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This is the third book I have read for German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

After reading the novellas of Stefan Zweig, I was tempted to read the collected stories. So I picked this up and after some readathoning finished reading it yesterday.

Before I get into the stories in the book, there are a couple of things I want to say about Stefan Zweig. This book has ‘stories’ in the title. Most of us, readers, will instinctively and automatically add the adjective ‘short’ before that word, and believe that the book contains short stories. We will be surprised though when we open the book. There are a few real short stories in the book, which are around ten pages long. But those are few. Most of the stories in the book are somewhere between thirty and sixty pages long. And they are in small font. If we give allowance to font size, they would be much longer. They are too long to be called short stories and too short to be called novellas. They are neither here nor there. They defy classification. Publishers and bookshops will be confused on where to shelve this collection. I loved that aspect of this book. It looks like Stefan Zweig didn’t care what his stories were called. He refused to follow the artificially created rules and categories. He just wrote what he wanted and he wrote it as long as he wanted it to be. It is so cool.

The second thing I wanted to say about Stefan Zweig was this. If something can be said in five words, and that something comes to Stefan Zweig, he will say it in twenty words. In the hands of ordinary mortals this will look like an inefficient use of words which doesn’t serve any purpose, but in the hands of Stefan Zweig, it is beautiful – the beautiful sentences, metaphors, descriptions, insights into the human condition are a pleasure to read. We delve deep into those long, ornate, beautifully sculpted Zweig-ian sentences and we don’t want them to end. They are not like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ long sentences of Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner or the long sentences of Marcel Proust or Bohumil Hrabal. Zweig’s sentences are different. They are unique in their own way and offer a lot of delight to readers. He doesn’t necessarily write long sentences always. But he takes more words to say something. It is interesting, because Zweig mostly wrote stories and novellas. He wrote just two novels. He was not a writer of epic-length books. Within the short length of the overall story or book, he wrote long sentences or used more words to say something. This combination of short and long seems to have produced sparks and created magic. It is fascinating.

This book has twenty two stories. I had read some of them before – Forgotten Dreams, A Story Told in Twilight, Moonbeam Alley, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Invisible Collection, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, Incident on Lake Geneva, The Debt Paid Late. The other stories were all new to me. I read all the new ones, and re-read most of the already read ones. Here is a short description of the stories in the book. These descriptions are inadequate, as each of the stories deserves a separate review of its own with a proper discussion of the story, characters and favourite passages. Unfortunately, that will make things too long.

Forgotten Dreams – A woman and a man, who were in love with each other once, meet after a long time. They remember their past together. This is the first story in the book and the shortest one.

In the Snow – A story of Jewish people suffering at the hand of Christians. Very heartbreaking.

The Miracles of Life – A novella length story about a painter who tries to paint a picture of the Madonna and a young Jewish woman who models for the picture. So beautiful and heartbreaking. Esther, the Jewish woman, is such a beautiful, haunting character.

The Star Above the Forest – What happens when a waiter falls in love with someone who is way above his social station, like a Countess? This story presents one of those scenarios. So beautiful and tragic.

A Summer Novella – An interesting love story which is told through a conversation between two strangers during summer.

The Governess – A story about two young girls who lose their innocence because of some happenings at home. When towards the end of the story, I read this – “They know all about it now. They know that they have been told lies, all human beings can be bad and despicable. They do not love their parents anymore, they do not believe in them. They know that they can never trust anyone, the whole monstrous weight of life will weigh down on their slender shoulders. They have been cast out of the cheerful comfort of their childhood, as if into an abyss…access to their minds has been cut off, perhaps for many years to come. Everyone around them feels that they are enemies, and determined enemies at that who will not easily forgive. For yesterday their childhood came to an end” – it broke my heart.

Twilight – A story of a woman who falls out of favour and is banished from the French court and what she does about it.

A Story Told in Twilight – A beautiful, sensual love story of two young people.

Wondrak – A story about a mother’s love for her son.

Compulsion – A story about a man who is asked by his country to go to war when he and his wife don’t want to, and what he decides and what happens to them. So beautiful and realistic and asks some profound questions.

Moonbeam Alley – I was so excited to read this, because this was the first Stefan Zweig story I ever read seven years back and this is the story which inspired me to read more of his stories. This time around, the story didn’t have the impact that it had the first time, but this story will always have a special place in my heart, because it introduced me to one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of a man who has an adventure in the night in one of the port towns.

Amok – The story of a doctor who is working in the tropics and a strange experience he has. I discovered the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘running amok‘ through this story. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here.

Fantastic Night – One of my favourite stories from the book and probably one of my favourite Zweig stories ever. It is about a man who has everything but is bored with life and how a series of accidental experiences happen to him one particular day and how that changes his life profoundly. It is a fascinating story, almost Russian, almost Dostoevskian, and offers an insightful, amazing commentary on the human condition. There is this beautiful passage at the beginning of the story in which the narrator talks about the challenges of writing. It goes like this :

“I have not a trace of what people call artistic talent, nor any literary experience, and apart from a few rather light-hearted squibs for ‘The Theresianum‘ I have never tried to write anything. I don’t even know, for instance, if there is some special technique to be learnt for arranging the sequence of outward events and their simultaneous inner reflection in order, and I wonder whether I am capable of always finding the right word for a certain meaning and the right meaning for a certain word, so as to achieve the equilibrium which I have always subconsciously felt in reading the work of every true storyteller.”

He continues with this :

“For the whole thing is really just a small episode. But even as I write this, I begin to realize how difficult it is for an amateur to choose words of the right significance when he is writing, and what ambiguity, what possibilities of misunderstanding can attach to the simplest of terms. For if I describe the episode as small, of course I mean it only as relatively small, by comparison with those mighty dramatic events that sweep whole nations and human destinies along with them, and them again I mean it small in terms of time, since the whole sequence of events occupied no more than a bare six hours. To me, however, that experience – which in the general sense was minor, insignificant, unimportant – meant so extraordinarily much that even today, four months after that fantastic night, I still burn with the memory of it, and must exert all my intellectual powers to keep it to myself.”

