Thursday, September 20, 2007

End of the novel

Long time back, in a class on 'Modern Fiction', we were making a presentation on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' (Of course, there is nothing modern about Rand's writing but for the theme, which too becomes outdated in two readings, but that is beside the point). At one point we were making sarcastic comments on the ending of the novel. After 50-100 pages long speeches on objectivism, Ms. Rand pulled off an end in a complete Bollywood style, with the hero escaping from the villain's den in a helicopter as the whole world collapsed beneath! Surely she could have taken the end more seriously.
At this point, our Professor (a grandson of the venerable Premchand, but admirable for his own qualities) pointed out that it wasn't simply Ms. Rand's at fault. A good number of authors face the dilemma of finding the perfect ending for their novel, and often come up with a mechanical end, which does no justice to the exceptional innovation of idea with which they started their work.

And we agreed that it was a fairly good point. If you write a novel mocking an artificially perfected world, like 'Brave New world', how do you end it, except for the cliche' end of a world turning on itself or a personal tragedy? In other words, a complete anathema of the 'They all lived happily ever after'. It appears that the modern writer has taken a directly opposite line from that taken by its predecessor.
But can a good story possibly have only the two diametrically opposite ends of complete catastrophe or the promise of the moon?
Perhaps as a mid-way many authors have resorted to ending their works without a conclusion. Surprisingly this strategy seems to work well, even though the readers are often left with a unsatisfactory taste on their palate. And yet days after days, readers appreciate the ambiguous non-ending. Lawrence can end his exquisite work (Women in Love)with a simple statement 'I don't believe it' and readers clap with vigor.
For that matter, many a writers have resorted to ending the novel with a dialogue. Coetzee ends 'Disgrace' with a simple conversation over a dog: 'Yes, I am giving him up' - encompassing a man's defeat and submission. And Maugham ends his autobiographical masterpiece with a simple 'Dear!', capturing the hollowness of the song and dance very simply.
Favorite endings?
I am sure everyone has them. I particularly like what Pirsig says at the end of 'Zen...', because it emphasizes the happiness of the moment, without the mirage of its perpetuity:
Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before,
and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through:
We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.
One author, whom I believe to be the best when it comes to endings is Orwell. He perfectly rounds off the 'Animal farm' and brings us back to the beginning. And carries to a fitting end a great tale of dystopia in 1984: 'He loved Big Brother'.

Then there is Kundera in Identity, who brings in the author directly in the foreground - asking questions of the reader: 'Who was dreaming?'

And how can I forget my recent two favorite authors.
'He'll come back.' But perhaps a reassurance offered for herself, Khadija thinking of her man at the oilfields. (Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup). In one single statement Gordimer defines both the acceptance of an alien and the difference between acceptor and the accepted.

He changed his clothes, clean shirt, trousers, jacket, his best shoes. He stuck the pistol in his belt and left. (Jose Saramago, The Double). Doesn't that statement hold so much promise of future action, no indecision to be entertained anymore?

7 comments:

Alok said...

Is that my namesake professor you are talking about? :)

I am just incredulous at the idea that Ayn Rand will find herself on a prescribed reading for a course in modern fiction... at least it was not modern *literature* or worse, *modernist* literature.

Madhuri said...

Yes it is your namesake :-)
No, in all fairness to him, it was not a prescribed book.(And will never be) It was just one of the series of many presentations made on different books in the class.

runawaysun said...

It's interesting that you should talk about how novels end. I have always been drawn to their 'conclusions'.

Madhuri said...

@Runawaysun,
Are you talking of the difference between 'conclusions' and 'ends'?

runawaysun said...

Yes. I'm talking about what we 'get' from a book after we've finished reading all of it... not just the last few words the author has written. After all, as you've said in your blog, the last few words could very well be a hurried ending with little (or no extraordinary) meaning.

Madhuri said...

Well, the whole point of a novel is what you get from it - that is why we read, rather than for beginnings or ends. But the parts which make up the whole are also important, specially if they betray a foggy thinking which cannot round up the author's point. After all a hearty meal if finished with a hurridly prepared dessert can ruin the entire taste.

Abeyaby said...

Perspectives steeped in social conditioning that wht starts has to end. Move away and you see mists of ideas which melt into one another in mindspace.