Jane Eyre

The most important thing to remember when one reads old classics is that it was written in a different era and setting and that there is no point getting worked up because the hero is a brusque man in the throngs of midlife crisis, who eventually turns sickly soppy as week-old gulab jamun, and the heroine is a strong willed young girl with principles and maturity far beyond her age, who finally finds happiness in keeping house for the man who ill-treated her at the start of the novel.  Beauty and the beast, anyone? The codes of literary romance are baffling – I hope no young girl in the late nineteenth century read Jane Eyre and found being asked to be a man’s mistress, romantic.

Jane Eyre is a romantic comedy (comedy not as in “humour” but of the all’s-well-that-ends-well type) that portrays the tension between  passion and reason.  Jane herself, is an unusual depiction for women of her times (or perhaps all times?) – bold, passionate and sure footed in life, despite her childhood misfortunes.  As a young orphan girl who socks her bullying cousin, she is a stark contrast to Dicken’s Oliver Twist, who pees his pants just asking for more gruel.   She is strong enough to face the consequences of her rebellion and braves the next decade of her life in the boarding school for the poor and its hardships.  A life full of promise of independence and achievement.

She finds work as governess to the ward of a rich man on whom, she naturally develops a crush.  She is a teenager and has, for the first time in her life, been put under the same roof as a testosterone-pumped middle aged man ( of “middle height, and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features, and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth “) – its fairly obvious that she would fall for him.  But of course, in literature, nothing is a “crush”, but always “true love”- except in Anna Karenina (God, I love that novel), where Kitty has a crush on Vronsky.

The novel has been written as first person account of Jane, and hence, we get a peek into her  romantic emotions (“fan-girling” in modern teenage parlance) concerning Edward Rochester, and they play the game of cat and mouse for sometime, trying to outwit each other, while keeping their amour hidden.  Rochester then employs underhand measures to worm her love out, and proposes to her.  Pretty annoying, I say – I’d rather have my man propose upfront and face the risk of being rejected than elicit my jealousy and then propose to me, thus ensuring rejection.  Jane, however, accepts and discovers at the alter that the b*****d has a mad wife in chains in the attic of the house, and is pulling a bigamy on her.  He seems to have no regrets, and proposes that Jane be his mistress (not in so many words, of course) in the continent, far from the prying eyes of the prim English society that chose to offload a mad woman on him. Thankfully the rightly mortified Jane refuses and runs away from her “true love”.

St. John Rivers, Jane’s rescuer and as we discover later, her cousin, has been better characterized than Rochester. A young, restless pastor, he hides his youthful energy behind the severity he imposes upon himself on account of a profession that he  has unwillingly adopted.   He believes himself to be a “cold hard man”, and proves it to himself by asking Jane to be his wife in order to help him with his pastoral duties in India rather than for love.St. John was probably a reflection of the author’s disdain of the patriarchal, prudish society that considered marriage a matter of duty rather than love*.

Despite his apparent lack of emotions, St. John does not seem (to me at least) half as repulsive as the fiery Rochester.  Of course, Jane doesn’t quite share my sentiments, and marries the blinded Rochester, whose wife  has conveniently died in a fire she caused. In literature, there is nothing as attractive to an apparently sensible woman, as a man who can deliver a lengthy impassioned monologue of platitudes and mush, even if he hasn’t got much scruples left in him.  Not that I would have wanted Jane to marry St. John either.  For a woman who started off being strong, principled and clear headed, it would have been logical if she shunned both of them and moved on.  But then, Jane and I have a couple of centuries between us, so who am I to judge.

Of the briefly appearing supporting characters, Ms. Temple, the superintendent of the boarding school, stands out because of her balance of compassion and independence.  She is more real and warm than Jane herself, who, despite her intelligence and independent mind, lacks the kindness that makes one human. For all her indignation to Rochester that she is “not an automaton”, Jane Eyre appears to be one, when compared to the kind and gentle Ms. Temple, who goes on to marry and settles happily, and the reader is both happy at her fortune and unhappy for the poor school that has lost her.

As with all good classics, the narrative style is beautiful.  Descriptions of the landscape, the house, the weather and emotions are vivid.  There are a few sentences in French during conversations involving Jane and her pupil, which put me off because I would rather not be google translating sentences when I am reading the book.  Perhaps English readers of the 19th century were well versed in French as well, so the fault is not the author’s, but mine.

