Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zuckerman Unbound [1981]


Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s psychologically, morally and artistically complex alter-ego, was a budding writer of considerable promise and in love with the Great Books, when he made the unforgettable trip to E.I. Lonoff’s secluded house in The Ghost Writer. He’s in his mid-30s now, and with his fourth book Carnovsky he’s attained what Roth himself did with his groundbreaking masterpiece on neurosis, guilt and angst, Portnoy’s Complaint –commercial success, critical adulation and public notoriety all at once; no cookies for guessing that the former was a direct reference to the latter. While the publication has suddenly made him an extremely wealthy man, its ribald and satiric portrayal of Jewish Americans has earned him scorn and even hatred from that community; the fact that he’s just had his third divorce, his disagreements with his upright father goes back a number of years, and he finds himself attracted to a striking but mysterious actress, clearly indicated the limbo in which his personal life is stuck. And, to make things really comical, he makes two oddball acquaintances – Alvin Poppler, a garrulous crackpot with an encyclopedic memory and severe personal complexes, who’d once earned fame in a rigged TV quiz show until the producers dumped him in favour of a blond WASP, and who literally thrusts himself upon Zuckerman; and an anonymous caller and admirer of his talent who demands a hefty ransom from him, and makes ominous threats while maintaining his dislike for violence. Meanwhile, his father, who was extremely sensitive about the Jewish condition and hence could never accept his writing, is on deathbed, which makes him take a trip from New York to Florida physically, while to his formative years in Newark in his memories. Influences of Bellow’s masterful Humboldt’s Gift on the earlier Zuckerman chapter (mentor-protégé relationship) and this (counterpointing the respectability of a litterateur with a social outsider), among other thematic resemblances,  are discernible, but Roth’s creation and his voice – brutally funny, intensely self-deprecatory, polarizing, self-reflexive, unapologetic and politically brave – were unequivocally his own.






Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Down There [1956]


David Goodis is ironically qualified as Philadelphia’s most famous unknown writer, and considered by many noir aficionados in the same league as Hammett and Chandler even if he doesn’t command the same widespread attention. He gained possibly his greatest moment under the sun when François Truffaut, fresh out of the smash success of his debut feature The 400 Blows, adapted his novel into Shoot the Piano Player, which was imbued with quintessential Nouvelle Vague treatment and sensibilities, and ranks amongst his most fascinating works. The book under question was the lyrical, haunting and deeply melancholic Down There. It was drenched in fatalism, had all the hallmarks of hardboiled literature with its doomed characters, moody atmosphere and bleak realism, and succeeded in being a wonderful, if tragic, paean to all the lost souls of the world. The tale’s lovingly etched protagonist, and a stand-in for the author himself who was forever an outsider both during and his life, is Edward Webster Lynn aka Eddie. In his present avatar he’s a no one with a mysterious past, and living a squalid existence – spending his daytime playing honky-tonk at a cheap joint, and his nights with a doting hooker at a run-down apartment. Before he became what he became and unbeknownst to his colleagues with whom he keeps emotional distance at all times, he was a prodigy with the piano with a glorious future until all his dreams and aspirations came crashing down. And now, courtesy his criminal brothers, his past, which he’d been running away from, catches up in the form of two nasty hoodlums, further complicated with the presence of a beautiful waitress where he works and a gorilla-like bouncer who’s besotted with her. Goodis brilliantly counterpointed noir archetypes – cynical world-view, low-lives, doomed romance, wise-cracking dialogues, pervading hopelessness, heartless landscape – with a jazzy spirit, and a surprisingly mellow, quietly affecting and wryly funny tone, thus elevating the book beyond its generic confines while still making this terrific genre-piece.






Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime Drama/Romantic Noir/Gangster/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Ghost Writer [1979]


Though Roth’s literary alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman made his first appearance in My Life as a Man, The Ghost Writer, the first part of a trilogy which went on to be called ‘Zuckerman Bound’ (which also comprised of Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, along with an epilogue titled The Prague Orgy), is generally considered, for all practical purposes, as the character’s debut appearance. The character would go on to appear in 5 more of his novels. The short novel, which had been selected by the Pulitzer committee as their selection but was subsequently overruled by the Pulitzer Board in favour of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (it was a runner-up for the National Book Award as well, in this case to Styron’s Sophie’s Choice), was filled with a fascinating array of thematic delving – Jewish-American landscape, anti-Semite persecutions, an artist’s relationship with his art, search for identity, complexity of human relationships, and love of the Great Books – beautifully packed into its crisp length (both in terms of pages and the tale’s temporal arc) thanks to Roth’s powerful voice, confessional style, and fluid prose that seamlessly alternated between wry humour and quiet melancholia. Set in a suburban location over the course of less than 24 hours, it comprised of three key actors – Zuckerman, a young writer of great promise who’s in love with the Great Books, in a moral crisis on account of a book that he’s penned that has earned the wrath of his father for its deprecatory portrayal of Jews, and the narrator; E.I. Lonoff, a renowned, middle-aged, married and reclusive writer who Zuckerman idolizes, and in whose house the story unfolds; and Amy Bellette, a young, delicate, enigmatic and ravishingly alluring Holocaust survivor who’s in a rather tricky relationship with the elderly Lonoff, and whose past, as Zuckerman suspects, might well be a sly reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank. The book, that refused to be straightjacketed by generic trappings despite being, simultaneously, political commentary, black comedy, social satire, marital drama, and the beginning of a bildungsroman, was tantalizing, delightful and even tad disconcerting.






Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Heart of the Matter [1948]


Carved out of his experiences of being stationed in Sierra Leone while serving as an Intelligence Officer for the British Government, The Heart of the Matter is considered, along with Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, as one of Greene’s four great Catholic novels. Hence, despite the highly volatile and politically charged atmosphere in which the tale is set, the novel was less of a political and more of a personal work. Voted by Time magazine and Modern Library in their respective lists of 100 best English-language novels of 20th Century, the book’s central theme dealt with the extreme moral and existential crisis of a man struggling with intense pangs of anxiety and guilt, and willingness to do good unto others, borne out of his deeply ingrained Catholicism. Set in a mosquito-ridden and poverty-plagued British colony in Western Africa during the course of WWII, it chronicled the slow descent towards doom of Major Scobie, a gentle-natured, middle-aged and lonely police officer. His marriage to Louise is strung through his sense of pity which prevents him from hurting her or causing grief, complicated by her self-centeredness, complexes and insecurities. The layered nature of his beliefs formed a striking contrast with her straightforward orthodoxy. In order to make her happy, he agrees to provide for her a passage to South Africa despite his financial constraints, and this forces him to strike a deal with the devil himself in the form of Yosef, a shrewd and fawning Syrian black marketer. After his wife’s departure, he makes the acquaintance of a 19-year widowed lady who’s survived a ship-wreck, and becomes embroiled in an affair with her, and these turn of events, coupled with his bleak socio-political environs, irrevocably pushes him towards self-destruction. Greene kept a reasonably tight leash on the sentimentality and melodramatic contents, thus making this tragic tale a thought-provoking, and for most parts, an engrossing read.






Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Drama/Romance/Religious Drama
Language: English
Country: UK