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Have you heard of absurd literature? No? Yes? Or are you waiting for Godot to tell you about it?
But Beckett isn’t the only author writer of absurd literature. The best representative of course, but there is always room for more, room to explore right? You don’t wanna be homogeneous right?
And so in comes the play, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” written by the American author Edward Albee. The plot is nothing complicated: it is simply a story about two couples: Martha and George, the older couple,who invite Nick and Honey (the younger couple) for a late night drink after a party. The play is divided into 3 acts each with their telling titles.
But in the fairly uncomplicated plot, lies a whole new insight into the trying, absurd, fragile and strained relation of Martha and George. During the course of the party, emotional games are played, secrets are revealed through the complex layering of the plot. It is clear right in the first part that their marriage is a complete breakdown and in order to sustain it, they have to play psychological games and try to beat the other down through humiliation and fear tactics. In order to sustain the normative marriage they have to take on absurd tactics and at the heart of this is the constant mention of their son who never appears in the play but is talked about throughout.
The play then is trying to critique the pressures put on every individual to fit into roles the society prescribes without giving alternatives and how utterly disastrous these pressures can be if and when such normative modes of living don’t work out. What do you do if your marriage does not work, when your dreams of professional greatness do not go according to plan? Compounding this problem is also the gender roles enmeshed within these prescriptive notions: the binary of production and reproduction that binds a woman and man not allowing them to explore other possibilities and compelling to view their inability to fit into the gender roles as a failure for themselves. So for example, if a man is not able to get a good job and sustain his family, he is viewed as a failure because of the pressure on him to be the breadwinner of the family. He is not allowed to think that there can be a possibility for allowing the women in his life to share the responsibility of earning. Marriage and career and having a family are projected as the ideal modes of living in a human society and so there are no other possibilities provided for other modes or alternatives. Anything less than the ideal is unacceptable and worse, a failure. This can lead to utter breakdown of your identity and selves as every individual is conditioned for long about these ideas and how they are the measures of success and when don’t work, your very idea of what a life should be is dismantled and therefore living becomes absurd and meaningless.
The play is also a lot about the typical modernist ideas of how language is inadequate to express the breakdown of lives in the 2oth century.
In the hazy daze of alcohol that the couple immerse themselves into, the reader will be pressed to figure out reality from illusion but that is the charm and bitterness of the play. You have to keep constructing the truth, taking cues from their wild language, and wilder games of psychological torture, construct the world that they have constructed for themselves and shatter that illusion and then get to know the truth of their lives. But it isn’t like a mere detective novel where you solve the puzzle with the one sole truth you can divine from the plot. It constantly keeps you in a flux and you can probably get the truth but perhaps not be able to anything with it because though the play tries to sort out its loose ends end finish with a proper closing, the reader is left to ponder on what will happen to the marriages of both the couples as the breakdown of the the older couple seems complete although they are now trying to get back on a stable & non illusory path. However, Nick and Honey see in the older couple their own expectations of a marriage and a family and if these expectations are not fulfilled, then will they also fall apart at the seams like Martha and George?
No one can really tell but what we can do is perhaps not put the weight of all our expectations on one person and one institution? What do you think? Leave a comment.
“…our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves-” Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.
So says the protagonist, Tony Webster,of the Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In a nutshell, the novel is precisely just that-A man in his 60s looking back, retelling and re-examining his life’s story and certain events in them. However, it isn’t a Charles Dickenish kind of a novel where Copperfield will look at each and every event of his life and bore us to death. The story of his life that Tony tells us and perhaps to himself too is quite a succinct, precise one with frequent ramblings on the importance and unreliability of memory and passing of time and life in general. And that is how Barnes’ prose also works: clean and full of precision-a kind of no nonsense, no frills, not too overtly nostalgic look at one’s life.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is a quick look at the Tony’s life in school with his group of friends and how they meet the intellectual and seemingly serious Adrian Finn. He talks of his college life, his girlfriend Veronica and how things get complicated in that relationship. With a witty and engaging narration, Tony gives in a good, tongue-in-cheek manner all that there is to school and teenage life-friends, love, college, partying, being together and promising a sincere lifelong contact and a kind of innocent idealism about everything. But this not in a cliched style that will make you retch and cringe with the nostalgia usually associated with those times but will make you say, “yes even I had those very same thoughts when I was a kid.” In the second part, Tony looks at back at some of those events and when unexpectedly a will bequeaths Adrian’s diary to him, he is forced to look at his break up with Veronica and his relationship with Adrian in a fresh light and come to turns with what had happened then despite his memory’s unwillingness to do so. This quest turns the story into a quasi-suspense novel without letting go of its quasi-philosophical ramblings about re looking at life.
