Thursday 26 November 2015

Book Review – Can you forgive her, by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope’s is not a name that is very widely known outside of aficionados of Victorian Literature. For a man with a prodigious output (his bibliography has its own page, here, and a lot of books are the size of bricks) who was commercially very successful in his time, this is surprising. Many of his contemporaries survived the ravages of time rather more successfully. I suspect it might be that Trollope’s genre – political intrigue – was more topical than the more universal themes of Dickens and Hardy, and for that reason might not be held as relevant today as he was in his day.

Be that as it may, I found myself approaching Can You Forgive Her with a hint of trepidation. For one thing, the title sounded too much like something Ravinder Singh or Durjoy Dutta might come up with, for another, it was huge. Like, 848 pages huge.

Surprisingly, its length hangs lightly on the story. Once I started reading, I realised the Trollope’s style is fairly simple and conversational, with the only difficult words being the ones peculiar to that period in terms of dressing and politics. If anything, this style can get too conversational when Trollope engages in author-monologues of a sort, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us, as readers. (Well, given the title, in which the You of Can You Forgive Her is the reader, that’s to be expected.)

CYFH deals primarily with the love-life of Alice Vavasor, a twenty-five year old girl of moderate fortune but high birth who is connected by birth to some of the highest nobility in the UK. It begins with Alice having recently become engaged to the respected country gentleman John Grey, after having broken her prior engagement with her first cousin, George Vavasor, heir to the Vavasor family estate. However, Alice has doubts regarding Grey, occasioned partly by a lingering fondness of her cousin George and partly by a revulsion for Grey’s lack of ambition and his contentment in living quietly in Cambridgeshire. How she conducts herself, and deals with pressure from her aunt Lady MacLeod and her father John Vavasor, who dearly want her to marry Grey, and from her cousin Kate, sister of George, who wants her to marry her brother, constitutes one of the two major threads of the story.

Alice in her little house in Queen Anne street
The other is the married life of Alice’s maternal (and much more aristocratic) cousin, Lady Glencora M’Cluskie, an heiress of fabulous wealth who had been induced by family pressure to reject the handsome but worthless Burgo Fitzgerald in favour of the rising star of British politics – Plantaganet Palliser. Glencora’s youthfulness, her worry at being unable to provide the House of Palliser with an heir, and her never-extinguished love for Fitzgerald are a sharp contrast to the mature, industrious, hard-working and tepidly affectionate Palliser. Alice becomes the only friend Glencora has, and for better or worse, has to be her mercurial cousin’s conscience-keeper.

Lady Glencora and Mr Palliser
In addition to this, a more light-hearted story is told of Alice and Kate’s aunt, Arabella Greenow and her two suitors – Captain Bellfield, the impoverished soldier and Mr Cheeseacre the wealthy but arrogant farmer.

Mrs Greenow and her suitors
(C) Getty Images
Through dialogues and letters and conversations in grand drawing rooms, outdoor dinner-parties and dingy lawyer’s chambers, Trollope tells a story both of moral dilemmas as well as of political upheavals, and the sordid nature of electioneering of the time is rather reminiscent of our own country’s modern elections. A candidate must be prepared to spend money, take up causes he has little belief in and befriend shady tavern-keepers.

In painting social scenes and in dialogues, Trollope shows a deft and sure hand. His characters are well-drawn, and the female characters are placed definitely at the centre of what is a political novel as well as a social one. It would even pass the Tibett Test rather comfortably. I did find the author monologues to be few too many to make for really smooth reading, though, and hope the later novels in the series will have a little less of that.

In his use of sarcastic humour and wry ironies in depiction of some characters (Alice’s father is absolutely appalled that the government expects him to work for his living; Ms Greenow insists her husband has been dead nine months when it’s been barely six…) Trollope recalls Dickens, but the setting and the story is distinctly his own. A chapter on a foxhunt is a perfect depiction of a rural countryside and the activity itself, Alice’s time at the Palliser home brings out the dilemma of a proud woman placed among those who are much richer than her for an extended period of time, and in George and Fitzgerald, as opposed to John Grey and Mr Palliser, Trollope gives us a very interesting spectrum of male personalities.
The Foxhunt
CYFH lacks the massive disasters and stunning co-incidences that characterise Dickens’ work, or the sensationalism with which Dumas approached royal intrigue, but there is a healthy dose of moral dilemma instead. The proceedings are more serene than sensational, and the result is more a slow-cooked, delicately-spiced continental dish than the brilliant explosion of flavours which the two authors I mentioned earlier in this paragraph served up, and yet it remains eminently enjoyable.

Can You Forgive Her was the first-written of what would come to be known as the Palliser series, and I can definitely say that it is good enough to make me want to read the next book – Phineas Finn, as soon as possible.

