Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

I suppose I should be thankful for a few hours of non-challenging reading, but it almost feels like hours wasted if not spent thrilling the tips of my brain with the stack of other books that await. Regardless, I somewhat enjoyed this quick dip into the slums outside Mumbai and the detailed picture outlined by Katherine Boo in this well-researched non-fiction account. She spent several years lurking at the edge of the sewage-choked lake, translator nearby, taping and recording the stories of the inhabitants. We follow the threads of several families, one of which has been climbing precariously out of poverty by sifting through garbage and selling for a higher price back to recyclers the garbage they purchase and sort. This family is pushed off their upward climb by a false claim by a one-legged neighbor who sets herself on fire but claims they did it. Another family is led by a woman looking to be the first woman slum lord, seeking power and facilitating corruption. We see the ragged lives of the children either killed or suiciding on rat poison, but yet also gleaming full of hope. Behind this detailed picture, we spot India flexing its 21st century muscles and trying to attain wealth of its own despite the obstacles of constant corruption and malaise.

Edited to add that yes, I have also been taking “breaks” with the graphic novels recently consumed, but those at least lacked the pretension and taking-itself-so-seriously of this book. Give me lighthearted comics any day of the week for release from high falutin’ intellectual work over puffed up pieces like this one. Especially grating was the author’s note at the end, where she reveals that she was afraid of venturing into the slums but then when she cracked her ribs tripping over an unabridged dictionary in her home, she realized she could face anything.

Antigone

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus

This is the perfect book to clutch when in the midst of a panic attack about the 2016 election. Creon’s actions as a tyrant are tiresome–from banishing Antigone to death because she buried her dead brother (Polynices, the traitor leading an invading army against his brother and the city of Thebes), to snarking about the blind man’s prophesy (“What now? What earth-shattering truth are you about to utter?”). Creon’s son Haemon is set to marry Antigone, madly in love with her, yet his stubborn father won’t relent from the death penalty for a crime that wasn’t recognized by the gods. A few of Haemon’s lines were perfect to be spoken by Trump’s progeny: “Now, you see? Who’s talking like a child?” and “If you weren’t my father, I’d say you were insane,” or even:

Now don’t, please, be quite so single-minded, self-involved, or assume the world is wrong and you are right. Whoever thinks that he alone possesses intelligence, the gift of eloquence, he and no one else, and character too… such men, I tell you, spread them open—you will find them empty.

There’s also a tirade that Creon gives about money worth quoting these 2,500 years later:

Money! Nothing worse in our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting. Money—you demolish cities, root men from their homes, you train and twist good minds and set them on to the most atrocious schemes. No limit, you make them adept at every kind of outrage, every godless crime—money!

Robert Fagles never fails as a Greek translator. His rendition of Sophocles’ Antigone was lyrical, digestible, and makes sense to the modern reader. I also very much appreciated the intro section in this Penguin edition that Bernard Knox contributed about Greece and the origins of theater. Fun fact: the Greeks cut their wine with a ratio of 3:1 water to wine.

Turned on to reading this finally by discovering what a powerful impact it had on Virginia Woolf when she translated it from the original during her Greek lessons with Clara Pater.

Deerbrook

Deerbrook

Harriet Martineau rarely wrote novels. Instead, this 19th century woman of letters focused on sociological writing like Illustrations of Political Economy, Society in America, and Retrospect of Western Travel. Deerbrook (1839) was her first attempt at fiction, a three volume Victorian novel that came after Jane Austen but before Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. The book is best appreciated as a historical artifact of women’s literature rather than able to stand on its own merits. I freely admit to only making it through the first volume, not terribly interested in the tedious musings about marriage that seemed destined to carry me through the remaining 400 pages.

In the first volume, the lovely Ibbotson sisters come to stay for the summer at their distant relative Mr. Grey’s house in Deerbrook. Marriage speculation and plotting begins as soon as they arrive, with the doctor Mr. Hope being set up to marry the prettiest sister, Hester. Unfortunately, he really loves her sister Margaret, who despite being plain is of the kinder/gentler persuasion. Hope gets entangled in a marriage with someone he doesn’t love, and Margaret lives with them, bringing fresh pain daily. There’s an amusing rivalry between the wives of the two business partners, Grey and Rowland, but as it slogs on without reprieve for at least the 200 pages that I suffered through, it began to grate on the nerves.

