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When The Intellectuals Met The Capitalists in Edwardian England

I finally managed to get through another classic as part of the Reading England event in which I am participating. I extremely pleased that I had planned on reading this book in May and after many months I have adhered to my reading plan. After several months of stop/start, it is good to finish some books that I have wanted to read and have not been able to for various reasons! Anyway, moving on, let’s get down to the book – it is Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.

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The only EM Forster book I had read was (Sigh! Naturally!) The Passage to India; I read it when I was 17 and did not like it one bit and considered it pretentious. But at my advanced age of 33 I have realized that it does not help to hang to all opinions formulated as a teenager and some experience shows have been proved quite wrong! Therefore I was moderately open to reading another work by EM Forester and ventured boldly forward and plunged myself into Howard’s End.

The book is set in Edwardian England of 1910 and follows the lives and experience of the Schlegel sisters – Margaret and Helen. Brought up in an atmosphere of art and literature with financial independence, the two sisters have surrounded themselves with a music, literature, theater, travel etc and live at Wickham Place in London with their younger brother Tilby. The rhythm of their lives undergo a change when Helen, the younger sister visits the Wilcox family, who, the Schlegels had met during a trip to Germany and are invited by Mrs Wilcox to visit them  at Howard’s End and enters into a hasty engagement with the younger son, Paul. Though the engagement is broken off the same day, it puts the two families on uncomfortable grounds; however honest sincere friendship between Mrs. Wilcox and Margret that began from the trip in Germany and continued despite the broken engagement, help cement relations and sustain even after Mrs. Wilcox’s death. Mr. Wilcox soon starts socializing with the Schlegel sisters and basis an insider tip, they convince an acquaintance of theirs Leonard Bast, a young clerk who aspires for better things, to leave his position in an insurance company and seek employment elsewhere, since Mr. Wilcox is convinced that the insurance company is going to be dissolved. Mr. Wilcox and Margaret soon develop a healthy respect for each other which turns to love and they decide to get married. Helen does not like Mr. Wilcox, considering him materialistic, and especially after it turned out that Leonard Bast who had left his insurance company of the advice of the sisters had lost his new job due to retrenchment and the Insurance company was not going to be dissolved; and is aggrieved by the fact that her sister is marrying him, despite knowing the kind of harm Mr. Wilcox did to Mr.Bast. Despite Helen’s staunch dislike, the wedding date is is set for September, after Evie, Mr. Wilcox’s daughter is married. However on the eve of Evie’s wedding, series of events are set rolling by Helen that would change the lives of Wilcoxs and Schlegels forever, bending and breaking relations and forging truths that come back from actions in the past for everyone to dwell on!

What can I say about the book except that I was stumped! I was mesmerized and all the while reading the book, there were so many instance of “Hey! That is so true!” EM Forster had written an extremely intelligent, sensitive and intuitive book. The book that forces the reader to see the apparent truth and succinctly point out, what most of us ignore or choose to not really give attention to because, while obvious, it is also uncomfortable! Like -“I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place.” Or Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. The plot beautifully brings out the two ends of the Edwardian society – The Wilcoxes – hardworking, intelligent folks who get things done and the intellectuals Schlegels who represent all that intransient and intangible – art, music and books! Despite all the “material’ considerations of Wilcoxes, Foster shows them is a very positive light as a class of people because of whom countries become nations and nations empire. “If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut.  There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even.  Just savagery.  No–perhaps not even that.  Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm.  More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it!”  The characters are wonderfully woven and even when they fall, they redeem themselves by some other act of kindness. In Margaret Schlegel especially, Forster created one of the most brilliant heroines of all times – she is intelligent, intuitive, with bottomless capacity to understand and guide human behavior, forgiving  and generous with a body of solid morals, capable of  standing alone against the world when need be! Forster through the character of Margaret Schlegel comes out blazing in support of women emancipation and their right to be treated as equals. Finally, I cannot help but feel that this book is an Forster’s ode to England – England and its natural beauty is described and referred to all through the book , in  all its glory and beauty.

