Thursday, 13 September 2012

Meet Mr. Mulliner. By P.G. Wodehouse

Meet Mr. Mulliner

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First Published 1927.

We are introduced to the sage of Angler's Rest, telling charming tall tales about his extended family. The very first story is a corker, and features George, the crossword puzzle aficionado with a speech deficiency (he stammers), who 'knows more about Eli the prophet, Ra, the Sun God and the bird Emu than anyone else in the county'. [I remember a gang of us seated at the  dinner table in C mess, IISc, discussing the day's crossword puzzle in The Indian Express, and Atre with the paper in his hand, pretended to read out one of the unsolved clues - 'Sun God (2)', and Amarnath immediately and proudly shouted out 'Ra'. How we laughed!] George's story is followed by three tales involving the inventions of the chemist Wilfred Mulliner, who  'revolutionized the world of chemistry'...'by proving that H2O + b3g4z7 - m9z8 = g6f5p3x' . He also 'electrified the world of Science by proving that if you mix a stiffish oxygen and potassium and and add a splash of trinitrotoluol and a spot of brandy you got something that could be sold in (prohibition ruled) America as champagne'.  The invention that features in two stories is 'Buck-U-Uppo', a nerve tonic for elephants that is imbibed by a curate and two bishops to hilarious effect. Five more stories in a similar vein, with several nifties on each page, reveal Wodehouse at the top of his form, where he stayed about four decades. A thoroughly enjoyable book, no matter how many times you read it.

The world Wodehouse describes disappeared a century ago, if it ever actually existed. And certainly I (and my contemporaries)  have never experienced any of it first hand. And yet the stories continue to appeal to us, as demonstrated by the prominent display of ever-new editions in bookshops. Obviously successive generations keep falling under his spell. Of all the authors I avidly read in my youth, Wodehouse alone survives. I don't see new editions of Alistair Maclean or Desmond Bagley or Eric Ambler or Irving Wallace or Max Brand or Len Deighton or ... How long will PGW survive? Is he already a classic? Is he great literature,  in the same class as Dickens (or even Shakespeare!)? The difference is, of course, Wodehouse has no message for the world, except the insidious one of mild tolerance of all the stupidities and injustices of Life. 

1984. By George Orwell


George Orwell

Signet Classic. First published 1949.

I finally got around to reading this famous book, with its continuing contributions to political discourse and the language of such discourse - 'Big Brother is watching you!' A novelized description of a dystopia, it is narrates a sort of love story set in an exaggerated version of the then-contemporary state of Stalinist Russia, and many countries behind the 'iron curtain'. One such state also formed the geography of the book 'Rates of Exchange' which I described earlier in this blog. Of the countries today, North Korea, presumably, and Myanmar when I visited it in 2005 (and until recently) probably come closest to the grey socialist world described in this book. The country in the book is Britain, or rather Oceania, a kind of amalgamation of what is termed the 'free world' in contemporary western media. The state is ruled by a mysterious and anonymous oligarchy, which disciplines the middle class to a frightening extreme, and uses it to rule over the 'proles', a large underclass than lives in a firmly controlled state of wretched poverty. The aim of the discipline is to control the very thoughts of the middle class so that it really believes as absolutely true all the contradictions it is fed. The very language is mutated (Newspeak) so that the political and social contradictions cannot be recognized or described as such. Thus a hero one day could in an an instant be classified as an enemy, and the 'people' would not only accept that, but see no contradiction at all. The way this state of mind is achieved is by indoctrination of the young and torture of the older population, many among whom would remember the difference between the 'truth' yesterday and the 'truth' the next day. To me, this particular mechanism appears inefficient and wasteful. A far better way of achieving such thought control is practiced in many parts of the so-called 'free world' today. Consider, for example, Israel. History is being rewritten there on a daily basis, and, on the back of the enormous military power of USA and the rest of victors of World War II, the Palestinians, who are actually the victims of a systematic, six-decade long effort to deny them basic human rights, are being cast as the villains of global politics. Or consider the following very mild critique of capitalism. (

"...who decides what is of real value? The capitalist system’s own answer is consumers, free to buy whatever they want in an open market. I call this capitalism’s own answer because it is the one that keeps the system operating autonomously, a law unto itself. It especially appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in the system. But the answer is disingenuous. From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing."

I suppose this very reasonable analysis would raise howls of protest from capitalists and their 'running dogs'. Or consider many of essays by Noam Chomsky on this very issue. Chomsky has been largely neutralized by the simple process of designating him an 'extreme leftist'. In an afterword to the book, written in 1961, Erich Fromm presents a much more detailed argument why '1984' has current (even in the sixties!) application not just to Soviet Russia, but perhaps even more so to America and Western Europe, except that here the brain-washing is not carried out by torture, but something more pleasant and much more insidious - Reader's Digest, Hollywood, Walt Disney, et al.

