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Posts Tagged ‘20th Century American Literature’

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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I discovered Thomas Savage’sThe Power of the Dog‘ by accident while browsing at the bookshop sometime back. Something pulled me and I got the book. Then it lay on my bookshelf for a few months. Then last week it started calling me and I had to take it out and read it.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Phil and George are two brothers. They own a ranch together, are rich, but lead a simple life. They have been sharing a room since they were kids. Phil is forty, George is two years younger. Both of them are single. Phil is smart, reads sophisticated stuff, can quote Greek and Latin poetry. He is also great at being a rancher, handles the animals well and is nice to the ranch-hands. George is a bit shy, not good with people, but is kind, works hard. So Phil is the cool brother, while George is the nice, but not-so-cool brother. Their lives are nice and comfortable. Then George meets a widow called Rose in the next town. And falls in love with her. She has a teenage son, Peter, whom George likes too. One day George tells Phil that he has married Rose and she will be moving in soon. And that is the end of life as Phil knows it. When Rose moves in, Phil does everything in his power to undermine her. Before long she is into a deep depression and starts drinking. And then Rose’s son Peter comes for summer. After showing him contempt initially, Phil decides that he will take Peter under his wing and turn him against his mother.

What happens? Does Phil succeed in his diabolical plans? How does Rose handle the situation? Which side does George lean on – Phil’s or Rose’s? And what does Peter, who is caught in the middle of all this, do? For answers to these, you have to read the book.

The Power of the Dog‘ is a study of family, on what happens when big changes arrive in unexpected ways. It is also a novel about ranches. Its description of life and work in a ranch feels quite realistic and authentic. It also made me think of David Wroblewski’s ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘ which has a similar structure in some ways – two men, a woman and a boy live in a big ranch / farm and there is a lot tension in the air. But the details are different though. There is an interesting afterword to the book by Annie Proulx. One of the things that Proulx says that I found interesting was this – that the book is also about repressed homosexuality. I didn’t find evidence of that when I read the book though – Phil talks a few times about someone he admired called Bronco Henry and later in the story he takes Peter under his wing and shows him a few things. By no stretch of imagination was this evidence of homosexuality. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe when the book came out Thomas Savage gave an interview on what the story was about and maybe he said that it was about repressed homosexuality. Who knows.

I liked ‘The Power of the Dog‘ though I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite books of the year. It was out of print for many years and it was rediscovered in the early 2000s. I am glad it came back in print and I am glad I read it.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book, so that you can get a feel of what the book looks like.

“George never blamed anybody, a virtue so remote and inhuman it probably accounted for the discomfort people felt in his presence; his silence they took for disapproval and it allowed them no chink to get at him and quarrel with him. His silence left people guilty and they had no chance to dilute their guilt with anger.”

“But what was art if not the arrangement of trivia? What was Cezanne but line and color, Chopin but sound, perfume but calculated orders, crackle of linen but flax? The arrangement, like her piano playing, her careful dressing for dinner each night and the foolish picnic beside the road, was meant to please George.”

Have you read ‘The Power of the Dog‘ What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ for a while now. I got a hardbound edition of the book as a present from a friend sometime back. When my friend Delia (from Postcards from Asia) also said that she wanted to read the book, we decided to host a readalong. After a lot of hardwork and many despairing reading moments, I finally finished reading the book. Here is what I think.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

The story told in ‘Lolita’ is very simple. The narrator is a forty-something year old man who lusts after girls who are between ten and thirteen years old. He calls them nymphets. The story describes his affair with one such girl whom he calls ‘Lolita’.

Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov

Once when our narrator tries to move to a new town to work on his writing, he discovers a house for rent. He doesn’t like the landlady much. But when he discovers that his landlady has a daughter and he feels attracted towards her, he immediately rents the house. He plots and fantasizes about things. But things don’t happen according to plan. The mother – the landlady – falls in love with him. Our narrator doesn’t give up easily. He marries the mother. Now he believes that he will have the license to behave in whichever way he wants with the daughter. But the mother discovers the ugly truth. And she tries to expose it. But, unfortunately, she gets killed in an accident. Our narrator, Humbert, then takes his step-daughter Lolita out of school and the two unlikely companions go on a road trip which stretches for months, during which time they live in motels every night and become lovers. They finally decide to settle down in a town and Lolita goes to the local school. But Humbert is jealous whenever Lolita attracts the attention of boys of her own age. At some point he decides to move out of that town and they embark on a road trip again. During the road trip, Humbert has a suspicion that they are being followed by someone. But he is not able to find out the identity of their pursuer. Lolita also disappears briefly for a short while whenever they are making stops and seems to become friendly with a stranger. At some point Lolita disappears. Humbert searches for her, but is not able to find her. He spends the next few years just floating around with another woman. And one day he receives a letter from Lolita asking him for money. He tracks her down and asks her who kidnapped her and why she disappeared. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

‘Lolita’ was hard for me to read. For most of the first half of the book, Humbert tells us a lot about his fantasies and it was quite difficult to read those parts of the book. Many times I stopped and asked myself why I was reading the book. And precisely at that time, Nabokov would come up with a beautiful sentence like this :

If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.

