Saturday, December 27, 2014

David Copperfield

First published 1850; Vintage Classics edition, 2012.

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

This opening sentence briefly puzzled me -- who else would be the hero of his own life, but the narrator? -- but I passed quickly on and swam pleasurably in the depths of the novel for a few months, a few pages a night. And it wasn't until the very end that the significance of the opening sentence dawned on my obtuse brain. 

We watch as young David eventually does become the hero of his own life -- in other words, becomes his own man, his own person -- something that everyone must struggle to do, at one time or another. He has an inauspicious start in life, born fatherless and poor, and he struggles to overcome the overpowering injustices of Victorian England, tyrannical schoolmasters, hypocritical and sadistic elders, manipulative and dominating friends, scheming and brutal villains, and eventually even his own sentimental and blind infatuation. But overcome it all he does, and finally stands wiser, firmer, more clear-eyed and less foolish (and isn't "less foolish" all that we can ever hope to be?).

The prose is rightly celebrated, although it often seems too roundabout and occasionally plain baffling; and the characters are indeed indelible (Mr Micawber, Traddles, Uriah Heep, Mr Creakle, Dora, Agnes, Peggotty, Barkis and of course, Betsey Trotwood) although sometimes a bit too rich. But his quick insight into human nature is what holds it all together and makes it worthwhile, even as the plot uses obvious and clunky devices (a convenient death; or sending half the cast off to Australia) and some puzzling characters (Martha). And above all, what keeps the fabric intact is the arc of David's struggle, our pity at his folly and blindness, and our wishes for him to emerge finally to wisdom and happiness. 

I wonder what it must have been like to read this over the course of 2 years, chapter by chapter, in a newspaper -- the anticipation of each new installment must have been thrilling. (I remember serialized Hindi novels that used to appear in weekly periodicals when I was a child, and the excitement they used to cause in our household.) This is the best argument to bring back the serialized novel from the ashes ... 

Dec 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Himalayan Love Story

A Himalayan Love Story
Namita Gokhale

The blurb describes the novel as a love story set in the Himalayan foothills of Nainital, where a young Parvati is wooed by Mukul, a local boy.  The jacket has heaping praise by an India Today review and the book is published by Penguin India.  Wanting something light but well written, I picked up a battered copy (albeit full price) at a bookshop in SDA market in Delhi.

The writing is indeed graceful and, in many places, lyrical.  The atmosphere of a sleepy Kumaon hill station and small-town Pahari life is beautifully and skillfully rendered.  However the blurb is highly misleading.  Parvati's story, which is the more interesting one, is barely 50 pages, or about a quarter of the book length.  The rest is from Mukul's pov, describing his return many years later to search for his lost youthful romance, after having married and settled in Hong Kong.  (This basic structure reminds me of the Hindi film "Mausam", which was itself based on the novel "The Judas Tree" by A. J. Cronin, and was a critical as well as commercial success.)

The premise has promise in terms of emotional and psychological insight; and Mukul's part is well written.  But what Mukul's part is really about is his alienation from his roots, his guilt at his own success, and the conflicting pulls of nostalgia and cynicism.  It has little to do with his search for Parvati, and in fact when he does finally meet her again the encounter is described in surprisingly wooden and stilted writing.  There is no description of how he sees her, what emotions are stirred in either, and the reader is cheated after 200 pages of waiting.

In fact the romance is incidental to Mukul's story.  As such, the novel makes a reasonably good portrait of the NRI's malaise.  But Mukul himself is an uninspiring vehicle.  Our hero is not only weak-willed and of dubious integrity (which, after all, could make for quite interesting traits in a hero), but is quite boring and unadventurous.  He frequently gets tired and needs to rest in his hotel room after an excursion or after a walk in the hills; makes fiery declarations after which he apologizes profusely; and is easily bullied by those around him.  The conclusion is insipid and it is unclear what he has learned from the journey, if anything.

The book has probably been mis-titled and mis-positioned in order to generate sales, and the services of a good editor would have pared down Mukul's part to about half its current length.  This would have made for a fine novella.  Alternatively, and more ambitiously, developing Parvati's initial 50 pages into twice their length, and bringing back Parvati's pov in a subsequent part or epilogue would have added depth and complexity.  As it stands, the material is too diluted to stand well on its own.

Dec 2014