"Ah, but you are the insidious type-Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl..."
So says the vicar about Cassandra Mortmain,
"Ah, but you are the insidious type-Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl..."
So says the vicar about Cassandra Mortmain, the semi-precocious narrator of this novel - and one has to accept that he has put his finger on the nub. Rem acu tetigisti, as Jeeves would say.
Cassandra is the younger daughter of the once-famous novelist James Mortmain, and as the novel opens, we find her sitting on the draining board of the kitchen sink with her feet actually in the sink, writing her journal (which this novel is, BTW) in a cryptic speed-writing shorthand of her own invention. She is sitting there because it is the only reasonably warm room in their house, which was built in the time of Charles II and “grafted on to a fourteenth century castle that was damaged by Cromwell”. The Mortmains have been living there in genteel poverty for five years as the novel opens. They have sold all their jewellery and furniture, the women have no proper wardrobe, and even day-to-day food procurement has become something of an adventure.
They are a motley crew. James Mortmain, the head of the household, was once a celebrated novelist for the single avante garde novel Jacob Wrestling he had written: but a bout of bad temper had caused him to brandish a knife at his wife and knock out a neighbour who tried to intervene, earning him three months in jail. Once he came out, he has not written a single thing but spends his time reading old detective stories: hence their poverty.
Rose, his elder daughter, is lovely and self-centred, and is willing to sell herself to get out of her poverty; the younger daughter Cassandra is pretty, witty and intelligent and aspires to be a novelist. Their youngest sibling Thomas is fifteen and precocious like Cassandra. Their stepmother (the girls’ mother had died eight years before the story opens), who is only twety-nine and goes by the unusual name Topaz is a former artists’ model who worships the ground James treads on and sometimes communes with nature by dancing on the moors stark naked. Stephen Colly, the Mortmains’ maid’s son who has continued to stay with them even after her mother’s passing, makes himself useful about the house and is hopelessly in love with Cassandra.
It is into this hopeless, bohemian world that Simon and Neil Cotton arrive. They are the inheritors of Scoatney Hall, whose owner had given Mr. Mortmain Godsend Castle on a forty-year lease. Simon Cotton, a well-read intellectual, is fascinated by England and also by James Mottmain, who is still famous in America; later on, also by Rose. Neil is American through-and–through and can’t wait to get out of England. When Simon falls for Rose and gets engaged to her, he is very angry as he considers her a gold-digger. To complicate matters, Cassandra also falls for Simon. And there is James, getting more eccentric every day, and practically running after Mrs. Cotton, Simon and Neil’s mother, to the chagrin of Topaz. Aubrey Fox-Cotton, a distant cousin of the Cottons and a famous architect, who can’t get enough of Topaz and Leda, his photographer wife who lusts after Stephen, complete the cast of characters and add spice to the plot.
Here we have a potential recipe for a comedy of manners, a farce, a TV soap opera or even a Wodehouse-ian extravaganza. The narrative could have easily slid into any one of these genres and we would have had a mediocre novel. The fact that it does not happen is due to the consummate mastery of Dodie Smith over her medium, in keeping the voice of the teenage narrator so consistent and endearing throughout.
For Cassandra Mortmain is truly a masterly creation. I would place her on the same pedestal on which I have put Elizabeth Bennet, Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara (I have not read Jane Eyre, but from what I have heard, that redoubtable lady is of the same calibre). But Cassandra is not as accomplished, determined or wicked (as in the case of Ms. Sharp and Ms. O’Hara) as these legendary heroines – she is very much a teenage girl, suffering all the confusions and tantrums of that difficult period of life. No, what makes Cassandra special is her candour.
At one point in the novel, unaware that she is listening in, Simon wonders whether Cassandra is being “consciously naive” i.e. putting it on as a show to attract people. She is incensed, and rightly so; because if there is one thing to be said for the girl, it is her perfect honesty about everything including herself! For example, you have respect a person who can say that a piece by Bach made her feel that she was being repeatedly hit on the head by a teaspoon!
There are plenty of scenes worthy of Wodehouse – Topaz dancing at the foot of the castle tower at night in the buff and being taken for a ghost; Rose being chased across the country in a bearskin coat because people think that she is an escaped circus bear – but the hilarity does not slide into outright belly-laughter as with his novels. As a counterpoint, there are plenty of mellow scenes too, where the novelist relies heavily on metaphor (Rose wishing on a gargoyle and Cassandra and Simon doing the Midsummer Eve rites at the foot of the Belmonte Tower, to quote two examples). Here, we have to go beyond the written word to the story on the unwritten pages.