TL;DR: Not a typical Victorian romance, but definitely an exploration of that momentous time in history, I would say it is worth a reader trying to find it if she can, in her mind, find it possible to forgive her.

Paperback available here Kindle edition here

Alice and John Grey
(c) Getty Images

Thursday 12 November 2015

Book Review: A Dog eat Dog-food World, by C. Suresh

A Dog Eat Dog-food World

We live in a world where humorous writing is all but dead. Not that funny books are not written – they are, and they are often not funny by design. Conversely, much of what is meant to be funny, is simply not. On television, in video and in many self-proclaimed funny blogs, the creators rely either on obscenity or absurdity to try and get people to laugh. The art of plotting a funny situation or using words to bring about an involuntary smile has been rather scarce.

Some books are funny by design of course, and wickedly so; Manu Joseph’s Serious Men would qualify, as would Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, but both of these use humour as a tool toward dark satire and social or political commentary. Sometimes, though, you come across a book that bears forth more than a glimmer of hope for the kind of humour that does not leave you shaking your head with despair at the state of modern society, as the two books I mentioned above certainly would.

C Suresh’s A Dog Eat Dog-food World is the slim but power-packed volume that yields this glimmer. It positions itself as a ‘hilarious pseudo-history of marketing management’, and this is one instance where the use of the adjective ‘hilarious’ in the blurb is perfectly accurate. The book is, indeed, hilarious.

It tells the story of the Fortune family, Spike and his hapless nephew Jerry and their business rivals Tom and Jasper Rich.  Rich, indolent Spike Fortune is shaken out of his desire to vegetate his life away into starting a business venture. Aided by Jerry, he gets into the business of making and selling Dog-food, a product which, as in real life, the book subtly hints was never deemed a necessity until a clever marketing gimmick convinced dog-owners it was. The story reels forward at a fast clip, taking maxims and axioms from the world of business-school classrooms and applying them with the precision of a trained sniper, so as to lead to even more hilarious consequences. It's a plot I shall refrain from saying much about, because really, being a short book, I'm even more reluctant than usual to give away spoilers.

The effect is very, very interesting. Suresh constructs these maxims and axioms, from product differentiation to packaging to charts and use of statistics, in such a way that an unsubtle reader might forget that what he’s reading is a satire. I might even go a step further and say that it is entirely possible to see A Dog Eat Dog-food World as a straight story – a fictionalised telling of how modern marketing came to be.

Except that it is not.

That precision sniper fire fires holes into the armour that the world of management has built around itself. It shows how much of it is herding of sheep, layer upon layer of jargon built over what should be simple, of a world where substance is long-forgotten in the quest for shine and glitter.

But there is no shortage of shine and glitter in Suresh’s language. With a lyrical, idiosyncratic use of idiom and vocabulary, a turn of phrase reminiscent of the masters of the humorous story like Wodehouse and Waugh, the book keeps a reader in splits throughout.

For if the management spiel is funny (and it is - there are passages of Dilbert-esque genius in here), the situational humour and verbal jugglery are not far behind. Salesmen of dog food and cat food are mobbed in the streets. Brilliant marketing ideas are born at the end of a sharp feline claw. Rivalries formed on school playgrounds play out in corporate boardrooms. And through it all, gems of phrasing abound. The author surprises you with a throw-away line of such hilariousness that the book has to be put away (or the Kindle, in my case) for a few moments so that the joke can be savoured.

I suppose if you’re one of the people who takes management theory seriously or likes jargon, you may not like this book – because it takes no prisoners - from management reports to market research, product extension to life cycles, no aspect is spared the harsh glare of reality the author shines upon it.

A Dog Eat Dog-food World is a small volume, but its brilliance is anything but limited by size. Though I fear that, by the time you are finished with it, you might realise that I lied when I said this book would not leave you shaking your head at the state of the world.

If you have suffered in the stifling confinement of a cubicle, you will know I lied.

If you have sat through meetings inundated with jargon that you knew was affected and ineffective, you will know I lied.

But most of all, if you have seen your dog scarf down beef chops or your cat daintily devour raw mackerel, you will know you’ve been lied to by a lot of people, and C Suresh is only telling you that, gently, humorously, through a lovely, lovely book that says a lot more than claims to.

TL;DR: Don’t think. Buy. (Kindle India) Buy paperback. Buy (Kindle International)

Disclaimer: I am acquainted with C. Suresh through social media. The book has been purchased at full price and reviewed without any encouragement whatsoever from the author, who, it may be inferred, would rather be swallowed up by the earth than aggressively market his work.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Not a Review of King Lear

A while ago, I was a part of a discussion on Facebook where a person (I assume he was young) asked for book recommendations, identifying sci-fi as one of the genres he was interested in. Another young friend recommended Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series. The response was astonishing – the OP essentially said “Yeah no, that’s a classic, I’m not interested.” On being questioned, he elaborated that he was only interested in latest releases because he wanted to read about ‘society as it is’, not about something that was, in the past.

