Saturday, 6 April 2013

Psmith Journalist. By P.G. Wodehouse

Psmith Journalist

P.G. Wodehouse

First published 1915.

Project Gutenberg Ebook # 2607.

The story takes off from the end of 'Psmith in the City'. Psmith accompanies Mike who is part of an MCC cricketing tour to the US. Psmith stays behind in New York, and to keep himself occupied helps a newly-found friend Billy Windsor, sub-editor of the journal 'Cosy Moments', to run it while the editor is away. The two transform the magazine from one offering mild, boring reading to mild, boring householders into a sensationalist tabloid that takes up public causes, the chief one being to bring  about improvements in a set of wretched slum dwellings, owned by a corrupt politician. Wodehouse's descriptions of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, with its gangs and slums and corrupt policemen and politicians are all too familiar from life as lived in Chennai today (and maybe in New York today too). The writing shows Wodehouse getting into his stride - the mastery over the language is almost complete by now. It is the plotting that becomes better and better in his later books. This is almost the only book by PGW with a theme that may be called serious - namely the sorry state of the slums. I cannot recall any such theme in any of his other books.  

The passage that stuck to my mind is the following:

One of the contributors to 'Cosy Moments' when it was 'the sort of paper which the father of the family is expected to take home with him from his office and read aloud to the chicks before bed-time' is an 'alleged humorist of the name of B. Henderson Asher' who writes 'a "Moments of Mirth" page,which is about the most painful production ever served up to a confiding public'. When the editor goes away and Psmith makes all the changes in the magazine, Asher and the other authors confront Psmith, and this is what takes place.

[Asher says,] "What's he mean by it? That's what I want to know. And that's what these gentlemen want to know--See here--"

"I am addressing--?" said Psmith.

"Asher's my name. B. Henderson Asher. I write 'Moments of Mirth.'"

A look almost of excitement came into Psmith's face, such a look as a visitor to a foreign land might wear when confronted with some great national monument. That he should be privileged to look upon the author of "Moments of Mirth" in the flesh, face to face, was almost too much.

"Comrade Asher," he said reverently, "may I shake your hand?"

The other extended his hand with some suspicion.

"Your 'Moments of Mirth,'" said Psmith, shaking it, "have frequently reconciled me to the toothache."

The Affair. By Lee Child.

The Affair

Lee Child

Bantam Books. First published 2011.

For a long time I had wanted to read a Jack Reacher book, having been attracted by the covers and the blurbs. So finally I got this one. It is an 'airplane' book, best read on a journey. But it costs twice as much at the airport bookshop as at one outside.

Reacher is a military policeman investigating, in this book, murders which may have been committed by the military. The writing is too involved, falsely ironic and often a bit too overbearing. Neither the plot, nor the writing impressed me particularly. Reacher sort of collaborates with a lady sheriff, also ex-army, of the small town adjoining a military base where the murders takes place. This character is initially sympathetically etched, before degenerating into a boring 'tough-guy' type. 

Nowhere near the best (or even the medium best) American detective fiction. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

Julius Caesar. By Philip Freeman

Julius Caesar

Philip Freeman

Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. First published 2008.

A one-line summing-up of Caesar, quoting Alexander Hamilton (one of signers of the American Declaration of Independence) occurs right at the end of the book - 'The greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar'. Freeman himself does not appear to subscribe to this extreme view. This biography is fairly balanced. It is not a very detailed, or one with much depth. Freeman appears to have put together various classical accounts of the exploits of Caesar, and does not spend time on any analyses, unlike, for example, the biography of Napoleon that I described earlier in this Blog.

