Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Notes on Recent Reading 26 (Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau)

A Distant Mirror (Tuchman)

Though a popular work by a nonspecialist, Barbara Tuchman’s account of fourteenth century history following the life of a significant French nobleman is intelligent, informative, and entertaining. She uses the devices of a novelist, noting not only descriptive details of weather and landscape but also detailing the moods and attitudes of the story’s principal characters. And it works admirably. She has done her research in primary and secondary sources both and has predigested it all for the comfort and amusement of the reader. Her narration is enlivened as well by wit and humane engagement. The reader will become immersed in the late Middle Ages and is likely to be educated about a number of topics. I, for instance, had never realized so dramatically the effect of “free companies” of mercenaries roaming Europe, hiring themselves out to one magnate or another, or, failing such regular employment, either plundering the countryside or extorting huge payments as the price of leaving a city alone. Only in the historical details can one realize the drama produced by the unpredictable rivalries of courts run by individuals amid crowds of competing barons who constantly shift allegiance in their own self-interest.

Godan (Premchand)

Premchand ‘s last novel published in Hindi in 1936 details the exploitation of a rural peasant, a fundamentally honest and respectable man by his community’s standards (though he beats his wife) who is gradually worn down through malnutrition and hard manual labor despite his tireless efforts to improve his situation.

The title refers to the donation of a cow which is thought to be a particularly meritorious religious act. For the novel’s main character, however, the mere possession of a cow is a lifelong dream that remains out of his grasp through his hard-working life. Written during the same era as the American proletarian novel, Premchand described the condition of the Indian masses, laying out in painful detail the plight of the peasant. Though the novel is rarely didactic, just before the end the theme is stated explicitly: “They all suffered. The peasant moved about, worked, wept and put up with oppression without a murmur, as if to suffer was part of his destiny.” As Hori says, “My life has been one long grind.” Not only does the landlord extort his wealth from the poor, the government does as well. The Brahmins are all depicted as charlatans and profiteers. Should police show up, they seek bribes from anyone nearby. Villagers with a bit of surplus cash turn to merciless moneylenders. On every side vultures seek to steal from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The author, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastav, is the author of a dozen novels, hundreds of short stories and translations of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Wilde among others. He associated himself with the radical wing of the independence movement and his novel Soz-e-Watan was banned by the British. Unlike some writers from the same era, including many members of the Indian National Congress, Premchand sees no solution in socialism. In the book some left-wing Brahmins convince the sugar mill workers to go on strike, and, when the action proves disastrous for the poor, their advisors simply return to their customary comforts.
Godan makes clear how insidiously ideology can operate. When an individual offends the community, the only recourse is donations of rice to all and a feast for the Brahmins. (On the other hand, villagers sometimes intervene to stop what strikes them as unjust behavior by their peers.) Hori wishes always to be proper and to win what prestige he can with his behavior. Even while slowly starving, he is acutely conscious of his standing and fights fiercely to maintain his respectability. Perhaps this is only natural, for it is very nearly the only asset he possesses.

Les Enfants Terribles (Cocteau)

What to do with Cocteau? One need not buy Breton’s dismissal or even the raft of critics that find him a bit of a poseur to consider him a special case. I, like others, have always loved the drawings, so similar one to another and yet with such graceful lines, and found the films, especially Beauty and the Beast, unforgettable after a first adolescent film club viewing. This book, with its hothouse amalgam of myth, preciosity, perversity, and common meanness ending in the most shocking Liebestod the author could conceive.
In spite of writing the title in French above, I read the New Directions version by Rosamond Lehmann, though Samuel Putnam (of whom I think very highly) had done a translation shortly after the book’s original publication.

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