Martineau herself never married, describing herself as ‘probably the happiest single woman in England.’ Her deafness may have played some part in this, but it enabled her to write a fiction brimming with cautionary tales about marriage. In one scene between the schoolmistress, Maria Young, and Margaret, they muse about the silliness of brides. “And yet all girls are brought up to think of marriage as almost the only event in life. Their minds are stuffed with thoughts of it almost before they have had time to gain any other ideas.”

Pilgrimage (Vol 4: Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill, March Moonlight)

I’ve been having the most vivid dreams since I’ve been falling asleep to the voice of Miriam in my head for the past month. Alas, I’ve reached the end of the journey, the final volume containing the last five books of Pilgrimage. The volume starts off incredibly strong—I absolutely love the descriptions of Switzerland in Oberland, evoking memories of reading Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), which was published three years before Oberland. In it, Miriam has saved up for a delightful trip, taking herself alone to Switzerland to a ski chalet, tobogganing down the snowy hills and chumming it up with her fellow travelers for a fortnight. She will continue to reminisce about the wonders of Oberland throughout the remaining books.

Dawn’s Left Hand details Miriam/Richardson’s affair with Hypo/HG Wells, kicked off by attending an opera with him and his wife, Miriam’s friend Alma. She continues working at the dentists’ office in Wimpole Street, has moved out of the shared rooms with Miss Holland and back into her boarding house with Mrs. Bailey on Tansley Street. “Whatever else awaited her at Tansley Street, these moments waited there. And daily moments of return to a solitude that whenever she crossed the threshold of her empty room ceased to be solitude.” She meets the French/Irish woman Amabel at the Lycurgan/Fabian society, and they both fall madly yet platonically in love with each other.

Miriam introduces Amabel to Michael, the Jew she refuses to marry, in Clear Horizon and they go on to marry in the later books. Amabel also gets deeply into the suffrage cause, participating in marches and getting jailed. Miriam also introduces Amabel to Hypo, and he whisks away with Miriam to her Donizetti coffee shop to focus attention solely on her. “His swift glance towards the next table revealed his everlasting awareness of neighbours-as-audience, and his search, even here, for a sympathetic witness of his tolerant endurance of a young person’s foolish remarks, or for escape into some interesting aspect of his surroundings.” Ah yes, I have also spent time with such a narcissist. As she begins the process of cutting loose from Hypo, she receives a letter that she wants to return to him.

But anything would have been better than responding, to his zestful sketch of himself, so thoroughly in the masculine tradition, and which any ‘sensible’ woman would indulgently accept and cherish, with something that had been dictated by a compensating complacent vision of herself as the Intimate Friend of a Great Man; but without the justification so amply supporting his complacency, without a single characteristic to qualify her for the role, or a sufficient background of hard-won culture to justify a claim to it. His rebuke, though addressed to a non-existent person, the meekly admiring follower he desired rather than an opponent facing the other way, was well earned. But his manner of administering it, insufferable.

At the end of Clear Horizon Miriam decides to cut all ties to London and her previous life. As she discusses this with Hypo, he mentions that she has ten years of material she could use in a dental novel.

‘You know, you’ve been extraordinarily lucky. You’ve had an extraordinarily rich life in that Wimpole Street of yours. You have in your hands material for a novel, a dental novel, a human novel, and, as a background, a complete period, a period of unprecedented expansion in all sorts of directions. You’ve seen the growth of dentistry from a form of crude torture to a highly elaborate and scientific and almost painless process. And in your outer world you’ve seen an almost ceaseless transformation, from the beginning of the safety bicycle to the arrival of the motor car and the aeroplane. With the coming of flying that period is ending and another begins. You ought to document your period.’

‘You’ve been a great chucker-up, I admire that. But I’m not sure that you’re being wise this time, Miriam. What are you going to do?’

Whence this strange prophecy? Nothing she had written or said could have suggested that she was going away for good. Even in her own mind the idea had risen only in the form of a question to be answered in the distant future, at the end of her reprieve that seemed endless.

‘Nothing. I’m going away.’

