. The other points of view are not really that – they presume to tell the story from the perspective of different characters, but they actually narrate the story in a linear fashion.

 

The start of the story is told from a second person point of view. We, as readers, are excited to be co-opted into the story. Unfortunately, it results in a man visiting a woman’s house, kidnapping her, taking her to an abandoned apartment and then nailing her to the wall. The woman looks like a nice and gentle person and the man is clearly violent. The story then goes back in time and turns to the lives of four friends – two young men who are brothers and two young women who are close friends. One of them has an idea – to start an agency which will apologize on behalf of corporate customers who make mistakes, mistakes like firing an employee for a crime he / she didn’t commit. Their business thrives and the agency starts doing well and the four friends buy a villa near a lake. Things are quite hunky dory for them. Then our man, who nails the woman to the wall, calls them. He tells them that he needs their services. He wants to apologize to someone. He makes the payment for their services and gives them the address. One of the four friends reaches the address. He finds the woman nailed to the wall. He panics. He realizes that they are neck deep in trouble. Then things start getting worse. All is not what it seems. The murderer is not the black hearted villain he seems. And the dead woman is not the innocent angel she seems. And there is a third, unknown old man who comes into the picture, who seems to have sinister designs. And the book is not the thriller that it seems.

 

I found ‘Sorry’ to be an interesting book. I found the experiment with the multiple points of view quite interesting. Though I also felt that Drvenkar wasn’t able to pull it off. For example, as Iain Pears has brilliantly done in ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’. Because multiple narrators offer fascinating opportunities for complex storytelling. If one of the narrators is unreliable, it makes things more interesting. But Drvenkar seemed to have missed a trick here. I found it quite interesting that the murderer’s story is told in the second person. When we, the readers, are quite excited to be co-opted into to the story, we immediately see a gruesome murder and are repelled. And we are able to see what is happening in the murderer’s mind, which is quite scary. The book also seems to address the philosophical issue of whether apologizing is a personal thing and whether it can be done by a third party on one’s behalf and whether this is enough to lessen one’s guilt. It also asks questions on whether it is morally right to assuage one’s guilt in this way. The basic plot of the book was interesting and fast-paced. It was not an amazing pageturner, but it was good.

 

My favourite feature of the book was this. There were beautiful sentences strewn like pearls throughout the book which described everyday things in beautiful ways; sentences like these :

 

“She cries silently; the people react as people always do and look the other way”.

 

“The woman’s pain is like a bridge that any one can walk on, if they can summon up some compassion.”

 

“There’s just the desire somehow to fit in, but without really having to belong. She likes society too much to be an outsider, she’s too much of an outsider to conform.”

 

“It’s always difficult when your surroundings don’t change at the same pace as you do yourself.”

 

“the morning light is like underwater photographs on a rainy day.”

 

“The cat’s belly rises ad falls as if it feels completely safe. Wolf wishes he had the cat’s confidence.”

 

“Frauke appears as a negative for a moment.”

 

“Winter hurled itself over the land, and has withdrawn just as quickly.”

 

“In her scent he finds the whole day. The grief, the weariness, and the fury.”

 

These sentences kept on coming again and again and I loved them. I think this was the most wonderful thing about the book. Thrillers have surprised me on this front ever since I started reading them – they have some of the most beautiful sentences. Probably since the time Raymond Chandler started writing them. Drvenkar continues this proud tradition.

 

If I have to give the book a rating, I would give it the highest rating for these beautiful sentences and images and I would give it an average to good rating for the plot and other elements of the story. If you like an interesting unconventional thriller, you can give it a try.

 

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

 

Wolf is one of those writer types who only venture into writing very cautiously. He says he’s collecting experiences, but in fact he uses that to hide the fact that he isn’t sure what story he has to tell. His first great novel is waiting to be written. Short stories and poems are his bridge to that dream.

 

Two pigeons strut to the middle of the road and wait for the lights to change. When the cars start moving, the pigeons fly up and land on a windowsill. As soon as the light turns red. they land on the pavement, strut back to the middle of the road, and the game starts all over again. You watch them for four phases of the lights and wonder if pigeons have a sense of humor.

 

As he was nostalgically watching the new day, he suddenly had a curious feeling. It was one of those premonitions that can be prompted by anything – by the silence between two songs, the sound of a waiter clearing his throat, scraping chair legs, or the silence after someone has lit a cigarette and exhaled the smoke.

 

I think that if you’ve been pursued by a nightmare for seven years, however often you wake up, you don’t trust the whole thing. The nightmare becomes reality and why should reality suddenly disappear?

 

Have you read ‘Sorry’ by Zoran Drvenkar? What do you think about it?

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