Some romantic quotes are beautiful, if a little too sentimental.  E.g. “He made me love him without looking at me” brought tears to my eyes with the familiarity of the sentiment, as syrupy as that sounds.  Others are plainly cringe-worthy at this time and age – “Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.” I hope no one says things like that to their loved ones anymore.

Any bibliophile’s must-read book.

* As George Mikes would say: “If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world, that she has something in her, something peculiar and individual which only a few hundred thousand other women have and that he would be unable to live one more minute without her. Often, to give a little more emphasis to the statement, he shoots himself on the spot. This is a normal, week-day declaration of love in the more temperamental continental countries. In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: ‘I don’t object to you, you know.’ If he is quite mad with passion, he may add: ‘I rather fancy you, in fact.”



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The Transit of Venus

I have a another blog in which I collect interesting quotes from various sources.  If I were to post quotes from The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazard, I would have to include the entire novel.  Never have I read a book before where every sentence has been crafted to perfection – even simple ones like “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation”, which beyond its own elegance of construction, paints a vivid picture of the storm with which the novel starts.  “Caro’s crossed bare legs were slipping off one another in a confluence of sweat and skin lotion and the dankness created by the storm” – you can almost feel the sweat and skin lotion between your legs.

The novel’s narrative style is overwhelming at first, you have to slow down considerably to understand and savour the full potential of each sentence.  The tempestuous beginning sets the stage for a full-flown romantic drama, which ebbs and wanes throughout, following the life of the protagonist – Caroline Bell, called Caro.  Caro is perhaps an Australian abbreviation, for as far as I know, Caroline would be shortened to Carol.  The urban dictionary defines Caro as “someone who behaves and dresses in a way intended to attract a lot of sexual interest from a man but who refuses to have sex with him” and in a way, Caro’s interactions with Ted Tice could be construed as being indicative of the word, although there is not as much sexual tension as romantic love – but are the two different ?

Once you get used to the narrative style, the story takes precedence over narration.  The novel traces the life and evolution of the two sisters – Caroline and Grace – more of Caroline than Grace.  The characters evolve and morph such that the picture of each of them changes into something completely different.  The intellectual and cold Caro becomes an emotional cling-on in the end, while the domesticated, drab Grace, burns with the hidden passion of unrequited extramarital love.  Such inconsistencies are not restricted to the main characters.  Ted Tice, a conscientious gentleman, who does not disclose the damaging secret of his rival Paul Ivory, even when he knows that it would bring Caro to him – ends don’t justify the means –  has no qualms about discarding his loving wife and perfect children of 20 years, to get back with the woman who had consistently rejected him  in favour of a cad. Paul Ivory himself, Caro’s apparently heartless lover, who has, as we learn later,  no regrets of having killed his gay paramour in the past, confesses his “sins”to Caro, in an unexpected show of humanness brought about by his son’s leukaemia.  Such is life, as in the author’s words, “At first, there is something you expect of life.  Later there is what life expects of you.  By the time you realise these are the same, it can be too late for expectations”.

The more forceful characters are the side-kicks.   Dora, the half-sister caretaker of the orphaned Caro and Grace, with her victim attitude and emotional blackmail of the sisters, is more realistic than either Caro or Grace. “Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it” – one brilliant sentence describes Dora in total. In all her complaints, Dora has no illusions of superiority, like Caro does, nor does she bask in the introverted melodrama of forbidden amor, like Grace.   Tertia, Paul Ivory’s regal wife, is perhaps the least developed, but most powerful character of the lot.  In her own understated way, she is everything that Paul is not – headstrong, honest and arrogant, with reason to be, unlike Caro and Paul, who revel in their intellectual superiority to others, but being intellectual is clearly different from being intelligent.

Caro’s appearance of being a rebel/feminist is misleading.  Having a steamy affair with an unscrupulous married man is not being a rebel, although she (or perhaps the author?) seems to believe so, in what the reader perceives as smug attitude.  Valda Fenchurch, Caro’s colleague, who refuses to make tea for her male counterparts, is the archetypical feminist, and Caro merely hides behind Valda’s rebellion to show herself as being modern.  Infact, it is pitiful that Caro uses Valda’s rebellion as an excuse to quit, but she quits only with the security of having an American millionaire to marry.  Pathetic.

