Posts Tagged ‘John Banville’

I have been on a blogging slump for a while now, because the Bard’s prophecy as he stated it in ‘King Lear’ came true, that sorrow doesn’t come single, but it comes in battalions. First both my computers crashed at around the same time and then I went into a reading slump and before I knew time flew. I got back into reading, but haven’t posted reviews of what I read. I thought I will write separate views of each book that I read in the past two months, but I know that if I try doing that, I will postpone blogging for more time. So I thought I will just post a list of books I read and brief thoughts on them. So here they are – the books and my thoughts, in the order in which I read them.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

I got this in a used book sale last year. It is a story set in ‘60s London. It is about a young, single woman who is a literary researcher at the university. She discovers one day that she is pregnant. Should she keep the child, or should she have an abortion? If she decides to keep her baby, will her decision adversely impact her freedom and lifestyle? Should she tell the father of the child about it? What are the choices open to a single woman who wants to have a child when the society around her doesn’t really encourage that idea? The book explores this and other related issues. I loved the story, the themes it explored and Margaret Drabble’s prose. One of my favourite books of the year. This book definitely deserves a separate review. I later discovered that Margaret Drabble is the sister of A.S.Byatt and they have a long running feud about a family tea service. How amazing a coincidence is it that one of my favourite writers and a newly discovered favourite writer are related? And they are at war? Life never ceases to surprise!

The Millstone By Margaret Drabble

Here is the first passage of the book, in case you are interested.

My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice : almost, one might say, made by it. Take, for instance, the first time I tried spending a night with a man in a hotel. I was nineteen at the time, an age appropriate for such adventures, and needless to say I was not married. I am still not married, a fact of some significance, but more of that later. The name of the boy, if I remember rightly, was Hamish. I do remember rightly. I really must try not to be deprecating. Confidence, not cowardice, is the part of myself which I admire, after all.

50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane

This was the book which helped me get out of the reading slump. So, happy, happy, happy! I have had this book for years, but never got around to reading it. I am very happy that I finally gave it a chance. This collection was compiled nearly sixty years back and so it reflected the taste of that era – it had mostly stories by American and British writers with some French and Russian writers thrown in. The classics were all there (just trying to impress you that I know one or two things about short stories, which clearly is not true) – ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Standard of Living’ by Dorothy Parker, ‘The Masque of Red Death’ by Edgar Allan Poe, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. Many of the big writers were covered – in addition to the above, there were stories by Ernest Hemingway, V.S.Pritchett, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, Virginia Woolf, Katharine Anne Porter, among others. Because of the era in which it was compiled, there were fewer women writers featured than men – from what I could count there were only nine women writers featured (that is just 18% – bad, bad!) Also, there were no writers who were not European or North American. Also, some of the legends were missing – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Alice Munro – but this was probably because they weren’t famous or around when the book was published. But if we ignore such things, using which we judge books and people in the twenty-first century, the collection is quite good. 

50 Great Short Stories By Milton Crane

My favourite stories in the book were these – ‘The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse’ by William Saroyan (a beautiful evocation of childhood and summer), ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor (made me remember my favourite Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) movie ‘The Petrified Forest’), ‘The Man of the House’ by Frank O’Connor (in which the roles are reversed and a young boy takes care of his mother when she falls sick), ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler (with every story I read, Schnitzler keeps getting better and better. This is another story of his about an affair, told in the quintessentially gripping Schnitzler style – I should really read all his works one day), ‘The Tale’ by Joseph Conrad (a classic Conrad story in which the sea is the most important character and the atmosphere it evokes is mysterious and the plot is interesting but not really important – atleast for readers like me), ‘Putois’ by Anatole France (about the power of imagination), ‘A.V.Laider’ by Max Beerbohm (a surprising discovery for me. I want to read more of Beerbohm’s stories) and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ by John Steinbeck (about a woman who yearns to be free).

I also read Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ one more time and couldn’t get it once again, though this time I appreciated Mansfield’s prose and loved it. I also got to read a story by the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller for the first time. I first read about Steegmuller in Anne Fadiman’s essay collection ‘Ex Libris’ in which Fadiman describes how Steegmuller and his wife, the novelist Shirley Hazzard, frequently read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ together and how that was the book they read together on the day he died. It was nice to finally read a story by him.

If you are looking for a solid, traditional short story collection, you will love this.

