Waiting for the end of the world

The world is alive, changing every second, breathing through me, breathing through you. Someone, somewhere is drumming, stamping out the beat of life. Someone, somewhere is singing – for pleasure, for sorrow. We are united in flesh, in sweat and fear, in love and laughter. We are strong, striding out along these unexplored paths. We are weak, coming to the ends of our lives, but with the paths still branching out ahead of us. Here is my wisdom, here is my reason for being. Carry on. Range far, see the mountains tipped with burnished gold, find the people scattered to the winds.

Find the people scattered to the winds. When you are strong, lend them your strength. When you are weak, let them lend you theirs. We are united in flesh, in sweat and fear, in love and laughter. We are a shared story that unravels over the generations. When you are broken, crushed with night terrors, when you know the face of the monster; find something to cling to. Hold on with everything you have. One day the sun rises again, one day the monsters turn to dust. We are born in fear, pain, blood, and love. We die in fear, pain, blood and love. But in between we range far, we are strong, we see the mountains tipped with burnished gold, we find the people scattered to the winds.


Eugene Onegin: 100 novels challenge

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Eugene Onegin. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Eugene Onegin

So there comes a point on any 100 novels list when you hit something like this: Eugene Onegin. A Russian novel written entirely in verse.

In verse.

Purely from a technical viewpoint this felt like a bad idea. I can’t read Russian. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and this was a mega-poem of 389 stanzas.

From a personal perspective it also felt like a challenge. I don’t ‘get’ poetry. You can blame it on the education system, I guess. Or on a culture that is rapidly replacing oral communication with text. For whatever reason, reading poetry fills me with a deep terror.

So I did what any self-respecting former English student would do. I procrastinated. I read Vonnegut and 87th Precinct  novels and occasionally told people that I was still deciding which translation to get.

Eugene Onegin - operaIt wasn’t until I had a weekend that involved spending eight hours on a train that I decided to to tackle Eugene Onegin. I downloaded it onto my kindle and sallied forth.

Turned out that once I had started I couldn’t stop.

As a poem it is unpretentious; written in a witty but down to earth voice that quickly pulled me into the story. There is little in the way of dense and tangled imagery. Instead, Eugene is a rather straightforward tragic love story. There’s a couple of passionate letters, a duel that ends in murder, and a love affair that ends up unrequited for both people involved. There’s also, in the style of old books, a few amusing digressions – such as several stanzas all about feet.

I sniggered out loud a couple of times, which is pretty good going for a book written in the 1800s. I also felt genuinely sad for the characters, caught up in rigid social niceties that prevented them from achieving anything like a happy ending.

In short, it was everything I could have wanted from a train read.

It is generally considered a classic in Russian literature, and there is something haunting about it. Despite the witty, almost irreverent language, the actual story is horrible. Nobody wins – except, perhaps, Olga?

Overall, if you are looking to get into your classics, Eugene Onegin is a good place to start. I’m almost inspired to attempt a visit to the Opera!

Buy Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Penguin Classics).

100 Novels: Midnight’s Children

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Midnight’s Children

I actually read Midnight’s Children last year, so I didn’t need to re-read it. I was glad to see it pop up on the 100 novels list, however, because it was one of those books I absolutely loved.

First some background. Midnight’s Children falls into that genre known as magic realism. The novel is set against an historical background, which is India’s move away from British Colonialism towards independence. However, the writing is full of fancy, with supernatural acts and the whole novel really symbolism layered over symbolism.

The narrative is complex, being an story of his life that the central character, Saleem, is telling to his wife-to-be Padma. His story is unreliable, based on his memory and full of digressions, foreshadowings, flashbacks and commentary with the result that much of the book is left open to interpretation.

To me, the book is about how people and history are one and the same thing. That where and when a person lives will impact on who they are, but equally they shape history and become a part of the changing face of our world. Saleem considers himself a chosen child ‘handcuffed to history’, but in truth there are a thousand and one others like him — the ‘midnight’s children’ of the title, all born at the exact moment that India became independent — and in truth his story does not climax in an act of any great significance; Saleem finishes his life as a chutney maker and prophesies that he will fall into dust in the very near future. In some respects, Saleem is India, he represents her, but in other respects he no more represents india than any of the other characters he comes into contact with. India is more than one person, far greater in depth and complexity than even the most significant and noteworthy of human lives. Yet equally, India is only the sum of all the human experiences that make her up, without human perspectives and human lives there would be no such thing as a country or history.

The book is a masterful creation; with details within details. You could discuss the meaning of the characters and the scenes endlessly, and it would be a brilliant book for a book club because of the controversial themes and ideas that run through the novel.

