I cannot recall with clarity how I first became aware of The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. NPR? Amazon? Whatever the case, I am very glad that I fol...moreI cannot recall with clarity how I first became aware of The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt. NPR? Amazon? Whatever the case, I am very glad that I followed up on the lead.
The title is in reference to S. Ramanujan, the mathematician. It is a name I had heard, but the name and profession were previously the extent of my knowledge. The book begins with the English maths don G.H. Hardy helping bring Ramanujan over to Cambridge from his post as a minor clerk in Madras. From there it proceeds through introduction to English (academic) society, World War I, and Ramanujan’s illness and early death at 33. This gives nothing away about the story, which is told (mostly) from Hardy’s point of view.
Leavitt has obviously done an incredible amount of research and proves himself both articulate and imaginative. While it took fifty or a hundred pages for me to really get into the book, I suddenly found myself in the grip of a compelling story of humanity. The prose was reminiscent of Fitzgerald with a dash of Steve Weinberg – a mixture of mythos and logos.
The book is about much more than a lonely mathematician and his collaborators. It is also looks deeply into what it means to be English, to be Indian, and even to a small extent to be American (by contrast). What motivates us – to make the daily small decisions, as well as the big exercises in free will that, at least we tell ourselves, tangibly influence the course of our own lives and of others’? From all that we get the many layers of what it is to be human. Plus a smattering of number theory.
There was a poem I was once fond of, perhaps by Shelly. Or was it Tennyson? Something about the hero striving with the gods before his end. Google shall find the answer: ah, Ulysses…
Death closes all; but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Here in Leavitt’s work, and in the reality he masterfully fictionalizes, were men who did some deeds of noble note – in the name of knowledge, in the name of peace, in the name of humanity. To strive with gods requires a certain fire, and a rare confluence of ability and circumstance – almost, in the latter, denied to Ramanujan – and in The Indian Clerk we see the pain, the glory, and the human truths when one sets out “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” (less)
Great works of art leave their audience with some mixture of inspiration, desire to emulate, a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, and, to...moreGreat works of art leave their audience with some mixture of inspiration, desire to emulate, a deeper understanding of what it is to be human, and, towering over all else — a tremendous sense of pure awe. Salman Rushdie's Ground Beneath Her Feet is such a work, though so incredibly dense and alive that, in the reading, it is sometimes easy to overlook, nay, to become lost in, its grandiosity.
How can one overlook greatness? Think of a rich sonata, the most complex you can bring to mind (Brahms?). Focus in on a single instrument. Then try to hear just a few instruments, ignoring the rest of the orchestra. What you hear is certainly great; but, is it Great? That analogy might not work for you, but that is the closest I can come to describing my experience with GBHF.
Having finished the book late last night, after spending three to four weeks with it, my reaction is still dominated by awe. Let me add one more quality bestowed on reader — inadequacy, in such measure that it overrides the inclination to emulation. This is an edifice that one does not seek to equal. If one can even build at all, it will be with the full knowledge that the result might be pleasing enough, but will always lie hidden in the shadows. Look on Rushdie's work, ye Mighty, and despair!
The perfect book does not exist, yet what flaw can this puny mortal recognize in Salman Rushdie's magnum opus? Perhaps that it is too erudite, relying heavily on cultural references. These particularly derive from the records of modern music and of ancient myth. Many times a character would spell out an allusion, making plain what I would have preferred to remain, esoterically, just between the two of us. No sooner did I wished this than I quietly acknowledged the genius of such exegesis — in the many cases where the references were otherwise lost on me. I love literature, but "Miles Standing" was never more than an oblique R.E.M. reference, so I must thank Rushdie for explicating the Longfellow connection, for instance.
In doing so, not only am I enriched, but the author pays explicit tribute to the Mighty shoulders vaulting him into the stratosphere. Rather then pretend that he came up with all these notions on his own, he lets us know exactly what is borrowed and often from whom. There are more than enough bon mots, so I presume, of Rushdie's own devising. There is no need to claim falsely the allegories of Eurydice or Elvis as his own.(less)
In February I began reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children -- a strange sort of historical fiction -- but a trip in early March inserted Orhan P...moreIn February I began reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children -- a strange sort of historical fiction -- but a trip in early March inserted Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red before I could finish. Two things I've loved about Rushdie, at least in the two novels I've read: his use of the English language, and his ability to credibly, smoothly bend reality into an absurd yet moving other world. In these he is master. These are so clear that I won't dwell on them (ok, that's actually because my wife has the book up at work so I can't refer to it for examples).
Midnight's Children is the story of India -- that is, of the modern state of India -- seen through the rise and fall of four generations, and narrated by the third. It is a large and ancient land; naturally he cannot encompass it in even a long novel. Yet he does seem to touch on all the major developments. But then again, what do I know? I'm a Westerner. And so is he.
I wonder how that influences him? I wonder what this book would have become had it been written by someone directly living India's birth into modernity? Perhaps such a person could not exist. Perhaps no one from inside could have created such a story. Perhaps if someone did, it would have been too foreign for Western readers to appreciate. Maybe such a work exists, but the Western selection bias has precluded the possibility for it to be recognized as a masterwork.
