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Monday, August 29, 2011

Kafka - The Sons

Who was I when I discovered this book?  What was I?  These questions haunted me most of my life and reached an apex in my middle twenties--what I refer to as my first midlife crisis.

At war with my father, at war with myself, having sacrificed my music ambitions for a college education, I felt myself spinning in a vortex of confusion, depression, ennui, and self-loathing.  I felt like a failure and incapable of achieving my dreams.  Before switching my major to English Lit/Creative Writing, I was a Business Admin. Major, studying Economics, Accounting, Finance.  Needless to say I hated it, resented myself, resented my family: Enter Kafka.

The Sons contains three stories: "The Judgement," "The Stoker," and "The Metamorphosis."  It also contains a letter, written by the author to his father, called, simply enough, "Letter To His Father."  It was this letter that made me feel in kindred spirits with a great writer.  Whereas before I identified with characters in books, Kafka's letter helped me identify with the person behind the literary work.  It was that letter which led me to read the other stories in the collection, each of of which I hold dear to my heart for different reasons.  His passions were things I could relate to: the fragility of relationships, the impossibility of connecting, the absurdity of life, the grotesque, transformations, the impossibility of love, the anemia of understanding. 

But it was that letter that pulled me into his work; it contained all the loneliness, fear, longing, yearning for appreciation and acceptance I also felt inside, with a candor that broke my heart.  The moment I read its opening lines, I was struck with strange feeling; it was as if I were reading my own thoughts reflected back to me: "Dear Father, You asked me recently why I maintain I am afraid of you.  As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you."  I love the tautology (I fear because I fear), the circular reasoning, perfectly embodying my own feelings towards my own father, a towering presence in my life, a man who I felt saw no good in me, a man who wanted to transform me into a respectable businessman, a man who could only love me if I undertook his hobbies and passions, assumed his thinking, became in a very real sense, him.  Like Kafka I yearned for acceptance and appreciation and understanding. 

Looking at the letter, I see so many passages, phrases, sentences highlighted.  Addressed to his father it employs the second person POV, a direct to the recipient (or reader) address, "You."  For example, "It looked to you more or less as follows: you have worked hard all your life, have sacrificed everything for your children, above all for me, consequently, I have lived high and handsome, have been completely at liberty to learn whatever I wanted, and have had no cause for material worries, which means worries of any kind at all."


"You do charge me with coldness, estrangement, and ingratitude.  And what is more, you charge me with it in such a way as to make it seem my fault."


"You had worked your way so far up by your own energies alone, and as a result you had unbounded confidence in your opinion...From your armchair you ruled the world.  Your opinion was correct, every other was mad, wild...not normal. Your self-confidence indeed was so great that you had no need to be consistent at all and yet never ceased to be in the right."

Even now, after all these years, the letter is painful for me to read, and I find myself weeping openly at the boy who wanted so much to be loved in the right way, in a way that respected his sensitivity, his shyness, his eccentric silences, creativity borne out of curiosity for the world.  I am speaking both of Kafka and myself, of course. 

As a literary artifact, The letter is an important tool in understanding Kafka's oeuvre; but for me it was more than that.  Kafka gave me the words to understand my own relationship with my father, the fears the insecurities, all of it, in prose that was heartbreakingly honest.  It is that level of honesty and soul baring I explore in my own writing, along with my obsessions: Family, a powerful father, the meaning of home, time, identity, memory and loss.



Friday, August 26, 2011

Brief Reflection on Mrs. Dalloway

  Those long, meandering sentences; voice as sharp as a struck bell; masterful use of narrative space to convey the passage of time, Mrs. Dalloway introduced me to lyrical novels.  After reading it, I saw how a novel could be more than just events strung together through cause and effect relationships, rising action, culminating in a climax, then a denouement where everything was tied up neatly at the end.  I began to see novel writing as experiment, eschewing linear progression for downward and inward movement. I began to see how one could explore the psychic depths of a single individual.  I began to see how the novel could be both artistically meaningful and socially aware.  

While reading it, I was unsure what the story was about and after finishing it, then reading it again, then again, I realized that the novel bared its themes like fangs poised in a mist of evocative language--class struggle of rich vs. middle class vs. poor, fame and obscurity, visibility and invisibility, life and death, time and space, thought and feeling, all caught and spun in the web of language from a writer in complete command of her powers.  As a stream of consciousness novel it remains by far one of my favorite and most important books.   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Madame Bovary, c'est moi"

I was assigned this book to read as an undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach.  I didn't immediately fall in love with this novel, but what struck me was Flaubert's sentences; they were rich, vibrant, powerful, full of significant detail which Flaubert captured with superhuman skill.  It forced me to look at language in a whole new way.  Having reread the novel last year in my Developments in the Novel class, I had forgotten why I had loved it.  Once again it was the beautiful sentences that struck me, forcing me to reevaluate my own prose.  

