Friday 20 May 2016

Book Review: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens

Book Review, Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens

I often go through moments of tremendous self-doubt. Now this is pretty normal in a writer, you’d say, and rightly too. But I have them as a reader too. I look at a book, at the cover (or, on my erstwhile Kindle, at the title) and wonder if I can read it. Will the intellectual effort be too much for a mind that has, of late, read only modern fiction. You know, the kind of stuff that can be read while waiting for someone, between TV shows and just before work.

So I was rather apprehensive about reading something of the size of Charles DickensDombey and Son. I had read it before, many years ago, while I was in college, and the size of books did not intimidate me, and neither did the name of the author. In fact, I had loved Dickens, his easy ability to play on a reader’s emotions, to take prose to such poetic heights, to paint characters who could be caricatures and yet utterly real at the same time.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t have attempted Dombey and Son without considerable encouragement from a friend who assured me I could still read it, despite my declining faculties.

Review for the people who don’t read ‘Classics’ or only read what does not challenge their faculties.

I have somehow managed to get through the ordeal. I can therefore give you the review, which is very easy to do and goes as below:

“Dombey and Son is an out-dated book covering an out-dated issue (that of the preference for male progeny), full of preachy sentimentality, two-dimensional characters, ridiculous co-incidences, unnecessary digressions and difficult writing.”

Review for the rest of you

If you’re still around, you probably know what’s coming next.

I believe some books are meant to be savoured for what they are. Some issues, at least the one that this book emphasizes, are never out-dated (ask India’s missing millions of girls who die in the womb or soon after birth) and some two-dimensional characters have more personality than real live people who have none.

As for difficult writing, those who find a book like this difficult and can manage to read the bullshit that is published in Business magazines or regulatory guidelines should seriously think about the use their faculties are being put to.

Just as you don’t gulp down a fine wine, or scarf a five-course meal…

(resuming after lunch)

or complain about too much sugar in a gulab jamun,

(resuming after dessert)

a book by Dickens has to be enjoyed for what it is.

So let’s get to the out-dated, preachy, sentimental, two-dimensional &c &c review of the book, shall we?

Dombey and Son.

It’s the name of a firm. Common enough name, I think. We still have them – the family name followed by & Son or & Sons. Perhaps we never gave a thought to it growing up. Perhaps the patriarchy is so thoroughly ingrained in us that it never crossed our minds to ask “Why only the sons?”

Dombey and Son asked that question in 1846.

The plot revolves around the family firm and its employees – Mr. Dombey, proprietor, Paul Dombey, his son, Jim Carker, Manager, Walter Gay, junior clerk, Florence Dombey, daughter of the first-mentioned, and Edith, her beloved ‘mamma’.

The theme is also of pride – the pride of Paul Dombey in the firm that bears his name, a pride that leads him to desire a male heir and neglect his daughter.
'His father's name, Mrs Dombey, and his grandfather's! I wish his grandfather were alive this day! There is some inconvenience in the necessity of writing Junior,' said Mr Dombey, making a fictitious autograph on his knee; 'but it is merely of a private and personal complexion. It doesn't enter into the correspondence of the House. Its signature remains the same.' And again he said 'Dombey and Son,' in exactly the same tone as before. 

Dombey, Father and Son

Of the pride of Jim Carker, who feeds his master’s hubris just as he feels every word that comes from the mouth of his master to be a slight to himself and plots a slow but exacting revenge.

Jim Carker and Edith
And lastly, the pride of Edith Granger, in whose breast that vice battles with a deep self-hatred, Edith whose only redeeming feature, her love for Florence, is also used against her and adds to the repugnance she has for herself, and eventually hurtles to a fall that the readers can see from afar, though the form it takes, is another matter.

It’s the younger Paul, Walter and Florence, bereft of that vice, who are the moral compass of the story, along with assorted other members of the absolutely stellar supporting cast that is such a Dickensian staple.

And stellar the cast certainly is!

There are characters like Captain Cuttle, gruff, unsophisticated and true, Old Sol Gills, a scientific man, black-eyed Susan Nipper, faithful to the end, silly Mr. Toots, gossiping Mr. Perch, Mrs. Skewton (also known as Cleopatra), the penniless dowager clinging to her youth, Mrs. MacStinger the landlady from hell, Alice the ‘handsome gal’, defiant to the last, and her mother, Good Mrs. Brown, a woman bereft of all dignity, Rob the Grinder, that poor cove, Major Joey B, hey, Josh, JB, always on the verge of choking to death…well, I could go on, there’s the Skettles, the Toodles, the Blimbers, Mrs. Pipchin, Miss Tox, Harriet and John Carker, Mrs Chick, Towlinson, the Game Chicken...but suffice to say that, each named character has a personality and a distinct character, even if he or she only has three lines in the entire 800-page story.

