Monday, May 26, 2008

Beware of Pity

After reading Zweig's 'Beware of Pity' recently, I came upon a less than generous review of the story in Time's: of those puddle-depth stories that, draining themselves with a sort of literary eye dropper, pretend to contain oceans of ideas. The tedious technique might seem justified if it conveyed vivid people, or even lively situations. Beware of Pity conveys only one droplet of an idea (there are two kinds of pity: good & bad) diluted in gallons of plot.
Though the review was being written for the movie, it is clearly meant for the story itself. I personally thought the review rather unjust. Though there were times when I thought the author was purposely leading us to believe that there was far more severity to the situation than there actually was, and was over-analyzing/dramatizing the sequence of events, I found it remarkable for its very thorough analysis of 'pity' and detailing of mind's working when faced with moral choices. By chewing repeatedly the same idea, Zweig has been successful in presenting a complete psycho-analytic case. Which,perhaps, is what he intended, as he apparently 'saw himself as a kind of Freud of fiction'. I also think it is an unreasonable demand to expect an ocean of ideas from every good piece of literature - a good piece of literature can also choose to present one idea completely and thoroughly, and that sometimes has greater merit.

The story, in short is about a young second lieutenant Anton Hofmiller, who after spending most of his life in the military, is rather immature and clumsy in his social behavior. Invited at a landowner's place once for dinner, he asks his daughter for dance, to which she violently reacts as she is a cripple and unable to stand on her feet. Ashamed with his insensitive behavior, Anton tries to atone for it with a friendly visit,and before he knows, is thoroughly engulfed in a vortex of sympathy which finds him spending every day with this girl.

There were a few features in the story which were very remarkable - one of them is a scene where Hofmiller is enjoying a lofty ride on his horse, galloping swiftly, when suddenly reminded of the girl, feels guilty for this speed and his joy at horse-riding, and recedes to a slow halt. What is so remarkable is not just the description of the scene, which is very visual, but also the germination of the idea of pity and commiseration, which marks the rest of the book.
At many places, Anton alludes to an Arabian story where a young man takes pity on a flailing old man and puts him on his shoulders. The old man turns out to be a djinn who clutches the man's shoulders in a vice-like grip, refusing to be dislodged. This analogy of pity with a djinn is often repeated and serves quite well to describe the author's suffocation.

I have not read Zweig before, and this is one of his most illustrious works (apparently the only novel that he wrote and published in his lifetime). I would like to read his Chess Story and also The Post-Office Girl. There is a nice article on the latter (and also on Zweig's writing in general) in Nation.
BTW, I am quite intrigued with the parallel between the lives of Zweig and Joseph Roth.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Persepolis: I rarely find good movies on flights, but found this one on the Thai airlines in-flight entertainment system quite accidentally. It is an autobiographical, French animation movie. Written by Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran during the period of Islamic revolution, it is a story of these years and of her later life in Vienna. Adapted from Satrapi's graphic novel, it is a very simple animation, and quite adorable. Without getting sentimental, it explores the life around the little girl and captures her growing up pretty well with her small rebellions against the fundamentalist rule.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I will make my character laugh where sensible people think he ought to cry.
And why? Because my hero is no character, no 'type,' ... but a complex, modern being.
- Knut Hamsun

I don't know whether Hamsun spoke these words to describe the character of Nagel in his work Mysteries, but I can say that in Nagel, he was successful in what he intended to carry out. Even though he does not want to call his hero a character, I found the (anti?)protagonist of Mysteries to be a remarkable character - for his inconsistencies and realities.

In this novel, a stranger (Nagel) lands in an idyllic, 'simple' coastal town of Norway, for no particular reason. In his unexplained, eccentric existence, he throws the apparently well-formed community into a commotion, bringing out the subtle evil and in-equations amongst the people. Throughout the story, everyone tries to unravel the mysteries behind this stranger - the town, the reader and most of all Nagel himself, who seems to be as puzzled by his actions as others are. Very appropriately, even the writer seems to explore the mystery for a while, and then leaves it unfinished.