Later he says this, in this almost Dostoevskian passage :

“With passionate ardour, I still relive what I experienced that day…But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word. Only now that, for the first time, I am to tell a story in its full context do I understand the difficulty of expressing the ever-changing aspect of all that lives in concentrated form. I have just written ‘I’, and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June, 1913. But the word is not really straightforward, for I am by no means still the ‘I’ of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former ‘I’ and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand. I am quite distinct from the man I was then, because of this experience of mine, I see him now from the outside, looking coolly at a stranger, and I can describe him like a playmate, a comrade, a friend whom I know well and whose essential nature I also know but I am not that man any longer. I could speak of him, blame or condemn him, without any sense that he was once a part of me.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman – A writer receives a letter from an unknown woman. The letter describes how she knows him. Very fascinating.

The Invisible Collection – The story of a provincial man with an amazing art collection. You have to read the story to find out why it is invisible. You can read Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – Self explanatory title. Describes the strange happenings in life of that woman. One of my favourite Zweig novellas. You can find my longer review of the story here. You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ LitLovers) review of the story here. You can find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) review of the story here. You can find Brontë’s Page Turners’ review of the story here.

Downfall of the Heart – A beautiful study of family life and the relationship between parents and children. Very heartbreaking too.

Incident on Lake Geneva – A beautiful sad story and also a commentary on artificial borders created by humans. There is this beautiful dialogue towards the end of the story, which is heartbreaking.

Manager : “What do you want, Boris?”
Boris : “Forgive me, I only wanted…I wanted to know if I can go home.”
Manager : “Of course, Boris, to be sure you can go home.”
Boris : “Tomorrow?”
Manager : “No Boris…not just yet. Not until the war is over.”
Boris : “When is that? When will the war be over?”
Manager : “God only knows. We humans don’t.”
Boris : “But before that? Can’t I go before that?”
Manager : “No, Boris.”
Boris : “Is it so far to go?”
Manager : “Yes.”
Boris : “Many more days’ journey?”
Manager : “Many more days.”
Boris : “I go all the same, sir. I’m strong. I don’t tire easily.”
Manager : “But you can’t, Boris. There’s a border between here and your home.”
Boris : “A border?” (He looked blank. The word was new to him. Then he said again with his extraordinary obstinacy) “I’ll swim over it.”
Manager : “No, Boris, that’s impossible. A border means there’s a foreign country on the other side. People won’t let you through.”
Boris : “But I won’t hurt them! I threw my rifle away. Why wouldn’t they let me go back to my wife, if I ask them in Christ’s name?”
Manager : “No, they won’t let you through, Boris. People don’t take any notice of the word of Christ anymore.”
Boris : “But what am I to do, sir? I can’t stay here! The people that live here don’t understand me, and I don’t understand them.”
Manager : “You’ll soon learn, Boris.”
Boris : “No, sir. I can’t learn things. I can only work in the fields, that’s all I know how to do. What would I do here? I want to go home! Show me the way!”
Manager : “There isn’t any way at the moment, Boris.”
Boris : “But sir, they can’t forbid me to go home to my wife and my children! I’m not a soldier anymore.”
Manager : “Oh yes, they can, Boris.”
Boris : “What about the Tsar?”
Manager : “There’s no Tsar any more, Boris. He’s been deposed.”
Boris : “No Tsar anymore?” (He stared dully at the other man, the last glimmer of light went out in his eyes…)

Mendel the Bibliophile – About a bibliophile called Mendel. He almost seemed to resemble the way I am, some days. One of my favourite stories from the book. You can find Jonathan’s (from Intermittencies of the Mind) review of the story here.

Leporella – A story about a cook and her relationship with her employers.

Did He Do It? – A beautiful, heartbreaking story about a dog and his human masters. The dog is not the good person here.

The Debt Paid Late – The story of a woman, who accidentally bumps into her favourite actor which makes her reminisce her past. I had read this story before and it has preserved its magic when I read it again. Beautiful story.

I loved all the stories in the book. Each was beautiful in its own way. But one story which leapt up above all else is ‘Fantastic Night‘. It was incredibly beautiful and touched me deeply and pulled so many heartstrings. That is a story I want to read again soon, slowly, savouring each word.

So, that’s it. I think I have read all Stefan Zweig’s stories which are out there in print. There are two novels of his that I have to read still – ‘Beware of Pity‘ and ‘The Post Office Girl‘. I hope to read them sometime. It is a bittersweet moment, because there are no new Stefan Zweig stories left. But I am glad he wrote these beautiful stories which continue to delight readers, decades after they were first published. Stefan Zweig is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century who is virtually unknown today. I wish more readers discover his works and delight in the pleasures they offer.

Have you read ‘The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Stefan Zweig story?

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Stefan Zweig is one of my most favourite writers and I have dipped into this collection of his, before, but this time I wanted to take this book and read all the novellas in it together, especially the ones I have not read before.

This book has five novellas – ‘A Burning Secret‘, ‘A Chess Story‘, ‘Fear‘, ‘Confusion‘, ‘Journey into the Past‘. I had read ‘A Chess Story‘ and ‘Journey into the Past‘ before (my reviews are here and here). I read the other three novellas this time. This is what I think.

In ‘Burning Secret‘, a young Baron comes on a holiday to a small town. He is looking for adventure. He discovers that there is a woman with her twelve year old son staying in the same hotel as him. He decides to seduce this woman. He starts by becoming friends with the son, and through him he becomes friends with the mother. At this point in the story, the point of view shifts to that of the son, and we see the story unfolding through the son’s eyes. What happens after that, does the woman respond to the Baron’s overtures, does the Baron’s plan succeed, how does the son react – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the story more when the narration shifts to the son’s point of view. The way the son slowly loses his innocence and does everything in his power to thwart the Baron’s plans while maintaining an innocent face (at one point we read this line – “Now that he was certain he was in their way, being with them became a cruelly complex pleasure.“), is very fascinating to read, and makes us smile. The ending of the story was beautiful and heartwarming, which was not at all what I expected.

