30 January 2010

The enduring charm of Pride And Prejudice

Why is it that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice enjoys such a place of pride in the history of literary annals? The book has been re-imagined for the screen at least thrice, once as mini-series on BBC, which is still considered the most definitive adaptation of Austen’s classic. Yet, the fascination for it prevails and this eighteenth-century novel remains as one of the most widely read texts in the world.

So what is it that attracts filmmakers to keep revisiting Pride And Prejudice, as director Joe Wright last did with his Keira-Knightley film in 2005? Is it because Austen's heroine in the novel - with her pluck and wit - appeals as much to modern-day men and women as she did in her period?

Now, much has been made about Austen being a feminist and so on. Beyond the fact that the author liked and rewarded her heroines for being less superficial than the rest, it must be fairly stated that there was no real attempt on Austen's part to drastically break away from the prevailing conventions of her time. She was very much part of the patriarchal set-up and didn't really bother herself with the gender politics, though she was keen and discerning enough to understand that it existed. Her stories faintly hinted at injustice towards women, wherein they could not own property or pursue a real career, but she adapted to the time she lived in. If anything, she laid some stress on her female characters negotiating their space and freedom in their given circumstances.

One of the reasons that keeps this classic so fresh is that to this day a great premium is laid on matrimony and a woman finding the perfect match for herself. Also, the Darcy- Elizabeth love-hate relationship remains one of the most romantic happenings in literature. There is something curiously exciting and even gratifying about a man of pride, position, and privilege humbling himself before love and being so vulnerable to the emotion. This is precisely what readers across ages and generations have found so endearing about the debonair personality of M. Darcy.

The other reason for the novel to remain relavant is the character of Elizabeth (Lizzy), who in her own way, refuses to entirely comply with the conventions of her time. The pragmatism and cynicism of the age she lived in does not prevent her from being a romantic idealist. It is this quality that Darcy finds incredibly attractive. But as we know, Lizzy, for all her bright wit and exuberance, is charmingly naive. She makes an error of judgement with respect to Darcy, hating him with a passion, only to find herself in the wrong and then getting violently drawn to him.

Considering that the BBC mini-adaptation absolutely nailed the book, capturing every word and emotion to perfection, there was nothing really left for the next screen adaptation to do but approach it slightly differently. What Joe Wright and the makers do in the 2005 version of the film is to concentrate more on recreating the ambience, mood and visuals, rather than going too deeply into the characters or the story. The makers have gone with the assumption that most people already know about the story. Right from the first scene, where Keira Knightley, presented as the free-spirited Lizzy walks towards her home with a book in hand, the camera gorgeously moves capturing the pretty countryside in all its glory. The attempt is to bring alive the mood and magic as depicted in the Austen novel. The evening balls have been splendidly recreated and every setting is pitch perfect with a warm, lived-in feel to it.

Also, in spite of the film covering an entire novel in just a little over two hours, it manages to look not too hurried. If anything, it is a bit languorous and sometimes even audibly problematic. The characters seem to say some key sentences in an off hand way.

Yet, all the key scenes have been retained with some changes being made to make the experience more cinematic or impactful. Like for example, there is that scene where Lizzy and Mr And Mrs Collins are dining with Lady Catherine. The latter asks Lizzy some pointed questions in her patronizing way, to which Lizzy's answers are both witty and unflinching, much to the shock of Lady Catherine. In the book, Mr Darcy is not part of this scene. But in the film, he is. This is a good choice because it helps you understand in quick time why Darcy could have been enamoured with Lizzy. Also, this is a very well-done scene , with Judy Dench as the domineering Lady Catherine in full form.

Again, the famous proposal scene between the leads happens outdoors in the rain to heighten its impact. In fact, many scenes are shot outdoors to give the film a visually sumptuous feel. The other change that has been made is that when Lizzy visits Pemberley, she sees Darcy with his sister in an exaggerated joyful state. The original has Lizzy taken by surprise to see Darcy there, and both experience a rare moment of ecstasy. Like the novel says, “Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.” This should have been ideally retained in the film.

Also, the character of Collins - the infamous cousin of the Bennet sisters - has been lampooned only by way of his shortness in the film. If not for his midget-like appearance, his face and manners carry the impression of him being a perfectly respectable and decent young man. Never does he really come across like the pompous and irritating man Austen intended him to be. Of course, he mouths all those funny lines in the proposal scene, but he comes across as more pitiable than ludicrous here.

The casting for Lizzy’s character was the most important one, but somehow Keira Knightley just doesn’t fit the bill. The makers probably wanted a today’s version of Elizabeth but what you get is a rather flighty, giggly female, with not an iota of the grace that is so essential to Lizzy’s character. The others are adequate. Matthew Macfadyen, as Darcy, looks odd at places keeping a stiff upper lip, but he also exudes a certain vulnerability which is charming.

Overall though, this is a fine adaptation. And must not be missed for its luminous visuals and stunning recreation of a bygone era.

