Saturday, June 29, 2013

Irving stone , the novelist - a Tribute from a lover of Literature

One of the authors that I have loved and grown up reading is Irving Stone, the author of several wonderfully researched and exquisitely written Biographical novels that have helped bring to life the complex, tortured inner lives of many a genius. Books like "Lust for life"; that chronicles the maniacal and suicidal creativity of the great impressionist Painter Vincent van gough, or "The agony and the ecstasy" - again the life and work of arguably that most complete artist Michelangelo, or the "The president's lady" - which unveils the complex relationship between President Andrew Jackson and his controversial wife Rachel, or "The passions of the mind", an intimate novel that delves into the mind of Sigmund Freud as he postulates the principles of Psychoanalysis , or "the Origins" - the superb chronicle of the astute and dedicated brain of Charles Darwin as he travels and observes aboard the ship "The beagle" to formulate the theory of evolution: all his books have educated and entertained the minds of millions of readers between the 1940's -1980's. The most riveting part of Stone's work was his ability to recreate the period in which his tales were set and a magical ability to intersperse fact with fiction. As one reads his novels, it would be quite difficult to distinguish between what is believably true and truly unbelievable. Without losing focus on the biographical details of his subject, Stone manages to convince his readers that while chronicling geniuses , it is not important to get all the factual details in order; but rather be able to convey the sense of inner contradictions and possibilities ,that could have produced such men and women in a particular age and time.

Stone nearly worked for eight to ten years on every novel that he wrote; very much like his contemporary- James michener, investing enormous amount of his time researching the subject that he wished to write upon. His Novel "Lust for life" was primarily based upon the letters exchanged between Vincent and theo (his brother), and for book on Michelangelo, Stone spent many years in Italy, trying to understand the life of the tormented genius in his natural habitat. Fortunately, Stone was not against lending his story lines to films as well. In fact, Some of the movies that were based on his novels were phenomenal successes. Who can forget the majestic performance of Charleton Heston as Michelangelo, or the heartbreaking portrayal of Vincent van gough by Kirk Douglas in their respective film adaptions. Stone co-wrote the screen play for these films and hence was able to preserve the purity of the tale.

I penned this article today only because I am currently reading one of Stones's lesser known and much criticized work "Love is eternal", where he unfolds the strange relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his paranoid, yet tenacious wife, Mary Todd. They were an unusual couple, unsuitable for each other is every way, but their opposing characters complimented and propelled the political career of Lincoln. History may vindicate Lincoln to be a self made man, but Stone raises the important question of Mary's role in channeling Lincoln's indomitable energy and strength of purpose towards a desired goal. The weakness of this book is that it is mostly fictional and less factual, and that is because ,both Lincoln and Mary were intensely private individuals, united only in their cause of political emancipation of America. Mary ardently believed to the point of insanity that her husband was the only possible choice to become the President of the United states of America, when there were stalwarts like Chase, Bates or even Seward in the fray, whose pedigree and education put them way above Lincoln for that hallowed position. None could reason with Mary on this conviction of hers. Their private lives were so wrought with petty arguments, disputes and outbursts; but in public they presented an unified face, where their differences dissolve and all that is left is the single thread of determination to win against all odds.

This is the story the Stone etched in the pages of his book "Love is eternal". Not surprisingly, the book is not in print anymore and so are many of Stone's other works. If we are fortunate, we could find one in a dusty corner of a library or a second hand book store for a throw away price. Nonetheless, Stones enduring contribution to literature is his revival of biography in form of Fiction accessible to educated public. I would not be far from the truth when I write that he made Michelangelo's painting of Sistine chapel or Van gough radical interpretation of the "flower vase" more appreciable for a non specialist. That to me is a great achievement.........

God bless............

