Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Bech Is Back [1982]


Published a decade after Bech: A Book, which had introduced the world to Updike’s literary alter-ego Henry Bech, who, unlike the prolific Protestant author, was a Jewish litterateur suffering from an impossible case of writer’s block, Bech is Back too, like the latter, was a highly episodic novel comprising of a series of loosely connected vignettes. However, unlike the previous book, which was unabashedly irreverent, playful and free-flowing in its hilarious mix of self-parody and political satire, this was a more personal work – though not bereft of self-deprecatory humour and deadpan levity, it brilliantly underscored the industrious process of creation, the way success irrevocably alters life, and the idea that an artist is a rootless vagabond incapable of being bound by familial or national confines. The book, more than once, breached through the middle-aged Bech’s rugged, abrasive and cynical exterior, and revealed his complex inner core shaped by romanticism, melancholia, confusion, loneliness, ennui, alienation and existential concerns. Some aesthetic inconsistencies on account of a few passable interludes aside (Bech’s visits to a slew of Third World Countries which paled in comparison to his wryly funny sojourns to various East Bloc countries a decade back, his paid vacation at the Caribbean, his parallel tours to Canada and Australia), the book contained a host of highly memorable serio-comic episodes – Bech’s amusing interactions with an ardent fan who collects first editions, translated publications from others countries, magazine covers, and whatnot; his befuddled and deeply perceptive trip to Israel where his Jewishness is contrasted with his lack of belongingness to the ‘Holy Land’ akin to Woody Allen meets Saul Bellow; his feeling of being at home, much to his wife’s irritation, in the pristine Scotland with a history of oppression; his farcical attempt at conventional marriage and suburban existence which, ironically, finally leads him to complete his much-awaited novel Think Big which was in the works for over 15 years and becomes a smashing hit; and a droll visit to the Kafkaesque city of Prague and Kafka’s grave.






Author: John Updike
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Seize the Day [1956]


Bellow had the incredible storytelling ability of traversing across massive temporal and character arcs while restricting the central narrative to a tight timespan; and, while doing so, he would deftly portray the principal protagonist’s existential crisis, moral dilemma, loneliness, desperation and anguishes through an irresistible mix of amusing chuckles, wry humour and deep melancholic undercurrents. This artistic bravado of his, which was expressed with flourishing brilliance in his full-sized novels like Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and Mr Sammler’s Planet over the course of his illustrious career, was on fine display in Seize the Day, a short early novel written right after the hefty, picaresque bildungsroman The Adventures of Augie March, which, in contrast, was more Dickensian in nature. Set over the course of a single day, the novella chronicled a particularly bad day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, whose life has been a series of disenchanting failures and mistakes. The middle-aged New York resident is on the farthest end of his rope – his Hollywood career never managed to take off (the looser-Agent who’d spotted him had identified him as the type that loses the girl), he impulsively quit his sales job when he was ignored for promotion, his separated wife obstinately refuses to grant him divorce and yet succeeds in making him pay through his nose for their children even while never allowing him to see them, his relationship with his successful but vain and resentful father is cause of great torment to his psychological well-being, he’s become addicted to a host of pills and alcohol, his financial condition is in utter mess – he’s reached his last 700-Dollars, and he’s been swindled into entering a rather stupid partnership by an enigmatic and smooth-talking quack psychologist. The bleak tale of this doomed, defeated and desperate man, and the associated commentaries on failed marriage, father-son relationship, the irreconcilable link between money and happiness, and urban malaise, came alive through Bellow’s prowess in narrating a decidedly downbeat tale with a surprisingly charming touch.






Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Existentialist Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, March 11, 2016

Bech: A Book [1970]


Nearly a decade before Philip Roth began his tryst with Nathan Zuckerman in his brilliant 1979 novella The Ghost Writer, John Updike compiled a series of short stories that he’d composed using the persona of Henry Bech into the loosely bound novella Bech: A Book (he would follow this up, over the next 3 decades, with Bech is Back and Bech at Bay); the similarities are startling – both are Jewish Americans (Updike, unlike Roth, was a Protestant Christian), have garnered huge attention with their debut novels but are struggling to re-create that impact, are perennially striving to find the balance between contempt and acceptance, and are intensely fond of the Great Books. Written in the form of short episodes, this delightfully irreverent, playful and self-deprecatory work was, at once, a marvelous elucidation of an artist having fun at his own perceived self, and an amusing pop-cultural chronicle of the 60s zeitgeist. Updike’s irresistibly abrasive, cynical and ironical alter-ego won fame, but not enough money, with the quasi-Beat road novel Travel Light; he’s constantly moving in and out of relationship, and his existential crisis is exacerbated by a stubborn case of writer’s block. In a blazing display of bravura the book kicked-off with a zany foreword where Bech grudgingly gives Updike the permission to write about his exploits, but only after accusing him of liberally borrowing from Bellow, Mailer, I.B. Singer, Salinger, Malamud, Roth et al in portraying him. Through virtuoso mix of linguistic flamboyance, searing wit, mordant humour and comic flair, one accompanies the deadpan Bech in his visits, under the guise of “cultural exchange”, to the Eastern Bloc during a transitory period of Cold War lull, his discomfiting trip to the American South at the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement fighting for racial equality, his anti-climactic sojourn through “flower power” with a young hippie, his journey to London to promote a lackluster anthology of his works, and his acceptance into the American Letters.






Author: John Updike
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Political Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mendelssohn is on the Roof [1960]


Czech author Jiří Weil was a Jew and communist-sympathizer (he’d even worked as a translator of Marxist literature for Comintern for a while). No wonder, he was identified for internment into a Concentration Camp when Czechslovakia fell into Hitler’s hands, which he escaped by staging his own death. A massive 15 years into its making, and posthumously published (a year after his death), Mendelssohn is on the Rood is an exquisitely inter-connected tapestry that, through deft mix of dark humour, bleak realism and humanism, and drawing from his extensive war-time experiences, provided a harrowing peek into Nazi-occupied Prague. When Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia who was instrumental in engineering the Final Solution, and a self-professed music-lover, makes the shocking discovery of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn’s statue at the iconic Rudolfinum, he instructs its immediate demolition; his order travels down the ranks and a lowly SS officer is tasked with the job. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t know what Mendelssohn looks like, and hence, using his learnings from doctrinations on ‘Racial Science’, he orders the workers to remove the status with the biggest nose; this hilarious stereotype, ironically, almost leads to the toppling of the renowned, albeit anti-Semitic, German composer Richard Wagner. This amusing episode provided a marvelous starting point for an absorbing chronicle on an ‘ensemble cast’ representing the various strata existing during those dark times – the member of an Underground Resistance, a former Doctor suffering from progressive paralysis, a Jewish guy tasked by the Gestapo to confiscate Jewish property, an elder man who manages stolen Jewish artefacts for the Central Bureau, two Jewish kids in the hiding, a former Leftist architect order to design the gallows for an impromptu execution, etc. The episodic hyper-linked narrative, ingeniously structured as criss-crossing short stories, evolved into a scathing and disconcerting account of the horrors of the Nazi machinery, and the devastation it wreaked on Prague’s Jewish population during the Holocaust – the little men at the receiving end of a remorseless, rampaging stick.






Author: Jiri Weil
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/War Drama/Holocaust Literature
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)