Mrs MacStinger gets her man
So, yes, if the characters are two-dimensional, let it be added that it’s one dimension more than most authors who have come after him, let alone before, have managed to give theirs. Here we have, in Toots the moneyed dimwit, the blueprint for the characters Wodehouse would immortalise, in Jim Carker the classic toady who hates his boss, a character so real that we see him everyday in office, in Good Mrs. Brown the tragic story of a beggar woman who first exploits, and then laments, her beautiful child.

I do wonder how many of us can yet appreciate that sort of thing any more. I wonder if I will continue to do so myself. The artistry required to create such a range of people, give them all a story, a description, a reason to behave as they do, a distinct persona for each one, to manage them, to have them be where he needs them to be and, by being themselves, move the story along, must be of a high order indeed. But if we are slaves to quick-fix romances, simplified mythology and shock-value mystery, these nuances may escape us, and the loss is probably our own.

The plot is intricate, as it should be. Published as a serial from 1846 to 1848, the story is linear, as was the norm back then, with a few time jumps.

Since I generally follow a “no spoilers” policy for books that deserve to be read, I’ll summarize the book in a series of complex sentences:

Dombey and Son tells of Mr. Dombey’s hopes in his son, his neglect of his daughter, her patience, his pride, his disappointment;

Of Jim Carker’s plotting, his past, his perfidy, his fraternal resentment and his revenge;

Of Florence, her unrequited love for her father, her disappointment, her sorrow for her brother, her innocent faith in Walter, her unfortunately requited love for her ‘mamma’ Edith and her path to happiness,

She trembled, and her eyes were dim. His figure seemed to grow in height and bulk before her as he paced the room: now it was all blurred and indistinct; now clear again, and plain; and now she seemed to think that this had happened, just the same, a multitude of years ago. She yearned towards him, and yet shrunk from his approach. Unnatural emotion in a child, innocent of wrong! Unnatural the hand that had directed the sharp plough, which furrowed up her gentle nature for the sowing of its seeds!

Of Edith, her pride, her loathing for herself and all the world, the love for Florence that only poisons her life instead of redeeming it, her self-destructive behaviour and her eventual ruin.

An expression of scorn was habitual to the proud face, and seemed inseparable from it; but the contempt with which it received any appeal to admiration, respect, or consideration on the ground of his riches, no matter how slight or ordinary in itself, was a new and different expression, unequalled in intensity by any other of which it was capable. Whether Mr Dombey, wrapped in his own greatness, was at all aware of this, or no, there had not been wanting opportunities already for his complete enlightenment; and at that moment it might have been effected by the one glance of the dark eye that lighted on him, after it had rapidly and scornfully surveyed the theme of his self-glorification. He might have read in that one glance that nothing that his wealth could do, though it were increased ten thousand fold, could win him for its own sake, one look of softened recognition from the defiant woman, linked to him, but arrayed with her whole soul against him.
Edith Granger, Mr Dombey and Jim Carker

And that’s really only a part of it, because you read Dickens for much more than just plot. There are passages in this book so exquisite that they made me turn the pages back and read the lines again, speechless with admiration. There are lines that evoke such pathos that even person who is less of a sentimental fool than me might shed a secret tear.

Here, writing about a train journey with such dexterity that you feel you’re in a train at that moment, there, of a character’s emotions with such tenderness that you laugh and cry with him or her, Dickens makes not only Victorian scenes, but a Victorian sensibility permeate the reader’s consciousness, if we receive the writing with an open mind. Much is made of the advent of the railroad here, of the changes it brings in the landscape, in the lifestyles of people and then, in that memorable Chapter where Rob the Grinder loses his position, of the terror that the passing of the hot, metallic, coal-fuelled monster brings to those who live within the radius of the railway line (as, incidentally, I do).

I’m reproducing a passage here that I hope will illustrate what I’m trying to say about the use of language


Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

In the end, I’d say it’s a book that deserves to be read. Not for it’s message (though who can say it’s not still a relevant one), and not for it’s occasional digressions where the author tries to moralise (much can be forgiven to a writer who, even when slipping into a normative style, manages to retain his literary merit). But for being a BOOK, with a cohesive story, well-realised characters, for appealing to what’s best in the reader and giving pure literary pleasure along the way.

So that’s Dombey and Son, then. More old-fashioned than out-dated, more tender than sentimental, with a varied cast of memorable characters, with twists and turns that make you wonder as much as shake your head, written in language that should stimulate the artist in all of us.

If you still want to, you can buy it here
Captain Cuttle and 'Heart's Delight'.

