Nana by Emile Zola

That I found reading Nana difficult is an understatement. I expected some labour over it because classics is not my usual genre and Zola makes the slow pace even harsher by his scientific glare.

But Nana presented more challenges than my anticipation. For instance, I couldn’t empathise with the tempestuous, irritating child at the center of the story, who is perennially unhappy. She reminded me of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, out on a mindless chase of pleasure, afraid of growing old. Despite the beautiful image that Eduard Manet has captured of her, I imagine Nana as something cheap, engulfed in a putrefying odour of a fake perfume and poor quality makeup. The painting and the character are reversed.

The story starts with a climactic build up in the theatre. Zola expertly describes the palpable tension in the audience as they wait for a promised new Venus. In those few pages, a greedy and seedy Paris is presented to the reader. A Paris interested not in art, but only in its indulgences. Zola drops many names, and while we get introduced to a whole city, we know nothing about the individuals, who will keep flowing in and out of the story. Zola does not want you to engage with them. Out of the theatre, these blobs float away to all-night parties, to uncomfortable dinners, or circle around the houses of theatre actresses.

Amidst all these blobs sits Nana; Zola has certainly sharpened the pencil on her, but not filled in all the details. Nana is a high society prostitute who runs her men through ruin. There are small fleeting parts of the book when you sense her hankering after a simple life in the country, or one of domesticity. But it is clear that she doesn’t want to work towards those dreams, and keeps them as impossible ideals to be unhappy about. Once, she tries domestic life with a fellow actor and the experiment is so dramatic and theatrical that you know it is headed to failure.

Zola himself has no empathy for his creation. He judges her more harshly than he judges the lusting, foolish men who run around her consuming every inch of her space. In his experimentation, he has defined Nana with 2-3 variables only, and in this sense his ‘provoked observation’ seems incomplete. Nana, comes out looking like a ghost moving through boudoirs and theatre corridors, rapidly changing upholstery and ultimately ruining everything.

I cannot escape the question whether my distaste in the novel is biased because of my judgement of Nana and the society she inhabits. I do not like the gluttonous Paris that Zola has created, because it conflicts with my image of Paris as a city which has nurtured art above the material. The struggle to continuously separate the fiction from the real created a distraction.

But I think I struggled less with the judgement, more with the scientific writing itself. Zola has defined each of his creations as a collection of black and white variables, and in that definition he has been sparse. Each person is a variation of greed, lust, need for current/desired social status, age and physical attractiveness. The only one with the back story is Nana, and with a mild stretch C. Muffat. All conflict is played out within the above variables.There is no variety to the ambitions, and there is no transcendent love or need for a higher ideal. It is this need, the biggest chaotic variable which gives people conflicts. In Nana’s world it is missing not just from her own personality, but all of Paris. This is different from the other two stories I have read from Les Rougon-Macquart series, where emotions and higher ideals conflict with natural desires. (The beast within, and The Ladies’ Paradise), and in one the ideal even wins.

I recognise that in order to understand Zola’s experiments, I need to read more books from the series. But coming off this long experiment, I will take time returning. Meanwhile, I started reading his essay on the experimental novel which will take me a while to finish.

Reborn: Susan Sontag early notebooks

I began this year with reading Susan Sontag’s notes of her early life (Age 14-30). 2020 has just started and this already feels like the most influential book I am going to read this year. Primarily because it has made me want to write more, to note down more thoughts, to distil. Susan says writing is creating oneself, not just an aid to memory. I agree – though I think the creation happens because you let the memories build on each other. That is what makes us human: our ability to learn from the past, develop on it, observe and identify patterns.Writing helps to recognise what we like or dislike about something, and therefore discover a voice that is purely personal.

On Keeping a Journal. 

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. 

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.

Susan Sontag, Reborn

What is striking about reading a journal is the peek it gives me into another’s mind. It’s fallacy is that it is built with gaps – I do not know what Sontag was thinking when, at 17, she married Philip Reiff because she has not spoken to her journal at the time. And I am aware that the journal is not a pure expression of self as the writer is always conscious of the secret eye that will sometime pass over her words.

It is almost impossible to know someone else, but reading their journal gets your closer. I can see Sontag struggling with her mind, I can see her building opinions, making resolutions, then breaking them on the next page. I see her fall in love with an intensity, and then fall in love again with the same intensity, each time believing this is the greatest love of her life. Each time, she appears in her notes begging and grovelling for love from her much more confident and surefooted lovers. I see her, like me, chase multiple books and movies, trying to find the spark of knowledge. The insatiable quest for other people’s opinions. 

Books and opinions come with a place of surety. All the tribulations, doubts and hesitance that has gone in the making of those opinions are swept away under a carpet. I cannot write a conviction, I am forever limited by the awareness of my ignorance – the confidence of another puzzles me, and therefore to find the hesitations and doubts in this journal are re-assuring.