‘Where?’

‘I don’t know.’

With that, she leaves her London life forever. Dimple Hill has her beginning her journey with the Broom sisters (Grace and Florence) but then settling in as a border with a Quaker family. “I realized one of the Quaker secrets. Living always remote, drawn away into the depths of the spirit, they see, all the time, freshly. A perpetual Sunday.” This book was completed in 1938, the final book Richardson would live to see completed. March Moonlight was cobbled together posthumously, a process I’m not entirely a fan of. This last book is a strange hodgepodge of rolling up bits from the past, and according to her biographer, it was written in sporadic bursts over the last few decades of her life while she was living hand to mouth with her poet husband, both sickly and struggling to make ends meet.

Now that I’m finished, I’d have to say that my favorite books were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon. As soon as she leaves London, the interest fades quickly. I’m immediately on the hunt to purchase this complete set, but find that it is nearly impossible to get. I think I heard rumblings of an annotated, scholarly version hitting the presses in a few years, and will probably wait to grab that for my next reading.

 

Notorious RBG

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Delightful recap of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life so far, that amazing powerhouse of a Supreme Court Justice who has been churning out forceful dissents against the right-leaning court. The sexism she faced during law school and beyond will turn your stomach, but always a good reminder of how much bullshit had to be dealt with. Told she had to accept a very modest salary because her husband already had a good job, she asked about a bachelor colleague and was told that he was getting a normal salary despite not having a family to raise.

The book dissects some of her most notable dissents, and layers in a few of the best graphics from the Notorious RBG meme alongside biographical info. RBG’s tactic has been to make slow and steady progress, chipping away at the disgraceful stone of our discriminatory laws for years upon years. Here’s to as many more years of RBG as we can handle.

Tidbits:

* RBG had Vladimir Nabokov as a lit prof at Cornell

Killing and Dying

Killing and Dying

Accused of literary snobbery, I am forced to include this book in the catalog of what I have read this week. I’m highly indebted to B for his impeccable taste in graphic novels and appreciate being steered towards this one. Adrian Tomine draws six distinct stories: Hortisculpture, Amber Sweet, Go Owls (tale of abusive relationship with a guy she meets in AA), Translated from the Japanese, Killing & Dying (the eponymous story, a tale of stand-up comedy and death of a mother), and Intruders. Good stuff, a welcome salve to soothe the brain that toils too much in volume 4 of Pilgrimage at the moment.

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

This bio of Mary McGrory started out strong, interspersing bits of her columns along with info about her life. But it bogs and sinks in the sludge of politics, and is not for the faint of (political) heart. If you’re not interested in a detailed review of every presidential campaign since the 1960s, you’re not going to enjoy this book. I also take umbrage with the pompous title– first queen of journalism? Have we so quickly forgotten about Fanny Fern’s tremendous popularity in the 1860s?

She was a successful woman journalist during the early days when this made her stand out as an oddity. Never married, carried a torch for a wishy-washy rich dandy who ultimately left his wife and married someone else. Supposedly in love with Eugene McCarthy during his run for the presidency. Supposedly regretted not settling down with a hubby and a brood of children in her later life (Irish heritage coming home to roost?).

The book makes grand, sweeping, unverifiable statements like “She helped make objecting to the [Vietnam] war respectable.”

Tidbits:

  • LBJ hit on her, schmoozing into her apartment with several secret service dudes in the middle of the night to declare his love only to be rebuffed
  • As a successful journalist she was offered a position at the NY Times DC bureau but told that she’d also need to “handle the switchboard in the morning.”

Pilgrimage (Vol 3: Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap)

This begins to feel like a slog. Books 6,7, and 8 of the series, and we travel further into Miriam’s mind as she jumps from thought to thought, not stopping to tell us where she is or with whom. She continues to wander around London, enjoying her midnight walks and seclusion in coffee shops, flaunting her independence and rejecting marriage offers. In the last book, she gives up her room to move in with another woman to save money, a flimsy curtain strung up across their bedroom to give the illusion of privacy. When, on the first night, Miriam and Miss Holland disagree about the pleasantness of rattling windows, Miriam knows she’s in a bad situation. It’s also an ill omen that Holland does not enjoy Donizetti’s comforts like Miriam, lounging on the red velvet sofa while enjoying a late night snack and coffee. Meanwhile, the poet Yeats apparently lives in the building behind them, peepable from Miriam’s window. If you can wade through the somewhat incomprehensible streams of consciousness, there are delightful tidbits of Miriam’s feminist rage.

