Tag Archives: classics

Read 9 of 2022. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Title: Mrs. Dalloway
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0-593-31180-6
Genre: Classics
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This was my fourth reading of Mrs. Dalloway. The fourth time when I would go back to the book, as if it were the first time, and it would reveal itself a little more, another insight, maybe not, maybe just the usual run-of-the-mill circadian novel that it is, but not monotonous. Never uninteresting, and most certainly never out of touch with the contemporary landscape of emotion and thought.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book about community than just one person. It is about illness, suffering, love, sensations that merge together in sentences that portray that at every page. Clarissa is a protagonist who isn’t likeable and yet you relate, you empathise, you find yourself being a part of her world – and more than anything of the banal every day. Whether it is through the life of Septimus Smith or that of Peter Walsh or even Rezia – who is the most sympathetic character, it is all the every day. A Groundhog Day kind of scenario, but the one that is perhaps bearable, tolerable to read during a pandemic – the prose saves you.

So, then what is Mrs. Dalloway about? A day in the life of someone who wants to throw a party? A day in the lives of people who are as confused and torn apart in a world that didn’t opt to live in?  Why do so many readers, year on year, want to read Mrs. Dalloway? What is it about this novel? Maybe because the characters are flawed and fail constantly. Maybe because it is about younger generations, trying to find a way after the war and not knowing what to do. It is about Clarissa’s regret – of being married to the wrong person and not being able to make the choices she wanted to. It is about declaration of life, and yet ironically not living. It is about how Peter and Clarissa move through the party and the incidents that occur during the course of a single day – merging the past, the present, and the probable future.

The inner lives of characters more than just shine through Woolf’s writing. They gleam, they break apart, and they also reflect the lack of profundity. There is a lot of suffering – some latent and some on the surface, and there is no redemption for anyone. Mrs. Dalloway is constantly asking questions that one cannot answer: Why do we die? Why must we die? What is living? It asks this of a world that is ignorant to them – a world that engages in a party, in life, in the hopeless optimism that life is worth something, only to realize the mediocrity of the living, and even then to turn a blind eye to it.

Read 233 of 2021. The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo.

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Title: The Chosen and the Beautiful
Author: Nghi Vo
Publisher: Tordotcom
ISBN: 978-1250784780
Genre: Fantasy, Literary, LGBTQIA+
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Nghi Vo’s retelling of “The Great Gatsby” in my opinion is better than the original text. Don’t get me wrong. I loved and still love The Great Gatsby but this refreshing take, which in turn just becomes Vo’s original voice is fantastic, nothing short of spectacular.

Everything is there – the madness, the passion, the love, and it is brilliant, with Jay Gatsby being a bisexual vampire. I mean, WHOA, right? I mean, WTF, isn’t it? But it is what it is and Vo has us enter her world and hold us there from the first page on.

There are black arts added to the story. Nick is no longer a part of it. We have Jordan Baker, a Vietnamese American, an orphan, raised by an American family, telling the tale.

There is queer-phobia and racism that isn’t hidden. Vo has demolished The Great Gatsby and created something new of its rubble. I think this is also quite a homage to the classic. At the same time, it is unique, has a voice of its own, and stands out on every single page.

The Chosen and the Beautiful speaks of class, racism, sexual aggression, and power like the classic did not. It is political and that’s how it should be, in my opinion.

Things are magical and so is the writing. Vo’s descriptions made me turn those pages again and reread just to soak in the language. Jordan’s relationship with Daisy and Tom is another matter altogether. It is fluid, caustic, and extremely toxic.

Vo’s writing is marvellous. You don’t get the time to breathe. You are gasping for air and yet want to turn those pages as quickly as ever.

Interview with Henry Eliot

Classic literature is more or less dubbed boring by regular people. Academicians still swear by it. Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written. Oh wait, it is actually the Tale of Genji. Chaucer was way ahead of his times and maybe he was. But does he hold any relevance today? What is classic literature and what does it mean in today’s time and age? Do people even read classics, beside the regular Austen and Brontë sisters? Does anyone give a fig about Shakespeare? How can then classics be made more accessible and make people aware of their existence?

Henry Eliot, publisher of Penguin Classics and author of the recently published, The Penguin Classics Book is of course about Penguin Classics as the title suggests, and rightly so, given Penguin Classics is the largest and best-known classics imprint in the world as of today. The book attempts to document classics (in various Penguin editions) right from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of WWI – covering it all: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, plays, histories, and philosophy. This companion contains 500 authors, 1200 books, and 4000 years of world literature (though I think that is highly debatable, but that discussion is for a later day).