James Mortmain’s literary career is, however, the key to the novel, I feel. The reference to Jacob’s Ladder in his original novel immediately points to man’s connection with the infinite: as the Vicar tells Cassandra, God need not be God in the conventional sense, a bearded old man sitting up there in the clouds. God can be felt, smelt, seen, heard, tasted or simply experienced. As the novel moves to its conclusion, James has rediscovered his connection to the Godhead in him, which is literature – and Cassandra has also grown up. In discovering the key to her heart, she has learnt to put her feelings in perspective.
The first part of the novel is written in a sixpenny notebook with a pencil stub. It progresses to a shilling notebook and finally to a two-guinea one, written with a pen. We started with a precocious teenager in March, at the beginning of spring: we leave the story with her standing on the threshold of womanhood as the autumn leaves start falling.
In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, politics in India changed forever. For the first time, a politician without a popular base, P. V. NarasimIn 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, politics in India changed forever. For the first time, a politician without a popular base, P. V. Narasimha Rao, became Prime Minister: and he installed a an academician, Dr. Manmohan Singh, as his Finance Minister. The popular rhetoric of socialism quickly gave way to the pragmatic doctrine of capitalism. Very soon, America became acceptable as a political ally, profit ceased to be a dirty word, and the Indian economy was thrown open to private capital.
The major towns immediately started to show the effects – the middle class grew richer, there were more goodies to go around, and the purchasing power of people increased tremendously. But soon, the negative effects also began to be felt, in the villages especially. Farmers accumulated debt and started committing suicide; marginalised groups were marginalised still further; and because of government withdrawal from the public sphere, welfare went for a toss. The GDP increased, and so did the gap between the rich and the poor.
The impact of India’s liberalisation was not confined to the material field. The cultural sphere underwent a tremendous makeover. The left-leaning post-colonial ethos was replaced by the culture of instant gratification. The general public, especially the youth, became largely apolitical. Everything was weighed on the scales of material benefits: the question was not whether it was good or bad, but whether it would sell or not.
Kerala is a bit different from other Indian states in the sense that we don’t have large cities, in the real “metro” sense – nor do we have the quintessential Indian village, removed from all the amenities of civilisation. It is rather difficult distinguish between a town and a village in Kerala, so that a stranger travelling by train could be excused for thinking that he is traversing one long city. So liberalisation and globalisation revolutionised Kerala in toto: suddenly, the state with a strong communist sentiment was singing paens to consumerism.
It is in this context that one has to view “D”, Susmesh Chandroth’s novel about a fictitious city of the same name. It could be any city in Kerala: the details are left purposefully vague. The story also lacks a central focus, with a plethora of characters moving around in unnumbered chapters, carrying out various activities ranging from prostitution to terrorism. It is evident that the author has aimed at a kaleidoscopic effect, rather like Paul Haggis’ movie Crash.
The novel starts with an unnamed rescue worker recovering an unfinished manuscript from the ruins of D – a manuscript which purports to create a mythical city built on the same lines as D. The narrative then gives us an account of the genesis of D, from myth to legend to history, to its chaotic present.
What we encounter here is a city without a soul, given totally over to consumerism. However, it is peopled by real men and women, many of whom are full of soul. A myriad of topics is touched upon then, ranging from child abuse to sexual exploitation, and from environmentalism to terrorism. This cacophony of narratives is held together somewhat as a coherent story only by Damu, the penurious reporter working in a newspaper which still has not sold its soul to Mammon. Ultimately, everything culminates in the disaster foreshadowed in the first chapter.
This novel is a brave attempt to tackle the modern world of capitalism run riot – and it succeeds in creating the jarring feel of a city given to the mad rush to earn money during the day and the equally insane pursuit of pleasure in the night. But the positives end there. None of the characters are interesting enough for us to feel anything for them – the storylines are too short and jumbled to make any sense of – and the book too short to explore in detail any of the issues it broaches. I forgot the book the moment I closed its covers – which is not a good thing to recommend it! ...more
I simply have to read this book. It, including its author, has been cussed by Ann Coulter on her latest blog post. That is recommendation enough for mI simply have to read this book. It, including its author, has been cussed by Ann Coulter on her latest blog post. That is recommendation enough for me! ***
Devastating read! Review coming. ***
This must be the most disturbing war novel that I have read – if not the most disturbing novel EVER. The reader is forced by the author to spend the whole length of time he reads this book inside the head of his protagonist. Why? Because the protagonist is an injured soldier, who has lost his legs, his arms, and the whole of his face. He can’t speak, see, hear, taste, or smell – the only sense organ left is the skin on his diminished torso. But unfortunately, his brain is very much alive, trapped in this vegetable of a body. And that is where we the readers are, too, for the duration of the narrative.
He had no arms and no legs.