It’s a wonderful book and I am so glad to have read it….its filled with such wonderful instinctive truths that I had more underlines in this book, than any that I have lately! I could share all of them with you, but I rather you read it holistically to grasp the wonderful brilliance of this book!

Once Upon a Time, in Latin America

I realized at the end of last year when I was taking a stock of all that I had read through 2014, that my reading scope especially in terms of non-Anglo-American authors were limited to the point of nil. This was something that needed remediation for sure this year and a good place to begin seemed like Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits.

The House of Spirits has been standing around in my Classics list forever and every time there was a Classic Club Spin, I hoped to get it as the read of the event. It never happened, so last month I decided to take matters in my own hand; take charge of my destiny so to speak and attempt to read this novel anyway. It was not until last week I actually began reading it and not until day before yesterday I finished it. I needed a day or two, just to assimilate the kind of emotions and thoughts, this book had unleashed, before I could put it down on paper!

The novel begins at the eve of World War I and ends somewhere in 1960s and though the country is never called out, couple of minutes into the book, you know Ms. Allende is talking about her beloved country – Chile. The history and politics of Chile is intertwined through the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Del Valle-Trueba clan. The book begins with the eccentricities of the Del Valle family, which includes Rosa the beautiful, engaged to struggling miner Esteban Trueba, the youngest Clara who has paranormal powers and their politically ambitious father who plans of being a Senator at the Parliament and their suffragette mother.  Rosa dies soon after through a poison intended for her father and her fiance devastated by her death, leaves the mines and goes back to his country home his family hacienda, Las Tres Marías, to lose himself in rebuilding what his father had lost and in the effort forget about Rosa. He soon makes Tres Marias into a successful, well run, modern farm, but his methods are autocratic, feudal and violent, including his habit of raping the peasant women.  Several years later, summons from his sister about the impending death of their mother brings Esteban to the city and in an effort to fulfill his dying mother’s wish to see him married and settled, he seeks out Del Valle family in hopes that if they were in agreement in marrying of their eldest daughter to a pennyless miner, today as a successful man, he should be able to secure the hand of another of Del Valle daughter. Esteban and Clara get married and move into a city house along with Esteban’s sister Freula.  Clare gives birth to a daughter Blanca and eventually two sons Jamie and Niclolas. They become a model family from the outside though there is enough ferment inside including Esteban and Fruela’s clashes in trying to secure Clara’s attention. The family spends its summer months at Tres Marias and Blanca becomes fast friends with Pedro Tercero, who is the son of her father’s foreman and eventually lovers. In one of such visits, a terrible earthquake hits the country, completely destroying Tres Marias. Clara takes over the running of the farm since Esteban is seriously injured in the quake and unable to supervise the running of the farm and slowly brick by brick, Tres Marias comes back to its original form. It is at this point that a French count Jean de Satigny comes as a guest to the hacienda, with the intention of marrying Blanca who is now heiress to a large fortune. However he soon realizes that Blanca is in love with someone else and goes out in the night to meet her lover. In an effort to end this liaison and secure himself of Blanca as his bride, Satigny goes and reveals her midnight adventure to Esteban. Estaban , who by now has become increasingly more violent, beats up his daughter and hits Clara, leading to Clara and Blanca leaving Tres Marias and moving  back to the city house.  It is during this time that the Trueba boys also come of age – Jamie realizing that he needed to so something more to alleviate the terrible conditions of his fellow countryman, becomes a doctor and Nicolas in attempt to form and develop clairvoyance ability like his mother, gets involved in the spiritual movement. Blanca then discovers she is pregnant and is forced to marry Satigny by her father; the marriage does not last long and Blanca returns to her father’s city house to deliver her daughter – Alba. They year’s move on as Alba grows up in politically volatile atmosphere – Esteban becomes a Senator who is vociferous in his denunciation of socialism and these political convictions lead to a more disturbed household as Jamie becomes a socialist much to the anger of his father. In these years of turmoil, Clara manages to be the heart of the household and the soul that makes the house, home. With her death, begins the decline of the Del Valle-Trueba clan, leading to tragic results for the entire family, as deeds from Esteban’s past come to riddle and hurt his future, as the country is plunged in civil unrest, leading to a military coup and destruction of all democratic values.