I found Mysteries to be a novel of the subconscious. Very often, Nagel seems to act on instincts, which, if he explores, turn out to be conscious logical behavior choices. There are many dreams and memories that seem to guide him, and in each he (and the reader) tries to find a symbol. Although, Nagel's behavior could also be inspired by a very acute level of consciousness (as he suggests a few times), where he is able to predict the impact of his behavior on other people. In this calculation of moves, he appears to me very similar to the Johannes of Seducer's Diary, though Johannes was far more consistent with his premeditation than Nagel. In this, he is much closer to a 'normal' modern man, who is sometimes calculative, manipulative, sometimes moved to humanitarian acts and sometimes just plain silly and argumentative. It is quite remarkable that Hamsun is able to draw out these lapses into the subconscious, and so fluidly merge them into the conscious.
Apart from the symbols that drive Nagel, he himself is a symbol of modernism, as he breaks from the norms of a collective conscience and chooses personal and individual confusion. This choice may be the force that thwarts the town's order and poses a question to its apparent stability. He opposes all established beliefs, even though he may not have a very sound logical standing in negating them. He seems to uphold inconsistency, unpredictability, and risk, and is therefore dangerous to the limited town.
There is a lot that I feel like saying about this work, which I found remarkably enthralling, but I don't think I am much refined to put them down as a long essay - perhaps I will link those thoughts through in bits on the blog later. For now - I will stop at: I loved Nagel. And Hamsun. I will read more from this writer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


What is this strange madness, Petrarch asked of his young secretary, this mania for sleeping each night in a different bed?
What am I doing here? (Rimbaud writing home from Ethiopia)
Somehow, with Chatwin's Songlines in my hands, this trip to Australia does not seem that abortive. Even though, the Australia that I am seeing is poles apart from the one he has written about - the distance runs in centuries, perhaps even worlds apart. I cannot reconcile the two images as I walk the street. But flying over this land, which is such a large desert, I thought I actually saw those songlines on the ground below.

The quotes above are from the chapter "From the Notebooks" - lovely chapter. And a wonderful book, that I will place far above his 'In Patagonia'

Somewhere in the book there is a dialog (here being Australia):
"Pity we didn't get here first"
"We, the Russians?"
"Not only Russians", he shook his head, "Slavs, Hungarians, Germans even. Any people who could cope with wide horizons. Too much of this country went to islanders. They never understood it. They're afraid of space."
Perhaps that is why everyone has huddled themselves in a few pockets and the land stands on its own. Awkward with its expanse?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Diary of a Seducer

The Seducer's Diary is another book from the Great Love series by Penguin which I mentioned in an earlier post. After reading this, my enthusiasm for the series has increased even more and I have managed to find and order a few more titles, which now happily adorn my shelf.

Seducer's Diary is primarily a philosophical work from Soren Kierkegaard: a 19th century Danish philosopher, and one of the earlier enthusiasts of Existentialism. It is part of one of his most illustrative works Either/Or, which I hope to read sometime. In Either/Or, with a few fictional pseudonyms, Kierkegaard argues for both the aesthetic (Either) and ethical (Or) aspects of life. It is in the Either or the aesthetic part that Seducer's Diary finds its place.
In itself, the Seducer's Diary is a complete book, even though it gives a unidirectional perspective, as different from the balanced perspective that Kierkegaard intended with the complete book . It seductively indulges in aesthetics, in the joy and happiness of being in love.

Written as part of diary entries of Johannes, the seducer, recounting his deliberate planning and plotting in the pursuit of a girl Cordelia, the book takes us through the meticulous thought process of Johannes. His remarkable consciousness of Cordelia's mind and thoughts is evident in the reading of each entry. He plays on her subconscious, remaining on the periphery, gaining her confidence from this periphery and giving her a false sense of power over himself. As she gets drawn to him, he then introduces an aloofness, feigning distance and indicating a fading of this power, which makes her confused and anxious, and she tries eagerly to bridge this distance and resume power again.

The game seems simple enough. Certainly there are in this world many a men and women playing similar games in a less conscious form. However the consciousness of it is the most impressive part of the work, not to say mildly shocking.

There are some biographical allusions to this work, especially pointed out by John Updike in his introduction to this work (Incidentally, my edition did not have this introduction but I read parts of it in the google preview of this book). Kierkegaard himself broke up his engagement with a young girl (Regine Olson) whom he had coveted for a long time. He remained unmarried, and this work is seen as his confession, his version of the entire episode. Perhaps it could be so. But if it is remorse, there is little of it that is seen in this work, which remains a delicious, arrogant recounting of a laborious victory.