Short Shorts edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe

Short Shorts By Irving Howe And Ilana Wiener Howe

This had short stories which were really short – most were less than four or five pages long. It is a book which we can easily read while commuting to work on a bus or on a train. The book was not great in terms of the women writers featured (just six of the 38 stories featured were by women writers – bad, bad!), but in terms of diversity, it was pretty good (25 out of the 38 stories were originally not written in English – there were quite a few German and Italian writers covered and there was even a Japanese writer featured). I didn’t like this collection as much as the previous one, as I felt that it didn’t fulfill the potential of the idea. I think there are better short shorts out there which could have been featured. My favourite stories from the book were these – ‘Alyosha the pot’ by Leo Tolstoy, ‘Swaddling Clothes’ by Yukio Mishima, ‘Homage to Isaac Babel’ by Doris Lessing, ‘The Blue Bouquet’ by Octavio Paz, ‘Wants’ by Grace Paley, ‘The Laugher’ by Heinrich Boll, ‘News from the World’ by Paula Fox.

The Newton Letter by John Banville

The Newton Letter By John Banville

I have had this novella by John Banville for years. Thought it was time to read it now. The plot is quite simple. A writer, who is working on Isaac Newton’s biography, moves to the countryside so that he can quietly work on his project. There he has an affair with the landlady’s niece. Then he discovers that he is not really in love with the niece, but is actually in love with the landlady. But with John Banville, it is rarely about the plot, but it is everything about the prose. With every book of his that I read, I love his gorgeous prose more and more. There were passages like this :

…she would break away from me and be suddenly strange and incomprehensible, as sometimes a word, one’s own name even, will briefly detach itself from its meaning and become a hole in the mesh of the world.

And this :

In moments like that you can feel memory gathering its material, beady-eyed and voracious, like a demented photographer. I don’t mean the big scenes, the sunsets and car crashes. I mean the creased black-and-white snaps taken in a bad light, with a lop-sided horizon and that smudged thumb-print in the foreground. Such are the pictures of Charlotte, in my mind. In the best of them she is not present at all, someone jogged my elbow, or the film was faulty. Or perhaps she was present and has withdrawn, with a pained smile. Only her glow remains. Here is an empty chair in rain-light, cut flowers on a workbench, an open window with lightning flickering distantly in the dark. Her absence throbs in these views more powerfully, more poignantly than any presence.

And this :

I left the room and closed the door carefully behind me, as if the slightest violence would scatter the shards of something in there shattered but still all of a precarious piece.

And this :

Spring is a ferocious and faintly mad season in this part of the world. At night I can hear the ice unpacking in the bay, a groaning and a tremendous deep drumming, as if something vast were being born out there.

And this :

When I search for the words to describe her I can’t find them. Such words don’t exist. They would need to be no more than forms of intent, balanced on the brink of saying, another version of silence. Every mention I make of her is a failure. Even when I say just her name it sounds like an exaggeration. When I write it down it seems impossibly swollen, as if my pen had slipped eight or nine redundant letters into it. Her physical presence itself seemed overdone, a clumsy representation of the essential she. That essence was only to be glimpsed obliquely, on the outer edge of vision, an image always there and always fleeting, like the afterglow of a bright light on the retina.

Well, if you want to read more such gorgeous passages, read the book. There are worse things to do in life than reading a John Banville book.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I haven’t read an Edith Wharton book before. So I thought I will start with this slim novella. The story is about a man called Ethan Frome who lives in the countryside with his wife who is permanently unwell because of real and imaginary illnesses. His wife gets one of her cousins to help her out with household work. And Ethan and this cousin, Mattie, fall in love. What happens next – such stories never end happily – is the rest of the story. I loved Edith Wharton’s prose and her description of smalltown America of a bygone era. Though the story was mostly bleak and grim, it had a surprising ending. You should read it to find out what it is. I will be reading more Edith Wharton books.

Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton

A sample of Wharton’s beautiful prose :

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

I have wanted to read a James Baldwin novel for a while and I thought this was one. But it turned out to be a nonfiction book. It seemed to be Baldwin’s manifesto for the Civil Rights movement in the ‘60s. The prose is simple, the ideas are powerful and the book is inspiring.

The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin

My favourite passage from the book is this :

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life : It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

As this is the centenary of the First World War, I thought I will read a novel which is set during the war. And which better novel to read than Erich Maria Remarque’s classic. I even pushed it as a book club choice last month. Unfortunately, most of my book club mates didn’t read the book. But I did. And loved it. I think I can say this – this is my most favourite literary war novel till date. This is more a statement of my ignorance (I have read very few literary war novels) than anything else. But still. I couldn’t stop highlighting while reading book. I think every page has a quotable quote or a beautiful passage. The book takes us through the whole life of a young soldier from the time he enlists to what happens on a daily basis at the front. Remarque is quite frank about his portrayal of war and the insights that the book delivers are beautiful and relevant even today. There are similarities between the book and the Stanley Kubrick movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ – I am guessing the novelist who wrote the book on which the Kubrick movie was based on was originally inspired by Remarque’s book. This is a book that I will be reading again. If I have to give it a rating, I will give it five stars out of five.

All Quiet On The Western Front By Erich Maria Remarque

Two of my favourite passages out of the many I loved :

Kropp, on the other hand, is more philosophical. He reckons that all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music, like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner. That would be simpler and fairer than things are out here, where the wrong people are fighting each other.