Friday 13 May 2016

Book Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Book Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, who passed away earlier this year, wrote a number of notable works, but his lasting fame in the English-speaking world rests on Il Nome Della Rosa, translated by William Weaver and made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I have seen the movie in bits and pieces, and intend to see it properly soon, but had taken on the novel during my travels in North India, finishing the book on the day I spent at Macleodgunj, visiting the Tibetan Buddhist monastery there.

The book begins in what was the present time when it was written, viz. the late seventies, with the narrator claiming to find a lost manuscript dictated by ‘Adso of Melk’, a fourteenth-century Benedictine monk. The rest of the book is a narration of Adso in the first person.

Adso is the younger son of a wealthy Italian, a young ‘novice’ under the guidance of a monk named William of Baskerville, from Northern England (a hat-tip to Conan Doyle) and that they are on a journey to get away from the military strife in Melk at the time, as well as on a mission that is made clear to us later on.

As they approach the monastery where the bulk of the action takes place, Brother William shows his skills of deduction by finding the Abbot’s missing horse. After reaching there, they are informed of the recent mysterious death of a young novice, Adelmo and the Abbot requests Brother William, as a former Inquisitor, to investigate it. This is side-by-side with the real purpose of the visit, which is to be a part of negotiations between a team of monks led by Michael of Cesna and a delegation from the Pope, led by the terrible Bernardo Gui, an Inquisitor whose very name strikes terror in the hearts of those who hear it.

Always cooler than you, even as a 14th century monk
As the days pass, more and more monks are killed, and the ideological disputes grow more and more intense. The Franciscans and Minorites are factions who believe that virtue lies in poverty, since the Christ lived in poverty himself, a position that the Vatican seems to consider dangerous to their own authority, given the tremendous wealth of the Church at the time. Another dispute arises over the nature and importance of humour, with one faction claiming that as the Bible does not record Christ ever having smiled or laughed, ‘Comedy’ is a sinful art and practice. Even the common habit of those who illustrated books (this was before the printing press came into being, so all books were hand-written and illustrated, a skill that was virtually the monopoly of monasteries) to insert absurd drawings in the margins to arouse the interest of the readers is considered sinful.

The bulk of the investigation centres around the monastery’s library, a labyrinthine structure where entry is forbidden but which houses a book so dangerous that it seems to be the key to the killings. As they find a secret entrance and exit, Adso and William find answers that only lead to more questions. On one of their nocturnal expeditions, Adso encounters a gorgeous peasant girl from the neighbouring village, and his reaction to her as well as Brother William’s later explanation of the nature of sexual attraction is another important part of the doctrinal differences that must have existed at the time, as well as the tragic underpinning of the suffering of the common folk in the ideological battles of the ‘great’ and ‘pure’ men of the Church.

As the body count piles up, and the attempts of Adso and William to solve the mystery are met with clues that lead nowhere, the papal delegation arrives and the action accelerates to a shocking and ultimately, bitter end. For all their cleverness and investigative success, William and Adso’s triumph is ultimately a failure, and they soon separate, never to meet again.

We are left with Adso’s final reflections on that episode in his life, and the beautiful, poignant last line:

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
(Oh beautiful rose of the past, now disappeared, we hold only your name)

Valentina Vargas as 'the girl'.
The Name of the Rose gives us an abundance of characters, with often-complicated names, but each acquires a personality and leaves an impression. William and Adso are a sort of medieval Holmes and Watson, but the Chief of the Monastery, Abo, a noble’s bastard elevated beyond his capabilities, Severinus a herbalist who shares William’s intellectual curiosity, Malachi the librarian, a stooge who believes in denying knowledge to seekers, Berengar his assistant, who abuses his position to obtain favours from those who want access to books, Jorge the elderly, blind monk who keeps preaching about the oncoming Apocalypse, even Salvatore the hideous former criminal who acts as a procurer of sexual favours from the village girls for corrupt monks, are all characters who should remain with the reader for a long time.

The little things
The Name of the Rose is not an easy book to read. Peppered with biblical references, stories from the medieval history of the pre-Luther Church and in the last days of the Eastern Roman Empire, it is a treasure-trove of information and insight into the life of the era. At the same time, the generous use of Latin phrases without translation can be jarring, as well as the throwbacks and detailing of doctrinal differences between factions of the Church, which may not be of the same interest to all readers.

For a certain type of reader, The Name of the Rose would be very rewarding indeed. If you love mystery with a dash of history, and can open-mindedly look at the motivations and flaws of people of the times then you ought to enjoy this novel. While I speak from the translation, it appears that Eco’s use of language is deft and cheeky, the way adjectives are used is the work of a master, and when Adso (as narrator) describes the peasant girl entirely with references to Biblical and religious monuments – and still manages to convey his deep physical arousal – you know you are in the hands of someone who knows what words are and what they can do.

