Friday, September 26, 2008

A Good Indian Wife

I stayed up till the wee hours reading Anne Cherian's novel, A Good Indian Wife, one of B&N's Discover books. Why is contemporary Indian literature so good? I started with Narayaon and moved on to Jhabvala, Ghosh, Bannerjee, and Manil Suri. These novels are all exquisitely written yet earthy and rich with subtle undertones . But Cherian is exceptional at conveying the culture of Inida, the radical differences between an Indian village and San Francisco. The story is absorbing but we also see the immigrant's view of the seeming coldness of America.

We see and feel the action through two main characters: the stay-st-home Leila and the doctor Neel, who spends much time flying his own plane when he isn't with his American girlfriend.

The main character, the sympathetic character, is Leila, a 30-year-old teacher of Shakespeare, who becomes a "victim" of an arranged marriage in India. Rejected again and again by suitors, she is thrilled when an Indian man from San Francisco returns to his village and agrees to marry her, through a kind of comedy of errors. (And which Shakespeare Cherian was referring to I'm not quite sure, but she and Leila know their Shakespeare thoroughly, so obviously there is a prototype).

Since she has no dowry, she has no choice but to live at home and teach at a women's college,. The prospect of marriage relieves her, even though Neel doesn't come to see her after the initial marriage brokerage. she believes the wedding red sari makes her look fat, and the hennaed designs on hands and feet are not her usual fashion statement. This portrait of Indian life is fascinating: the trips to sari shop, the struggles with relatives (both Leila's and Neel's), the food preparation, and the traditions that are completely humiliating to Neel, the reluctant husband.

Chernan alternates points of view--Leila's and Neel's--so we understand Leila's terror at Neel's stark apartment and worry that he isn't a doctor after all; and Neel's resentment of the marriage contrived by a pushy aunt and by his grandfather's assurance that he needs to see Neel married before he dies. Neel cannot believe he is in this situation. Neel lies about his work hours so he can frequently visit his blond American girlfriend, rather stereotypical but, yes, the manipulative bimbo who schemes to break up his marriage. We feel Leila's aching loneliness and isolation in an apartment house in San Friancisco where no people are on the streets and watch with fascination the development of the marriage. There is much more to this novel. Such good writing!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Last Victorian Proto-Feminist Heroine

From Oct 23-26, at the L. M. Montgomery Research Center, scholars and Anne aficionados will convene to explore the cultural influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. They will also celebrate the centenary of her first and most popular novel, Anne of Green Gables. And if you've never read Anne, this is a good year to begin, because there are innumerable articles about the centenary.

The Anne of Green Gables books are not only girls' novels, but also "cult" books: readers, especially women like me, who have not read Anne in many years, will be amused and amazed to rediscover Anne's wit, charm, romantic imagination, and humorous adventures.

Montgomery, who wrote 24 books between 1908 and 1939, was not an Anne: she was a complex, energetic woman, whose idealized Anne reflected her optimism, but who had a darker, anomalous adult self, which had to cope with depressions and the loss of a son. Unhappy at 30, she wrote in her diary : " Only lonely people write diaries." After involvements with two men, one of whom she was briefly engaged to, she eventually married a minister (as does Phil, a character in Anne of the Island, who, also ditches two men to marry a minster). After marriage, Montgomery indefatigably played the role of the minister's wife, cared for her husband during his frequent depressions, raised children, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

Montgomery is undoubtedly the Louisa May Alcott of Canada. Anne, the heroine of an eight-novel series, is a more feminine, whimsical equivalent of tomboy Jo. Both are covertly feminist, though they certainly make no speeches about it, and both unfortunately become more boring after marriage: that marks the end of the best adventures of Anne and Jo, though Montgomery and Alcott desperately introduce charming new characters and sometimes tragic situations. Anne is less shy than Jo--she has the gift of gab--and is more socially adroit: she would never accidentally burn someone's hair with the curling tongs, because she would know how to use them. Hair, however, is an issue in both books: Anne has red hair, which is a trial to her, and Jo's one beauty is her hair, which she cuts off to support her father in the Civil War. Different as their personalities are, they both cope with poverty, are extremely strong-willed and competitive, get into scrapes, are high achievers in the workplace, and inhabit a moral but not stuffy atmosphere. Jo is awkward despite her brilliance, but the more sociable Anne brings sunshine to others by genuine curiosity and by coaxing cranky old women, bachelors, "old maids," and troublesome students into surrendering some of their power for the greater good.