In ‘Fear‘, a thirty year old woman, who is happily married to a successful lawyer and lives a comfortable life, decides to have an affair with a young musician. One day while leaving the musician’s house, she is confronted by another woman who refuses to let her leave the building unless she gets paid some money. Our main character pays her something and leaves the building. She is then worried and scared. But nothing happens for the next few days and life goes back to normal. But before long, this other woman finds our heroine’s residence and starts blackmailing her for more money and this makes our heroine’s life a living hell. What she does about it and whether she is able to come out of the clutches of the blackmailer and whether her husband and her family discover her secret – the answers to these questions form the rest of the story. I loved the way the title of the story perfectly depicts the atmosphere pervading throughout – how our heroine’s fear of being exposed starts from the first page and continues till the last. The ending of the story was very unexpected and heartwarming, but also a little movie-ish. But I was happy with it.

In ‘Confusion‘, an old professor is honoured for his achievements. This professor, who is the narrator of the story, says that what is known about his career, is based on facts, but the real truth of how things happened, is a totally different story. He then proceeds to narrate what happened. When this professor was a young man, he had lost his way as a student, and one day he arrives at the university in a small town to focus on his education. He attends a lecture by an inspiring professor and before long he becomes close with the professor and his wife and is working on a book project with his professor. How this teacher-student relationship evolves and how the book project moves along forms the rest of the story. In the scene in which our young man first attends the professor’s lecture for the first time, there is a four page description of what happens. It is beautiful and inspiring and gave me goosebumps. It made me think of all my favourite teachers who inspired me, and all my favourite inspiring fictional teachers like John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets Society‘ and Katherine Ann Watson, the character played by Julia Roberts in ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘. This story was worth reading for those four pages alone. But, of course, there is more to the story than that, and I suspected something at the beginning of the story, but ignored that because I thought it was just a product of my overactive imagination, but in the end, what I suspected came true. The ending to the story is very surprising and completely unexpected. ‘Confusion’ was first published in 1927 and it was way ahead of its times. I can’t tell you why. You should read the story to find out.

I loved all the three novellas that I read, but I think ‘Confusion‘ is the one I loved the most. Those four pages which described the inspiring teacher were something. I wish I could quote that part here, but it is too long. I can’t wait to read more stories by Stefan Zweig. I have another thick, chunky volume waiting for me 🙂

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

From ‘Confusion

“I have never heard anyone speak with such enthusiasm, so genuinely carrying the listeners away – for the first time I experienced what Latin scholars call a raptus, when one is taken right out of oneself; the words uttered by his quick tongue were spoken not for himself, nor for the others present, but poured out of his mouth like fire from a man inflamed by internal combustion.”

“…when I had leafed through the two hundred industrious pages and looked my intellectual reflection in the eye, I couldn’t help smiling. Was that really my life, did it truly trace as purposeful a course with such ease, from the first to the present day as the biographer describes, sorting the paper records into order? I felt exactly as I did when I first heard my own voice on a recording : initially I did not recognize it at all, for it was indeed my voice but only as others hear it, not as I hear it myself through my blood and within my very being, so to speak. And so I, who have spent a lifetime depicting human beings in the light of their work, portraying the intrinsic intellectual structure of their worlds, was made aware again from my own experience of the impenetrability in every human life of the true core of its being, the malleable cell from which all growth proceeds. We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second when (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes – a magical second, like the moment of generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible, untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone. No algebra of the mind can calculate it, no alchemy of premonition divine it, and it can seldom perceive itself.
The book says not a word about this most secret factor in my mental development : that is why I couldn’t help smiling. Everything it says is true – only what genuinely matters is missing. It merely describes me, it says nothing real about me. It speaks of me, but does not reveal what I am.”

Have you read ‘The Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig‘? What do you think about it?

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After taking a short break from reading, which was threatening to morph into a reading slump, I am back with a new book review. November for me is German Literature Month. German Literature Month is hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life. During this month, German Literature fans across the world get together and read books originally written in German. I have been participating in this event since inception and it has expanded my German literary horizons in a rich way. The first book I read for German Literature Month this year was ‘Elective Affinities‘ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe is most famous today for ‘Faust‘ which is probably regarded as his greatest work. But he wrote all kinds of things – novels, plays, poems, travelogues. ‘Elective Affinities‘ is one of his famous novels. The title comes from this fact observed in chemistry – that some chemicals are naturally attracted towards each other and get together and form new chemicals. Sometimes two chemicals are not attracted towards each other and actually refuse to mix together, but in the presence of a third chemical, they get together and do surprising, interesting things. These behaviours were referred to, by chemists, as ‘elective affinities’. What happens when we take this story to people? What happens when two people are joined by a third person? Or a fourth person? Do we see some elective affinities in play here? This novel explores that.