There are many people who reach their conclusions about life like schoolboys: they cheat their master by copying the answer out of a book without having worked out the sum for themselves

Susan Sontag ,Reborn

Towards the end of this first part, one can see Sontag finding her own voice. She becomes aware of her X, the bad faith, the pretence to please others. She recognises how she is leaking when she talks. Even in some of her unrelated pieces like her thoughts on cities as a negation of space, an opposite of the country, I can recognise her independent thinking which will become stunning by the time her famous essays are written.

Samskara: A rite for a dead man

Samskara, a story by Kannada author U.R. Anathamurthy starts with a question, that of a dead body and what rites are appropriate for it. The body belongs to the bad sheep of a Brahmin community, a man who when alive, openly mocked the religious ways of this community, took a low caste woman as a mistress, ate meat, drank alcohol and defied every rule that the scriptures imposed on a man’s life.

The entire community is weighed down by the question of whether Naranappa the dead deserves a Brahim’s funeral. But the person who is weighed down most is the person who is the antithesis of the dead man – Praneshacharya. A man who has not only embraced the life prescribed by the scriptures, but gone a step ahead by even changing the nature of his grihastaashram by marrying an invalid woman. His marriage thus becomes an exercise in caring for the sick instead of the snare of a physical or emotional relationship.

The question unsettles this man who feels responsible for his community . The hungry Brahmins repeatedly implore him to resolve the problem so that they can return to their normal lives. Anxious that his knowledge is not enough, Praneshacharya retires to a temple seeking answers from an idol. This is the moment when his carefully constructed virtuous life is thrown into chaos – he has a sexual encounter with the dead man’s mistress. A stranger to physical intimacy, he loses his head at this encounter. What follows is a dream-like journey in the style of lost weekend. He walks to distant villages, forms an acquaintance Putta, a man who refuses to leave his side and insists on helping this unworldly man. Walking through a religious carnival, the colourful sights and invasive sounds scare and overwhelm Praneshacharya into further indecision. He has lost his context, his identity and is almost paralysed in the world he is unfamiliar with.

My favourite part of the story is Acharya’s transformation – from a person sitting on a high dry ground, to one who is suddenly thrown into a gushing water and anxiously follows the flow. The greeds and ugliness of the community is telling but an exaggeration. The plague (which is the cause of Naranappa’s death) is almost comical and superfluous to the plot. A plague cannot be a background score- I kept waiting for it to take the center stage, but it never did, and that was an unnecessary distraction to add to the story.

At times, I couldn’t help wondering that Acharya had defied the essential part of being a Hindu – it is a householder’s religion after all. But in his pride, he had chosen to dispense with the engagement of the household and skip to an ascetic life. Interestingly, this is what Buddhism proposes. But a Buddhist would probably not have to deal with the question of a dead body or rituals surrounding them. In trying to bridge the line, perhaps Acharya skipped some samskara that were essential to his way of life. If he had passed through all his rites, may be he would not have been so baffled with the question of the body.

For all its great ideas and alienation imagery, the book is poorly written, at least in translation. It is overly dramatised and the characters are mostly caricatures. And yet, I walked away from it feeling a warm glow in my mind.

Acharya’s introspections are the most telling parts of the story. I leave with these:

Have I the authority to include another’s life in my decision? The pain of it, the cowardice of it. God, take from me the burden of this decision”

“Putta gave him an entirely new personality. In the eyes of strangers, one gets a new form, a new make up. Even to the point of doubting who I really am, I have become many persons in one single day”

“It becomes clear that he didn’t have the skills to live in this world of sharp and cruel feelings. One part of lust is tenderness, the other part a demonic will.

Solaris – two different visions


(A poster by Victo Ngai as seen on Chrome Yellow)

The Projector theatre in Singapore is currently doing a run of Tarkovsky’s movies – and I couldn’t resist the chance to watch Solaris a second time. There was a time when I was devouring everything from Tarkovsky – Stalker, Mirrors, Andrei Rublev, his writings on cinema. Since then, my attention span has gone through a significant contraction and I now stay drugged in the great melodrama of streaming television. A call for Solaris was also a call from the past. One I am glad I answered.

Before watching the movie, I picked up the original story from Stanislaw Lem, the Polish writer. I found a BBC audio rendition of it, which was a delight to hear. Lem’s Solaris was a scientific exploration of an alien existence. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a celestial system Solaris. The Scientists on the space station are studying Solaris, particularly its deceptive ocean. When Kris, the psychologist arrives on the station, he meets only one of the three Scientists. One has killed himself and another refuses to come out to meet Kris. The third, Snow, is shifty, drunk and paranoid. By the next day, Kris begins to experience strange events when he wakes from his sleep to find his ex-Wife in his room. He kills this apparition by sending her into space, but another apparition returns. As he talks to the other Scientists, he realises that they have guests of their own and think that Solaris’ enigmatic ocean is reading their minds during sleep and conjuring images from their conscience. Kris begins to fall in love with his apparition, but at the same time works with the Scientists in defeating the ocean.

