10.27.2009

Review: Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

"All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair--
The bees are stirring--birds are on the wing--
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrighten'd, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live."


- (Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Work Without Hope")

I've read a lot of Asian-American and Indian-American literature. My second English class focused quite a bit on "mixed" American writers. Korean-American, Indian-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, African-American, and the list, as I remember, goes on. It was an interesting period in my reading because I was reading literature that I would never have picked up on my own. Not to mention, much of it was in the form of short stories which I wouldn't find on my own. A lot of the work was photocopied specifically for the class out of books that I would never go near.

My favorites were the Indian writers. I think I lost my adoration for them a bit when I worked on Dharamvir Bharati's The Blind Age during sophomore year, though. Among these writers were Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee (my favorite was Mukherjee's short story - "A Father"). Their work is so beautiful and honest and still retain a bit of grit. That being said, I'm very surprised that I never came across Kamala Markandaya. In fact, when I picked it up in the library's fiction section and finally looked to see what it was, my initial reaction was to return it to the shelf because I thought I HAD read it or that I should have, and I was not looking forward to reading something my teacher would have had me read. But then I glanced at the back and decided to check it out anyway.

I'm so glad I did.

It's the kind of novel you have to read the back of. Not because there's something lost in translation or because the story is hard to follow, but because you need to be prepared. I can best describe it as the story of a woman with nothing to lose who loses almost everything. It's sweet, it's damp and dirty, it's about tradition and modernity, it's honest and beautiful, it's tragic and it's wonderful. And even in its sadness, its tragedy, and its dirt, it is hopeful.

Even in its frankness, it is hopeful. In the first 2 pages, you know how it will end. You know all of the tragedies that will happen in this woman's life. And yet you're drawn in. You keep reading even though you know it's going to be a big bad scary path. And you're rewarded for going with her on her journey. The visual quality of Markandaya's writing allows you to escape into that world, pretty or not. Strongly - very strongly - recommended.

10.25.2009

Review: Charlotte Brontë's Unfinished Novels

Up until this point, I had read almost everything by Charlotte Bronte. I read Jane Eyre at age 17 (the perfect time, I think, to read it). I read Villette and Shirley shortly thereafter. I also, over the last 3 years, took it upon myself to read her juvenilia in the form of The Foundling, The Green Dwarf, The Spell, and The Secret as well as The Professor. I have yet to read Ms. Gaskell’s biography of the Charlotte, but I believe there's been some controversy over some of her facts and, to be frank, I hate biographies. In terms of her sisters, I’ve read Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and was completely bored. I’ve stayed as far away from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as humanly possible. The story makes me want to throw up a little bit. I’ve never seen a film version that’s redeemed it. So no Emily for me, either.

I’m really only interested in Charlotte. Most authors, especially those who passed on before their time, have tidbits and fragments and chapters of work that has gone unfinished. Dickens left us Edwin Drood. Jane Austen left us Sanditon, and Charlotte has left us Emma. In these cases, the authors have died before the narrative could continue. They were not voluntarily abandoned. Included in Pocket Classics’ edition of her unfinished pieces are works that WERE left alone voluntarily: “The Story of Willie Ellin”, “Ashworth”, and “The Moores.”

Perhaps the best way to introduce any discussion of Ms. Brontë’s unfinished works is with a quote from author William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) that is included in the book as part of the preface to her final piece, Emma:

One evening, at the close of 1854, as Charlotte Nicholls [neé Brontë] sat with her husband by the fire, listening to the howling of the wind about the house, she suddenly said to her husband, ‘If you had not been with me, I must have been writing now.’ She then ran upstairs, and brought down, and read aloud, the beginning of a new tale. When she had finished, her husband remarked, ‘The critics will accuse you of repetition.’ She replied, ‘Oh! I shall alter that. I always begin two or three times before I can please myself.’ But it was not to be. The trembling little hand was to write no more. The heart, newly awakened to love and happiness, and throbbing with maternal hope, was soon to cease to beat; that intrepid outspeaker and champion of truth, that eager impetuous redresser of wrong, was to be called out of the world’s fight and struggle, to lay down the shining arms, and to be removed to a sphere where even a noble indignation cor ulterius nequit lacerare [ from the epitaph of Jonathan Swift, "cannot injure her heart anymore"), and where truth complete, and right triumphant, no longer need to wage war.
(Unfinished Novels, 96)