It was sentences like these that kept me going.

As Humbert says on the first page of his account :

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

When I finished the first part of the book, I found it extremely hard to get started on the second part. That is when I read this piece about the ’51 Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature’. There was a quote from ‘Lolita’ in that article, which went like this : “And the rest is rust and stardust.” That sentence touched me deeply and gave me goosebumps. I wondered how Nabokov had taken the creepy narrator with his creepy story to the place where this beautiful sentence springs out of the story like a beautiful star. I wondered how that happened. I wanted to find out. That made me read the rest of the book. I did finally manage to find that sentence, but it didn’t have the same impact as part of the text. Outside the text, standing on it own, it shone like a bright beautiful star.

I have to say something here about Nabokov’s prose. There were passages and pages which were filled with Dickensian sentences and these were interspersed with passages and pages filled with sentences in our everyday, contemporary style. It clearly showed that Nabokov had one literary foot in the Victorian age and another in the modern era and he was trying to navigate between both these universes with easy felicity while trying to come out with one coherent unique style. I don’t know whether he managed to succeed in that, but I felt it was an interesting experiment. (I have seen some contemporary Australian authors do that – writing in a combination of Dickensian ornate prose and contemporary plainer style. One of my favourites, Elliot Perlman, pulls it off successfully.)

The book is littered with beautiful sentences and passages, like beautiful pearls. That is what kept me going. As someone said, how in life beautiful happy moments come only after long gaps and how we have to keep working hard during those dreary long gaps to reach those beautiful moments, I kept working hard to reach those beautiful sentences. They brightened my day of hardwork.

This is a spoiler and so if you haven’t read the book, please be forewarned.

Towards the end of the book, Nabokov pulls a rabbit out of the hat. He introduces a new villain who is even worse than Humbert. I don’t know whether we were supposed to feel sympathy for Humbert after that. At that point, Lolita is also portrayed as a not really innocent girl. I didn’t know what to make of that. If we look at it from an outsider’s neutral perspective, it looked like two grown up men used their considerable influence and power to exploit a young girl. Whether she was innocent or not was irrelevant. The fact was that she was young, she was a girl and she was exploited. When we look at it from this perspective, it is hard to like the narrator even if he is the one who is telling the story.

While reading the book, I remembered two things. One of them is a book by Yoko Ogawa called ‘Hotel Iris’. It has the exact same story as ‘Lolita’ – an older man lusts after a young girl. The difference is that in Ogawa’s book, the story is told by the girl. I found that narrator likeable. Also Ogawa’s book doesn’t spend time on fantasies and imagination, but describes events as they happened and in the end, the girl survives to tell the tale, while the man disappears.

The second thing is a Spanish movie called ‘La Flaqueza del Bolchevique’ (‘The Weakness of the Bolshevik’). It has a similar story – an older man and a schoolgirl have a relationship. But what the scriptwriters have done in that movie is that they have removed all the things which are uncomfortable to the reader in ‘Lolita’ and have created a beautiful love story. It is a convincing story, the main characters are adorable and it is one of my favourites. If you want to read ‘Lolita’ but are not ready to take the leap because it makes you uncomfortable, I would recommend this movie to you. If you have read ‘Lolita’ and decide to watch this I would love to hear your thoughts on they compare.

La Flaqueza Del Bolchevique

So what is my verdict on ‘Lolita’? I am not sure I can say that I liked the book. The first half of the book made me really uncomfortable. (I have read a few disturbing books in my time, but still…) It was impossible to like Humbert but it was equally impossible to resist knowing his insightful thoughts on different things. I felt sad for Lolita – she must have had a hard time with perverted older adults around. I loved parts of Nabokov’s prose and I will be reading some of those beautiful sentences again.

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

There are two kinds of visual memory : one when you skillfully re-create an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open; and the other when you instantly evoke with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors.

I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth, I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s way – even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications.

I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘king Lear’, never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.

Have you read Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’? What do you think about it?

Other Reviews

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

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