20 January 2010

Collected Short Stories Vol 1 Somerset Maugham

First Published in: 1951

There are some writers who once you sample their works, you cannot give up until you have covered a fair share of it. With Somerset Maugham, the challenge is both thrilling as well daunting. Thrilling because here is an author I am so happy I discovered and with whom I almost feel a kindred spirit - in terms of the themes he takes up and his so called cynicism - which is really not cynicism, but a certain astounding ability to discern human weaknesses. He's realistic about people, knowing well that human beings are inconsistent and complex. Also, he realizes that seemingly incongruous traits can exist in the same person. This prevents Maugham from either eulogizing a person too much or berating their depravity. According to Maugham, he could never judge anyone too harshly or be too shocked by sin, precisely because he was guilt-ridden about many things himself and understood only too well that perfection is a myth and that we all live extremely flawed lives. He said, “I take the goodness of the good for granted, and I am amused when I discover their defects or their vices. I am touched when I see the goodness of the wicked, and I am willing enough to shrug a tolerant shoulder at their wickedness.”

The above, in many ways, is the overarching theme of all his stories. The author gives voice to his own thoughts when one of his characters in The Fall of Edward Barnad says, "Perhaps we make too much of a difference between one man and another. Perhaps even the best of us are sinners and worst of us are saints"
His friend in the story is not willing to buy this argument and counters by saying, " You will never persuade me that white is black and black is white"
But almost every short story in this collection - and this quality applies to all the author's works in general - the writer points at the utter futility of catagorising people as good or bad, evil or virtuous. And to establish this truth, he puts his characters through all kinds of situations, delving deep into the recesses of their heart, acutely discerning their motives and the complex emotions that drive them.

There are about 30 stories in all, and each story is a wonder in character creation. And Maugham unfolds them with great relish, layer by layer – like the peeling of an onion. Many of them were written when he travelled far and wide – some of them were British colonies. Quite a few of the stories are based in London and are anecdotal . The Luncheon, Louise, The Promise, The Voice of the Turtle...all are delightful, and bristle with charm and ironic humour. There are some others which raise fundamental questions about religion, love and freedom.

As Maugham says in his book, The Summing Up, - themes came to him very easily. He could be talking to someone for an hour and he could envision a story revolving him. Such was the fecundity of his mind! Maugham’s characters are not entirely unusual, but they almost always have a quirk, which the author used to the fullest. He has a very fine sense of drama, so that you are always curious to know what happens next.
Mackintosh, for example, is a story that rests on his ability to sketch out the characters of the chief, Walter and his assistant, Mackintosh. The latter feels a strange mix of envy, hatred and derision for his boss. Walter is a loudmouth, a sadist, uncouth, but not without a roguish charm and a skill for repartee. He rules over the natives with an iron hand, but he also looks out for them like a tiger does for his cubs. Maugham is simply marvelous in his creation of these two persons.

Then there are other stories, where Maugham's skill with characters comes to the fore. The Mother is a poignant tale of a woman, who turns resentful and sullen after spending years in jail. Her only bundle of joy is her handsome son, whom she loves with a rare ferocity. But things go wrong again, and come to a tragic end.
The matriarch in Home is another gem of a creation. Equally enigmatic is the character of the laconic judge in The Happy Couple.

Maugham has written how he enjoyed the format of a short story, because he didn’t have to live with a story for too long. And yet, he believed that these stories no matter how small should be complete in themselves. He didn’t want any of them to trail off. This is partly a characteristic of Maugham’s writing – which is not only lucid, it never fails to make a point ever. This enables his stories to be engaging and dramatic. The flip side to this is that some of the endings to the stories appear too sudden and somewhat unconvincing . For example, in Rain – an otherwise powerful story about religion and its tyrannical propagators - it is never quite clear why the missionary Rev Davidson commits suicide. What are his motivations? The situation in the story and what you know of his character never lead you to believe what he does finally. Quite a few stories have an instance of a death or suicide at the end, but unfortunately, that decision at most times seems born out of the need for an ironic suggestion. You never quite understand why Mackintosh ends his life suddenly. Yes, human being are complex and contradict themselves often in action and words, yet, that can’t explain death/suicide so easily.

A few critics have also pointed towards racial undertones in a few of Maugham’s stories – one of them being The Pool. The story is about an English man, Lawson, an officer in the British colony of Apia. He falls in love with a beautiful native called Ethel and even marries her, much to the disapproval of the White community living there. But things don’t work as per his plans. He slowly loses his sway over the natives, has to bear the humiliation of working for a native owner. Seeing what a groveling lover he is, Ethel starts to despise him. The story ends with Lawson giving up his life, drowning himself in the Pool – the very place where he was first entranced by the native girl. If one has followed Maugham’s work keenly, one would be less inclined to read the story as a racial one. The theme is tied to the author’s belief in the idea that most women become heartless towards men who are unusually devoted to them and are willing to make any sacrifice. Maugham’s idea is that women will accept a man’s cruelty, but she can’t bear him being subservient. Of course, The Pool can be interpreted as a White man’s fascination for the exotic colonies he ruled over. The author could be suggesting that while it’s nice for the White man to admire the native land and its people, he must not allow their worlds to collide.

As expected, Maugham’s displays what a fine craftsman he is. The words are elegant and precise, with a wonderful sense for cadences - so that every now and then one feels like saying out a sentence aloud and relishing its ring. The delightful turn of phrases, the ironic wit, the keen insights – all ensure you don’t have a single dull moment with Maugham.

-Sandhya Iyer