Eco’s postscript gives a hint as to the meaning of the title through this poem by seventeenth-century Mexican poet, Juana Ines De la Cruz

Red rose growing in the meadow,
you vaunt yourself bravely
bathed in crimson and carmine:
a rich and fragrant show.
But no: Being fair,
You will be unhappy soon

But does he mean the forbidden book, now lost forever? The innocence of his own youth? Or the beautiful peasant girl, his rose, whose name he never knew? That is for the reader to guess, if he picks up the book.

Available here


Thursday 12 May 2016

Book Review: Fury, by Salman Rushdie

Book Review: Fury, by Salman Rushdie

I ended up reading Fury only because my Kindle, on which I had lined up a bunch of books to read on my recent trip, decided that the second day of the journey (while I was still in the train to Delhi) was a good time to conk out. This left me with a limited number of options in terms of books available on the tablet device, which I had carried as an afterthought. One of them was Fury.

Fury is a short book, compared to Midnight’s Children or Shalimar the Clown. It also lacks the sheer magnificence of either. Which is not to say it is not a good book. Like an out-of-form Don Bradman, this only means that it’s like a century in two sessions instead of the customary double-century at run-a-minute.  The writing flows well, there are passages of a class that only he, perhaps, can reach, and the quirkiness of his magical realism runs through the narrative like a bubbling, frothing current.

The story (inasmuch as a Rushdie novel can be said to have one), is about Malik “Solly” Solanka, a retired Professor of History who has made a fortune as a doll-maker, his greatest and most successful creation being ‘Little Brain’. Malik starts the story in New York City, having just pulled a Charles Strickland on his much-younger wife and 3-year-old son. Here, he is pulled into the life and troubles of an old friend, a black man trying to fit into New York’s country-club society, and Mila Milo, a beautiful Serbian girl who is a huge fan of ‘Little Brain’. Add an angle of murders of high-society girls (of which Solanka wonders if he is himself guilty, since he almost murdered his wife before leaving her) and the possible incest between Mila Milo and her father; a relationship she tried to replicate with him, and we have a proper melting pot of social commentary, thriller and sex.

(c) The Guardian.
Also, clearly Neela.
Later, we are introduced to the third significant woman in Solanka’s life, the stunningly beautiful Neela, a half-Indian from an island named Lilliput-Blefescu (polish up on your Swift, people. Jonathan, not Taylor. Though they’re both amazing.) As Solanka again runs, and then gets pulled into the politics of Neela’s homeland, even as Mila Milo tries to get him over his creative rut and start making dolls, the story hurtles towards an ending that is, like most Rushdie endings, deeply unsatisfying and yet completely perfect in itself.

Compared to his other works, Fury is lacking. Malik Solanka is a Woody Allen-esque self insert. One does not expect to like or sympathise with the characters in a Rushdie novel, but Malik Solanka left me quite cold. His thoughts and actions seem too inconsistent to work in a fictional setting, and as a reader makes one wonder why he is at the centre of the story.

Mila Milo on the other hand is a well-drawn character. From her appearance to her personality, from her status at the ‘Queen of West Seventieth’, to her role as a ‘new technology’ evangelist and even as incest survivor (though in denial), she’s thoroughly believable.

Neela, however, is for most of the book trapped within her own beauty and even her heroic turn at the end is a little scripted, too video-game like.

The Little Things
At the end, only Rushdie’s superb writing stands out.  Though a hate-letter to New York culture, Fury shows itself to be very much a product of it; superficial but attractive (Rushdie’s depiction of it, not mine.)

Now this is harsh, but when this is the same writer who gave us Shame and Midnight’s Children and Shalimar the Clown (which, released but four years later, is a far superior work) that makes it hard to be kind. Solanka’s childhood, his young-adult life and his later successes are dangled just out of the reader’s reach, throwaway mentions covered in a three-page span, while his ruminations on contemporary culture, on sexual deviance among the super-rich, on the reluctance of British women to give oral sex vis-à-vis American women, and such topics are given page-time that is precious in a book this short.

Neither is Solanka’s success with women ever justified in any way; rather the women are objectified through his eyes, their beauty the focus, the reasons he actually loves them or they love him never brought out. We are left to imagine it, and sometimes I frankly could not.

On the other hand, there are quite brilliant passages, imagery and idiosyncratic denouements that remind us that Rushdie is a literary genius even when he’s not at his best.

Fury is a difficult book to call. Like Agnes Grey, which suffers from being written by the sister of Emily and Charlotte Bronte, it suffers from being written by the man whose other books will stand up and be counted a century from now. Nonetheless, for an understanding of a creative Indian NRI’s midlife crises (Solanka and Rushdie both) and the flavour of American life at the height of the dot-com boom, one would do well to take up this book.

Available here

His next novel should be called 'Smug'.