Eduard and Charlotte are happily married. They loved each other when they were younger, but things didn’t work out as they had planned. They ended up marrying other people, but as time passed their partners passed, and they ended up together. That is a good story with a happy ending. But this story starts with that happy ending as its beginning. While Eduard and Charlotte are enjoying their happy life together, Eduard tells Charlotte that his old friend, the Captain, is not doing well now, and he wants to invite his friend to stay with them. Charlotte is apprehensive about this, because she feels this will disturb the equilibrium of the household and their relationship. Charlotte has a ward called Ottilie. Ottilie is Charlotte’s best friend’s daughter, and after her friend passed, Charlotte takes Ottilie under her wing, and treats her like her own daughter. Charlotte also has a daughter of her own from her previous marriage. Ottilie and Charlotte’s daughter study in the same school together. Charlotte’s daughter is a star there and excels in every way, while Ottilie is very quiet and goes about her business in her own quiet way. Charlotte discovers this after a while and she feels that Ottilie feels out-of-place at the school. She thinks of getting Ottilie back and asking her to help Charlotte out at the house. But she is hesitant to talk about this with Eduard because of the same reason – she doesn’t want to disturb the equilibrium of the household with the addition of a new person. At some point, Charlotte and Eduard have a conversation about it and they feel that it is silly to deny themselves the opportunity to help the people they love. They decide to invite the Captain and Ottilie to stay with them. Things go well for a while. The four of them hang out together, do things together, have wonderful conversations, and a beautiful friendship develops between them. But then the inevitable happens and elective affinities come into play. Eduard and Ottilie are attracted towards each other, while Charlotte and the Captain are attracted towards each other. What happens after that? Will the four friends do something about their feelings? Will they break social norms? Does it end well for them or does it end badly? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Elective Affinities‘. It was probably far ahead of its times – the book was published in 1809 – and the main theme of the story feels very fresh and contemporary. The introduction to the book says that it created a lot of controversy when it first came out. I loved two things about the story, the most. The first thing was how the four main characters were portrayed. It was hard to dislike any of them. They were all real, believable, complex people, and they all were likeable. I occasionally had problems with the way Eduard reacted, but the other three were beautiful characters. And the very beautiful thing was that they all loved each other. They loved each other in different ways, but it was mostly positive and beautiful. My twenty-first century self, at one point, wanted them all to live together in the same house, like a ‘modern family’, and live happily ever after. That was a pipedream, of course. This was a novel written in the early 1800s, and so unfortunately, that happy ending was not happening. I won’t tell you what happened though. You have to read the book and find out. The second thing I loved about the book was the beautiful prose and thoughts. They didn’t come in every page like they might in some of today’s literary fiction, but the beautiful passages came once in a while. The book was focussed on the plot, and each sentence and paragraph did its thing to move the plot forward. But like a breather, once in a while, there was a beautiful passage, which made us pause and ponder and re-read it again and contemplate more. It was liking taking a hike to the top of the mountain, when we are focussing on the climb to the top, but when we reach the top, a beautiful vista opens up and we can see the whole green valley revealing all its glorious beauty and we want to stand there and take it all in and don’t want to leave. The beautiful passages were that valley, that beautiful view from the top. Once upon a time, novelists wrote like this. Nowadays they don’t write like this anymore. It is sad.

I am happy that I finally read ‘Elective Affinities‘. It is a beautiful study of marriage and love, within and without marriage. This is my second Goethe novel, after ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther‘, and though I liked both, I think I like ‘Elective Affinities’ more. The book has a beautiful introduction by the translator R.J.Hollingdale, in which he describes how Goethe came to write this book and how his own experiences and ideas led to the story.

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

“The case of the craftsman and the sculptor supplies the clearest evidence that man is least able to make his own that which most completely belongs to him. His works desert him as the bird deserts the nest in which it was hatched.
The architect above all has in this the strangest of destinies. How often he employs his whole mind and his whole love in the production of rooms from which he himself must be excluded. Kingly halls owe to him their splendour, but he cannot enjoy them at their most effective. In temples, he fixes a boundary between himself and the holy of holies, he may no longer mount the steps he himself has erected, just as the goldsmith may worship only from afar the monstrance he has made. The architect hands over to the rich man with the keys of his palace all the ease and comfort to be found in it without being able to enjoy any of it himself. Must the artist not in this way gradually become alienated from his art, since his work, like a child that has been provided for and left home, can no longer have any effect upon its father? And how beneficial it must have been for art when it was intended to be concerned almost exclusively with what was public property, and belonged to everybody and therefore also to the artist!”

“Only let us firmly determine on one thing : to separate everything that is actual business from living. Business demands seriousness and severity, living demands caprice; business requires consistency, living often requires inconsistency, for that is what makes life agreeable and exhilarating. If you are secure in the one, you can be all the more free in the other; whereas if you confound the two, your freedom uproots and destroys your security.”

“Actually my dear, it is our own fault if we are surprised in this fashion. We do so like to imagine that earthly things are so very permanent, and especially the marriage tie. And as to that, we are misled by all those comedies we see so much of into imaginings which are quite contrary to the way of the world. In a comedy we see a marriage as the final fulfilment of a desire which has been thwarted by the obstacles of several acts. The moment this desire is fulfilled, the curtain falls, and this momentary satisfaction goes on echoing in our minds. Things are different in the real world. In the real world the play continues after the curtain has fallen, and when it is raised again, there is not much pleasure to be gained by seeing or hearing what is going on.”

“I should like to see the man who has a greater talent for love than I have.”

“As life draws us along, we think we are acting of our own volition, ourselves choosing what we shall do and what we shall enjoy; but when we look more closely we see they are only the intentions and inclinations of the age which we are being compelled to comply with.”

“Just as the gardener must not let himself be distracted by other interests and inclinations, so the peaceful progress of the plant towards lasting or transient perfection must not be interrupted. Plants are like self-willed people with whom you can do anything provided you handle them properly. A tranquil eye, an unruffled consistency in doing, each season of the year, each hour of the day, precisely what needs to be done, are perhaps required of nobody more than they are of the gardener.”

“Why is the year sometimes so long, sometimes so short, why does it seem so short and yet in retrospect so long? That is how the past year appeared to me, and nowhere more strikingly than in the garden : what is transient and what endures are involved one with another. And yet nothing is so fleeting but it leaves some trace of itself behind.”

“We often encounter in everyday life something which, when we encounter it in art, we are accustomed to attribute to the poet’s artistry : when the chief characters are absent or concealed, or lapse into inactivity, their place is at once taken by a second or third character who has hardly been noticed before, and when this character then comes fully into his own he seems just as worthy of our attention and sympathy and even of our praise.”

Have you read ‘Elective Affinities‘? What do you think about it?

