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A Truth Universally Acknowledged: About Jane Austen

Jane_austen Janeites will love A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays by 33 famous writers and critics acknowledging the genius of Jane Austen.

Her admirers will have the pleasure of discovering their feelings shared by writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Somerset Maugham, CS Lewis, JB Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, David Lodge and critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Kudos to the editor, Susannah Carson, who brought them together in this book.

Martin Amis

Martin Amis speaks for us all when he tries to pin down the appeal of Pride and Prejudice:

For example, why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?

Elizabeth, of course, is very attractive. To quote Amis,

Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all else, with looks.

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Marry Me: Bittersweet Updike

John-Updike-guardian Can anyone write like John Updike? He could make even adultery lyrical.

He does not turn a blind eye to the toll it takes. The lovers are exposed for what they are — cheating on their spouses and neglecting their little children. But Updike's powerful prose captures the irresistible magnetism that drives two married people headlong into love.

No book could have a more romantic title than Marry Me.

But it is Updike the sensuous moralist's bittersweet cautionary tale about the temptations that could ruin a marriage.

Jerry wants to marry Sally, and she wants him.

And when her husband, Richard, finds out, he does not stand in their way.

Instead he threatens to sue Jerry unless he marries her. He wants Jerry to pay for alienating her affections from him.

But Ruth is not letting go of Jerry.

She has broken up with Richard, an affair about which Jerry and Sally know nothing.

There are no innocents in this early 1960s extramarital romance except the little children. Whiny, sulky, helpless little brats who have to be fed and bathed and taken out to play while their parents think of separating.

Ruth tells Jerry he can't walk out on them — and there are moments when he also thinks he can't.

He is caught in a terrible bind, yearning for Sally, but his conscience won't let him go unless Ruth sets him free.

The scenes where they discuss breaking up and then sleep in the same bed or engage in other intimacies show how complex marriage can be.

But Updike is at his best in the early part when Jerry and Sally are rapturously in love, undetected by their spouses.

Here they are making love on a desolate beach in the afternoon.

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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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Oscar and Lucinda: A sweeping romance

Oscar_and_lucinda
Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize and was made into a
beautiful movie, I am told, and it is easy to see why. It vividly
recreates 19th century England and Australia as it tells an impassioned
love story. And it is clever. When Lucinda the heiress confesses her
love of gambling to Oscar the clergyman, he says that is not a sin.
Believing in God is gambling, too, he says, referring to Pascal’s
Wager: there is no reason to believe or disbelieve in God, but it’s
wiser to bet He exists because we lose nothing if He doesn’t exist but
gain infinite happiness and eternal life if He does.

Lucinda is shocked to hear this from a clergyman, but they settle down to a game of cards, for Oscar is a gambler too.

With colourful characters like that, and history and romance in the
bargain, what’s there not to like about this novel? Well, it’s a little too
long and the ending is jarring.

Of course, it has to end in tragedy, given the nature of the hero
and the heroine. Lucinda is the conventionally unconventional 19th
century heroine, rebelling against convention and paying for it. Oscar
the gambler and eventually defrocked clergyman is a tortured soul, a
guilt-ridden anti-hero.

But the author gives a savage twist to the plot when after
describing their romance almost throughout the book, he suddenly
introduces another woman who destroys their relationship in just a
couple of pages. Miriam not only wrenches the lovers apart but gets
everything in the process, for she finds out about Oscar’s gamble with
Lucinda. A gamble in which the winner takes all.