I loved this work, mainly for Kierkegaard's articulate expression of Johannes thoughts on love. There is also some truth in his words which is perhaps felt universally - most people rush to conquer and get engaged in love and they don't know what they have conquered. It is in the drawn out months before a confession or engagement is made, the months of pursuit that are more aesthetic. Hence it is the melodrama of pursuit and mischances that play out the centrestage in most movies, while the 'they lived happily ever after' is always the small inconsequential part which no one is interested in - the part at which people get up and leave.

A beautiful work. I may have idolized Johannes, were it not for his misogyny and nauseating views on women!

Thursday, May 08, 2008


It is almost impossible to disentangle one-self from memories. It always begins at 'In the old times...' and forever, one just keeps hanging around near the past. It does not matter then whether the past was beautiful or sad, or whether we even had something there. It is a mad affinity, which just keeps you looking over the shoulder, dawdling, not wanting to go on. It is almost painful to disengage from this fantasy, and leave, to carry on with a life which will look beautiful only tomorrow, but is only a barren land today.

On watching the last part of this trilogy by Wong Kar Wai, I am simply overwhelmed. Whatever it was that had touched me in 'In the mood for love', was played out even more supremely in this sequel. Throughout watching of it, I felt such a deep sense of melancholy and tragedy, that it almost left me feeling yearning for a tragedy of my own. I felt a strong inclination to dabble a bit more in the recess of the mind - to indulge, so to say, in memories.

2046 begins where In the mood... left off. But the Chow of 2046 is so different from the Chow of the earlier film. He is only a shadow of himself, a shadow which is almost unrecognizable. Gone is the innocent charm, replaced by the shrewd look of a worldly man. I have heard some people say that it is not necessary to watch the earlier movie to appreciate this one. But I don't think I can imagine the movie playing out without the context of the other. It is only because I knew how deeply he was affected by his love in the prequel, that I can appreciate how estranged he now is, and how desperately he seeks to recapture the memories. By being around women who carry parts of his lady-love Su, but always failing to capture her or being satisfied with these parts. He continues to dwell in the memories, which he metaphorically calls 2046. It was in this hotel room number that he had secretly met Su in the earlier movie, and perhaps spent his happiest moments.

I did not mean to sound sentimental - I am at most moments far removed from this weakness. I think I should blame it on the expert technique of Wong Kar Wai - who took 4 years to create this splendid mood, and perhaps those years worked on me. There is something infinitely romantic about the love that fails and then wanders aimlessly. Infinitely romantic if it is given to the haunting music and red hues and empty eyes.

I also loved the science fiction angle of the movie. He used uncomplicated, obvious metaphors for which you do not have to go hunting to crack the code, and that's why they were even more appealing and striking.

But meeting love out of time and place, which is supposed to the tragedy of Chow: this is a tragedy of his own making. In each of his loves, time is not against him, and does little more than offer a little resistance. For the sake of the movie's potery, however, he choses melancholy, and that is all very well :-)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


The Paper cuts blog from NY Times talks about a Panel discussion on the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. I have read only one book from Bernhard and was immediately struck by the geriatric leanings that Dale Peck mentions in the discussion. I loved the passage quoted by him from Concrete:
Even early in my life there were times when I had no one - I at least knew that I had no one, though others were always asserting that I did have someone. They said, You do have someone, whereas I knew for certain that I not only had no one, but - what was perhaps the crucial and most annihilating thought - needed no one. I imagined I needed no one, and this is what I still imagine to this day. I needed no one, and so I had no one. But naturally we do need someone, otherwise we inevitably become what I have become: tiresome, unbearable, sick - impossible, in the profoundest sense of the word. I always believed that I could get on with my intellectual work if only I were completely alone, with no one else around. This proved to be mistaken, but it is equally mistaken to say that we actually need someone. We need someone for our work, and we also need no one. Sometimes we need someone, sometimes no one, and sometimes we need someone and no one. In the last few days I have once more become aware of this totally absurd fact: we never know at any time whether we need someone or no one, or whether we need someone and at the same time no one, and because we never ever know what we really need we are unhappy, and hence unable to start on our intellectual work when we wish and when it seems right.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Hunting for the books

Hunting for books, I suppose, is as involved and time-consuming an activity as reading it is. May be more. In fact, by my own experience, certainly more for some ever-hidden mysterious books, which appear on all good reading lists, except on the list of your bookstore.