I love this book! Not only is it one of my most important books, but also one of my favorites.  I love it for its characterizations, its precision, its plot, following logically and naturally from character, for its depiction of internal and external conflict, but most of all for its rich detail.  Flaubert's ability to describe people, places, moods and feelings, in a language both rich and vibrant, ironic and manic, poetic and precise makes me stand in awe of his prose mastery.

I love how Flaubert begins the novel as an outsider (like us) looking in (eavesdropping on the life of Charles Bovary).  It is an interesting choice, one much debated, but it works expertly because it established a POV which regarded objectivity as its greatest virtue.  Flaubert's intention is to establish the type of veracity arrived at by cold reasoning--scientific, detached--but without sacrificing poetic language.  He eschews high moralizing and pedantry, letting the characters speak and think for themselves.  This was an innovation.  Before him, writers interpreted, commented on the events occurring in the novel, Flaubert stayed away, like God paring his nails in the corner. Without Flaubert, there would be no Hemingway, no Fitzgerald, no Faulkner.  He changed the way novels would be written forever.

It is a realistic novel, a departure from Flaubert's earlier romantic novels for which he found his fortune and fame.  The novel meditates on dichotomies: self vs. society, science vs. religion, fantasy vs. reality, love vs. passion, the individual vs. the community, wealth vs. poverty, among other things.  It is a tour de force of ideas, of sentence structure. It is the type of novel I love best: tragedy.
Ultimately it is those novels that force me to rethink my own language that hold my interest most, that make them more than just novels for me.  Novels are my teachers, my friends, sometimes, my enemies, but always respected and loved.

Read the Francis Steegmuller version or the new version by Lydia Davis, released 2010. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Important Books: The Hobbit

I remember about the time I was finishing up A Wrinkle in Time, I was looking around for something else to read.  After a brief interest with werewolves and vampires (what kid doesn't love them?), then Arthurian myths and legends, and ghost stories, one day, perusing my grade school library's shelves, I came across The Hobbit.  

It had a funny title written lengthwise along its spine.  It had a rust brown cover with a picture of a huge trove of sparkling coins upon which lay a ruddy dragon, its nostrils steaming and split tongue flicking, looking more comical than menacing.  But it drew my curiosity.  My finger traced the dragon's three pronged tail, curled around the hoard and I wondered, Why?   Tolkein The Hobbit, I read at the top.  Funny name, I thought.  Why would a dragon be called the hobbit? Why the treasure?  Why the need to protect it and from whom?

It was a story about a tiny creature called a hobbit, an epicurean, a hedonist in charge of leading a group of misfits (dwarfs, elves, humans and wizards).  He travels with them to a mountain to defeat the dragon and take its gold.  Since, no journey is complete without strange and wily characters, Bilbo, the eponymous hero, meets his fair share in troglodytes, trolls, forest people, and other creatures, each of which have been ruined by one type of sin or another, be it greed or narcissism, revenge or fear or anger.

As a Bildungsroman, The Hobbit is a story of personal growth.  In overcoming personal fears and deficiencies through a quest to vanquish evil, it represents the hero's journey.  On his mission, Bilbo Baggins discovers aspects of himself previously undiscovered. overcome the worst aspects of himself and returns a hero.  The story is mythical.  Jungian.  But it is more than just that.

For me The Hobbit was a rite of passage.  No one who ever reads it for the first time ever looks at books and the world and people in the same way.  It changes your perspective, and by doing so, changes your relationship with the world.  The imagination flowers--an airplane becomes for an instant, seen at just the right angle, in just the right light, a fire breathing dragon; the glint of foil from a cigarette package in the gutter becomes a magical ring; a towering eucalyptus standing alone in a field becomes a wise, grizzled giant; a white sheet hanging from a clothesline becomes a wizard's cloak; and so on.   

Feeling like an outsider, in a new country, in a new city, unsure of where I fit in (there were few Indians in the Baltimore suburbs then and those that existed there we had no knowledge of), I could relate to Bilbo as a hero, he being the smallest of the small.  His journey was my journey.  His victories were mine.  The book helped connect me to myself through the imagination.  It is an important book for that reason alone, but also for its language, its imagery, two qualities which have solidified the book's place as one of the greatest tales for kids of any age ever told.  


Monday, August 22, 2011

Important Novels: A Wrinkle In Time


Why A Wrinkle in Time?  Why Blood Meridian?  For that matter, why The Hobbit?  Let's start with Madeleine L'Engle's novel.  This was, along with the novel Kon Tiki, the first full novel I read when I was about eleven years old.