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I have a quiz question for you. There is a famous story which goes like this. A black man is accused of committing a crime against a white person. A white lawyer represents him. We see the story unfold through the eyes of a young person who is related to the white lawyer. What is the name of this novel? Can you guess? Of course, you know the answer. It is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee, everyone’s favourite novel. You are right. But this is a question which has more than one correct answer. The second answer to this question is ‘Intruder in the Dust‘ by William Faulkner. That is the reason I read this book.

Lucas is a black farmer. He is an odd person, because he owns land in the middle of a farm owned by white people, refuses to kowtow to his white neighbours and always walks with a proud demeanor, and treats everyone, especially white neighbours as his equal. People resent him. They are always trying to do something to teach him a lesson. One day Lucas is arrested for shooting and killing a white man. Lucas asks a teenage boy called Chick to get his uncle, who is a lawyer. The uncle arrives with Chick. He tells Lucas that nothing much can be done because it is an open-and-shut case, because Lucas has been caught literally with a smoking gun in his hand. There is no way he can talk himself out of this. Lucas wants to say something, but doesn’t. Later, Chick feels that Lucas wants to tell him something and so he comes back alone. Lucas tells Chick that the bullet that killed the victim didn’t come from his gun. Chick embarks on a project to help Lucas. There is a time constraint though, because the relatives of the victim want to break open into the prison, get Lucas out, and lynch him. What is Chick’s plan? Does someone help him? Does his uncle believe in Lucas’ innocence? What happens next? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

I will get this out of the way first. Beyond the high level plot sketch, there is no similarity between ‘Intruder in the Dust’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. They are two different things. Now more on Faulkner’s book. This is my first Faulkner book. So I was very excited. But halfway through, I was frustrated. Why? Because of this. I didn’t know how to read Faulkner’s book. Should I read it like a fast-paced narrative fiction because the story was interesting? Or should I read it slowly, focusing on the prose and the beauty of the sentences, because it was literary fiction? I tried the first way and it didn’t work. I tried the second way, and that didn’t work too. It was frustrating. One of the reasons for this is that the story has long sentences, which run for a page, and sometimes they stretch into multiple pages. I am not a stranger to long sentences. I love them. In my experience, there are two kinds of long sentences. The first one takes a thought or an idea and builds on it. I love this kind of long sentence. It has a lot of depth and it is beautiful. For example, in Marcel Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘, the narrator describes his experience of getting up in the morning and how his senses and his mind awaken. It is beautiful. Another example is from Bohumil Hrabal’sCutting it Short‘. In this book on the first page, there is a description of what happens in the evening when the sun sets and the candles and lamps are lit. It is very poetic and beautiful. There is a second kind of long sentence. It stretches on to a page or more, and has lots of thoughts, ideas and images embedded in it. It is distracting, disrupts our mind from being focussed, and has a hundred unrelated things strewn all over the place. This long sentence – I hate. Maybe hate is a strong word. I find this strong sentence hard to read. It doesn’t build on a thought or an idea, it has too many things in one page, it is distracting, it doesn’t serve any purpose. Reading this sentence is like looking into our mind and noticing hundreds of unrelated thoughts flitting by at any moment. This kind of sentence forms the core of any ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. It is one of the reasons I haven’t been able to read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs.Dalloway‘. I tried years back, and gave up. I haven’t bothered trying to read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘. Because I know I would have the same experience. William Faulkner’s ‘Intruder in the Dust‘ is written in that ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style, with long sentences flitting all over the place. I felt that these long sentences were getting in the way of the story and were not giving me any reading pleasure. But I persisted with them and looked forward to the places where there was dialogue which moved the story and where there were passages which focussed on a topic. This was after all a book about crime and race and the American South and I was hoping to find many insightful passages. Those passages did arrive and they made me happy. But at some point it became too hard for me. I started speed reading the book, trying to reach those parts with dialogue and beautiful passages, feeling guilty all the time, because I almost never speed read, because I feel a book deserves to be treated with respect and affection and given the time it deserves. But I didn’t have a choice here, because it was too much for me. Finally a combination of perseverance and speed reading got me through to the last page. After finishing the last page, I wondered whether I would read a Faulkner book again. I went and checked another Faulkner book I have called ‘As I Lay Dying‘ to find out whether he has deployed the same style there. Fortunately not. That book has short sentences and the story is narrated by multiple characters, and the book looks almost contemporary. So, there is hope yet. I hope to read ‘As I Lay Dying‘ sometime soon. As far as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style is concerned, I hope, someday, to dip into ‘Ulysses‘ and ‘Mrs.Dalloway‘ again. Hopefully I will respond to it better. I hope Virginia Woolf has written books which don’t use the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style. I admire her tremendously and it will be a shame if the only book of hers I can read is ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. Beyond dipping my toes though, I think I will stay away from ‘stream-of-consciousness’ works. It is not my thing.

So, what do I think about ‘Intruder in the Dust‘? I think it is an interesting book. I loved many of the characters, especially Lucas, Chick, Mrs.Habersham and Lucas’ uncle Gavin. There were also interesting, thought-provoking passages throughout the book. I think lovers of the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style will appreciate the book more. I am happy that I checked two boxes with this one book – I read my first complete ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel and I read my first William Faulkner book. I wish the reading experience had been better. I discovered that there is a film adaptation of the book. I think I will like that, because it will dispense with the style and focus on the plot. I would love to watch it sometime.

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

“…his uncle had said that all man had was time, all that stood between him and the death he feared and abhorred was time yet he spent half of it inventing ways of getting the other half past…”

“…outside the quiet lamplit room the vast millrace of time roared not toward midnight but dragging midnight with it, not to hurl midnight into wreckage but to hurl the wreckage of midnight down upon them in one poised skyblotting yawn…”

“Just remember that they can stand anything, accept any fact…provided they don’t have to face it…”

Gavin : “He ain’t asleep. He’s cooking breakfast.”
Miss Habersham : “Cooking breakfast?”
Gavin : “He’s a country man. Any food he eats after daylight in the morning is dinner.”