But unlike many ‘classics’ this one is joyful. There is a sheer love for storytelling that comes through, and the nod towards an oral storytelling tradition only deepens the enjoyment. I can easily see myself coming back to this novel again and again, thanks to the beautiful writing, and the complex themes that run through it. It’s the kind of big, bold book that make you love reading and shows you what a masterful writer can really do.

Have you read it? What did you think?

The Home and the World

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Home and the World

This was the first book on the list that I had not previously read. I was excited to read it, as, with the exception of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I have not read any books by Indian authors.

The book itself deals with three principal characters: Nikhil, a wealthy Indian who typifies rational, ‘modern’ thinking and is opposed to violence, Sandip, who seems to represent the Swadeshi Movement, and upholds greed and strength as positive traits, and Nikhil’s wife, Bimala, who initially loves her husband as a traditional Indian wife but is then charmed by Sandip and becomes passionately attracted to him. The book is made up of different chapters, written by these three main characters in first person.

I struggled with this book for two reasons. The first is that I’m ignorant of much of the political background of this time. Basic research tells me that various factions within India were trying to throw off British rule, but the more subtle variations of this are something I haven’t encountered before. This, of course, is entirely my own problem. As a white westerner, I was taught a lot about European and American history and very little about the history of other places. As a book that revealed my own ignorance and encouraged me to do more research, I am glad I read it.

The second reason I struggled was the writing itself. I found it melodramatic. Some people will love the poetic, rich language and endless metaphors, but I personally found it exhausting to read.

I could not understand why Bimala was attracted to Sandip, and could not emphasise with Sandip at all. Even Nikhil, who seems the most rational and likeable, veered awfully close to martyrdom. This may be, in part, because Sandip and Nikhil are mouthpieces for political positions that I am unfamiliar with.

I thought one of the most interesting background characters was Bara Rani, Bimala’s sister-in-law. Whilst Bara Rani can be cutting and sarcastic, she is also clearly lonely. I felt that if Bimala had tried to form a relationship with her, she would not have been so isolated and would have a much better perspective on what was happening with her and Sandip. Instead, Bimala was torn between a powerful man and her husband, who, although gentle, still had a lot of power over her  due to the traditional marriage structure. Bara Rani ended up as fallout, and at the end I felt far sorrier for her – who had possibly just lost her last important friend in the world – than I did for Bimala, whose concern for Nikhil was never more than what tradition demanded of her, and seemed to have no substance.

The Home and the World

The book, as the title suggests, revolves around the domestic sphere, that of the home but follows the impact that the outside – the political world – has on this home. We, as the reader, don’t go outside the house at all; we essentially experience purdah. The tales that come back are twisted through the first person perspective of the various narrators. The outside world is violent, and many citizens experience poverty. Sandip, who initially comes across as overly grandiose and full of bravado, is revealed to actually wield extraordinary power. He inspires his followers to acts of violence and intimidation, but in the end his power fails within the home.

When Bimala’s ‘motherly’ instinct kicks in, to try and free Amulya of Sandip’s influence, there is a turning point within the novel. Bimala suddenly acts under her own initiative – not performing the role of dutiful wife, or obeying the every command of Sandip, but instead setting about trying to right her wrongs. There is a moment where we sense that the love between her and Nikhil may be restored, stronger this time as Bimala will fall in love of her own free will.

But then the end of the book happens. It is sudden and inconclusive. Nikhil, attempting to be heroic, is injured and possibly killed as he tried to service a higher ideal. Nobody really wins.

I’d be interested to know how the reception of this novel has changed over time – it was originally written in 1916. It obviously dealt with some highly charged political issues, and the character of Bimala is particularly interesting given the timeframe, and the fact that it was written by a man. In many ways, the freedom of India seems to be mirrored through the freedom of Bimala; not to be swayed by any extreme political posturing, but instead a kind of pragmatism about what to keep and what to leave of her own traditions and those of her country.

I would be very interested to hear what other people thought of this novel! It’s definitely inspired me to find out more about this period of Indian history.




if, in the end, it doesn’t matter
we can dance in the road
make love in the afternoons
touch fingertips and then pass
unbroken on, dreams uncurling
smoke ripples, water ripples
light ripples, we ripple on
the moment fading vibrato

into the next
salt and sea, the grit
smoothing the way for next year
though we choke, and eyes sting
on all that flowed through us
and the debris that collects
in salt stained heaps

until a match is struck
green flame takes twisted limbs
and turns them to ash

it comes and goes

it lingers in the twilight
between all that could be,
all that was, all that would be
where dreams take down our names
and no more, the rest is shadow
like the curves of the body
splayed in elegant disposition
and so dispossessed

spasms are the art of poetry and pain
although this retching is ungraceful
and the stomach flexes vibrato
from one regurgitation to the next
the jumbled remains of a wild night
spent dallying with wit and wisdom