At the time, my family and I were living in the Baltimore suburbs, at the aptly literary named complex, Canterbury Apartments.  It was our first apartment in America, having previously lived with my aunt in her beautiful mini-mansion in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  When we moved to Canterbury, we lived on the second floor, in apartment 2C--a two bedroom with a balcony that afforded us a view of a road, and beyond it, a forest of maples and pines.  There were no literary types in the community, not that I would know who lived there anyway, as we mostly kept to ourselves.

I had developed a habit of escaping.  This started while living in my aunt's house.  I would find myself roaming nearby the abandoned gold course across the street, entering the copse of oaks, walking along the creekbed, riding my bicycle through the trails near her home.  So, when we settled in Baltimore, I did more of the same.  I would pass through the complex, cross the road and enter the woods, taking in the smells and textures and sights and sounds of nature.   Walking, surveying, digging, climbing, reconnected me with myself. 

It was during one of these "walkabouts" that I found a rain soaked copy of A Wrinkle in Time in a pile of mashed up leaves by a tree that looked as if struck by lightning.  I dusted off the book, tried to open the cover, but because of its water damaged condition, managed to tear it in half.      

When school started that fall, I went to the library and asked for the book, but couldn't remember what it was called.  But I remembered the picture on the cover: Blue, three circles, in each circle the figure of a person.  The librarian knew what I was referring to and led me to the bookshelf.  Whereas the tattered copy I had found in the woods felt anemic, this copy had heft, weight as if it was filled with its own soul.  I checked it out and that weekend, read it cover to cover.

What was in it that was so magical to me?  Time as character, I suppose.  Not just that.  Alienated characters?  Fantastical plot?  The magic of time travel?  For a boy who loved wordplay, it was the names of the characters themselves that first amused and delighted me: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, the fear inspiring Centaurs and The Black Thing, all gave pleasure, fueling my imagination.  The book was equal parts myth, mystery, magic, speculation, and physics. Tesseracts?  The battle between light and dark?  I was too young to understand or pick up on all of its Biblical allusions, but years later when I read it again, slower, soaking up every rich detail, I began to see its layers.  I began to understand how a novel could work on multiple levels, as a fantastic mystery, as well as an allegory of the battle of the soul between good and evil.   

Prior to living in Apt 2C, we had (that is my mother, brother and I, lived by ourselves in one room of my aunt's beautiful mini-mansion in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  My father was in India.  It was in that room that I developed insecurities towards life and my future.  I thought of my father as a heroic man, but also a tragic figure.  I felt our separation from him and his from us constituted an act of aggression by God for having committed some sin against Him.  At times I imagined my father as having been kidnapped, so I began drawing comics, and invented a flying T-Rex who could shoot lasers from his claws.  I imbued him with all the attributes of a superhero and made him in charge of returning my father to us.  "Mynel," my dinosaur, vigilante anti-hero, defended the rights of misfits, the alienated, the marginalized.  He would vanquish whatever evil was keeping my father away from us. 

When I first opened the book and read the opening sentence, "It was a dark and stormy night,"I immediately felt thrust into a new world, where all things could be possible, where I, if I had enough courage and curiosity, could travel through time and space to new worlds, fight evil, and return those I loved back to their rightful place.

For a boy who so desperately needed his world to make sense, A Wrinkle in Time became a conversation with my imagination.  It opened my mind by touching my heart, making me feel less alone.  Because it was the first novel I ever read, introducing the themes of Time, Memory, and Identity, Religion, Injustice, and Politics (themes that continue to hold my interest), the novel remains one of my most important.   

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Most Important Books and Why?

Everyone has their favorite books, well, not everyone; some people hate to read (If you gave my fiance a choice between reading a book, a newspaper, a magazine article, anything with words in it, or jumping off the Bay Bridge, she'd choose to explore her options in flight). 

What about important books?  It could be the Merck Manual, The Art of War,  the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, etc.  Whatever.  The fact that certain books impacted you in some way means that they should be included on your list.  No judgments.What are your important books?   

These may not necessarily be your favorite books, and not even be ones by your favorite authors, but for some reason these books impacted your life in a way that deepened your understanding of some subject, like love, or parenting, or grief, or the study of aquatic flora, etc. So here are mine, some of these just happen to be my favorites as well.  First I'll list them and in my next blog explain why they mattered and why they matter still.

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
Madame Bovary - Gustav Flaubert
Emperor of the Air - Ethan Canin
Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
The Sons - Franz Kafka
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
Lolita - Vladimir Nabakov