Friday, 28 November 2014

Blandings Castle. By P.G. Wodehouse

Blandings Castle

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1935.

Twelve wonderfully funny short stories, including the two outstanding Emsworth short tales - Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey and Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend, the latter dubbed 'the perfect short story' by, I think, Alan Coren, formerly of Punch magazine. Also five stories about the Mulliners of Hollywood, in which we are made acquainted with the Hollywood bureaucracy, comprising, among others, Yes-men, Vice-Yessers, Nodders and Assistant Nodders. As described in various biographies of PGW, these stories are obviously based on his own experiences in Hollywood, where he was paid large sums of money to do virtually nothing but write and rewrite scripts for movies that were never produced. And though he considered this dishonest on his part, and it made him restive, his contract did not allow him to leave. And typically of him, he channeled all his anger and frustration into these hilarious stories (sharp satires really) and into several novels and maybe a couple of plays. 

Analysing the politics of PGW would, in Evelyn Waugh's words, be like taking a spade to a souffle. But it is hard not to note his frequent characterisations of the 'proletariat' as somehow slightly incomplete people as compared to the aristocracy, especially in terms of their beliefs, their modes of speech, the topics they discuss, and their chief everyday concerns. In one of the present stories, the gardens and grounds of Blandings Castle are made open to the village public, most of whom are Lord Emsworth's tenants. This tradition irks him, and makes him bitterly complain about why strangers should make merry on his private grounds. There is however no consciousness of the fact that neither he nor his ancestors probably did very little to actually earn ownership of the Castle and the lands all around, and that in fact the whole situation is a hold-over from the unjust and feudal medieval times. 

Anyway,as I said, one should not really criticize PGW for such lapses, if indeed they are lapses. The British Government and the British public made this mistake of being overly self-righteous, when, after World War II, they more or less blackballed him and 'cut him' and sent him into virtual exile in America. All this because he made a few funny broadcasts about his treatment by the Germans. And so, having got out of my system some 'perilous stuff weighing on my bosom' (to quote PGW quoting Shakespeare), I will now say that these stories, like about 90% of his writing, are wonderful, well worth reading again and again. And again.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

An Instance of the Fingerpost. By Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears

Jonathan Cape. First published 1997.

I read an electronic Epub version which I converted for Kindle. At first I guessed Iain Pears to be an Umberto Eco wannabe, but, on second thoughts, that seems unlikely. He is a well educated art historian, and novelist since 1991. His first series of books featured a detective who investigated crime in the world of art - maybe like the books of Dick Francis on horse racing. 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' was apparently the first of a series of historical thrillers, the most recent being 'Arcadia', in 2014. 

The title is taken from the writings of Francis Bacon, who first laid out what we now call and practice as the scientific method, stressing empirical evidence over deduction from 'first principles'. In his book of aphorisms 'Novum Organum Scientarum' (The New Method of Science) he recommends that 'Instances of the Fingerpost', or empirical clues, I suppose we would call them now, should point the way forward whenever any discussion about the truth of some occurrence cannot be resolved by pure reason. In the book, the occurrence in question is the death of a Don at Oxford. And the events, set in the decades following Bacon's demise, i.e. during the years of the English revolution, Oliver Cromwell's rule, and the restoration of Charles II on the throne, are related by four different people. The first three of these records - by a Venetian businessman/scientist/medical man/diplomat, by the ne'er-do-well son of a landed gent who found himself on the wrong side of the royalist/republican divide, and by a senior clergyman and academic at Oxford - are pompous and self-serving, and occasionally brutal. The last record, by one of the minor clergymen at Oxford, apparently approximates the truth. These characterisations are, of course, as meant by the author, and in that respect they are skillfully written. Most of the prominent characters are historical, as explained in the appended index of 'Dramatis Personae'. But the central character in all the stories, Sarah Blundy, the daughter of one the chief revolutionaries of Cromwell, is apparently based only partially on a historical woman. She is portrayed sympathetically, and it seems that the author wanted to give her story a kinder conclusion, but was held back by the requirements of literature.

I found Eco much deeper, and much better written, though the translation from Italian is probably responsible for the language in his books being less fluid than here. However in matters of plot and the narrative construction, Pears is closer to Dick Francis (though far superior), than to Eco. All the same Pears is an author to look out for, and I will try and find other books by him.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Birds Without Wings. By Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 2004.