Christian Thrale, the narcissistic, vaguely bombastic ministry employee husband of Grace, is also more relatable than Grace herself, even in his short-lived affair with his secretary. There are a few brilliant strokes in the interactions between husband and wife, such as the time that Grace burns with love for her son’s doctor, her husband jubilantly declares that he “has been given Africa” – the absurdity is almost comic. Even Adam Vail, the American millionaire husband of Caro, is sensible and heart-warming than the two female leads.

At first read, there are some confusing plot points – earlier in the novel, the author claims that Ted was to eventually kill himself many years later, but the novel seems to end with he and Caro getting together – so was this a detail that the author missed?  Perhaps not.  Through rather convoluted logic, it is understood that Caro dies when the plane bearing her to Rome to unite with Ted crashes, and Ted consequently kills himself in grief.  Mind you, none of this is described as such anywhere, and the reader merely infers from random sentences here and there.

It seems obvious that Venus being associated with love, the book’s title refers to the path taken by love and loved ones over a lifetime.  However, it seems to me that the title refers to the astronomer who traveled to India to see the transit of the planet across the sun, but missed it because of bad weather – an anecdote by Ted Tice somewhere early on in the novel.  Perhaps the title refers to our quest for love, which is often thwarted by reasons beyond human control.

A wonderful  and thought-provoking book.







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Read Rant

Here’s a prospective story for you.

A middle aged couple, lives in California with their adopted daughter.  The wife has psychiatric issues – depression, anxiety perhaps, with low self esteem and proclivity to suicide. The husband is debonair and successful and the couple is fairly rich.  They have a friend, a single mom,  whose children are friends of the protagonist couple’s child.  The couple goes out for an anniversary dinner while the friend babysits the children. During dinner, the husband suggests to the wife that they should loan money to the babysitting single friend to move out of the drug-busted neighbourhood to prevent her ex-husband from getting custody of her children.  They have a nice anniversary dinner despite the wife’s initial misgivings and end the night making love (or at least thinking of making love…not quite clear there).

The next day, the wife announces to the friend that they want to loan her the money.  The husband is pissed off with the wife because they hadn’t really discussed the arrangement in detail.  He still loans the money because the wife committed to it and the wife is happy because, being the child of a priest, she puts a lot of stock into helping people.

If you were an editor of a magazine, would you publish a story like that?   Perhaps if the narration were in the league of Shirley Hazard’s, you would consider, but read the story with standard, American narration, which is neither spectacular nor bland in particular -would this story hold water?  I don’t think so.

Yet, the story gets published in an online magazine to which I subscribe, just because the couple is gay and the “wife” is a man.

Have we reached a stage in literature, where anything goes as long as the protagonist is/are gay?  No, I am not a homophobe, in fact, I resent the use of homosexuality as an excuse to promote substandard work.  Normal is boring, I agree, no one writes literature about a safe, standard marriage, it’s only forbidden love that gets literary attention – why else would Tolstoy have named his minor Magnum Opus after the wayward, strayed Anna rather than the philosophical and righteous Levin, who plays as important a part in the novel?  But Anna Karenina had an interesting story line and brilliant narration to it.   Where this short story kills is that there is absolutely nothing to it – no particular story line, no narrative strength, nothing…except the “unusual” (and probably “forbidden” in the author’s mind) setting of a homosexual marriage.  Replace “Clay” by “Clara”, and you have a boring domestic setting, not even worth a tweet, let alone a short story.

Perhaps we have reached a stage of ultimate insensitivity where heterosexual relationships have become ho-hum and any bland literary dish becomes palatable merely with a sprinkling of homosexuality to mask the absence of inherent taste.

I am getting tired of homosexuality being used as a shock value tool to carry a substandard presentation forward.    As much as the author may believe he is being “forward”in writing such a story, he is actually doing homosexuality a great disservice by commodifying it.





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Resuming Booksplore with Emma

There was a time in my life when classics bored the heck out of me. Pulp fiction was the way to go (James Rollins, anyone?), and anything that did not have a couple of murders did not go well with me. Wodehouse was perhaps the only “oldie” who entered my sphere of erudition, but that was because he made me laugh, and no one who makes me laugh can stay away from me.