He threw back his head and started to yell from fright. But he only started because he had no mouth to yell with. He was so surprised at not yelling when he tried that he began to work his jaws like a man who has found something interesting and wants to test it. He was so sure the idea of no mouth was a dream that he could investigate it calmly. He tried to work his jaws and he had no jaws. He tried to run his tongue around the inside of his teeth and over the roof of his mouth as if he were chasing a raspberry seed. But he didn't have any tongue and he hadn't any teeth. There was no roof to his mouth and there was no mouth. He tried to swallow but he couldn't because he had no palate and there weren't any muscles left to swallow with.
This nightmare is compounded by the fact that he is very much alive; he is Joe Bonham, twenty years of age, son of a loving mother and father and who has two younger sisters and the love of his life Kareen waiting for him: but that is only in his mind. For the staff of the hospital he is a nameless patient, a disgusting freak which is just a caved out head stuck on a limbless body. Worst of all – it is a life sentence.
He would be in this womb forever and ever and ever. He must remember that. He must never expect or hope for anything different. This was his life from now on every day and every hour and every minute of it. He would never again be able to say hello how are you I love you. He would never again be able to hear music or the whisper of the wind through trees or the chuckle of running water. He would never again breathe in the smell of a steak frying in his mother's kitchen or the dampness of spring in the air or the wonderful fragrance of sagebrush carried on the wind across a wide open plain. He would never again be able to see the faces of people who made you glad just to look at them of people like Kareen. He would never again be able to see sunlight or the stars or the little grasses that grow on a Colorado hillside.
Lying on his back with only memories for company, Joe almost goes mad – until he finds a way to keep track of time (based on the daily cycle of the nurses) and finally, to communicate. But even that is doomed to end in disappointment, as the author is determined that we shall not escape.
This novel is brilliantly written. Trumbo uses the stream of consciousness technique, with less punctuation and capitalisation than is warranted, and the reader is plunged into a world of tortuous sentences that run on and on, interspersed with short staccato ones; and also beautiful passages tinged with nostalgia... the narrative structure captures the internal world of the doomed protagonist beautifully. The memories are poignant, funny and melancholic in turn – one feels that if this was a movie, it will be done in muted sepia tones. Then there are those sudden shifts to the terror of the now.
"Joe dear darling Joe hold me closer. Drop your bag and put both of your arms around me and hold me tightly. Put both of your arms around me. Both of them."
You in both of my arms Kareen goodbye. Both of my arms. Kareen in my arms. Both of them. Arms arms arms arms. I'm fainting in and out all the time Kareen and I'm not catching on quick. You are in my arms Kareen. You in both of my arms. Both of my arms. Both of them. Both
I haven't got any arms Kareen.
My arms are gone.
Both of my arms are gone Kareen both of them.
Kareen Kareen Kareen.
They've cut my arms off both of my arms.
Oh Jesus mother god Kareen they've cut off both of them.
Oh Jesus mother god Kareen Kareen Kareen my arms.
This is most definitely an anti-war novel, a novel written with a purpose – and so sometimes, does slip into outright sloganeering. But since it’s done by Joe in his mind, it does not take away from the strength of the narrative – and the author does get his point across.
...So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever?
You're goddam right they didn't.
They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child. They died with their hearts, sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live. ... There's nothing noble about dying. Not even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. Not even if you're so great your name will never be forgotten and who's that great? The most important thing is your life little guys. You're worth nothing dead except for speeches. Don’t let them kid you any more. Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we've got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there's always a word.
Honour, Patriotism, Liberty, Chivalry... all fine words, thundered by world leaders across the globe from pulpits to the deafening cheers of their followers. And what does it bring the “little guy”, the soldier at the front? Nothing but death and misery. There is no honour in war, in killing and getting killed.
Trumbo ends the novel with a warning:
We are men of peace we are men who work and we want no quarrel. But if you destroy our peace if you take away our work if you try to range us one against the other we will know what to do. If you tell us to make the world safe for democracy we will take you seriously and by god and by Christ we will make it so. We will use the guns you force upon us we will use them to defend our very lives and the menace to our lives does not lie on the other side of a nomansland that was set apart without our consent it lies within our own boundaries here and now we have seen it and we know it.
Put the guns into our hands and we will use them. Give us the slogans and we will turn them into realities. Sing the battle hymns and we will take them up where you left off. Not one not ten not ten thousand not a million not ten millions not a hundred millions but a billion two billions of us all the people of the world we will have the slogans and we will have the hymns and we will have the guns and we will use them and we will live. Make no mistake of it we will live. We will be alive and we will walk and talk and eat and sing and laugh and feel and love and bear our children in tranquillity in security in decency in peace. You plan the wars you masters of men plan the wars and point the way and we will point the gun.
There is no doubt where the guns will be ultimately pointed. No wonder it pissed off many people!
Dalton Trumbo was a victim of McCarthyism, a name in the original “Hollywood Blacklist” generated as part of the “Red Scare” in the USA. His career was effectively destroyed. Reading this novel, it is easy to see how his humanist ideas would have been anathema to the powers that be.