Midnight's Children was an incredibly journey, well worth the time, but would have been better served had I not interrupted 80% through. It is large; it is challenging; it is beautiful. Ground Beneath Her Feet was the better novel of the two (hence I could not give this 5 stars). Midnight's Children was more grand and magical, but less philosophical and less likely to send me to the dictionary. But Midnight's Children does not elicit from me the praise I gave to that other tale.(less)
Red was more difficult to get into. Although set in a time and place far distant from the author (16th? century Constantinople), credit the author for giving the work a voice and setting that feel completely foreign. Orhan Pamuk works as diligently as the miniaturists he portrays to put us into the scene, but like them only putting enough detail to let our imaginations roam. He does not dwell on surroundings, but does given sufficient attention to make them real.
Both authors are non-linear and used first-person throughout. Whereas Rushdie's narrator remains at is task through the entirety, Pamuk's changes every few pages. This constant change of perspective was alternately brilliant and annoying: brilliant because the reader see hints and shadows the the mystery unfold, coming to know something of both the inner and outer being of each character: annoying because he never develops truly independent voices for these characters. That is to say, their inflections, their syntax, felt invariant. In this case it could be an issue of translation, since the original is in Turkish.
Perhaps a third of the way through I suddenly overcame this feeling of annoyance and found myself engrossed in a first rate murder mystery. Equally engrossing as the plot was the exploration of the notions of style and individuality, through the lens of an empire that was born out of Central Asia, conquered the Near east, lived in the shadow of the west, and was at the nexus of trade between Renaissance Europe and the Far East.
Along with the murder mystery, we encounter the clash of civilizations: will Ottoman painting remain a subtle art that reveal's God's own horses (or man or tree etc.)? Or will Ottoman painters begin adopting the realism of Europe, of the "Franks?" Or perhaps, having been challenged by the sword of perspective and the main gauche of personality, will they simply take umbrage and fade away?(less)
Briefly: very good, richly evocative as the other Otori books, and beautifully sets the stage for the rest of the series - both in events and the Otor...moreBriefly: very good, richly evocative as the other Otori books, and beautifully sets the stage for the rest of the series - both in events and the Otori character. You see and learn about certain traits that run through the Otori lords that help explains their triumphs and downfall in the other works. This puts a new light on the last book in particular, making Shigeko's actions stand out as an overcoming of the negative traits. The book stands on its own, but makes sense as an after-the-fact prequel. (less)
This first book in the series is, as some have commented, perhaps "simplistic". It is straight-forward and rather like reading one of the Sherlock Hol...moreThis first book in the series is, as some have commented, perhaps "simplistic". It is straight-forward and rather like reading one of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Except with familiar characters whose backgrounds you will largely know -- thus adding an entire universe with very little need for explication. It was a delightful, light read. No more or less than basic story telling, without moralizing, without trying to find some deep new insight into the human psyche.(less)
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow is what happens when a classic geek extrapolates the cyberpunk future of a reputation-based economy combined with the extrusion of an open source ethos into the management of everyday affairs, tosses in immortality and lean project management, and sets it all in the context of the semi-religious experience of Disney World.
A well-crafted amusement park ride of the Disney-variety leads you through a thrilling story in a matter of minutes. The rider does not foresee the end of the ride; when it arrives, the rider disembarks enthused and ready to jump back into line. So it is with Down and Out; reading on the nook, where ignorance of page count is natural, I was stunned to look at the bottom of the screen and realize I was at the end. What a ride it had been! I wanted to exclaim out loud and rave about the book, but prudence restrained me from disturbing my fellow airline passengers.
I've been to Disney World twice in conscious memory, and I think once when too young to recall. Memories of Disney Land in the pre-K years also stir. That frequency outs me as a privileged middle class American. To those who haven't experienced Disney, I've been unsuccessful in explaining the awe and joy I still feel with respect to these parks. Explaining the mystique is like explaining Star Wars; those who didn't grow up with it rarely grok it. Doctorow's protagonist lets us in on one of the secrets: "The mark of a great ride is that it gets better the second time around, as the detail and flourishes start to impinge on your consciousness. The Mansion was full of little gimcracks and sly nods that snuck into your experience on each successive ride." In dialogue, in discourse, in contrasting experiences, the book makes a serious contribution to understanding the mythos without destroying it
Down and Out exudes love, joy, reverence for the cultural icon and the experience of Disney. And more imporantly – for the condition of being human. The characters are not paragons of virtue; they are human; no, they are more-than-human: immortal, altered, freed of many of today's physical and social constraints. But still they are human: petty, ambitious, caring, loving. For all of Julius's failings, I cared about him, my fictional friend who has started to realize the failings of the society he has embraced.
The book is only 208 pages, so give it a shot. See the present and the future in a different light. Consider the implications of technology for humanity while having a heck of a ride. Stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best Sci Fi around. Buy it, check it out at a library, or download Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for free.