“If you got something outside the common run that’s got to be done and can’t wait, don’t waste your time in the menfolks; they works on what your uncle calls the rules and the cases. Get the womens and the children at it; they works on the circumstances.”

“…because you escape nothing, you flee nothing; the pursuer is what is doing the running and tomorrow night is nothing but one long sleepless wrestle with yesterday’s omissions and regrets.”

“…there is a simple numerical point at which a mob cancels and abolishes itself, maybe because it has finally got too big for darkness, the cave it was spawned in is no longer big enough to conceal it from light and so at last whether it will or no it has to look at itself, or maybe because the amount of blood in one human body is no longer enough, as one peanut might titillate one elephant but not two or ten. Or maybe it’s because man having passed into mob passes then into mass which abolishes mob by absorption, metabolism, then having got too large even for mass becomes man again conceptible of pity and justice and conscience even if only in the recollection of his long painful aspiration toward them, toward that something anyway of one serene universal light.”

Have you read ‘Intruder in the Dust‘? What do you think about it? Do you like the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style of writing?

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Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Everytime I read her poem, ‘The Summer Day‘, I get goosebumps. But I haven’t read any of her prose or essay collections. I thought I will start with this one. (Isn’t the book cover breathtakingly beautiful?)

Upstream‘ is a collection of essays, mostly selected from Mary Oliver’s other collections and assembled together here. The book is divided into five sections. In the first section, Mary Oliver writes about how she fell in love with nature and with reading and with poetry. She also writes about her favourite poet Walt Whitman. She also shares her thoughts on writing as an art – it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring essays I have read. The second section is about nature. The third section is about Oliver’s favourite writers. Here in four essays, she shares her thoughts on Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. The fourth section is also about nature. The final section has one essay called ‘Provincetown‘ which talks about the town in which Oliver lived with her partner for nearly five decades. It is a beautiful essay about how this beautiful coastal town changed from a sleepy town where everyone was happy to the tourist spot that it is today.

I mentioned earlier that the second and the fourth sections were about nature. Is there any difference between them? Which section did I like more? The second section mostly had essays which looked at nature from a slightly larger perspective. For example, there is an essay about ponds and another about fishing and different kinds of fishes. The fourth section takes a more closer look. Here, there is an essay on a spider which is building her web and trying to have babies. There is another essay about an injured seagull which Oliver saves from the beach and what happens to him. We almost feel that the spider and the seagull are human. I liked both these nature sections, but I loved the fourth section more. It was hard not to think of Charlotte while reading the essay on the spider.

My favourite essays in the book were ‘Upstream‘, which is a meditative essay about trees, the woods, the forest – it felt almost like reading a Mary Oliver poem here, ‘My Friend Walt Whitman‘, which is a beautiful ode to this great poet, ‘Staying Alive‘, which describes how Mary Oliver fell in love with books and nature, ‘Of Power and Time‘, which is a beautiful, inspiring essay about the life of an artist, ‘Swoon‘, which is about the spider mom, ‘Bird‘, which is about the injured seagull, ‘Building the House‘, in which Oliver describes how she tried building a house once, and ‘Provincetown‘, which is a beautiful nostalgic piece. I liked the rest of the essays too, but these were my absolute favourites.

I loved ‘Upstream‘. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Now after reading this book, I realize that she will give my favourite essayist Anne Fadiman a run for her money. A collection of Mary Oliver poems or essays, a collection of Anne Fadiman essays, a quiet time in the garden with the birds chirping, and the butterflies dazzling, the sun warm but not hot, the sky beautifully blue with fluffy white clouds, a cup of delicious, hot, spicy tea with some chocolate cake, and a beautiful time spent savouring poems and essays and nature – this is the ideal day, isn’t it? What more does one need?

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (Sorry I went overboard with the quotes).

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.”

On the Black Oak

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel.”

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

On Walt Whitman

“I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed. I remember the delicate, rumpled way into the woods, and the weight of the books in my pack. I remember the rambling, and the loafing—the wonderful days when, with Whitman, I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time.”

On the Beauty of Work

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”

On Form

“Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering; see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?”

On Life

“And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold—but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”

On Creative Work and the Creative Life

“In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook—a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

“Of this there can be no question—creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this—who does not swallow this—is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.”

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

On Emerson

“The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament. This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture—who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look—we must look—for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.”

The Two Gifts

“In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.”

The Love of Trees

“Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too. Eventually I began to appreciate—I don’t say this lightly—that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean they knew me as myself and not another—that kind of individualism was not in the air—but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable, as I walked toward them and beneath their outflowing branches.”

The Young Carpenter Poet

“I know a young man who can build almost anything—a boat, a fence, kitchen cabinets, a table, a barn, a house. And so serenely, and in so assured and right a manner, that it is joy to watch him. All the same, what he seems to care for best—what he seems positively to desire—is the hour of interruption, of hammerless quiet, in which he will sit and write down poems or stories that have come into his mind with clambering and colorful force. Truly he is not very good at the puzzle of words—not nearly as good as he is with the mallet and the measuring tape—but this in no way lessens his pleasure. Moreover, he is in no hurry. Everything he learned, he learned at a careful pace—will not the use of words come easier at last, though he begin at the slowest trot? Also, in these intervals, he is happy. In building things, he is his familiar self, which he does not overvalue. But in the act of writing he is a grander man, a surprise to us, and even more to himself. He is beyond what he believed himself to be.”

Have you read ‘Upstream‘ by Mary Oliver? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘ when some of my feminist friends organized a feminist literature reading festival a few years back. Nawal El Saadawi was the only author featured in the list, who was new to me. I made a mental note to read one of her books. I finally got around to reading this today.