The silence spreads. I talk. I have to talk. So I talk to him and tell him directly. ‘I didn’t mean to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in her again, I wouldn’t do it, not so long as you were sensible too. But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see your wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me, comrade! We always realize too late. Why don’t they keep on reminding us that you are all miserable wretches just like us, that your mothers worry themselves just as much as ours and that we’re all just as scared of death, and that we die the same way and feel the same pain. Forgive me, comrade, how could you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert. Take twenty years from my life, comrade, and get up again – take more, because I don’t know what I am going to do with the years I’ve got.’

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I have wanted to read this book for the past few years because it was highly recommended by a friend. I got to read it finally. There are two story arcs – one is set in the present time (that is 2059-60 AD) and the other is forty years before that. In the present time, news comes out that a group of Jesuit priests and scientists have gone on a mission to a distant planet in another solar system and some strange things happened there and only one priest was able to come back. No one knows what happened. This priest refuses to speak. We are told the story of what happened through events in the past and through the story told by this priest Emilio Sandoz. The things I liked about the book – the story is interesting, the characters are real and likeable, the descriptions are beautiful and the dialogue is snappy, fresh and stylish, like it is in the best movies. I loved the character of Anne Edwards – in my opinion she was the heroine of the whole story. The thing I had problems with – the book explores the theme of faith through science fiction and I am not sure whether that worked well. I don’t think it did. But other readers feel differently.

The Sparrow By Mary Doria Russell

Some of my favourite passages :

“You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love? You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

“Sailing is the perfect antidote for age, Reyes. Everything you do on a sailboat is done slowly and thoughtfully. Most of the time, an old body is entirely capable of doing whatever needs to be done while you’re cruising. And if the sea is determined to teach you a lesson, well, a young back is no more capable than an old one of resisting an ocean, so experience counts more than ever.”

There are times, when we are in the midst of life – moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness – times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us. It may come as deep inner stillness or as a rush of overflowing emotion. It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or by a sleeping child. If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth.


So, that is what I read during the last two months. Or rather, that is what I read this summer 🙂 What did you read this summer? Have you read any of the above books? What do you think about them?

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I discovered John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’ sometime last year during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. I didn’t know that Banville had come out with a new novel after ‘The Sea’. I couldn’t resist it and so I got it. But it was lying on my bookshelf for nearly a year, before I decided to take it down last week and read it for the ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think about it.


What I think


‘The Infinities’ is a story about Adam Godley who is lying on his deathbed and his family – his wife Ursula, his son Adam and his wife Helen, and his daughter Petra. Adam Godley senior was a famous scientist in his heyday, but now he is in a coma, though according to the story, others feel that he is in a coma, while Adam himself is conscious and is able to see what is happening around him and is able to think. His wife Ursula is nursing him, while his son and daughter-in-law have come to visit him. There are a few other characters in the story too. Every character in the story has different problems. To make things interesting, the Greek gods come visiting too – Zeus and Hermes – though none of the humans know about it. The Greek gods start intervening in the affairs of the family and that leads to some interesting happenings. The story is narrated by Hermes, while Zeus plays a small part. The ending of the story made me remember the Shakespeare play ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’.


They say history is one damned thing after another. Someone modified this and said that a novel is one damned event / scene after another. But while reading this story I started wondering when the second ‘damned scene’ was coming, because the story seemed to be stuck with the first ‘damned scene’. There are two narrators in the story – Hermes who tells the story most of the time, and Adam senior who though supposedly in a coma (with respect to the way the outside world perceives him), narrates some part of the story. There are long monologues where Hermes while describing current events also shares his thoughts on human beings and Greek gods, while Adam senior shares memories from his past and his thoughts on them. I was in the mood for a traditional story when I picked up this book – I wanted a beginning, a middle and an end. But the narrators went on describing their thoughts on different things that at some point of time, I wanted to take a break and read a more straightforward book. There were long sentences and paragraphs – which were sometimes contemplative, sometimes ruminative and most of the time descriptive. Sometimes I kept wondering when the author was going to worry about what was going to happen next. The problem was with me, of course. Did I tell you that John Banville is a favourite author of mine? J If one wants a plot, one doesn’t read a John Banville novel. But if one wants to read beautiful prose and contemplative passages, a John Banville novel is the place to go. One review called this book as ‘written in saturatedly beautiful, luminous prose’. I will also use the following adjectives to describe Banville’s exquisite prose – luscious, brilliant, incandescent, radiant, dazzling, glittering, sparkling, delightful. I have read just one book by Banville before – ‘The Sea’ – but when I read it and discovered what Banville did with his prose, it was love at first sight for me. Banville doesn’t disappoint in that department in ‘The Infinities’ too. The book is filled with beautiful passages, page after page. Having come to the book with a different reading mood though, I had to plough through the book initially and push myself to read faster before I got into the flow and the prose started to work its magic. I am glad I pushed myself till I reached that state, because it was worth it.