Orwell himself is described as a socialist, so presumably he was attacking totalitarianism, as represented by Stalinism (and perhaps the then-recent memory of Hitler's Germany) rather than the principles of socialism, which he appears to support. Funnily enough, I found the atmosphere described in Ayn Rand's 'Fountainhead' and, especially, 'Atlas Shrugged' very similar to the one described in '1984'. Of course Rand pretends to describe a economic-political system far different from Stalinist Russia. I suppose, since the world is round, if you go far enough to the right, you actually land up on the left, and vice versa.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Long Goodbye. By Raymond Chandler

The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler

Chancellor Press. First published 1953.

This is one of seven Philip Marlowe novels in an omnibus collection, and in my opinion, the best of them, showcasing all the essential Chandler skills. Marlowe is a 'hard-boiled' detective, to the extent he is almost a parody of himself - recall, for example the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic strips in which Calvin is a fedora-clad private eye. Marlowe drinks and smokes incessantly, gets beaten frequently, and has no family or even firm friends. He makes very little money from his profession of detection, just enough to pay his rent, and buy his drinks, his cigarettes and an occasional sandwich. His job takes him to the weirdest of places and puts him in contact with the most corrupt of people. But he remains pure and heroic, a strong, handsome knight, clad in rusted but serviceable armour, mounted on a broken-down but faithful steed, forever riding against  nasty giants who constantly threaten his integrity. 

Chandler is in my opinion the finest exponent of this school of fiction. Dashiel Hammett was among the first, and there have been many others - the two MacDonalds (John D. and Ross) also come to mind. But though some of the others may have better plots, Chandler's books have the best writing, at least of those I have read. 

The story at first appears to be actually two stories. In the first part Marlowe resists stiff police pressure and remains loyal to a friend. In the second part, he is employed to investigate the reasons why a famous author has suddenly taken to becoming far more drunk than usual, symptomatic of deep psychological stress. About three-quarters of the way into the book, the two story lines are brought together, and the book ends in some satisfactory melancholy. The writing is superb, with a whole lot of 'nifties'. As I have remarked earlier, both Chandler and Wodehouse are students of Dulwich College in London, and perhaps it was there that both learnt a similar writing style, though, of course, they have employed it in widely different genres - Chandler more seriously, Wodehouse lightheartedly. Here are some examples from Chandler to illustrate what I mean. 

'You're just a little cop-hater, friend. That's all you are.'
'There are places where cops are not hated, Captain. But in those places you wouldn't be a cop.'

'In my book, you're a nickel's worth of nothing.'

'Next time bring a gun.'
'I got a guy to carry the gun.'

'A man doesn't make your kind of money in any way I can understand'.

The book is well-plotted, though it does get extremely sentimental at times, unrealistically so. In all his stories, and especially in this one, Chandler has an overarching theme running through it, usually of a 'left-liberal' nature. In this book, the main theme is loyalty and friendship, but above both are honesty and integrity. Chandler speaks through Marlowe as a friend of the poor, the underdogs, and especially the honest. He doesn't think too badly of 'honest' thugs, but hates the rich, corrupt upper class that has earned all its money and privilege dishonestly, but pretends very successfully (at least to themselves) to be above such degrading behaviour. The other socio-political theme that runs through the book is one individualism, an almost John Galt-like independence of society. In today's world, these two themes are contradictory. But in 1953, apparently, one could still hold both to be different aspects of the same philosophy. Perhaps this is what adherents of the Tea Party do today. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Please Pass the Guilt. By Rex Stout

Please Pass the Guilt

Rex Stout

Wings Books. First published 1973.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin solve the case of who planted a bomb in the drawer of an executive in offices of a television network, and for whom. The bomb goes off killing someone whose office it is not, but, who, for a reason initially unknown, happens to be in that room, and opens a drawer that explodes. Was the bomb meant for him, or was it meant for his rival, the man whose office it is? Or was it for someone else? Nero Wolfe is the super detective, whose character is fleshed out by descriptions of his bulk (he is very fat), his fetishes (such as the thing he has about chairs), and his hobbies - food, language, literature, orchids, and he is superlatively good at all of them. None of these characteristics are of course germane to the story or his detective skills, but I suppose they are meant to add depth to the narration. He never (or only very very rarely) moves out of his apartment, and all his legwork is carried out by Goodwin, a young, pleasant, smart-alecky thug, who is also very good at various things, especially in charming young ladies into spilling the information he needs. A reasonable read. This story is part of an omnibus collection of seven Nero Wolfe stories. I have read all of them much earlier. Perhaps I'll write about the others in due course, if and when I read them again.