Emma begins with the aforesaid “repetition.” Like all of her completed novels, it begins in a school. And like all the others, it’s about a young girl in that school although it becomes quickly obvious that Emma is very different from Brontë’s earlier heroines. In fact, it reads even more similar to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (which, it appears, WAS inspired by this or - rather - the original novella titled "Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin's" and Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair, published 7 years earlier (Ms. Brontë wrote this fragment in 1854, and it was published in 1860. Appropriate then, that Thackeray introduces it.

“Emma,” however, is not the longest fragment in the book. It is preceded, first, by a dredgy “The Story of Willie Ellin” which only makes a lot of sense in Charlotte’s voice if you know that she wrote it in the midst of editing sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. It’s much darker than anything else of hers on the page. It’s also pretty lackluster and boring (cough). This is succeeded by “Ashworth,” the longest (45 pages) investment of the collection. This was my favorite piece I think because of its intricacies. It begins as the story of one man and carries on through to the story of his daughter. We assume that, had the novel continued past 45 pages, we would return to Mr. Ashworth (whose wife, by the way, dies after she asks him to pick her up at the window so she could see the sun….Cathy & Heathcliff, anyone??) but we are left in the care of his daughter, Miss Mary, who seems as lovely (though perhaps more sensible than) Mr. Thackeray’s own Amelia Sedley. Oddly enough for "Ashworth", it was handed down among various associates and relations of the Brontës and only “discovered” in the 1980s. Cool.

The third piece is, perhaps, the most interesting of those that Charlotte let go by the wayside. Titled “The Moores,” the focus is on Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Moore and, eventually, their respective relatives. The most markedly interesting aspect of this piece is the way the Mr. and Mrs. treat one another. In what seems like a scene right out of Vanity Fair or, perhaps, Dickens’ Great Expectations, the couple verbally harasses one another, Mrs. Moore ignores her husband and Mr. Moore tears a letter from her hand and burns it in front of her. To escalate matters, when Mr. Moore’s brother arrives and Mrs. Moore’s cousin takes to the piano, the men are narrated into a state of disgust in front of them. This is somewhat reminiscent of Edward Rochester’s playful disinterest in maintaining certain rules of decorum, a trait that makes him realistically and even modernly more endearing than the white-horse-white-glove-decorum-filled Austen heroes. Mr. Moore is, truly, a bit more extreme but his brother has the opportunity to become someone interesting, and it’s a shame that she put him aside.

As for Emma itself, we are cruelly torn away from the narrative right as our Matilda Fitzgibbon is stripped of her fanciful name and façade. Though the intro is somewhat academic and blasé, the world we enter into as the story progresses is terribly promising. It reads like A Little Princess, like The Secret Garden, like Vanity Fair, like Jane Eyre, like Great Expectations, like Mansfield Park and like Les Misérables. The real unfairness lies in our inability to foresee who little Matilda will become. Will she be redubbed as Emma? Will she grow up to be like Austen’s own Emma, who is proud and (unknowingly) cruel? Or will she be like Jane Eyre, subjugated and left to develop her character among those who are cruel or indifferent to her with one clear exception? An authoress by the name of Claire Boylan has completed the story in her own words (Emma Brown), making it into a well-made pastiche of Brontë's completed works. But we'll never really know what Charlotte wanted. In musing on this in relation to an unfinished painting of Titania, the fairy queen Thackeray says:

As I read this little fragmentary sketch, I think of the rest. Is it? And where is it? Will not the leaf be turned some day, and the story be told? Shall the deviser of the tale somewhere perfect the history of little EMMA’S grief and troubles? Shall TITANIA come forth complete with her sportive court, with the flowers at her feet, the forest around her, and all the stars of summer glittering overhead?
(Unfinished Novels, 97)