I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.


The Beautiful Dawn


Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily insurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of envy.


The Softest Touch


Something brushes past her in the air, less than a draught, more than a thought.


The Secret of Survival


The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world’s totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas. We have stronger stomachs, stouter lungs, we see it all in all its awfulness at every moment and are not daunted; that is the difference; that is what makes us divine.


The Nature of Time


And then there is the question of time. What for instance is an instant? Hours, minutes, seconds, even these are comprehensible, since they can be measured on a clock, but what is meant when people speak of a moment, a while – a tick – a jiffy? They are only words, of course, yet they hang above soundless depths. Does time flow or is it a succession of stillnesses – instants – moving so swiftly they seem to us to join in an unbreaking wave? Or is there only one great stillness, stretching everywhere, in all directions, through which we move like swimmers breasting an infinite, listless sea? And why does it vary? Why is toothache time so different from the time when he is eating a sweet, one of the many sweets that in time will cause another cavity? There are lights now in the sky that set out from their sources a billion years ago. But are there lights? No, only light, flowing endlessly, moving, every instant.


Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector. She is always either lagging behind or hopelessly far in front of everyone else, calling plaintively after them through cupped hands or gabbling back at them breathlessly over her shoulder. When she confessed this to her father, confessed how she never seemed to be in step with anyone else, he showed no surprise, and only dull people imagine it so.


Separation and Unity


He ponders the problem and, having pondered, comes to the conclusion that it is not a matter of the river being one thing and the estuary another; all that separates them, really, and it is not a real separation at all,  is his having put the question in the first place. For the question is premised on two, man-made, terms – river, estuary – whereas in fact there is but one body of water, commingling here at the whim of unceasing flow on one side and of changing tides on the other; any separation is a separation made only by the action of his asking. This is strange.


Reality and Manifestation


He sought to cleave exclusively to numbers, figures, concrete symbols. He knew, of course, the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself, and even he sometimes went astray in the uncertain zone between the concept and the thing conceptualised; even he, like me, mistook sometimes the manifestation for the essence . Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods; for him, the infinities. You see the fix we are in.


What is Love?


      Did I, do I, love them? It is a simple question but extremely ticklish. I shielded them from what dangers I could, did not stint or spoil, taught them such virtues as I knew and as I judged they would benefit from. I worried they would suffer falls, cut themselves, catch a cold, contact leprosy. I think it safe to say that in certain dire circumstances if called upon I would have given up my life to save theirs. But all that, it seems, was not enough : a further effort was required, no, not an effort but an effect, an affect, whatever to say – a state of being, let us call it, a stance in relation to the world, which is what they mean by love. When they speak of it, this love of theirs, they speak as of a kind of grand mal  brought on catastrophically by a bacillus unknown to science but everywhere present in the air about us, like the tuberculosis spore, and to which all but the coldest constitutions are susceptible. For me, however, if I understand the concept, to love properly and in earnest one would have to do it anonymously, or at least in an undeclared fashion, so as not to seem to ask anything in return, since asking and getting are the antithesis of love – if, as I say, I have the concept aright, which from all I have said and all that has been said to me so far it appears I do not. It is very puzzling. Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possesses, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods – well. Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human love is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent. That might be it, that might be the answer. But I do not think so.

      And yet perhaps I do love, without knowing it; could such a thing be possible, an unwilled, and unconscious, loving? On occasion, when I think of this or that person, my wife, say, my son or daughter – let us leave my daughter-in-law out of this – my heart is filled, what we call the heart, with an involuntary surge of something, glutinous and hot, like grief, but a happy grief, and so strong that I stagger inwardly and my throat thickens and tears, yes, real tears, press into my eyes. This is not like me, I am not given to swoons and vapourings in the normal run of things. So maybe there is a vast, hidden reservoir of love within me and these wellings-up are the overflow of it, the splashes over the side of the cistern when something weighty is thrown in.


I have to say here that my review of ‘The Infinities’ is highly inadequate. If I had been a smarter reviewer, I would have talked about how Banville has created a highly intelligent novel by gently embedding scientific concepts in his book – like Relativity, String Theory, Theory of Everything, Quantum Mechanics, Schrodinger’s Cat, the nature of time, the difference between scientific models and reality – and integrating them beautifully with Greek mythology using his luminous prose to tell an interesting story, which one can read at many levels. I would have also talked about how the novel shows that while human life and the human condition is imperfect, it is also delightful.


If you like a combination of Greek mythology and the innovative uses it can be put to while telling stories, modern science and beautiful prose, you will love this book.


Have you read ‘The Infinities’? What do you think about it?

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