Lem’s story is focused on man’s attempt at communicating with an alien entity. The attempt seems futile because we expect communication to be in our own perception, our own language. When the alien communicates through a different mechanism (like manifesting our own conscience), we see it as hostile and want to destroy it.

While listening to the book, I remembered similar themes from Tarkovsky’s movie. However, when I began to watch it, I realised that I had forgotten the overwhelming emphasis on human connections that this adaptation had. The movie adds a long prologue in an idyllic country home where Kris remembers his mother and his ex-Wife. He spends an emotional evening with his father and aunt, as he purges some of the old memories in a bonfire.

In the space station, while the main plot points remain similar to the original story – much of Kris’ focus is on understanding his relation to his Wife Hari than in understanding the alien entity. He is annoyingly absorbed in his romance, connecting back with a woman whose death he feels responsible for. In a slight exaggeration to Lem’s story, Hari continues to die, and though she regenerates every time, each of her deaths casts another shadow of guilt on Kris.

Kris’s illusions illustrates how a lot of our relationships and people around us exist only in our own perceptions. Strangely, Kris never seems to doubt the authenticity of Hari’s love, but he is afraid of killing her again by leaving the planet. He has already done this in the real world when Hari commits suicide after he left to another city for his job.

The Scientists decide that they can counter these apparitions by telling the ocean their conscious thoughts instead of just their dreams. “Be careful what you wish for”. This to me is the convergence between Lem’s story and Tarkovsky”s adaptation where man tries to bring back the communication to his own terms, even though Solaris was offering it a chance to understand their own dreams and desires. It highlights again in the voice of Snaut, the futility of exploration when we are only looking for mirrors.

The original story returns Kris back to earth where he writes two reports – one that narrates reality and another which reports no anomalies at the space station. However, in the movie Tarkovsky leaves us with a doubt on whether the Scientists ever leave and whether even the idea of their victory and their return is a dream that the ocean throws back at them. Perhaps our entire reality is an illusion- a product of someone creating a virtual world with the thoughts in our own heads. A matrix. And in this one, Kris is happy to take the blue pill, but most of us go chasing down the rabbit hole.

Watership Down


“There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.” 

Watership Down was a thoroughly enjoyable tale of adventure and coming-of-age, and highly misappropriated as a children’s book.
The book tells the story of a group of rabbits who move out of their warren, journey far and wide, often meeting great perils, to arrive at Watership Down – their new home. But the story goes on because: Continue reading

To the lighthouse – Virginia Woolf


It has been a long time since my last reading of Woolf. In the past, I have liked her writing, but never felt a connection to it. I first read ‘To the lighthouse’ more than ten years ago, at a time when I was experimenting with a lot of reading, devouring many words, without always understanding the subtext.

Reading it now, was like reading a different book altogether. I don’t know if the story has changed over time, or  if it was some background of modern philosophy, or Michael Roth’s lectures in Coursera, which made me see things differently. But I can not remember reading any of this story now in front of me. I remembered Mrs Ramsay, yes, as a benevolent mother figure, slightly overbearing and meddling. I remembered Mr Ramsay – a foul-tempered patriarch. I perhaps remembered the whimpering child who so wanted to go to the lighthouse, but was denied this pleasure for many years. Continue reading

Too loud a solitude – Bohumil Hrabal

When I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing, I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been in the very heart of truth. Ten times a day, every day, I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go
home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books, the books I found that day and am carrying home in my briefcase

A small volume by Czech writer Hrabal, Too loud a solitude is a love story. A love story with books, and strangely a love story with work. It is ironical that the protagonist destroys both his loves constantly, because each love comes in the way of the other. Continue reading

My library of shorts


Short stories

I am a lover of short stories, and I constantly keep my hunt on for them. I enjoy them most in their online form – mostly because I can easily return to these versions.So here is what I think I will do in this post. I will list down all the short stories I find online and slowly build up a collection. I will try to rate them as per my own interest, and if possible, review some. But mostly, I will just curate the ones I like. I will pin this post and keep adding to it as I go.

Even if one reader stumbles on one beautiful story from this page, it will be worth my time.
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The original question

The question of how the Universe began is to me the biggest question of our lives. It is something that puzzles us, astounds us, makes us spend hours pondering, debating with people around, mostly pointlessly. Because we cannot answer this sitting in the drawing room. (Though it is strange that a question of that magnitude cannot be answered through field studies – the answer, if at all, will come out of a drawing board or a computer someday) It inevitably runs into the question of belief – whether God or a supreme being exists, one that made the grand design, or whether it all came into existence out of nowhere, through some yet undiscovered scientific phenomenon.

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