The book is simply put beautiful. I know many people have said many things about this novel, but it is beautiful, the language, the characters, the plot! The characters are as true to life as they can get – I could see Esteban Trueba ranting and raging through Tres Marias; I could see Clara perform her clairvoyance tricks while taking care of her family.  I could see Jaime, Alba and host of all the characters that populate this book and make it come to life. You cannot hate even the most evil characters, because the author gently leads you to the understanding that what they are because of what they had to endure from others. There is no pedagogic teaching her nor a holier than thou speech, only a gradual understanding of men and women and how they become, what they are and the understanding of fate – a fate that is a result of your actions and one which will come back to show you the mirror in your own lifetime. The entire ensemble is real – of flesh and blood, even when there are elements of magical realism, you believe them, because you can see them. The books spans over 50 years of turbulent history, but not for one moment does Ms. Allende lose the plot or miss a beat. She wonderfully weaves in such motifs as the Class struggle, emancipation of women and  economic equality through the very structure of the book, without making these themes look like an add on. A complex historical saga is told in a simple style through the narratives of Alba and Esteban, two very distinct and clear voices that are consistent through the book and never change in their perspectives.  Finally the language of the book, though calm and simple is lyrical and striking. The descriptions are gorgeous and the understanding crystal clear for readers to grasp!

One of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of those that stays with you for a long time after you finished it!

Those Big Fat Books…….

I came across this poster a couple of days ago on some social networking site and while there was an humorous element to it, there can be no denying that it made me stop and think!

Big Books

Seems like I have a tendency to really like fat books – the fatter they are, the more I seem to enjoy them. I am not sure if there is some psychological twist to the whole thing; maybe it’s about developing a comfort zone with a book or just that long tales with plots and twists that ultimately organize themselves into a plausible end could appeal to my sense of organization and triumphing over odds. I have no idea why I love fat books, but I do. It’s not to say that the short novels/books do not appeal to me – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskelland To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee are hardly sagas; but with the exception of these three and couple of more here and there, the books that have been formative in building my understanding and nurturing my love of literature have been mammoth works of fiction! Here’s a short list –

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – Page Count 1392
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas –Page Count 1276
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Page Count 1162
  • London by Edward Rutherford –Page Count 1152
  • The Source by James Michener – Page Count 1104
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens –Page Count 1088
  • The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye –Page Count 998
  • Vanity Fair by WM Thackeray – Page Count 867
  • The Complete Stories of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield –Page Count 830
  • Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye – Page Count 803
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck –Page Count 601

More recently I have began liking Gone with the Wind by Margret Mitchell and my first reading of The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, page count 1076 and 593 respectively!

The average page count basis the above list is 1024 with the shortest novel consisting of only 601 pages. There are naturally books like Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series that have much smaller page counts, but they are more of on-going sagas. Also I believe my love for these two series is again influenced by among other factors like great plots, humorous writing, that I see the appearance of the same characters- there is a sense of continuity and sameness that holds the series together and perhaps again acts as a coming home/comfort zone for me!

I am not sure why this is the way it is, but do you have similar tendencies for certain types of books?

Spinning Through New Orleans

After much effort and back and forth and crazy weddings and stressful jobs, I finally managed to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin as part of my Classic Club Spin #9 . It is a very thin book, more of a novella, than a novel, but there were to many happenings for me to sit down and read, but I am finally done and I am glad this is one book off my forever expanding checklist.

