Saturday, November 26, 2016

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana [1957]

A quick study on the bibliography of Carlo Emilio Gadda – an Electrical engineer who, among other assignments, was in-charge of the Vatican Power Station,  but went on to become a darling of Italian literature – provides a common thread in terms of the great sense incompleteness that pervades most of his works; and that teasing almost-there-but-deliberately-not-so feel is evident in possibly his most well-known book, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. A dense, illusive, rambling, muddled and digressive novel of considerable formal bravado; filled to its brim with rich allusions, socio-cultural symbols, political critique, philosophical asides and oftentimes vague, ambiguous and obscure metaphors; alternately cheeky and serious; and laced with bleak worldview, deadpan humour and a touch of the grotesque; this baroque and modernist tour-de-force turned out, simultaneously, a rewarding and an exasperating read. Set in the teeming Fascist Rome of 1927, with Mussolini’s powers on the rise, the tale, in its most stripped-down form, is about the investigation by Detective Ingravallo, also known as Don Cicco, into two disparate crimes connected by their occurrence in the same apartment building – the robbery of a neurotic widow’s jewels, and the grisly murder of Liliana Balducci, a ravishing married lady who Ingravallo secretly admired. The morbid, borderline necrophiliac and incredibly elaborate depiction of Liliana’s dead corpse, from the cop’s perspective, had Gaddo at his most sublime and outrageous best; the aggressive interrogation, seeped in obsessive jealousy, of Liliana’s nephew Giuliano, who the detective suspects of having been her secret lover and killer, also ranks right up there. Italo Calvino, in his lovely introduction, called this a philosophic novel, in the guise of a murder-mystery story; interestingly, the way the text underwent changes – from its serialization in ’46 and ’47, to its publication in ’57, to its multiple film treatments, scripts for which Gadda himself wrote – remains a fascinating commentary on the shifting nature of truth, as much in this book as in life itself.

Author: Carlo Emilio Gadda
Genre: Crime Drama/Mystery/Romantic Noir/Police Procedural/Modernist Literature
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Ravelstein [2000]

Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein, was also his most self-referential work. Seeped in personal history, memories, and thoughts ranging from politics to polemics, and from marital woes to mortality, got coagulated into this funny, rambling, self-deprecatory and quietly affecting book. Tonally, stylistically, and in his depiction of the principal protagonists, it remains in many ways a companion piece to Humboldt’s Gift – particularly in that both provided bawdy, yet poignant, fictionalization of real-life friendships. The book’s vividly etched titular character Abe Ravelstein – based on philosopher Allan Bloom who was Bellow’s colleague and friend – is a gregarious, learned, opinionated, hedonistic and libidinous philosophy teacher whose love for larger-than-life existence has received a grandiose thrust thanks to tremendous financial windfall from a recently published book of his; he’s also dying of AIDS, and as a last wish asks his closest friend Chick, the narrator and the author’s stand-in, to write a memoir on him. Bellow structured the book into three distinctive parts – in the first the reader is literally thrown right into Ravelstein’s drawing room and into his conversations that meander from Great Politics to Greek mythology to Jewish history, while he’s splurging on high-life; in the second, and best, section, the narrative becomes tad impersonal, and melancholic too, as Chick starts delineating Ravelstein from a distance, while also recounting his collapsing marriage to his beautiful, icy wife based in no small parts on Bellow’s 4th wife Alexandra Bellow; the final part, and the most personal of the trio, gives us a peek into Chick’s, and in turn Bellow’s then current marriage to a soothing, much-younger wife, and his close-shave with death that brings him face-to-face with his imminent mortality and propels him into finally deciding to get on with his promise to his now long-dead friend. That an 85-year old man, at the fag-end of his life, could compose such a formally and textually ambitious work as this – a freewheeling intermingling of fact and fiction – speaks volumes about Bellow’s intellectual vitality and artistic bravery.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Existentialist Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Life and Hard Times [1933]