The Ministry of Fear. By Graham Greene

The Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene

Penguin Books. First Published 1943.

The title page has the name 'Pravin Paul' written on it in ink. Obviously, the book belonged to Pravin, and I must have 'borrowed' it from him, probably the time I was sharing a room (B2) with him in IISc. This as good a place and time as any to memorialize him. Pravin Paul completed his MSc (Physics) at MCC about the same time I finished my MSc at Baroda. He joined for an MS in the ECE dept., IISc, (it was possible at that time) at the same time that I joined for a PhD at the Physics dept. MCC was the common factor, and my BSc classmates from MCC, Satish and PKC Paul, had been his tutors and friends at MCC. Now all of us were together at IISc and thus became friendly. Pravin was a happy-go-lucky chap, not a very strong reader, but he had a favourite author in Graham Greene, and introduced me to him. I had read about Graham Greene in the context of his helping R.K. Narayan to get published, but I had not read any of his books. Pravin talked to me about 'Our Man in Havana'. I liked that when I read it later, but at that time, I first bought, I think, 'Travels With My Aunt', and I remember discussing that, and other books by Greene that we read over the next year or so. In my second year at IISc, I moved into B2 with him, and he was a nice, comfortable, trouble-free room mate. We got along well together. He snored, but I got used to that soon, and he never complained, at least to me, about any of my habits. One of things I remember distinctly is that every Saturday afternoon, at about 5.00 pm, he would bathe, shave, neatly comb his hair, freshen himself with talcum powder, put on his best clothes (often a pale pink shirt), and go out to meet one of the girls in whom he was interested - either Baby, the sister of a common friend of ours, or Sandhya, a girl from a local college he met in the company of some friends. As far I know, he never really got to any level of intimacy with either of these, not even taking them out for tea or dinner, very 'properly' limiting himself to visiting them in their homes, in the presence of their respective families. After he got his degree, there was initially the exciting possibility that he would join Schlumberger, India, at a fabulous salary, but that job did not materialize. About 1984 he joined a computer company in Pondicherry.  A couple of years later, when riding to work on his scooter, he was hit by a three-wheeler. He was thrown off and his back hit a stone, breaking his spine. He was taken, in an auto, to JIPMER, but, though alive, he was paralyzed from neck down. He was shifted to Apollo, Chennai, and then to CMC, Vellore, but the doctors could do nothing to return any function to his limbs. Pravin thus found himself in the position of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of 'The Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka, who woke up one day to find himself changed into a 'monstrous, verminous bug'. The subsequent sequence of events was remarkably like that described by Kafka - initial deep concern from family and friends, changing in a year or two to resignation and then to benign neglect and even active dislike. He passed away in 2004 or so. My relationship with him followed the 'Metamorphosis' pattern. I was in touch with him on and off when we left IISc. He had attended my wedding, but later I had not much contact with him. I was in Chennai, when I learnt of his accident from his colleagues. Pravin was then already in CMC. I visited him there two or three times, and then, at his home in Perambur when he shifted there. Then no contact for about 10 years, before in an idle moment I googled his name and, to my sorrow (and guilt) his obituary turned up. (Strangely, when I tried Google now, I could not get that reference again - in fact I get no mention of this Pravin Paul at all).

I do not recollect talking about 'The Ministry of Fear' to Pravin. Graham Greene calls it 'An Entertainment', his term for his own books over which, I think, he has not spent much time or effort. But it's really not very entertaining. The story is set in wartime London, constantly under threat of German bombardment. Arthur Rowe, a lonely, self-confessed murderer, who has performed euthanasia on his sick wife, gets involved in a German plot to steal some vaguely-described documents. He has one nightmarish experience after another, sequentially meeting sets of ostensible well-wishers, each of whom turn out to be not as benign as he initially supposes. The denouement is not clear, and, perhaps for that reason, not particularly exciting or interesting. Portions of the book remind me of the writing of Kazuo Ishiguro, e.g.  'The Unconsoled' or 'When we were Orphans'. Probably he was influenced by Greene. There is a sense of fear and mystery, of anxiety really, brooding over the book, which, of course is standard for Greene, but is used with greater purpose in his other books. 

I saw a movie of the book in Paris in the company of Youri Timsit in 1999. Youri very kindly 'invited' me to the movie, which means that he simply refused to allow me to pay. It was one of the few English language movies to which we had easy access, and Youri allowed himself to watch the movie only because I had vague recollections of the book being  a sophisticated read. (This means of course that I have read the book at least once earlier, probably as soon as I got it from Pravin in about 1984.) It turned out to be a bad choice. The movie had nothing of the sense of gloom and fear in the book. And the story, the acting, and the direction seemed downright silly. Reading the book again now, makes me see how it would have well nigh impossible to translate the book faithfully on to the screen.