The Widows of Eastwick

The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.

Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.

Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.

The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.

Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.

A gay actor and his black magic

Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.

Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.

She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved. 

Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.

The seduction

Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.

It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.

It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.

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Updike’s Terrorist and adulterers

The Terrorist by John Updike

India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.

It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.

This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.

I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.

But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.

Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.

I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.

But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.

And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.

Devils

New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.

Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)

Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…

The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.

But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.

Romance

Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.

Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.

But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.

Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.

Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.

Updike on The Terrorist

The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?

Updike said when the book was published in 2006:

"I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…

"I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world."

Jack and Teresa

And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.

And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him. 

Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking:

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Remembering Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968 at the age of 66, six years after he won the Nobel Prize, which even he himself didn’t expect.

Critical scorn

When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, "Frankly, no,” says Robert Gottlieb. In a New York Review of Books article published in April this year, he writes about Steinbeck:

When to everyone's surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. "Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck's accomplishments," ran a New York Times editorial, "we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age."

Of Mice and Men

But Steinbeck still sells “well over a million copies a year,” says Gottlieb, “with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It's short, it's easy to follow, and it's full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.)”

Note the words Gottlieb puts in brackets. He sounds so dismissive. But he finally has to praise the book.

It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…. On the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring.”

And he loves his central characters, too, the pair of itinerant ranch hands—"bindlestiffs"—named George and Lennie. George is the smart one, the leader; Lennie is the massive semi-idiot, worshiping George, dreaming of the little bit of land they might one day own, and—his most powerful fantasy—the rabbits he might one day be able to tend and caress.

We know that this isn't going to happen, and on some level George knows it too, but he needs to believe in it as strongly as Lennie does: it's the illusion they live by. And then, catastrophe. Yes, the pathos is laid on thick; yes, everything is foreshadowed and manipulated. (Edmund Wilson called it "contrived with almost too much cleverness.") But Steinbeck's sympathy for these decent, forlorn men is so intense that it carries us along with it. Uninfected by moralizing, ingeniously if stagily constructed, and credibly populated, Of Mice and Men—far from Steinbeck's most ambitious book—is the closest he came to a fully satisfying work of art.

The snapshot here from Google Book Search shows George and Lennie’s first appearance in the book, just after Steinbeck has described the banks of the Salinas River.

Of_mice_and_men

I was moved to tears when I read the book a long time ago. Imagine Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the wisecracks and the horseplay. Of Mice and Men describes a relationship similar to that except that one man is totally dependent on the other.

Writer for hard times

In my younger days in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Steinbeck was popular with our parents’ generation. The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, they were all popular books. While The Grapes of Wrath was considered a classic – Calcutta has always been a leftist city – East of Eden was apparently a very popular movie, too, though I have not seen it myself.

Steinbeck is relevant again today because of the economic downturn, says the Millions blog:

With Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck…The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.

Steinbeck may suit people who like folk music – songs like This Land is Your Land, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Prison Trilogy…

Maybe I am over-romanticising Steinbeck. I haven’t him read him for a long time.

But I was moved by Of Mice and Men.

And a man has to have his heart in the right place to say, as Steinbeck did:

"Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love."

"All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal."

"I wonder how many people I've looked at all my life and never seen."

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…

“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”

Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.

Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.

Early Sixties

This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP

Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.

McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.

Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.

A day in the life

The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.

Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.

Regrets

He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.

The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose: 

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The sweetest Indian love story

The English Teacher by RK Narayan reminds me of Erich Segal’s Love Story and the Bobby Goldsboro classic, Honey. One may even be reminded of David Copperfield and Dora. Narayan has been compared to Charles Dickens. But the relationship between the couple at the centre of this story is more profoundly moving.

I have not come across a more romantic English novel by an Indian author.

Set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi, the plot is simple.  A man teaching English in a college gets married, has a daughter and a few years later his wife dies of typhoid. The rest of the story, told by the man himself, is about his raising his daughter and holding on to his wife’s memories.

What makes it remarkable is the love that pours out of every page.

The man describes the beauty of his wife and the happiness they had known with an ardour and a lack of inhibition that's extraordinary for a book by an Indian author published in 1945.

 Narayan's own story

It's said to be Narayan's own story: his wife died of typhoid, leaving behind a little daughter, a few years after their marriage.

Indeed, Narayan dedicated the book to his wife, Rajam.

Narayan captures the ardour of the young couple. Krishna, the English teacher, virtually worships his wife, Susila, who is beautiful, charming, a perfect homemaker, and enjoys the attention of the man she loves. Outwardly though she defers to him, she has him completely under her thumb.

When he is sitting at his table, trying to write a poem, she comes up and says: “Let me see if you can write about me.”

She is simply adorable.

Here they are out on a walk. Krishna, the narrator, writes:

“I was highly elated. The fresh sun, morning light, the breeze, and my wife’s presence, who looked so lovely – even an unearthly loveliness – her tall form, dusky complexion, and the small diamond ear-rings – Jasmine, Jasmine…”I will call you Jasmine, hereafter,” I said. “I’ve long waited to tell you that…”

“Remember, we are in a public road, and don’t start any of your pranks here,” she warned, throwing at me a laughing glance. Her eyes always laughed – there was a perpetual smile in her eyes.”

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Second Indian Booker winner in three years

Aravind _adiga_190
The award for the best English novel by a writer from any country except America goes to… an Indian for the second time in three years!

Aravind Adiga has won the 2008 Man Booker Prize worth 50,000 pounds ($87,000) for Commonwealth writers for his novel, The White Tiger, set in India. Indian Kiran Desai won the award for The Inheritance of Loss, spanning India and America, in 2006. Irish Anne Enright was the winner last year for The Gathering.

Adiga, 33, who read English literature at Columbia and Oxford and writes for Time magazine, lives in Mumbai.The White Tiger, about corruption, poverty and exploitation in India, is his first novel. Links to his Time articles appear at the end of this post.

"Adiga is the fifth Indian author to win the prize, joining VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai, who won the prize in 1971, 1981, 1997 and 2006 respectively," notes the Man Booker website. Roy also won with her first novel, The God of Small Things.

The only other debut novelist to win the prize was the Australian DBC Pierre in 2003 for Vernon God Little. 

Adiga is the second-youngest novelist to win the award and cites the black American writers Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as influences, says The Times.

About The White Tiger

Adiga also admires the Indian writer RK Narayan, he said in a Rediff interview, where he said he started writing the book based on his experiences as a Time magazine correspondent in India. He was struck by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor — and the fact that, despite the huge poverty, there was "so little crime in India compared to that in New York, South Africa and Latin America".

 The White Tiger is a clever, dark, unusual novel where:

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