My Life and Hard Times, first published (albeit, in parts) in The New Yorker, the magazine which James Thurber was associated with for close to three decades, and often referred to as his greatest work, serves as an indelible and unforgettable introduction to the celebrated American humorist, satirist, caricaturist and chronicler of everyday foibles. Comprising of a series of colourful, lively, zany, rambunctious and hilarious vignettes from his early life – his days of growing up in Columbus, Ohio, with his parents, grandparents, siblings, maids, dogs, neighbours and whatnot, and ending just after his graduation from college – this madcap novella, which seemed (on hindsight) straight out of a quintessential Woody Allen back-story, is a memoir like no other. The memorable introductory note, by the author himself, where he spelt out, with disarming and self-deprecatory humour, why he’s ill-suited to write an autobiography, brilliantly set the tone for what followed. The sketches, told through deadpan comedy, wit, irony and irreverence, chronicled the idiosyncrasies and foibles of a host of quirky and eccentric cast of characters, through marvelously chosen and depicted episodes – a stoic father whose life seems defined by cosmic jokes, a neurotic mother who’s fond of their pet-dog which just can’t stop biting everyone, an aunt who’s afraid of electricity leaking out of sockets, a grandfather who’s confused WWI with the Civil War, a maid who’s always under fear of being hypnotized, James who just can’t seem to pass his botany course in college, and then, unwittingly, becomes a regular at the Draft Board, and a town full of oddball residents who embark on an exodus on the mistaken assumption that the dam has broken. That commonplace and mundane everyday-life and people can be turned into something as remarkable and extraordinary as what’s contained in this slender gem of a book, with the author’s drawings as juicy accompaniments, is indeed a reflection of Thurber’s fecund mind, incredible storytelling prowess and unbridled comic genius.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Memoir/Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Slaughterhouse-Five [1969]

Slaughterhouse-Five works beautifully along multiple facets – as a farcical and psychedelic nonsense literature, a cheekily revisionist sci-fi parable, an irreverent and darkly comic political satire, and a deadpan exercise in surrealistic metafiction. But what this iconoclastic Kurt Vonnegut work – part of both Time and Modern Library’s lists of 100 Best English-Language Novels of 21st Century – remains above all is a powerful anti-war novel whose tonal levity and absurdist depictions belie its disconcerting content and commentary, thus placing it on the same page as the Heller masterpiece Catch-22, or for that matter, such movies as Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; the book’s alternate title, viz. The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, perfectly illustrates the author’s grim stance. The story revolves around the infamous Firebombing of Dresden – referred to as “the Florence of the Elbe” for its cultural significance – by the Allied Forces near the end of WWII. Billy Pilgrim, a most unlikely protagonist, is a pitiful non-hero, an optometrist, an admirer of the obscure yet surprisingly prescient sci-fi author Kilgore Trout, an unintentional time-traveler who has become “unstuck in time”, and a subject of interest for the extraterrestrial species Tralfamadorians. That he was also a hapless member of the American war machine, was a prisoner-of-war upon falling in Nazi hands, a survivor of the Dresden massacre and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, added deeply melancholic and troubling contexts to his seemingly fantastical existence. The narrative zigzagged back and forth, in rapid succession, to various points in Billy’s life, and in a further touch of formal bravura, the book opened and closed with a nameless narrator (Vonnegut himself) trying in futility to pen down a book on the Dresden episode. That Vonnegut’s war-time experiences closely mirrored Billy’s, makes one realize that this brutal, madcap book, through the belly-laughs it evokes, was in essence an attempt to come to terms with scarring memories and make sense of mankind’s unparalleled lunacy.

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/War Novel/Science-Fiction/Nonsense Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jagori (The Vigil) [1945]

Satinath Bhaduri was as much a writer as he was a political activist – he was actively embroiled in the struggle for independence in British India, and spent considerable time in jail, and his books, therefore, were a direct outcome of his politics. In his most well-reckoned work, Jagori, he infused strong semi-autobiographical elements and his own shifting ideologues (Bhaduri was initially a member of the Indian National Congress, but later veered towards the Socialist Party), thus making this novel a stirring blend of the personal and the political. He made use of a stream-of-consciousness, fractured and multi-perspective narrative, and these formalist devices made this an important political and modernist work in the annals of 20th century Indian literature. With the 1942 Quit India Movement as its backdrop, the tale’s central tenet revolves around the imminent execution of Bilu, a young revolutionary, who’s sentenced to death for political crimes. Slated to be hanged at the first stroke of dawn, the story opened on his last night leading to this scourging eventuality, and is chronicled from four different points of view – Bilu, a mild-mannered guy with strong political convictions, who’s alone in the cell for the condemned prisoners; his ageing father, a former school teacher who’s dedicated his life to Gandhian principles, who’s in the same jail but in a different block housing prisoners from all political walks; his loving mother who’s been arrested for the most trivial of reasons; and his younger brother Nilu, a brazenly confrontational young man with equally strong political convictions, whose witness served as the most decisive nail in Bilu’s fate. Employing the devastating imminence and irrevocability of capital punishment as the key hinge, the novel explored, through a mix of matter-of-factness and mordant humour, the anxieties, memories, the here-and-now and the inter-connected experiences of the 4 characters, along with reflections on social structures and hypocrisies, discourses on rationality vis-à-vis religious rituals, and wry observations on prison corruption, among others.

Author: Satinath Bhaduri
Genre: Political Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: Bengali
Country: India