Caesar was born to an aristocratic family fallen on bad times. By reason of his family background he had access to all the politically important men and women of Rome of that period, but without money, that family background may have obtained him a sinecure, but nothing like the fame that was eventually to be his. This he got by his own merits and deeds. Almost as soon as he entered public life, he opposed the then dictator Sulla on a personal matter (he was asked to divorce his wife - he refused), and had to flee to the hills. He was then forgiven by Sulla, and went to serve in Asia Minor, where he won some notable, but minor, victories. Upon the death of Sulla, he returned to Rome and started rising in the political ranks. On one of his trips to the Greek islands, he was kidnapped by pirates and held to ransom, but he was cleverly able to turn the tables, and ended up capturing and crucifying the pirates. He was appointed military tribune, a kind of General/Defense Secretary, and during this time helped crush the slave rebellion lead by Spartacus. He was constantly rising in the political ranks, always espousing what would now be called 'the liberal' or populist cause, positioning himself against the 'optimates', a conservative grouping. He played major roles in some conspiracies. He traveled widely making friends among the folk of various regions of Italy, especially in the north, and thus lay the foundation for recruiting future armies. Along with Pompey and Crassus, he served as part of the triumvirate that ruled Rome for some time. He helped quell rebellions in Roman territories in Spain. He finally went on his most famous and most successful expedition to Gaul, roughly modern-day France. There he used the disciplined power of the Roman army, to defeat much larger but undisciplined armies of the Gaulish tribes, and brought all of Gaul under Roman rule. His tactic always was to do the unexpected thing, rapidly marching his army long distances, and suddenly appearing where he was not expected, quickly building bridges and fords over 'unpassable' rivers, using superior battlefield technology like catapults and siege machines, and always leading from the front and motivating his men to superhuman deeds. [It is easy to suspect Freeman, and perhaps his sources, of great exaggeration in the odds faced by Caesar. The way it is told here, Caesar almost always won his victories with five or ten thousand men against armies with twice or three times that number. This is stated to be so even when he defeated the Roman armies of Pompey with much smaller numbers.] These methods enabled him to even cross the English channel and establish the first Roman colonies in Britain, short-lived though they were. He then defeated a very widespread and potentially dangerous uprising in Gaul, led by Vercingetorix. He was by now such a successful General, that his return to Rome was feared by the senators. Nevertheless, he did return, with his army, 'crossing the Rubicon', a river in the north of Italy, and thus announcing that he was his own man with his own army, and not just a General under the control of the Roman senators. All this while he was also making intricate political maneuvers, trying to ensure control over the Senate. He frequently appealed directly to the people, promising them free food, land and so on. These acts eventually plunged Rome into civil war, with Caesar pitted against his former partner in the triumvirate, Pompey, who was supported by the Roman establishment. Again Caesar was a better general, even though he was now fighting another well-trained Roman army. Eventually he pushed Pompey to Egypt and followed him there. Pompey was killed, and Caesar turned his attention to the conquest of the Egyptian kingdom of Cleopatra. He loved her and wedded her, but still had to fight her brother Ptolemy, who was co-regent. He defeated him, and returned to Rome, via Palestine and the Balkans, conquering all along the way. The rest of the biography is familiar from Shakespeare's play, and the Hollywood movie 'Cleopatra'. He returns to a great triumph, is offered the crown and title of 'Emperor', which he turns down, but republicans, notably his close friend and protege Brutus, who fear his power, assassinate him on the ides of March.

Do these deeds, great though they were, suffice to characterize Caesar as the greatest man who ever lived. Even if we restrict ourselves to conquerors, and only those before Hamilton's time, several others come to mind -  Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya, Genghis Khan, some of the Chinese emperors... One may say that Caesar was not a selfish conqueror in the same mold as the above, but more a general of a Republic. But that was apparently only a veneer. And though Freeman says he was generous and forgiving, he also gives enough instances of his brutality and his genocidal propensities. Of course, if you think about all people, and not just conquerors, there are too many names that could one could claim as the greatest - Jesus Christ being among the topmost of them. Caesar probably helped spread Roman civilization and culture through many parts of the world, but equally he probably destroyed  many, many local cultures. But still and all, Caesar was probably the greatest Roman leader, and I can understand why Hamilton and even contemporary American politicians and statesmen could admire him, especially when they might wish their country to emulate Rome, at least in the way it behaves towards the rest of the world. 

Finally, the description of Caesar's exploits in Gaul, and mention of Vercingetorix, brought to my mind the comically wishful treatment of the same events in the 'Asterix' comics!    

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist. By Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid

Penguin Books. First published 2007.

This is more a novelette, really, with only 184 pages of widely spaced text. It is a wonderfully readable book though, with an unusual narrative style. The Pakistani narrator buttonholes an American in Lahore and, with no apparent motive, tells him about his life as a brilliant student in Princeton, then with a financial firm in New York, flying around the world, doing what those 'Masters of the Universe' do. He is always aware of his status as a non-white, non-christian immigrant from a 'third-world' country but learns to ignore the differences between him and his classmates and 'real' American friends - (his recruiter tells him that he scores over his classmates because he has the third world hunger and they don't) - to the extent he falls in mutual love with a beautiful intelligent white American girl. While her family is making obvious and heroic efforts to not dislike him, she unfortunately descends into a form of madness, finally killing herself despite his efforts to help her. This bit, while interesting in itself, is a sub-plot though. While these events are going on, he is brought up sharply against the events of September 11, 2001 when two planes crashed into World Trade Twin Towers in New York. He sees it on TV, while on a business trip in Manila, and things change for him suddenly and sharply when he realizes that his first gut reaction is a kind of satisfaction that the event took place. He returns to a completely different US, and after some time, decides to return to Pakistan, where he becomes -- what? A fundamentalist? A terrorist? Is he speaking to the American prior to killing him? Is the American a tourist or is he a secret agent? The answers do not really matter. What struck me about the book was the brilliant, unsentimental and completely authentic tracing  of the career track of an intelligent and sensitive 'IIT' type in US at the turn of the millennium. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Les Miserables. By Victor Hugo

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo
Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood e-book for Kindle. Translated version first published 1887. Original first published 1862.

