Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Householder – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Simplicity – in the prose, in the naive main character, in the everyday dilemmas he faces. Prem is newly married (an arranged marriage) and is soon to be a father. He doesn’t find his wife attractive (except sexually), nor does he think she’s intelligent and refined. He’s a very constricted person, an introspective worrier, while Indu is neither of those things. He can’t figure out how to relate to her (and to her sulky moods). He teaches Hindi at a preparatory college, but he’s a poor teacher who can’t keep discipline in his class. He feels that he’s a failure in all aspects of life. He tries to find someone – anyone! – with whom he can unburden himself, but in vain. He doesn’t turn to his wife because he feels he must be someone she respects and looks up to; she reinforces this stereotypical role by not having much sympathy with weakness. One of Prem’s major worries is money: he wants his rent lowered and his salary increased. With these matters weighing on him, he’s drawn to the idea of renouncing all worldly things and giving himself to God. So there we have poor, doubting, dissatisfied Prem – and I liked and cared about him. I could even see how he got he way he is; his father (deceased) was an overbearing presence and his mother (she pays him and Indu an extended visit) is possessive and selfish and manipulative. These two kept him a boy; now, as a man and a husband, he’s struggling. There are comic elements in the book, mainly arising from the secondary characters. One of these, a German named Hans, is a one-dimensional parody of the type of Westerner who spouts platitudes about Indian wisdom. In the real world of Delhi, people don’t live in accordance with high-minded precepts. Prem’s landlord is gross and unfeeling, the principal at his school is pompous and unsympathetic. Prem has a boyhood friend he tries to get close to, but Raj is a married man with one child and another on the way; he’s stuck in a job and in living quarters that he dislikes; he has no interest in keeping the relationship alive. In the course of the book Prem slowly loses his reserve with Indu and comes to appreciate her. They will learn to love one another, and this is a precious thing. But, in looking at the other characters – particularly Raj and his overweight, coarse wife – one sees intimations of Prem’s future. Romantic love fades; Prem will be a householder, with all its responsibilities, and, like Raj, he will be dissatisfied. The charm of this lively, entertaining book doesn’t quite hide the dark undertones. The Householder was Jhabvala’s fourth novel; two years before it she wrote Esmond in India and two years after Get Ready for Battle. A cluster of excellence.

The Street – Ann Petry
The street is 116th in Harlem in the 1940s. It’s where Lutie and her eight-year-old son are forced to live. Their tiny apartment is dismal, the people around them are either brutish or uncaring. Jones, the super, is a sexual predator; Mrs. Hedges, who constantly looks out the window from her first floor apartment, runs a brothel where white “gentlemen” pay for the use of hapless young black girls. Lutie feels that she’s stuck in this ugly environment because of her race and poverty. The word “hate” appears often on these pages, and the hate is directed toward whites (though the blacks do the most damage to one another). Petry has a grudge, and she expresses it fully; The Street can be read as a social document, but it’s also an engrossing novel. We go into the minds and life histories of a variety of characters. Of these, an unlikely standout is Mim; she’s past middle age, with painful bunions and no teeth; she daily plods off to her job as (what else?) a housekeeper for white people. To avoid paying rent, she lives with Jones, who hates her for all she isn’t. In an effort to protect herself from his violent moods she goes to a “root doctor” named the Prophet David. This quiet, submissive person comes across so effectively because she’s down-to-earth, while most others tend to be extreme cases or grotesques. Petry keeps things under control until the last eight pages, when she severely damages her credibility. She sets everything up for what is inevitable, then backs away from having it happen. Instead of the true ending – one which would make a point powerfully – she substitutes a series of actions that are crazy, melodramatic and stupid. Surely Lutie – who is depicted throughout the book as a sexual magnet – would know exactly what she’d be asked to give in exchange for the two hundred dollars she needs to help her son. But, instead of what she would do, she murders a man and flees to Chicago, thus abandoning Bub. He’s an appealing little boy, and I thought about what awaits him. Will he wind up in an institution (possibly a reform school)? Will he be sent to live with his drunken grandfather? Or with a foster family? At the end Lutie “tried to figure out by what twists and turns of fate she had landed on this train. Her mind balked at the task. All she could think was, It was that street. It was that god-damned street.” No, Lutie, it wasn’t the street. It was Ann Petry who stuck you on that train. Take it up with her.

The Wedding – Grace Lumpkin
Though the novel spans two days, it presents a wide-ranging picture of life in white society in Lexington, Kentucky in the early 1900s. In doing so it raises issues relevant today. The wedding is to be a confederate one, with the bridesmaids carrying small confederate flags; the whites think of blacks as servants and little else. Lumpkin doesn’t seem to take sides; she lets people feel and act according to their natures and upbringing. The first chapter ends with this sentence: “But unexpectedly, on the very evening before the wedding, the bride and groom have a bitter quarrel.” It’s more than pre-marriage jitters. They were attracted to each other for superficial reasons; suddenly they realize that they’re quite unalike and, since both are strong-willed, neither is willing to give ground. They decide to call off the marriage, but – of course – there are great pressures against doing this. The last third of the novel resolves the dilemma in a roundabout fashion. When the newlyweds leave on a train one character thinks, “Perhaps it will be right.” Perhaps not. I found the fate of these two rather unappetizing characters to be less compelling than other issues. Susan, the bride’s twelve-year-old sister, is an exception to the statement above, regarding the way whites feel about blacks. She likes the servants, especially Louisa and Ed, and so she feels empathy for blacks in general. When a silver punch bowl is found missing, Ed is accused of stealing it; Susan knows that Ed had buried it at the orders of Saint John. Susan eventually stands up to the dictatorial boy and his imperious mother and tells the truth about what happened. Meanwhile, Ed has fled. Louisa says, “Nobody knows where he’s gone. He was scared of the police. And he run away. I don’t know what his Mama will do. And Lord knows how he’ll ever live.” At the end of the book we still don’t know what becomes of Ed. One wonders why Lumpkin left this unresolved. To most of her white characters, Ed’s predicament doesn’t matter a whole lot; but Susan (the most sympathetic of the lot) does care about him. The author presents both mind sets, and maybe that was her sole purpose. What I do know for sure after completing this novel is that a large-scale church wedding is utter foolishness and a colossal waste of money.

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