After being overwhelmed by the sweet brilliance of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', and then a bit disappointed by 'The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman', I find this de Bernieres book - the third I have read - once again lovely, perhaps more so even that the first. Once again the book is populated by a large number of very human characters, simple and complex, good, bad and ugly, black and white, but mostly different shades of grey, each with his or her completely believable idiosyncrasies. Once again the writing style is detailed and descriptive, open-eyed, unapologetic and unashamed, non-judgmental and non-manipulative. And once again, the narration is linear and straightforward. Unlike as in 'The Troublesome Offspring...' de Bernieres makes no attempt at magic realism in this book. This much-abused writing style could perhaps have pushed it into more rarefied literary company, but would probably have made it less easily comprehensible to me. I was reminded very much of the books of John Steinbeck, such as 'Cannery Row'.

The story is set in the same part of the world as 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. While that book followed the vicissitudes of the populace of one of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea before, during, and after World War II, this one moves its location a bit further east in geography, into Anatolia, what is now the Turkish mainland, and a bit further back in history, before, during, and after World War I. The narrative follows the sad but inevitable disintegration of a rather primitive and contradictory, but fully functional and largely peaceful village community, as the modern state of Turkey rises from the ruins of the Ottoman empire. 

The Anatolian coastal village of Eskibahce is populated, almost half and half, by Greek Orthodox Christians and Muslims (probably Sunni). There are also Armenians, Jews and other identities in the mix. But despite distinct religious and cultural practices, at the beginning of the story's timeline the groups are almost inseparably integrated. [Such social groupings are probably the norm in most parts of the world, and are, of course, not at all unfamiliar in India. Just today (23 Nov 2014) T. M. Krishna wrote the following in his column in The Hindu. 'Recently a friend of mine from a fishing village said: "My mother, who is a Hindu, finds peace only if she spends at least three hours in the Dargah, and every Muslim fisherman prays to the goddess before venturing into the sea and the whole village worships Mary." '] By the early part of the twentieth century, however, the influence of European-style nationalism and colonialism started making inroads into such a world view. It was disruptive in the extreme, pitting friend against childhood friend, and tearing lovers apart. World War I, which in that part of the world was a response to and a consequence of the decay of the six-century old Ottoman empire, exacerbated the effects and brought events to a sharp focus. Massacres, genocides, mass displacements of populations happened all around - Armenians driven out of Anatolia, Muslims out of Greek regions, Christians out of Turkish regions, and so on. The book details these effects on the individuals of the village - Iskander the Muslim potter, his son, his son's Christian friend, the friend's father, his daughter, the priest and the mullah, Rustam Bey the landlord and rich man of the village, his wife, his mistress, and a host of other characters, all so well and so sympathetically - but never sentimentally - portrayed that we feel for and along with each one of them. The horrors are lightly described, but the descriptions make us think, without revulsion, and contemplate the way history - any national history - appears to be one long tale of violent and mostly unjustifiable, unnecessary challenge, and equally stupid and horrific response. 'Where does it all begin?' asks De Bernieres. 'History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the paleolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of the race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by the other'. 

There are three or four major fictional threads in story, interwoven with historical events. Karavatuk and Mehmetcik are two boys, Muslim and Christian respectively, who grow up unaware of any difference, until the war sends the former to Gallipoli as the part of the Ottoman army (where he experiences trench warfare in all its brutal horror), and the latter to a forced labour camp. When they meet many years later, Karavatuk tragically and unwittingly becomes responsible for the death of his friend. 

Philothei is a lovely Christian girl. She and Ibrahim, the goatherd, are childhood sweethearts. By the time they reach adolescence, and it's time for their families to think of the marriage they have all been looking forward to, the war and the other events intrude. Christians are deported to Greece, in terrible symmetry with Muslims in Greece deported to Turkey, and the two innocent lovers are destined for separation. Unable to acquiesce quietly in their fate, Philothei dies and Ibrahim goes mad. 

The story of Rustam Bey is perhaps the most moving of all. He is the richest man in the village, a feudal lord, respected and well thought of by all his tenants and by the rest of the villagers. He does not hesitate to help the Christians, just as much as he does the Muslims. He takes a young wife, whom he loves, but who is unfaithful to him. But when he discovers her infidelity, he kills her lover, drags her to the village maidan, and, in keeping with the tenets of sharia law, invites all and sundry to stone her to death. In this medieval punishment, everyone present, Christian and Muslim, starts to participate, until the village maulvi (of all people) rescues her and takes her home. A few months later, Rustam Bey makes a beautifully described trip to Istanbul in search of a Circassian mistress. [During the 18th and 19th centuries, girls from Circassia were reputed the most beautiful of all, and much sought after as harem inmates. However, if the Wikipedia entry on this subject is to be believed, there is a touch of 'Orientalism' in this description by de Bernieres of Rustam Bey's choice. That is to say, while it is true that Europeans thought that Circassian girls were preferred by everyone for such purposes, and apparently sought them out for their own uses as well, this notion was not prevalent among the native residents of Anatolia and among the Lords of the Ottoman empire.] Bey eventually finds a girl of his choice, Leyla, who is actually Greek, but pretends to be Circassian. He brings her home to Eskibhace, and over time, they grow to love and cherish one another - until the war and its aftermath induces a sudden longing in Leyla to run away to the newly formed nation of Greece, leaving behind a bewildered, lonely and grieving Rustam Bey. 