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I had the opportunity to interview Henry while he was in town for the Tata Literature Festival. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Me: I actually adore this book. I love the research. What do you think makes a classic, a classic? What makes Chaucer a classic though so unreadable? Or an Austen who is so readable? Is it just time or is it more?

Henry: I think it is a complicated question, I think. As an experiment, I tried collecting all definitions of a classic and they are all so different and disparate. Well, for me, when I am trying to decide whether a book is a classic, maybe there are four criteria I use. A book doesn’t have to have all of them but if it does have all of them, I am convinced it is a classic. They are: literary quality, which is quite subjective but you know when something is good, some kind of historical significance – either it was a great bestseller in its day or it did something new for the first time and shifted the course of literature, and thirdly, an enduring reputation, so it is still being studied, sort of read or survived somehow and the fourth one, I think is crucial actually, a classic work of literature at some level should still be alive and speaks to you today. I think as soon as books stop speaking to us today, then it becomes just a historical document and not a classic.

pc

Me: Do you think there are books like these that have lost their significance and are still termed as classics because we cannot get rid of the definition attached to them?

HE: Interesting. I am coming at it from a publisher’s point of view because I work at Penguin Classics. It is subjective to an extent, the way it is arbitrary what we include but not entirely. But if no one is say reading a book anymore, there is no reason for keeping it on the list. There is a kind of Darwinian – almost a kind of natural selection, as books stop being read, they are removed from the list.

Me: I just cannot recall any titles that have been removed from the Penguin list

HE: So, there is this section at the back of the book – these all titles are no longer in print and we couldn’t include them all – because there are so many. I mean, one example is someone like Sir Walter Scott is a good example of someone who was hugely popular all through the 19th century and through the course of the 20th century has become less and less popular. We do have some titles though like Waverley and Ivanhoe, but you know we used to have many more but we have removed some.

Me: Do you ever face a situation where you have started reading a classic and you’re like “Oh My God! I just cannot read this anymore”?

HE: Yes, I certainly find some classics harder to read than others. You just spoke of Chaucer right now and I’m actually a great fan and I really enjoyed studying him, but it is definitely read, and I find when I am reading Chaucer, the first twenty minutes or so I am struggling and then there’s a shift, you’re almost stuck into it and then you begin to understand it.

Something like Origin of Species is highly on the list, and it is very relevant even today, but in terms of literary quality it is quite hard to read. The prose is not easy. So, I certainly have that experience and I can’t think of a classic that I started reading and got bored but sometimes it is hard and you do need a spark of a connection or sometimes you just need a bit of historical context to sort of experience it better.

Me: We live in a world which is very fast, and would you think someone in their 20s or a 20-year-old would actually read a classic? What role then a classic would play in this?

HE: My hope is that people will keep reading classics – the reason for them to read is to expand experiences – what it means to be alive, what it means to connect with these great writers across centuries makes you a bigger and better person, and see the world in more colours, and I hope will read them – whether they come to then later or whether they read them now, given the speed of social media.

There are some interesting projects connected to social media to generate awareness of classics. For instance, an email service I subscribe to which sends me an entry from Samuel Pepys diary, every day, on the day that he wrote it. And I feel like, there’s lots of books you can break into accessible bytes like The Arabian Nights for instance. But sure, nothing can replace the experience of actually holding the book and reading.

penguinclassics

Me: How much time did it take you to edit this book?

HE: It took a long time. It is a very ambitious project, and everyone only realized how ambitious it was once we were stuck right into it and we had to keep going. Even the designer, it was a huge job to design – the editions, the photographs, etc. In terms of time, it took me about a year to write and another year to design it.

Me: I was going through the India list and just saw Tagore. Just Tagore?

 HE: This book stops at WWI and I agree there should be more and there’s one thing that this book has shown is that there is a lot of stuff in here but there’s also a lot of stuff that isn’t here.

Me: A lot of male writers. Is it because of function of time?

HE: Exactly! Exactly! And that’s something I speak of in the introduction. There are very few women writers here, because it is probably a combination of fewer women have written classics and I suspect this has got to do with this list being almost 70 years’ time and over that time gender equality has improved. We do have George Eliot, Brontë sisters, Katharine Mansfield, and Gaskell that have their space, but we do need more.

Me: People keep speaking of a modern classic, but I’ve never really understood it. What is a modern classic then?