A very big book, in many ways.  It runs into 959 pages in the printed edition, but that's not the only way it is 'big'. It is also big in scope, in ideas and in emotion. In a sense it is an epic, comparable to 'War and Peace', 'Moby Dick' and similar books. It keeps going from the microcosmic story centred on Jean Valjean to the macrocosm of the social and political history of France between the Napoleon and the 'June revolution' of 1832, which tried to re-establish a republic. The great French Revolution of 1789 established the First Republic. It soon degenerated into anarchy, creating a power vacuum filled by the dictatorship of Napoleon. The royalty of Europe, in reaction, overthrew Bonaparte and restored the Bourbons. This royal family however had 'learned nothing and forgotten nothing' (in the words of Voltaire) leading to many attempts to re-establish the Republic. Among these attempts were the barricades and rebellions in Paris in 1832, which were crushed by the Royal forces in just a couple of tumultuous days. The narrative of the book is backgrounded by these events. 

The main plot of the book is available in great detail on the Internet and elsewhere, including in  a recent movie. A Google search produced more than 46 million hits for 'Les Miserables', most of which, I guess, were for the movie - because a search for 'Les Miserables Victor Hugo' produced 'only' about six and a quarter million hits. For completeness, and for my own satisfaction, I will give a summary here. 

The young and destitute Jean Valjean is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread and sentenced  to many years in the galleys, i.e. rowing ships. Brutalized by the hard labour and the terrible conditions, he escapes, is recaptured and escapes again. He comes now into contact with a truly good man, a Bishop whom he tries to rob. Valjean is caught, but the Bishop forgives him and largeheartedly asks him to take away whatever he wants. This induces a complete change of character in Valjean, and evading pursuit by the policeman Javert, he establishes himself anonymously in another small French town. Here he invents a new process to create 'black-glass' trinkets, which not only makes him personally rich, but lifts the economy of the town and all those in the neighbourhood. Valjean, now known as Madeline, becomes the general do-gooder in the town, helping all those in need, establishing hospices and hospitals and schools. He is elected Mayor. He is a fair employer, treating his many employees as family. One of his employees is a poor lady called Fantine, whose back story goes as follows. She was a middle class teen from the village where Valjean/Madeline is now the Mayor, who went to Paris, there enjoying herself with outings and parties in the company of many friends. One young man in particular shows special interest in her, which affection she returns. He makes her pregnant and then abandons her. Like Tess of D'Ubervilles she can't go back to her family, and so tries to make a living for herself and her child by taking up increasingly demeaning jobs until she slides into prostitution, not making a very good job of even that. She decides to go back to her native village, and on the way gives her young daughter Cosette into the safe keeping of one Thenardier, an innkeeper, who turns out to be the villain of the book. Fantine then goes to her village and takes up a job in the now booming mini-economy. As soon as she is gone, Thenardier and his wife begin to ill-treat Cosette, making her the servant of the family and abstracting for their own lavish expenses all the money that her mother sends for her upkeep. Fantine falls fatally ill, and dies. Valjean/Madeline promises to look after Cosette. He escapes Javert who has traced him to that village, buys off Thenardier and takes Cosette to Paris. Both Thenardier and Javert follow and trace the fugitives, but the two hide in a convent, where  Costte goes to school. She grows up and, about ten years later, attracts the attention of Marius Pontmercy, an idealistic young man who runs away from his rich grandfather because the latter threw out his son-in-law, the senior Pontmercy, who was an officer at Waterloo, and who was inadvertently rescued by Thenardier. Marius is therefore grateful to Thenardier, but when he realizes that the inn-keeper is an enemy of Cosette, he turns against him. Now events move fast, and get mixed up in the June revolution. In a long passage, Valjean rescues a wounded Marius from the barricades and carries him underground through the Parisian sewers, evading both Javert and Thenardier, to finally meet and marry Cosette. He reveals that he had saved up and hidden more than half a million francs, which he now hands over to Marius as a wedding present. But Marius cannot think well of Valjean, and treats him coldly, at which Valjean goes away to his old house near the convent. In the meantime, Javert has traced Valjean, but realizes that he has wronged him terribly, and in remorse, drowns himself. Thenardier exposes Valjean to Marius and the former convicts complete story comes out. At which Marius and Cosette rush to Valjean, who is now very ill. He dies. Thenardier gets his just deserts, but I forget for the moment what and how. (I must mention that the above narration only approximates the actual story - I am sure there are many mistakes, for example anachronisms, but I just want to give the general idea.)     