Nawal El Saadawi says in her introduction to the book that ‘Woman at Point Zero’ is based on a real story. The story told in the book goes like this. The narrator is a psychiatrist who visits a prison to talk to some of the women prisoners and try to understand them and study their personalities. There is one prisoner called Firdaus, who she is fascinated with. Firdaus has been convicted of murder and is going to be executed soon. The narrator wants to meet Firdaus, but Firdaus doesn’t talk to anyone and refuses to see her. The narrator is disappointed, but keeps trying. One day her persistence pays off and Firdaus agrees to see her. Firdaus tells the narrator her story – how she struggled when she was a child because her parents treated her badly because she was a girl, how when they passed her uncle took her in, sent her to school and got her an education, and though she passed out of school with distinction and loved learning she couldn’t pursue studies and was married off to an old man, how her husband harassed her and treated her like a maid and a slave and how she escaped from his house, how she met kind strangers who helped her and took her in but soon revealed their true colours, how she was betrayed by one man after another and sometimes by a woman too (when Firdaus says – “The street was an endless expanse stretched out before my eyes like a sea. I was just a pebble thrown into it, battered by the waves, tossed here and there, rolling over and over to be abandoned somewhere on the shore” – it breaks our heart), how her fight for survival as a single woman in a conservative, patriarchal society forced her to become a prostitute, how that, surprisingly, gave her freedom and power and independence and status, how her lifelong harrowing experiences revealed to her some bitter truths about society and the way it is structured and the way it exploits women, how she ended up in the prison she is now in.

When I finished reading the book, I felt that I was close to drowning and came out of water in the last moment for a breath of air. Firdaus’ story is hard to read – it is dark, bleak, powerful and sinks us further and further into the abyss. Throughout the sinking, we hear Firdaus’ calm, brave voice narrating the story in a matter-of-fact way, slamming society and its evils clinically. Through Firdaus’ voice, Nawal El Saadawi offers deep and insightful commentary on the human condition and on how society has treated women across the ages. It is powerful and stirring. It makes us angry, it makes us sad, it gives us goosebumps, it makes us bitter, it makes us ponder on how to change things. When the story ended and I read this passage in the final pages –

“I saw her walk out with them. I never saw her again. But her voice continued to echo in my ears, vibrating in my head, in the cell, in the prison, in the streets, in the whole world, shaking everything, spreading fear wherever it went, the fear of the truth which kills, the power of truth, as savage, and as simple, and as awesome as death, yet as simple and as gentle as the child that has not yet learnt to lie. And because the world was full of lies, she had to pay the price.”

– it was heartbreaking and made me cry.

I loved ‘Woman at Point Zero‘. It is a brilliant book. Firdaus is one of the great literary heroines and this book is one of the great feminist novels. Nawal El Saadawi is one of the great feminists of the twentieth century and it is a shame that she is not more well known internationally. I wish more readers read this book and give it the love it deserves. It is inspiring, stirring stuff. I can’t wait to read more of Nawal El Saadawi’s works.

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

A Distant Feeling

“I held her eyes in mind, took her hand in mine. The feeling of our hands touching was strange, sudden. It was a feeling that made my body tremble with a deep distant pleasure, more distant than the age of my remembered life, deeper than the consciousness I had carried with me throughout. I could feel it somewhere, like a part of my being which had been born with me when I was born, but had not grown with me when I had grown, like a part of my being that I had once known, but left behind when I was born. A cloudy awareness of something that could have been, and yet was never lived.”

The Joy of Freedom

“It was midnight and the streets were quiet. A gentle breeze was beckoning softly from the Nile. I walked along, enjoying the peace of the night. I no longer felt any pain. Everything around seemed to fill me with tranquillity. The gentle breeze caressing my face, the empty streets, and the rows of closed windows and doors, the feeling of being rejected by people and at the same time being able to reject them, the estrangement from everything, even the earth, and the sky and the trees. I was like a woman walking through an enchanted world to which she does not belong. She is free to do what she wants, and free not to do it. She experiences the rare pleasure of having no ties with anyone, of having broken with everything, of having cut all relations with the world around her, of being completely independent and living her independence completely, of enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage, or to love; of being divorced from all limitations whether rooted in rules and laws in time or in the universe…She no longer hopes for anything or desires anything. She no longer fears anything, for everything which can hurt her she has already undergone.”

Becoming Free

“I have triumphed over both life and death because I no longer desire to live, nor do I any longer fear to die. I want nothing. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. Therefore I am free. For during life it is our wants, our hopes, our fears that enslave us. The freedom I enjoy fills them with anger. They would like to discover that there is after all something which I desire, or fear, or hope for. Then they know they can enslave me once more.”

The Nature of Truth

“I am speaking the truth now without any difficulty. For the truth is always easy and simple. And in its simplicity lies a savage power. I only arrived at the savage, primitive truths of life after years of struggle. For it is only very rarely that people can arrive at the simple, but awesome and powerful truths of life after only a few years. And to have arrived at the truth means that one no longer fears death. For death and truth are similar in that they both require a great courage if one wishes to face them. And truth is like death in that it kills. When I killed I did it with truth not with a knife. That is why they are afraid and in a hurry to execute me. They do not fear my knife. It is my truth which frightens them. This fearful truth gives me great strength. It protects me from fearing death, or life, or hunger, or nakedness, or destruction. It is this fearful truth which prevents me from fearing the brutality of rulers and policemen.”