Now for the book –

The book is set in turn of the century, southern United States, New Orleans to be exact. The novel begins with the introduction of the Pontellier family, Léonce is a successful businessman, who is caring affectionate, if at times a trifle socially too aware of his position in society and the need for appearances. Edna is his wife, who devotes her time between her family and her sketches, but feels a need for something more to satisfy the sensitivity of her soul. They have two children – young boys Etienne and Raoul. The books opens with the Pontellier family vacationing on Grand Isles and residing at a homestay managed by Madame Leburn, who has two sons – Robert and Victor. As the novel unfolds, we discover an evolution in the character of Edna – she is great friends with Adèle Ratignolle, who epitomizes the very core of 19th century womanhood, a great wife and a wonderful mother, she is constantly busy trying to make life more comfortable for her family. Though Edna really admires Adèle Ratignolle, she cannot herself believe that she can quite become like her friend. She tell her Madame Ratignolle that for her own children she “would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself”.  Soon Edna and Robert Laburn develop a friendly relationship that transitions into love for each other. Robert realizing the dead end nature of their relationship flees to Mexico under pretext of better career opportunity. Edna returns to her New Orleans and though she continues in her role of a wife and a mother, there are subtle changes in her character; she isolates herself from her former social circle, she takes up her sketching more seriously and refuses to attend her own sister’s wedding. The only two companions she seeks are Madame Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz, an eccentric pianist whom Edna had met at Grand Isle and who had fathomed the true relation between her and Robert. After some month pass, Léonce, travels to New York for business and the boys are sent to their grandmother during this period and it is during this period, Edna discovers the joy of being on one’s own and do things by herself. She is soon involved in a dalliance with Alcée Arobin, a wild man about town.  It is at this point Robert returns to town and though initially he is cold with Edna, he finally confesses his deep passionate love for her. However when Edna is called away to assist in Adèle Ratignolle with a difficult childbirth, Robert leaves, leaving a note that he is leaving forever because he loves her. This action, forces Edna to take certain decisions and act in a way to change her life directions once and for all.

I am not a particular fan of this kind of literature….the woman/man seeking fulfillment out of marriage kinds. They always seem to have the same theme, especially the ones written about the woman. Unhappy and dissatisfied with their lot, they seek some kind of happiness outside wedding vows with disastrous results. These books make me feel morbid and depressed and question the whole point of getting married or being in a relationship and all that. This book I must say was no different.  I saw no reason for Edna Pontellier to be dissatisfied with her life – she had married of her own choosing; that too to a man who was kind, caring and successful enough to provide her with all kinds of material comforts. She had two healthy children and a host of good, kind friends. There seemed to be hint of lack of sensitivity and artistic fulfillment in her life – music, books, art that make life rich, but that did not seem to be the core of her repining. She seemed to me to just plain bored, who like the attentions of a younger man and later gave herself to sexual pleasure with another man. The only time I could relate to her is when her husband was in New York and her children with Madame Pontellier, and she discovers the joy of doing things for herself. True, there is something absolutely delicious in having some precious moments of “me time”- I am guessing they are even more precious in the stifling 19th century society that demanded certain standards from a wife and a mother and therefore I could completely understand Edna’s joy in having her dinner dressed in a peignoir, reading Emerson till late etc. But outside of this one strain, I could not understand her at all. For no reason she wants to move into a smaller house all by herself – she gives no reason for her actions and gaily and cheerfully writes to her husband telling him of her decision. She seems to me completely utterly selfish through the book – under the cover of “being herself”, she does all manner of things without any regard for other’s feelings. She refuses to attend her sister’s wedding, because of she is missing Robert. While I understand the concept of loving and loosing someone, I cannot understand being absolutely blind to others who love you and to whom you matter. Her actions against Léonce I could not understand at all. Here is good kind man who tries everything in his power to make her happy and comfortable and she leaves his house without any regard to his position in the society or what he may feel. I am not even getting into her dalliance with Alcée Arobin – why she should choose infidelity towards her husband, that too with a man whom she cares nothing about, is nothing but an act of temporary irresponsible actions. Her final act of course was the final nail in the coffin – I understand, completely understand being abandoned, but you live on, because life is a gift and you have to live it; there are other people who love and care and for that love, one has the duty to not only live but flourish. This kind of sentimental namby-pamby a-la Madame Bovary is just nonsensical – as if that is the only road open to women after hysterical extra marital affairs!!!  I would any day lay my money on Hester Prynneis from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is more of a heroine for living and living with courage, virtue and dignity, than deciding for sentimental and so called sensitive ending, that showcase some form of artistic freedom!