The narration is very conversational and Tony tells his story as if he were orally narrating it to some listeners which is exactly what makes the text engaging. The reader is constantly acknowledged and addresses to and thus we feel drawn into the story and relate to it easily-who doesn’t nostalgically look back at their good times in life, who doesn’t invent memories, who doesn’t read into the past and reasons it out-aren’t we all guilty of that, of pruning the bad parts and remembering only the good aspects, of inventing our life’s story for ourselves? There is therefore a kind of universalism in his pondering about life but without making it stereotypical and without imposing it on the reader.
With many quotable quotes and witty phrases and one liners that may or may not hit you with a profound realisation, The Sense of an Ending is a brisk, powerful and moving tale of the uncertainties of life. The end is completely surprising and revelation of a bitter truth does somehow communicate ‘the sense of an ending’ in a way. Cannot reveal more, would be quite a spoiler and would simply ruin the fun of finding out on your own. All I can say is highly recommended. But do not read it just because it won some fancy prize but because it can say a lot about the vagaries of life-more than those silly philosophical books anyhow and more importantly read it because well what could be more joyful than picking up a book and immersing yourself in it and falling in love with another author’s works?
Half Of A Yellow Sun is a brave book; brave because of its heartfelt, honest writing; brave because it highlights truthfully the colossal loss of everyday life during war; brave because it is clear in the political points it wants to make.
The novel written by Chimamanda Adichie is a story of three individuals-Ugwu, Olanna and Richard- caught in the three year Biafran war in the 1960s. But you may ask what is new
about novels written about war-there are gazillion of them out there and this is just one needle in a large haystack? True though that is, Adichie’s novel is not the average run of the mill book about the war because what stands out in the story is her heartbreaking, close portrayal of the all the main characters so that you are immersed in their lives and war’s turmoil as they are thrown into it and face it everyday. She gives a remarkable, intimate portrait of them and of other marginal characters too who provide multiple viewpoints of the ravages and the sufferings of war. And that’s the power of this story-to make the reader feel the suffering, sense the shattering of relationships and the immense tests they go through. And isn’t that in a more broader perspective-the power of literature? To proffer a humane perspective to any crisis, to portray the human element of it and not just as a drab and dry report. In a way it is similar to what Manto did for the Partition of India-his stories depicted its horrifying consequences on the individuals and did not treat them as merely a statistic. To read my review on Manto’s stories, click here. Every individual has a story to tell and Adichie’s novel shines through with the ordinariness of her characters and how they deal with that falling apart during the Biafran war. She doesn’t make the story into a sob story to garner attention but emphasises on the everyday emotions and how they go on despite the crisis raging on.
Ugwu is a poor village boy who is brought by his aunt to Nsukka to work as a houseboy in her master, Odenigbo’s house. Olanna, a smart intelligent woman, has had a life of privilege in Lagos but still sets to live with her lover, Odenigbo who is a professor in Nsukka University. Richard is the Englishman staying in Nigeria and slowly as he gets caught up in his love for Kainene and the war, he drifts apart from the stereotypical, white colonial view of Nigeria and comes to love the country. Their lives intersect as tensions simmers between the Hausa and Igbo tribes. The story is very well structured with each chapter focusing on one of the three character’s point of views. Each chapter plunges us thoroughly into their lives as we are allowed to take a peak into their thoughts and apprehensions and feelings. Adichie doesn’t use the omnipresent narrator and leaves a lot for the reader to interpret. We therefore see a bunch of characters with all their imperfections and doubts and emotions as most human beings actually are. We see them as introspecting themselves; searching for who they are; negotiating their selves, their identity, their relationships to other people and the world and the war. The story is also open ended with a hopeful ending but that which is tainted by heartache and hurt along with a tragedy and loss that comes in the wake of any war.
Half Of A Yellow Sun has an interesting feature-Adichie has incorporated snippets of book written by one of the characters and the revelation of who that character actually is makes quite a strong and brave point as to who should actually be writings stories about Africa and that brings into consideration the whole idea of a white, colonial, racist appropriation of history. In writing Half Of A Yellow Sun Adichie takes a bold step of depicting the Biafran war through the eyes of the people actually being affected by it. In using the feature of a book within a book she subtly makes a scathing comment on the Western idea of war, of Africa and its people and how they created and used the tensions among the tribes for their own vested interest.
Need I say more?
‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.
Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.
Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.
Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.