From Deadlock, Miriam discovers one of her employers reading an outrageously sexist book:

Lovely Woman, by T.W.H. Crosland. Why so many similar English initials? A superfluity of mannishness. An attack of course; she scanned pages and headings; chapter upon chapter of peevish facetiousness; the whole book written deliberately against women… The usual sort of thing; worse, because it was colloquial, rushing along in modern everyday language and in some curious way not badly written. Because some women had corns, feminine beauty was a myth; because the world could do without Mrs Hemans’s poetry, women should confine their attention to puddings and babies. The infernal complacent cheek of it. This was the kind of thing middle-class men read. Unable to criticize it, they thought it witty and unanswerable… It ought to be illegal to publish a book  by a man without first giving it to a woman to annotate.

From Revolving Lights, in conversation with Hypo Wilson (e.g. HG Wells):

‘Nonsense, Miriam. Girls with quite good brains and abilities will marry anything; accept its views and quote them.’

‘Yes; just as they will show off a child’s tricks. Views and opinions are masculine things. Women are indifferent to them, really. Any set will do… It is that women can hold all opinions at once, or any, or none. It’s because they see the relations of things which don’t change, more than things which are always changing, and mostly the importance to men of things men believe.

Further musings:

Why cannot men exist without thinking themselves all there is?… [Men] never are. They only make or do; unconscious of the quality of life as it passes… Men have no present; except sensuously. That would explain their ambition and their doubting speculations about the future. Yet it would be easier to make all this clear to a man than to a woman. The very words expressing it have been made by men.

On Miriam’s void when in the room with the Lintoffs and Michael:

There was no pressure in the room; no need to buy peace by excluding all but certain points of view. She felt a joyful expansion. But there was a void all about her. She was expanded in an unknown element; a void, filled by these people in some way peculiar to themselves.

 

Roger Fry: A Biography

Roger Fry: A Biography

Finally read Virginia Woolf’s carefully balanced biography of her friend Roger Fry. She was hampered somewhat by the restrictions of having to please his sisters and friends and not include any scandalous material (like her sister’s love affair with him) which has illuminated Frances Spalding‘s more recent bio.

Fry sounds like rather an interesting old chap, pushing forward into Post Impressionism but still wrangling with a more traditional painting style of his own. He marries another artist, Helen, to the dismay of his Quaker parents who want nothing more than him to be hard-working and successful in the more common business aspects; Helen “goes mad” and is shut up in an asylum for nearly 30 years before kicking the bucket.

Fry gets more and more confident as a critic, and is tapped by JP Morgan to be the director of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, but Fry initially resists because he doesn’t want to leave England and he sees that Morgan had no real appreciation for art. On Morgan: “I don’t think he wants anything but flattery. He is quite indifferent as to the real value of things. All he wants experts for is to give him a sense of his own wonderful sagacity… The man is so swollen with pride and a sense of his own power that it never occurs to him that other people have any rights.” Fry signs on with an amended contract that allows him to spend most of the year in London, only traveling to NYC for three months of the year, but then acting as their buyer in Europe for the remaining months. Apparently there was quite a struggle with Morgan about whether pieces would be purchased for his private collection or for the museum.

Fry didn’t quite like America, “the contrasts are amazing… I sometimes wonder whether this society isn’t drifting back to sheer barbarism…. the trouble is that no one really knows anything or has any true standard. they are as credulous as they are suspicious and are wanting in any intellectual ballast so that fashion and passing emotions drift them anywhither.” He did meet Mark Twain at a dinner and liked him tremendously, though.

Back in London, he becomes estranged from the position and either quits or is let go after a battle with Morgan over a painting. He then takes up his previous life of lectures and writing, traveling all over Europe to look at pictures, to study them so he can go back to London and talk about them all winter.

I’m petering out my enthusiasm here, but could probably do a re-read at some point if investigating VW’s notes on writing biography.