I replied wryly that my plans to recommend King Lear would probably not find favour with him, then, despite the Bard’s work being as relevant today as it ever has been, but since ‘irony’ seems to be one of those nuances that existed in the past and not in ‘society as it is’, the poster missed my point.

It set me thinking, though. What is a classic? Why is it becoming a derogatory term? Personally, I never saw the distinction. When I read Great Expectations I approached it as any other book – to be read from cover to cover. And while the Slacker, aged 9, surely understood very little of the book’s sub-text of human nature in the face of greed and temptation, certain characters were ingrained in my mind even then – good old Joe the Blacksmith, haunting Miss Havisham, menacing Mr Jaggers, ever-distant Estella…and though it was a book set in Victorian England, none of these characters seem dated, to this day.

Ultimately, whether a book is worth reading, or not worth reading, has nothing to do with its publication date or even the times it deals with. If that were so, there would be nothing worth reading in the works of Tolkein or Wodehouse, who both, in their ways, wrote about worlds that never existed. A piece of literature is worthwhile for the emotions it invokes in the reader, for what it teaches us about the human condition, or about the heart, in conflict with itself. And sometimes, it so happens that a grocer’s son who lived 400 years ago, did that so well that superlatives still fall short and situations still come alive.

Like all plays, a textual reading of King Lear is destined to be sub-optimal. Shakespeare wrote plays, dramas, meant to be performed, and not read as dry text on paper. But while one should definitely watch Kurusawa’s “Ran”, or the movie versions featuring Laurence Olivier or Ian McKellan, there is much to admire in the text as well.

Here we have Cordelia, honestly (and a little saucily), telling her father a truth he does not want to hear, and being disinherited for it:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

There is intrigue and sub-plots, the Duke of Gloster wrongly trusts his bastard son Edmund over the trueborn one, Edgar, and finds himself blinded and turned out of his own castle as a result. Edgar himself plays at being a madman, dressing in rags and spouting nonsense to hide himself from his vengeful half-brother, and when he encounters his own father, mutters this gibberish:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, - Fie foh and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.

(Browning ran with the concept rather, as you can see here)

And Lear, stupid old Lear ends up an exile in his own land, having given away his Kingdom to his daughters Regan and Goneril, who after professing filial love in terms that would fit right into the Sanskrit epics, quickly throw their father out into the storm. As with any Shakespearean play, some of the best lines are given to Lear’s Fool.

Winter's not gone yet, if the wild-geese fly that way.
Fathers that wear rags
Do make their children blind;
But fathers that bear bags
Shall see their children kind.
Fortune, that arrant whore,
Ne'er turns the key to the poor.
But, for all this, thou shalt have as many dolours
for thy daughters as thou canst tell in a year.

Being abandoned by both the daughters he thought loved him, leaves Lear embittered and delusional.

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!

Lear joins up with Gloster and the disguised Edgar, one truly mad, the other affecting it, and they move towards Dover, where the loyal Kent has sent word to Cordelia, now Queen of France, to come to the succour of her father. They meet, but he scarce recognises her for a moment before battle is joined.

And here, if we expect triumph and redemption, we are to be cruelly deceived. Shakespeare did hopeless long before Dostoevsky, despair long before Rushdie and brutal major character death long before GRR Martin.

So no, the Gods do not favour the righteous, the battle does not go the way of the ever-loving Cordelia, and she and Lear both end up captive. The triumph of the sisters Regan and Goneril is short-lived, both have fallen in love with the rascal Edmund, and Shakespeare gives them their just desserts off-screen, as a jealousy-induced murder-suicide robs them of any chance at redemption.

What means that bloody knife?

'Tis hot, it smokes;
It came even from the heart of--O, she's dead!

Who dead? speak, man.

Your lady, sir, your lady: and her sister
By her is poisoned; she hath confess'd it.

Edgar avenges his father by facing Edmund in a duel, and as Edmund dies, he at least tries to redeem himself by countermanding his last orders - to kill Cordelia, but there is no sweet ending for Lear.

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

Is this the promised end

Or image of that horror?

But hope is ephemeral for the wretched King.

And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

All his children are dead. Though the Duke of Albany offers to return his Kingdom to him, Lear has no reason to live. It is left to Albany, reluctant participant in the atrocities that precede this (he is the husband of Goneril) to utter the final words of this tragedy:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

The play ended there, but it left me wondering – what part of this was out-dated or irrelevant? An over-indulgent father cheated by his children? A foolish man failing to see the true merit of modest love over fancily-decorated avarice? The reality that life is unfair, and no grand poetic scheme of justice exists?

Well, maybe I’ll never know, and remain, like Gloster, blind and wondering,

I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw: full oft 'tis seen,
Our means secure us, and our mere defects
Prove our commodities.