Running through the book as a narrative thread apart from these and other personal stories is the factual account of the rise of Kemal Ataturk, the maker of modern, secular, socialist Turkey from the core Anatolian regions of the empire. Ataturk is a well known historical figure. The way he drew 'the tides of men' into his hands, invented a new nation, and almost single-handedly created it, probably inspired post-colonial nation builders such as Nehru. India, of course, moved from being a British colony with a notionally secular government to being a sovereign democratic republic with an uneasily egalitarian and secular dispensation, while Turkey moved from being a Muslim empire to a secular democracy. However the displacement of large populations in opposite, religiously determined directions, with all the attendant inhuman ghastliness, accompanied the birth of both countries. We may note, as an aside, that present-day Turkey, at the beginning of the 21st century, is ruled by a political party that is avowedly anti-secular. And the colour of the polity in India has only a few months ago turned a distinctly Hindu saffron.

De Bernieres has a fluid and easy writing style, with an almost Wodehousian command over the language. An example: '[Rustam Bey] once had entertained hopes that their marriage might become more than the usual formal dance of strangers that only grows into something better with the slow passage of time and the mutual concern for children.' And another: 'He had that sense of personal superiority that automatically puts people's backs up.' There are many obscure words he uses precisely and well, some of these are not even found in many dictionaries. A few examples: 'These immanitious [very strong] men were capable of carrying pianos single-handedly on their necks.' 'All this mommoxity and foorfaraw [confusion and disorder] were compressed into a street [in Istanbul] no more than three paces wide.' 'He makes phatic observations [expressions that only a social purpose, and not one of communication] about the weather and the state of the sea...' 'She finds priests and imams equally otiose [serving no practical purpose or use].' '... he arrived fresh each morning despite his long nocturnal bouts of crapulence [great intemperance, especially drinking].'

All in all, a wonderful book, worth several long and lingering reads.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring. By Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Tracy Chevalier

A Plume Book. First published 1999.

Jan (or Johannes) Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter, who lived in Delft, and who is counted among the Great Masters of Western art. He painted indoor scenes, representing people and activities from his own middle-class life. All his paintings, except one, appear to have been painted in his upper-story studio, most of the light coming in through a window on the left of painting. (The exception is the painting of a general view of Delft, which, too, may have been painted looking out of his studio window). 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (1665) is reckoned as one of his masterpieces. It depicts a young girl from shoulder up, facing the window (not seen) and looking over her left shoulder at the painter. She has an entreating look in her large eyes, and on her clear and lovely face, as if surprised in some forbidden act. She is dressed in a rather drab coat of dull gold, and has a blue and cream turban wrapped around her head, completely covering her hair. At the center of the portrait is the eponymous pearl earring, consisting of a large, droplet-shaped pearl hanging by a nearly invisible hook from her left ear. The background is plain black, nothing to distract the viewer from the face, no clues on which to build a speculative story.

And this very fact allows Chevalier to construct the basic premise of her novel. The girl in the portrait, says Chevalier, is Griet, the sixteen-year old daughter of a maker of tiles. Her father has gone blind, and to supplement the dwindling family income, she is farmed out as a servant to the large Vermeer family in his rambling, poorly-heated house. One of her particular tasks there is to carefully clean the painter's studio, without in any way disturbing the layout of the paints, the still-life objects, the brushes, or the easel and canvas with its current half-finished painting. Over time, she attracts the attention of the painter to her more-than-ordinary sense of light and colour, and the painter appears to grow emotionally closer to her. Eventually he asks her to model for the painting that becomes 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. This causes disquiet in the family. The earring is in fact a gift from Vermeer to his wife. It is painted in last, when Griet realizes that there is something crucial missing in the composition, and is unable to resist putting the earring on and posing for the final version of the painting. The story ends with Griet leaving the household, and marrying her childhood beau, the fishmonger Pieter. 

Chevalier's imagination is rather limited, and while her tale is apparently an authentic portrait of upper and lower middle class life in that place, at that time, it fails to grip, and is actually boring in parts. The promise of the exciting back story that a concentrated study of the painting promises is belied. I was left with a feeling of the author reaching out for more than she could grasp.