Monday, June 24, 2013

One and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg


America prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg and also remember with pride and choking emotion the prophetic, poignant and arguably one of the greatest speeches delivered by President Abraham Lincoln upon conclusion of the battle. There are few moments in History when the words of a single inspired individual raises the collective consciousness of an entire nation to a new level of awareness and action. Nehru's - "tryst with Destiny";Marin Luther king's - "I have a dream", JFK's "Ask not what the country can do for you...." - all of them were spoken with a passion and conviction that comes with a deep sense of understand and power. The very same words spoken by lesser individuals may not have had the same impact or resonance amongst people; but uttered from the mouths of these stalwarts, the words pierces through the stultified intellect of the masses and nonchalantly touches a chord that lies deeply buried and lost within us; and would have remained so for eternity, if not for the sheer strength of the emotion of those spoken words that startles and awakens the mind with its belligerent and audacious push to break loose from the cocoon,and dream and aspire for a condition that is a million times more uplifting and honorable than the present.

In a speech that purportedly lasted two minutes, Lincoln used the word "We" ten times and referred to Gettysburg - the place, eight times, thereby connecting every individual assembled there to the cause of freedom and the heavy price that had to be paid at Gettysburg to hold it together. Repetition is an essential aspect of public speaking, but the trick is to know "when" , "what" and "how" to repeat. Every word in that brief speech is pregnant with meaning. Generations to come may lose sight of the lives lost at Gettysburg, but the words of Lincoln will remain for forever etched in the genetic composition of all mankind.

Let us then, on this occasion, read the speech once again, and also read it aloud to our children, that these words may take root in their supple and innocent minds and grow into a firm conviction, to preserve and value the dignity of every individual blessed to live on this glorious earth, without being ostracized either for their birth or upbringing. That would be a fitting tribute on this 150th year of remembering Gettysburg.


God bless.............

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"The Revolutionary road" – An insight into the American Dream

"The Revolutionary road" – An insight into the American Dream
- A work of literary fiction by Richard Yates
- A sensitive film by Sam Mendes


The “American Dream” is both a gift and a curse. A gift: primarily because it propels individuals to tenaciously pursue their vocation and keep striving for more without the restraints of tradition, education, creed or opportunities; a Curse: because it leaves men and women in a perpetual state of discontent, an inner void that defies fulfillment and a perpetual need for change, more often than not leading their lives to shambles. It is this friction in American society that lubricates its material growth,and ironically fuels its quest for that elusive state of Psychological balance (Intentionally, I avoid using the phrase “spiritual balance”) and creates the aura and myth that entices the entire world to partake of the American Dream.

Richard Yates, the author of “The Revolutionary road”, is in many ways an unlucky writer. He lived and wrote in age of American fiction where style, intellectual snobbism, high browed media hype was the norm, and he, with his non pretentious style, without posing to be modernistic, gently spoke about the mediocrity and sadness that is prevalent in the hearts of majority of suburban American homes. His works were well received critically, but hardly ever sold enough to become a best seller. He chronicled the emotionally turbulent years between the 30’s and 60’s as one else did. He was able to capture the mundane emotions of a middle class family living in a quiet town , going about their routine mechanical jobs, pretending to be nice to each other, secretly aspiring to be someone else , and above all, nursing within their bosoms the “the American dream” of untapped potential and the need to “move on” in life. What is distinctive about Yates in “Revolutionary Road”–and throughout his work–is not merely the bleakness of his vision, but how that vision adheres not to war or some other horror but to the aspirations of everyday Americans, and that is scary. In his portrayal of the ‘Wheelers’, Yates unravels the slow erosion of the marriage and the dreams of Frank and April Wheeler, a suburban couple who believe themselves to be better than their banal surroundings, and get carried away by the glitz and glamour of the free world. Their relationship which begins with endless fascination for each other slowly degenerates into a farcical relationship , based upon what they believe to be the true way of living – in other words: to be successful.

In my opinion, one of the lasting contributions of Yates is his insistence on the blunt reality of failure in life. It is a common fact that failure was and is much more common than success, and endurance, the best that could be hoped for. In this world, not everyone one is saved by luck or bailed out by coincidence; no understanding lovers or friends or parents or children, made the unbearable suddenly pleasant. Fortunes don’t change overnight for everybody; they just followed a track into a dead end and left one there. This will remain the lasting legacy of Richard Yates.