Are the Anne books as good as I remembered them? Yes, in fact , they are: lively, all-ages books. The first novel, Anne of Green Gables chronicles her childhood, when she arrives as an imaginative orphan on Prince Edwards Island, where her new guardians, Marilla and Matthew, are expecting a boy;; Anne of Avonlea describes her experiences as a teacher in a one-room-schoolhouse; Anne of the Island her university years; Anne of Windy Poplars, an epistolary novel, delineates her three years as principal of a high school; and Anne's House of Dreams is the story of her marriage. (I have yet to finish the rest of them,, and I certainly never read all of them in childhood. ) Anne is a role model but she is not a prude: she loves good clothes, organizes a civic improvement society in Avonlea, turns down a proposal from a man who sends his sister to propose by proxy (she is insulted but then she sees the humor), enjoys matchmaking and meddling (even advising elopement on one occasion), and befriends classmates and waifs, at Avonlea's school, a stand-offish schoolteacher, crankly neighbors in Avonlea who eventually become proud of her, college roomates who include an intellectual beauty who prefers to flirt and dither than show off her brains, darling widows who run a boarding house, a lighthouse keeper, and, of course, Mr. Right comes along, more or less in the guise of Jo's Lauriey (WHAT was Jo thinking when she turned him down?)

There is even a scholarly Norton's edition of Anne of Green Gables, if you don't want to get caught reading Bantams. And you can buy the complete set of Anne books: I believe there are 8, though more if you cound the Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicales of Avonlea.

She also wrote many other series, including the autobiographical Emly books, with which I am less familiar.

By the way, the Montgomery conference url is:

And here is an url to a radio podcast:

Monday, September 08, 2008

An Orderly Man

I was walking through the library, idly gazing at biographies, when Dirk Bogarde's name jumped out at me. I had seen “Despair” (based on Nabokov's novel), when I was a teenager and lacked the concentration to appreciate it. But somehow I knew his name, knew he was a good actor, and wanted to read his memoir.

In An Orderly Man, which is a sequel to two earlier memoirs, Snakes & Ladders and A Postillion Struck, he documents his life from his late '40s into his '50s. Tired of the hectic life of an actor, he buys a small run-down house in France (which is the frame and organizing concept of the memoir). The house needs extensive renovation. He hires an architect to redesign the house, which the architect explains has been neglected for 500 years. While Bogarde is away finishing a film (he retires only occasionally), the architect and contractors finish the house.

His account of what happens next is humorus yet despairing. Everything that can go wrong did. The moving truck smashes half his possessions, the pond that he paddles around in turns out to be leaking sewage, and his topsoil was limestone and dust.

But the lack of electricity is the worst thing.

“It was August, the middle of the biggest French holiday. Not a hope of finding an electrician, let alone one who knew where the main cable might run. We continued unloading the vans as fast as possible, all thoughts of a refreshing bath banished, no light, and presumably no heat to cook.”

Of course all that is soon taken care of, and he lives quietly for two years in the well- loved house, working in his garden and entertaining his family. He also begins to think of writing. Amazingly, almost as in 84, Charing Cross Road, he corresponds with a brilliant old woman ( who once lived in his english house, who helps him fill the gaps in his literary education, returns his letters with grammar corrections, and shares his life at a distance.

The house in France gives him the quiet he needs to write.

He goes back to work after two years because he needs money. He works on many commercial films, but he also writes about working with Visconti on “A Death in Venice” (he writes about the concentration demanded by his role, but he’s fabulously funny about his co-star, who has been buillied into acting by his grandmother and cares about nothing but motorcycles).

Then he is very proud of his work on Liliana Caviani’s “The Night Porter,”which sounds agonizing: about an SS man and a non-Jewish woman in a concentrration camp who falls in love with him. Cavani, Bogarde, and his costar, Charlotte Rampling were sued for obscenity in Italy. They won their cases, but this is the kind of art film he tended to be involved with.

Friday, September 05, 2008


This morning I read Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy, which is a prequel-sequel to her best-seller 84, Charing Cross Road, and a chatty hybrid memoir which literally tumbled out of a china cupboard (where there are books, not china). It's difficult not to enjoy her first book, the popular 84, Charing Cross, which is a charming collection of letters between Hanff, a New York writer, and the employees of Marks and Co., an antiquarian London bookseller. (Amazon doesn't quite go in for this.) In Q’s Legacy, she describes the events that indirectly led to the writing of her best-seller: after weirdly failing a college scholarship exam by not knowing how to read maps (she was otherwise a stellar student), she discovered by chance the books of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, which she used as a guide to studying literature. She also needed out-of-print books after reading Q: thus began the correspondence with Marks and Co. The Q-based literary background enabled her to win a playwriting contest, move to NY, work in the theater in many capacities, write magazine articles, and eventually meet the witty Asian editor and friend, Gene, who helped her find a publisher (Helene eventually helped Gene pass her U.S. citizenship test). Helene's friends included famous editors, actors, and fans who telephoned her at midnight. It's a very touching, funny book, vaguely reminiscent of Elaine Dundy's writing (Dundy was also a playwright).