Hugo uses this tale to hang a whole lot of descriptions, opinions and arguments, pertaining to French society and concerns of that time. Some these excursions are specific descriptions of institutions or practices that may no longer exist and therefore may now be irrelevant. For example there is a detailed essay, spread over many chapters, on the doings of the sisters in the 'convent in Rue Petit-Picus... a community of Bernadines of the obedience of Martin Verga'. This essay is followed immediately by another essay, this time an abstract one about the general idea of convents and fasting and auterities and the like, again spread over many chapters. There is another essay on the sewer system in Paris. Other essays are descriptions of historical events, with Hugo allowing himself much freedom of interpretation. Thus, for example, he analyses the battle of Waterloo in minute detail and at great length. He is not very impressed with the idea that the military genius of Wellington was responsible for Napoleon's defeat. He appears to put down the results of that very important battle almost entirely to the rain on the previous night which made the field too muddy for Napoloen's General to speedily and effectively deploy the artillery. Such essays by Hugo do not serve to push the story along very much. For example the battle of Waterloo is only relevant in that it casts the crooked Thenardier in a role misunderstood by Pontmercy to be that of a saviour. I skipped much of this. I felt especially justified in doing so, since the book, presumably, was written for the entertainment and upliftment of a generation a century and a half ago. 

One particular aspect of the book that made me really think and sort of opened a new door for me, is Hugo's opinion of Napoleon. Of course the General/Consul/Emperor does not have a direct role in the book, but his presence dominates its historical background. Hugo appears to think of him as a protector and saviour, who only did good for France by suppressing the old aristocracy and encouraging the devolution of power to the people. While this may well be true that the ordinary French people were much benefited by the rule of Bonaparte, the people of the other nations of Europe, and not just the feudal lords in those countries, must have had reason to curse his ambitions. I would really like to know how Napoleon is treated in present day France, say in school textbooks - favourably or is he consigned to same fate as Mussolini or Hitler?  

Les Miserables is not only about the miserable people, but mainly about them. In form, in treatment, and in substance it is closest to Tolstoy and to Dickens (of the authors I know). But not as interesting as these authors, especially not Dickens. 

There are many quotable sentences in the book. Here are some of them.

Page 50: Be it said in passing, that success is a very hideous thing. Its false resemblance to merit deceives men. For the masses, success has almost the same profile as supremacy.

Page 406: Mademoiselle Vaubois, perfect in her style, was the ermine of stupidity without a single spot of intelligence.

Page 425: Not seeing people permits one to attribute to them all possible perfections.

Page 439: Laigle de Meaux was seen to be leaning in a sensual manner against the door post of the Cafe Musain. He had the air of caryatid (a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support) on a vacation.

Page 458: He took good care not to become useless; having books did not prevent his reading, being a botanist did not prevent his being a gardener.

Page 510: ...he had the kindliness of a brahmin, and the severity of a judge; he took pity on a toad, but he crushed a viper.

Page 557...: First problem: To produce wealth. Second Problem: to share it. [Capitalism apparently solves the first problem, not the second.] Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labour. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same as dividing it.

Page 674: When one is at the end of one's life, to die means to go away; when one is at the beginning of it, to go away means to die.

Page 687: Suspicions are nothing else than wrinkles. Early youth has none of them.

Page 689: The wretchedness of a child interests a mother, the wretchedness of a young man interests a young girl, the wretchedness of an old man interests no one. It is, of all distresses, the coldest.

Page 750: ...nothing is more imminent than the impossible, and that what is always necessary to foresee is the unforeseen. 

Page 818: [Describing a battle at one of barricades of Paris, June 1932]...this (is) that hell of Brahminism, the most redoubtable of the seventeen abysses, which the Veda calls the Forest of Swords. 

Page 904: To love, or to have loved - this suffices. Demand nothing more. There is no other pearl to be found in the shadowy folds of life. To love is a fulfillment.

Page 934:.. the ingratitude of children is not always a thing so deserving of reproach as it is supposed. It is the ingratitude of nature. Nature...'looks before her'. Nature divides living beings into those who are arriving and those who are departing. Those who are departing are turned towards the shadows, those who are arriving towards the light.

A final note: Hugo was apparently a great reader and perhaps admirer of Hindu philosophical and religious texts - apparent from his many references to it in this book. Maybe he was introduced to them by the works of Max Mueller, who was translating the Hindu texts and writing about them at about the same time.