HE: It is a bit of a blurred line and I suppose the way I think about it; Modern Classic is almost a quarantine period. These are books that have an impact, they have literary quality, but we don’t know whether they are going to endure or not. So, I sort of say is that they are the best bet as of now, but we need to see if they speak to generations coming on. And for that reason, there are some quite whacky choices. It allows us to be experimental actually.

Me: Is there a sequel to this?

HE: I would like there to be a second-volume. So, this finishes in 1918 and the second volume would then cover the last 100 years. Copyright issues might spring up I suppose. If we did a Penguin Modern Classics book, we wouldn’t have so many books, but I hope there is a sequel.

Me: I see so many people trying to take up reading challenges. Would you think this book would then serve as a reference for that as well or steer readers to read classics?

HE: I mean I like that. I wish people would set themselves ambitions. I hope people use this as building their reading lists and come across titles that they haven’t read earlier. It is difficult for one person to know what is out there. So, this book might help them. I hope people use this as a map to discover literature and know more about classics.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

giovannis-room-by-james-baldwin Title: Giovanni’s Room
Author: James Baldwin
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0345806567
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBTQ, LGBT
Pages: 176
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I waited this long to read this gem. “Giovanni’s Room” was always on my to be read pile but I never picked it up and even if I did, I just read a couple of pages and dropped it. Yes, I am aware of the sacrilege but it is all sorted now and hopefully a thing of the past, because I intend to reread and reread this marvelous book of loss, unrequited love and courage to some extent.

It is a fluid book. At the same time, it is also the kind of book that makes you introspect and travel deep within the recesses of your heart to perhaps realize yourself better. It is about David (the narrator) who is American living in Paris. He has a seemingly normal life with a girlfriend in tow, and things change when he meets Giovanni. It is the 50s and Paris was the place where homosexuality wasn’t illegal, though stigmatized to a large extent. It gives David the freedom to explore and know himself and he unknowingly falls in love with Giovanni only for the book to reach its heartbreaking conclusion (Don’t worry; I shall not spoil it for you, though you will know in the first two pages).

Baldwin wrote this book in the 50s – when perhaps it was unimaginable to think of an LGBT book. David is not likeable. He is confused, lost and often does not come across as a great guy to be with, and yet Baldwin created one of the most unforgettable characters in him and Giovanni and their love story – which is toxic, destructive and will not stop at anything.

Subcultures as presented by the author on every page – many characters unfold as the journey of these two men take place side by side. Love in the margins is not easy to write about. Everything about Giovanni’s room depicts David’s state – emotionally and physically, beautifully portrayed by Baldwin. To sum this book in one line, I will quote from this book: “Nobody can stay in the Garden of Eden”.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

the-boy-in-the-striped-pyjamas-by-john-boyne Title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Vintage, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0099572862
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

This was the second book I read as a part of ‘The Story Cure’ reading project. Also, it is holocaust literature, so it comes with the territory of tears, anger, and loneliness. There is nothing you can do about it when you start reading it. To top that, there is a movie based on this book, which I don’t think I will ever watch.

“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is a book that will not leave you – perhaps because you already know how it will end, but also because of the writing. Boyne is simple, direct and quite powerful at his craft. The book is by no means a difficult read – it is just the emotions that need to be dealt with after that is tough.

Bruno, a nine-year old boy lives with his parents and older sister Gretel in Berlin. The year is 1942. One fine day as he comes back from school, he is told that they are moving to a place called Out-With (Auschwitz or so he pronounces or understands it throughout the book). His father has received a promotion. He doesn’t have any friends in the new place. But it is the Fury’s order who father works under (the Führer – of course we all know it is Hitler. Again Bruno cannot pronounce it so he calls him Fury throughout the book) and they have to go to Out-With.

There is a tall fence there that separates him from some strange place – all wearing the same clothes – all dressed in striped Pyjamas. This is where Bruno meets Shmuel – a skinny, gray looking boy and their worlds will never be the same.

Boyne’s characterization skills are superb. The characters – including the parents, Lieutenant Kotler and the servants are gripping. Their sub-plots convey so much throughout the book and yet it doesn’t stop being a young adult book. It continues to maintain its innocence and has so much to say. The writing is funny also at times, mostly it is heartbreaking though. I don’t think I can bear to watch this movie. The reason it was a part of “The Story Cure” is as it answers the question “What it’s all about?” – it will cure you of it – all the angst (some of it) and perfect for teenagers to know what happened and how did the Holocaust play out for most. I almost didn’t want to read the book – but I am glad I did. Read it, but do keep the box of tissues handy.