On Men

“I became aware of the fact that I hated men, but for long years had hidden this secret carefully. The men I hated most of all were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading. I used to hate them more than the others because they thought they were better than I was and could help me change my life. They saw themselves in some kind of chivalrous role – a role they had failed to play under other circumstances. They wanted to feel noble and elevated by reminding me of the fact that I was low. They were saying to themselves:
‘See how wonderful I am. I’m trying to lift her out of the mud before it’s too late, that slut of a woman.’
I refused to give them a chance to play this role. None of them was there to rescue me when I was married to a man who beat me up and kicked me every day. And not one of them came to my help when my heart was broken because I had dared to fall in love. A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off. I was able to convince myself that I had chosen this life of my own free will. The fact that I rejected their noble attempts to save me, my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and that I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”

Conversation between Firdaus and Sharifa

‘Who are you?’
And she replied, ‘Your mother.’
‘My mother died many years ago.’
‘Then your sister.’
‘I have neither sister, nor brother. They all died when they were small, like chicks.’
‘Everybody has to die, Firdaus. I will die, and you will die.The important thing is how to live until you die.’
‘How is it possible to live? Life is so hard.’
‘You must be harder than life, Firdaus. Life is very hard. The only people who really live are those who are harder than life itself.’
‘But you are not hard, Sharifa, so how do you manage to live?’
‘I am hard, terribly hard, Firdaus.’
‘No, you are gentle, and soft.’
‘My skin is soft, but my heart is cruel, and my bite deadly.’
‘Like a snake?’
‘Yes, exactly like a snake. Life is a snake. They are the same, Firdaus. If the snake realizes you are not a snake, it will bite you. And if life knows you have no sting, it will devour you.’

Have you read Nawal El Saadawi’sWoman at Point Zero‘? What do you think about it?

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I can’t remember how I discovered May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘. Which is odd, because I always remember how I discover a book. Maybe I stumbled upon it, during one of my browsing sessions on Kindle books. Or maybe someone mentioned it and it was there in the back of my mind, when I stumbled upon it. Whatever be the nature of the truth, the title appealed to me, and I kept it aside for a quiet day. (Well, that is not the end of the story. When I was searching on May Sarton on the internet, I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ has reviewed Sarton’s novel ‘Mrs.Stevens Heard the Mermaids Singing’. And, of course, as I nearly predicted after I discovered that, I have posted a long comment there. Human memory is unpredictable and fickle, as they say.) A few days back I decided to start reading it and I finished reading it today.

Journal of a Solitude‘ is a journal written during the early ’70s by May Sarton. In the journal, Sarton describes one year of her life spent in a town called Nelson in New Hampshire. The journal describes Sarton’s everyday life, her quiet routines, how her creative energy bursts out gently and manifests itself as poems and books, the challenges and inner demons and depression she has to wrestle against when her creative energies don’t flow, her relationship with her cats and her parrot and a wild cat which sometimes visits her, her friendship with her neighbours who are kind and who help her, her relationship with her friends who visit her occasionally, the excitement and challenges of a new romantic relationship, the pleasures of gardening and the beauty of flowers, the changing of the seasons and the quiet and colourful changes they bring, the pleasures, joy and tranquility of solitude and the occasional challenges it brings – Sarton touches on this and other topics. It is a beautiful, tranquil book and Sarton’s prose is contemplative and meditative and gentle and flows like a serene river. Sarton is frank in her observations and doesn’t mince words when she disagrees with established wisdom or with popular opinion, but she does it gently, softly. She is also honest about her own imperfections and flaws and turns her gaze inward and bares her soul. Normally this would be hard to read because we don’t know what awaits us, but Sarton’s gentle tone makes it interesting and beautiful. Sarton is a poet and it shows in her prose.

I didn’t read about May Sarton, till I was halfway through the book. I did that on purpose because I wanted to see how the book would impact me, if I didn’t know anything about the author. When I knew that I was in love with the book, I went and read more about the author. What I discovered was fascinating. May Sarton seems to have been a famous writer during her times, she has published novels, poetry collections and journals, she started writing in the ’30s and continued writing till the ’90s, her books were shortlisted multiple times for the National Book Award, and her backlist is impressive and huge. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of her before. I also don’t know why she is not more well known now. She deserves better.

I loved ‘Journal of a Solitude‘. Being a introverted, contemplative, reclusive person myself, I was delighted because the book spoke to me. I am glad I discovered it serendipitously. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I will be coming back and reading my favourite passages from the book again and again.

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

On Poetry and Prose

“Why is it that poetry always seems to me so much more a true work of the soul than prose? I never feel elated after writing a page of prose, though I have written good things on concentrated will, and at least in a novel the imagination is fully engaged. Perhaps it is that prose is earned and poetry given. Both can be revised almost indefinitely. I do not mean to say that I do not work at poetry. When I am really inspired I can put a poem through a hundred drafts and keep my excitement. But this sustained battle is possible only when I am in a state of grace, when the deep channels are open, and when they are, when I am both profoundly stirred and balanced, then poetry comes as a gift from powers beyond my will.
I have often imagined that if I were in solitary confinement for an indefinite time and knew that no one would ever read what I wrote, I would still write poetry, but I would not write novels. Why? Perhaps because the poem is primarily a dialogue with the self and the novel a dialogue with others. They come from entirely different modes of being. I suppose I have written novels to find out what I thought about something and poems to find out what I felt about something.”

On Virginia Woolf

“It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine—why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true? Or are men really so afraid of women’s creativity (because they are not themselves at the center of creation, cannot bear children) that a woman writer of genius evokes murderous rage, must be brushed aside with a sneer as “irrelevant”?”

On Writers and Writing

“My own belief is that one regards oneself, if one is a serious writer, as an instrument for experiencing. Life—all of it-flows through this instrument and is distilled through it into works of art. How one lives as a private person is intimately bound into the work. And at some point I believe one has to stop holding back for fear of alienating some imaginary reader or real relative or friend, and come out with personal truth. If we are to understand the human condition, and if we are to accept ourselves in all the complexity, self-doubt, extravagance of feeling, guilt, joy, the slow freeing of the self to its full capacity for action and creation, both as human being and as artist, we have to know all we can about each other, and we have to be willing to go naked.”

On Painters and Writers

“I envy painters because they can set their work up and look at it whole in a way that a writer cannot, even with a single page of prose or a poem. But how hard it must be to give up a painting! When a book appears it goes out into the world, but the writer still keeps it and can go on giving it to friends over and over again. The painting is gone forever.
I suppose I envy painters because they can meditate on form and structure, on color and light, and not concern themselves with human torment and chaos. It is restful even to imagine expression without words.”

Have you read May Sarton’sJournal of a Solitude‘? What do you think about it?

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