During my stay in New Hampshire three weeks back, I had an opportunity to see an adaption of this book for the silver screen. The picture starred Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio. I had read the book earlier, and so was so completely mesmerized by the brilliant enactment of the wheeler family by these two glorious actors. The film was directed by Sam Mendes (Kate Winslet’s ex-husband), whose works include the likes of “The American beauty” and “The road to perdition” - each a classic in its own right. Every frame captured the masterful stokes of Yates pen. Kate winslet played the role of an unfulfilled wife to perfection. Every movement bespoke of a total mastery of the underlying theme of the book - the inevitability of mediocrity. I would like to conclude this essay by quoting one of the finest examples of yates assessment of Modern American life: “No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”. And you will feel these words pierce through your souls as Kate winslet passionately, yet with all the desperation possible, voices these words to her Husband – egging him to live the dream, An American Dream. Ironically, it is one of those seminal moments in the book and the movie when their family falls apart. In the end, was the dream worth it? Yates leaves us with that conundrum.

Read the book and then watch the film. It’s a rare kind of education in this frenzied world that we live in.

God bless…..

Monday, June 3, 2013

Listening to the “The doors” on my flight from Atlanta

Miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence – The doors of perception:
Listening to the “The doors” on my flight from Atlanta


Aldous Huxley experimented with mescaline, a psychedelic drug in May 0f Nineteen fifty three to gain an insight into what he called as ‘expanded consciousness’. He wrote about the transformation in sensory perceptions during the few hours following the intake of the drug, in his wonderful and controversial book titled “The doors of perception”. I remember reading this short book (probably the shortest among Huxley’s literary works), in college, at a time, when I was first beginning to experience the light heartedness and an instinctual surety, that a single glass of Beer could bring. Huxley’s immaculate and flowery prose bought to life a certain cantankerous sense of adventure in living dangerously. He talked about the lowering of habitual intellectual defenses, a wholesomeness of living that went beyond the dictates of reason and an absolute certainty that cannot be dimmed by Moral and ethical codes of action. It was exhilarating stuff. I loved the very name of the book – “the doors of perception”: it evoked in me images of thin slices of membranous skin quivering under the onslaught of sensory input; stretched to its utmost elasticity, and then giving way, all of a sudden to the gushing inputs of perception, lifting the human brain to a higher level of consciousness where the myriad colors of touch, sight, hearing and tasting comingle to present an unbroken timelessness in every single moment of time. In other words: a cleansing and opening of the doors of perception.

During my flight from Paris to Bangalore, I plugged into the “The doors” - an apostatic, rock & soul music band of the seventies, whose Male lead singer Jim Morrison, still resonates in the cultural landscape of the new world as a man consumed by all that is devilish and repugnant in a straight jacketed society. A handsome lanky young man, with deep piercing, misty eyes , crooning to the metallic vibrations of the electric guitar, churning out words that speak of a unfathomable depth and misery in mundane life, compelling and urging his listeners to wake up from the somnambulistic dream world and dip into the freshness of Death. In his “Light my Fire”, the song that still sends an involuntary jitter through us, Morrison touches news peaks of ecstasy. It is almost as if the music draws our souls away into flight to the unknown, the dangerous, and the forbidden.

Not surprisingly, the band took their name from a line in Aldous Huxley's book “The Doors of Perception”; where he writes... "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite". And this line,incidentally or coincidentally, comes originally from the mystic poet William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. I listened through both the collections of the “the doors” that were available in the in-flight entertainment. I could not help enjoying the passion of the band, that played this music to an audience in the late sixties steeped in family values, blaspheming every known rule of decency and manners in the book. Morrison died at an young age of twenty seven. Too young to die, one would say. But if one has the patience and the right bent of mind to listen to his work for over two hours, it wouldn’t some as a surprise that Jim Morrison really courted death as much as he loved an unfettered life.

What Huxley essayed on paper, Jim Morrison painted in his music. One is more magisterial, the other was clothed in profanity. The difference is only the art of expression. Both of them lived life on the very edge of the precipice. That requires raw guts. I salute them for it.

God bless……