However, it is also true that discovering books in a bookstore is also a rather satisfying experience. Of course that depends largely on the quality of bookstore itself. For what joy could possibly exist in the over-retailed book-selling of Crosswords, and how enchanting could it be to sit down at each step of the stairs of the small Midland and rummage through books. In each of the cities I have lived in, I have generally ended up with a favorite bookstore, that I repeatedly visit, and repeatedly rummage - to acquire books like a bibliophile maniac. If only I could read at the speed at which I buy, I would perhaps be a far more well-read person! Here are a few of my favorites bookstores, followed by some online stores that I have been exploring and have found to be quite useful in tracking the elusive books I keep talking about.

I think I am quite enamored with Midland Book Shop - a very small bookstore in Aurobindo market near Hauz Khas. The place is so small and so flooded with books, that there are books lying even on the steps leading to the first floor. The owner/manager knows his books, even if he can't pronounce the names too well. And to top it all, there is an almost guaranteed discount of 20% on all books. Someone tells me there is another Midland in Khan Market, but have never tried that.
Another good store in Delhi is Fact & Fiction near Priya Cinema. A small store which has a good collection, made even better by the knowledge and experience of the owner. I think he is part of the charm - as every manager of a good bookstore is.
I have never really taken to Om bookstore, (also at Priya and at a couple of other places) though they can have some good deals running during the sale period.

I think the Universal Book Store at Kapoorthala will win hands down. I have spend oodles of my meager student resources in this shop. With a charming old shop-owner, who always has a few recommendations and a few candies for you, even if he knows that today you have simply come to stall time, it really makes book-buying a nice experience. Definitely bigger than the previous stores I have mentioned, here you can find a stool and sit down to enjoy a book. The store even has a floor dedicated to Hindi books - and I don't think it is easy to find an extensive collection of Hindi literature that matches this.

I think while in Bangalore, I was quite satisfied with Strand Book Stall at Manipal Center. I was just beginning to read extensively, and the haphazard bookstore is a good treasure for anyone trying to find her way into good books. I don't think it will satiate me now though - I find their collection catering largely to a popular taste, and have failed to find many good works there. However, I still can never resist the temptation to go to their Annual Book Festival in Mumbai and generally end up filling a basket. What a discount!

I think everything in Mumbai is generally relegated to Malls unless you live in South Mumbai - which I am not rich enough to do. So I now find myself in some chic shops, even to shop for books. It is a little difficult to get used to the over-organization at first. If you are hunting, all you have to do is know the author and genre and walk down the alley. Else there is the help-desk. But these are also stores which offer you a nice couch to sink into and read for free :) I almost exclusively go to Landmark now. They have a superior collection and generally at least one person on the staff will be able to pronounce the name right. (Which is quite a lot, you will know if you have ever met the morons at Crosswords, who were puzzled with the name Lessing - a week after she won the Nobel!)

The non-brick shops
I don't really love to shop online - specially for books. It does not offer you the charm of browsing through a bookstore and stumble on piles of books, or meet a fellow reader to fall in love with in the Calvino style. But if you are looking for specific books, the online stores go a long way. They have a wider range of titles at their disposal, and with a certain lead time can procure some titles from abroad. I have tried a few websites for shopping for books and found them to be satisfactory:

landmarkonthenet - Well this is an online arm of the brick and mortar chain from Tata's, which they run in partnership with Sify. They ship fast, and the prices mirror those in the store, but they definitely stock a wider range of titles here. The lead time is generally 2 weeks for more easily available books and about 4-6 weeks for difficult to obtain titles. Shipping is currently free of charge.

A1 Books - Certainly the most efficient online book store that I have found till date. They mostly procure their books from US/UK and hence the prices are higher. But their collection is amongst the best that I have come across. They levy a shipment charge, but the packaging of the book is certainly worth this small price. I found Ruth Kluger's book here, which had been virtually impossible to find elsewhere. The shipping lead time is around 15 days.

Rediff Books - Now this is tricky. They have canceled my orders more than once on account of books being out of stock. However, the one book they did send (Eichmann in Jerusalem), arrived in a week's time. Their collection is large, but they may be out of stock on most books. As a promotional offer, shipping charges are currently being waived.

Indiaplaza - This is the new avtar of the earlier Fabmall, which was the first (relatively) popular e-commerce site in India. I have recently tried purchasing through them, and the order is yet to arrive. But they have a good collection too. They also indicate books which are currently out of stock, but allow you to place them on your wish-list and then inform you when they can find a seller. The prices are far better than A1, since they stock a lot of Indian editions.

I have also visited, and though I am impressed with the collection, I have found their prices to be quite high.