This book has been hailed as one of the first feminist novels, because the woman lives or tries to live her life on her own terms. I am not sure I am at all in agreement with this school of thought – true a woman should be able to live her life exactly the way she chooses, but not at the cost of being selfish or hurting other. Before we are men or woman, we are humans and as humans we have to be cognizant of fellow feelings and sentiments. Living your life on your own terms is a great power, but in the words of a great man, with great power comes great responsibility. You are responsible for your conduct, towards yourself and others.

The redeeming feature of the book is the language- Ms. Chopin did not focus on frills and got to the very heart of the matter. But her words are simply beautiful, picturesque and haunting; here’s a sample “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” Or “But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult! The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” Lovely, soul searing language and a vivid description of New Orleans and Grand Isles makes this novel so much more readable.

I am glad to have read it, but I am not sure I will ever re-read it again. To me the only thing that came out of this novel was that in this genre of literature, Hester Prynneis so much more a stronger heroine, simply because she chooses life even at its lowest ebb!

On The Glories of Summer and Reading in May….

Aha! Here is May and my least favorite season has begun – Summers! How I hate thee! When I was in school, we used to get two months off, because of the blazing heat made going to school quite impossible; that atleast gave this season a saving grace. But as an adult, there are no such deliciously long vacation, only the dry, unforgiving burning earth and the effort to live life as normally as possible in such pleasant conditions!! To think there are some people who actually eulogize about Indian Summers….they are only worth eulogizing when you are sitting in cozy cottage way up in Himalayas!

Anyway, I can continue in this vein, but that will not cut short this weather, so bear it I will; though I absolutely refuse to be stoic about it! Moving on to other items of discussion, the big fat Indian wedding is finally over. Was it nerve wracking? Absolutely! Did I have fun? Absolutely! Had a blast! It was wonderful meeting old friends, reviving old relations and generally merry making with people you like and love! But now that it is over, I must confess, I am really glad to be back to my more sedate pursuits. I came back late Sunday, and my reading has resumed enough vigor to finally give me hope!

Speaking of reading, Reading Plans for the last couple of months have become a farce. I have barely been able to read anything and all my books from March and April are now carried over in May. Reading for last two months had become more of an in-between activity, instead of the main event. However, now that things are slowing down, I am hoping (fingers crossed) I will be able to resume significant momentum in finishing nearly a dozen unread/half read stuff. I do have an interview looming for which I need to prepare (Yup! Only I will apply for jobs that require hard core studying!) especially stuff like Research Methodology and Six Sigma principles, but I am not going to lose sleep over it and hopefully this prep, should not be too much of a herculean task, that takes me away from my books too much!

So what am I finally reading in May? Well, like I said, I continue with books left over from last two months, but there are one or two additions! (Ya! Trust me to take on more, before I finish what I already have on my plate!) I am doing the Beowulf Read Along with Cleo. I am so loving this poem, this paean of all that is brave and virtuous! I am also doing the Gone with the Wind Read Along all through May-August with Connie. When I read it as a teen, I did not like it. When I re-read it last year, I seem to like it better, therefore it made sense to try and read it a third time and discover if there are some nuances I have missed (I have already discovered a few). Finally, I have been neglecting my Reading England Project grievously over the last couple of weeks, so I had to finally start some kind of remediation and have decided to read Howard’s End by EM Forester this month!

That’s all for today folks! I know I promised some pictures of grand mad wedding and the official photographers assure me that it will be delivered by this Saturday. Hopefully my next post will be an onslaught of Indian Wedding pandemonium!

P.S. Cleo….the bride did dance, but she did not prepare, so it was all impromptu!

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