Perhaps age changes people, or life-partnership with superior intellectuals, or a case of Minver-Cheevy-syndrome, or (more likely) menopausal hormone mess-up, my reading habits have, in the past years, steadily moved towards the turn of earlier centuries, and Tolstoy, Nabokov and Dickens bedew my pillow more often than not. (While we are at it, Scott Fitzgerard is way overrated. The Great Gatsby gave me a headache)

I have attempted reading Jane Austin when I was in my teens, and gave it up as a bad job within two pages. I am halfway (48% on my kindle) through it now, and am not surprised why. Jane Austin’s Emma is a mirror of what I was at that age – an impulsive, spoilt brat of a youngster, the kind you want to slap tight across her face, and it probably bothered me to see how irritating I really was.

A beautifully written book, with so many quotable quotes. The only problem is that all events are very predictable – which is not bad, we are not reading a work of mystery, after all, but drama – but it is a little annoying that the protagonist (that prick Emma) does not see what is staring at everyone else’s face. But it makes sense, a narcissistic, self-cetered woman will only choose to believe in her own delusions no matter what screams out. One can easily picture Emma in a selfie-snap, version 1815.

I am reading the book really slowly, because this is one of the books that would make me feel sad about completing.


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Swan Song

A Gervase Fen Mystery by Edmund Crispin, set in the academic setting of Oxford where Fen, the amateur detective is a professor of English Language and Literature.   The mystery is fairly ordinary – there is one man that everybody in a certain opera band hates, this man dies, and everyone has an alibi.  The eccentrically brilliant Fen solves the case that the reader has solved already halfway through the book.

What make the series worth reading are the elegance of prose and the various interesting (if not always familiar) allusions to literary stuff. I read Fen mysteries for the illusion of erudition it gives me, although I can’t really claim to understand all literary references.


Book: Swan Song

Author: Edmond Crispin

Year of (Re)Publication: 2006

Buy at Amazon Flipkart (India)

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Lamb by Christopher Moore has been by far the best read of the year so far.

Lamb is the alternate gospel of Christ, as recorded by His childhood friend Bif, who was blacked out of the conventional Gospel for reasons that I should not be revealing in a review, especially one as brief as this. A very interesting representation of Jesus (or “Joshua” as Biff knows him), bringing out the human side of the messiah without really belittling the divinity associated with him.  I particularly liked the ending where the story merges seamlessly with crucifiction and resurrection of the real Gospel.

A must read for anyone who likes humour, and is not offended by his version of the Messiah’s life.

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Rabbit Run

It is said that books are your best friends.  If “Rabbit, Run” is my best friend, I need no enemies.

Don’t get me wrong.  Updike was a fantastic writer. His descriptions are vivid and detail oriented, if you excuse the slight self-indulgent pretentiousness – but all writers have to be self-indulgent to translate personal experience into a shared event, and he takes a simple story of human misery (and by misery, I mean the I-want-to-tear-my-hair-out-and-howl-to-high-heavens misery) and weaves into it, verbose but engaging and detailed descriptions of things, places, feelings, sex (yes, there is a sex-fixation) and what not, so that the misery is amplified many times over, and the book becomes ripe enough to win one of those literature prizes that are given to books that are infinitely depressing, or deprave, or both.  Thankfully, this book is not as deprave as it is depressing.

[Spoiler Alert] In a nutshell, the story is about chronically befuddled Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who leaves his alcoholic wife who is pregnant with their second child, drives southwards, and then for some reason returns to his home town halfway, falls in love and moves in with a hooker, plays golf with a pastor, leaves her to get back to his wife who has delivered their daughter, flirts with the pastor’s wife, leaves the wife again when she refuses to have sex with him a week after she has delivered, goes back to the hooker’s house, and she is away, so comes back to the wife, who meanwhile has accidentally drowned the baby in drunken stupor (what happened to all the policemen in Brewer, PA?), and he leaves the wife at the baby’s funeral, and comes back to the hooker who is now pregnant with his child (is this why he is called “Rabbit” – because he breeds like one?), and in the last paragraph leaves her too.

Seriously.  That’s the story.  If you don’t believe me, read the book.  I dare you.



Book: Rabbit, Run

Author: John Updike

Year of Publication: 1960

Buy at Amazon | Flipkart (India)

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