Monday, January 9, 2017

The Middle-aged Man on the Flying Trapeze [1935]

Having earlier read (and loved) James Thurber’s brilliant, satirical, parodic, irreverent, ingenious and hilarious quasi-autobiography on his formative years, My Life and Hard Times, how could I control my urge for long from reading the next set-piece in the beautiful Library of America anthology on the writings and drawings of this eccentric American humorist that I own? Particularly so given its absurdist and ironic title, The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. Unlike the earlier ensemble, this collection of idiosyncratic episodes was more disjointed in nature – unpredictably swinging from deadpan memoirs and ludicrous reflections to nonsensical chronicling of his acquaintances and absolutely unrelated short-stories – and often displayed far darker shades of pain, melancholia, loneliness, human corruption and casual violence. The narration freely veered from first to third person and back, and made it darn difficult to gauge the blurring lines where gleefully exaggerated caricatures transitioned into complete figments of Thurber’s fecund imaginations. Though some of the pieces were weaker than others, the collection provided ample evidence of Thurber’s mad genius – a man trying hard to talk her bored wife into agreeing to let him murder her; a laughing-stock who boasts of his good lucks only to become a bigger laughing-stock upon his accidental demise; the author’s crazy school-days filled with adults in fifth standard; a man with the most outlandish sense of humour; an incorrigible intellectual who, despite his unwillingness to complete anything, is considered a master by everyone around him; and, in a scorching indictment on the crazy world order in which Thurber lived (as we do, too), and which may well be one of the greatest (and shortest) socio-political satires every written, Jack (“Pal”) Smurch, a seemingly phony person with a disreputable disposition and dishonorable past, becomes, much to the dismay of those in power, a full-blown American hero to the public, prompting the government (led by the sleazy President himself) to take certain sordid corrective actions for, well, “the greater good”.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Short Stories
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, January 2, 2017

Fear of Dying [2015]

Erica Jong continues to be known to this for her smashing debut novel Fear of Flying – a sensational bestseller upon its publication and a pop-cultural icon, and not just in the context of feminist literature, thereafter – for its bristling, humorous and infectious call to freedom and liberty from societal mores and patriarchal expectations. Elements of that free-spirited exuberance and coming-of-age, along with fictionalization of episodes and characters from her own life, are there in Fear of Dying as well – the third chapter in her so-called Fear Trilogy published four decades later – even if, as perhaps can be expected, it was also suffused with existential ironies, idiosyncrasies and crises emanating from and pertaining to denial and acceptance of ageing and death. The book begins with Vanessa, the tale’s 60-year old protagonist who was once a popular actor, placing an ad in a website on adultery and anonymous affairs called (the title ripped-off from Isadora Wing, the unforgettable protagonist of Jong’s debut novel and, as it turns out, a close friend of Vanessa); however, contrary to what she’s been looking for, viz. to reverse her ageing process and make up for the fact that she’s married to a much older man, she ends up being contacted with men whose fetishes range from the bizarre to the ludicrous. Meanwhile, she’s grappling with questions of mortality of her aged parents under 24x7 palliative care, the near-death experience of her husband (who, like her, has journeyed through a series of marriages and divorces) with whom she shares a deeply loving relationship, anticipating grandparenthood when her daughter announces her pregnancy, hoping to stabilize her bonds with her sisters who are as emotionally dysfunctional as she is, and trying to come to grips with lost youth. Incidentally, the sections on and Isadora felt tad superfluous and trite; however, for balance parts, Jong’s writing was filled with a delicious flourish of sharp wit, brittle humour, candid self-awareness, satirical observations, palpable tenderness, and understated poignancy.

p.s. This is my 100th Book Review at Biblioscope

Author: Erica Jong
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Marriage Drama/Feminist Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Human Stain [2000]

Philip Roth provided an extraordinary display to his stylistic breadth and political consciousness with The American Trilogy where he explored the complex dimensions of post-War American history. However, where American Pastoral and I Married a Communist were largely focused in that they were centered on the Vietnam War protests and McCarthy Witch-Hunts, respectively, the scope was stunningly broad in The Human Stain where he touched upon such diverse topics as racism (and its evolving nuances over the decades), the dichotomy between personal and social identity, and the damaging scars left behind by America’s involvements in one bad war after another. Further, while Roth’s literary alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s role was largely passive in the earlier two novels, re-constructing the lives and times of their protagonists, viz. Swede Levov and Ira Ringold, here he also played an active part in propelling the narrative forward. Septuagenarian Coleman Silk, a revered professor of classics and former dean at Athena College (the same place where E.I. Lonoff was a faculty in the 1st Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer), suddenly became a pariah when he’s accused of racism, and more so when, after his wife’s unanticipated death, gets embroiled in an affair with Faunia Farley, a 34-year old illiterate janitor with a tragic past. Zuckerman, who’d enjoyed a brief period of friendship with him, starts putting the pieces together by conjecturing upon the various players involved – Coleman’s children, Faunia’s emotionally scarred former husband, and most interestingly, a fast-rising French émigré who develops a rather surreal tussle with Silk – and also goes deep into Coleman’s past unknown to nearly everyone who knows him, and unravels his radical act of jumping across the seemingly insurmountable racial line through his conversion from an African-American to a white Jew. Intricately structured as a memoir and a multi-dimensional political history, with elements of investigative reporting and psycho-analysis thrown in, this stately, ironic and tragic novel might just remain as the most ambitious and powerful work in this gripping and turbulent trilogy.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Ministry of Fear [1943]

Greene often classified his books into “novels” and “entertainers”, and he’d written one of each category set on devastation of the Blitz in London. The End of the Affair, which belonged to the former category, remains one of his most well-known works, while The Ministry of Fear, sandwiched between two of his other most well-known “novels”, viz. The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter, with its heady dose of passion, intrigue and betrayals, distinctively belonged to the latter. However, even when he composed fast and engaging narrative-driven entertainers, the thinking novelist in him – for whom dilemmas, anxieties and existential crises of the 20th century man, the moral bankruptcy and intrinsically untrustworthy nature of nation states, and the inherent hypocrisy and dubious ambiguities of nationalism and patriotism – was always at play; this running thematic strand was regularly evident here as well, even if it never reached the dizzying heights of the likes of The Quiet American and The Human Factor where, as in this, international political conspiracy formed a central aspect of the storyline. Arthur Rowe, a rather boring and straightforward man living a staid and uneventful life, is thrown into the dead-end when he ends up winning a delicious cake at a charity fête that he wasn’t supposed to win. From an attempt on his life to being forced to go on the lam upon a murder, from encountering amnesia to experiencing suicidal impulses, from trusting the wrong guys to falling for an Austrian refugee – he life becomes a series of unsavoury and unanticipated shock-developments as he unwittingly finds himself enmeshed in a Nazi plot to smuggle a microfilms containing state secrets. Even a lesser Greene manages to keep one on tenterhooks with gripping storytelling, gray characters, moody atmosphere and pervading fatalism, and this was no exception; it also had a strong cinematic quality about it – no wonder Fritz Lang turned it into a movie one year later.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller/Political Thriller/Crime Thriller/Spy Novel/War
Language: English
Country: UK

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