In the In tray I had almost a hundred-odd books, lying there gathering dust since my Penguin days. To that I had kept adding at random, books that I always wanted to read but couldn't find the time to. And there are some authors that you just pick up even if you aren't gonna read them right then. One of them is David Lodge, everything by whom I have read so far (except for Author Author, which is a biography of Henry James and very unlike what I'm used to reading), and another is Roald Dahl, of course.
Last month I started cleaning out the In tray by reading one book after another. I instinctively reached out for the British authors from the In tray. First to go was How Far Can You Go? by Lodge (yeah, you guessed), which is about growing up in the Catholic England of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The young ones who could not come to terms with the Church's teachings, about condoms being forbidden, about discovering the pleasures of sex and trying to have a balanced life but failing miserably. Most of the characters ended up having around four kids not because they could afford to have them but because the safe method was neither scientific nor safe. I learnt about rectal thermometers, much to my disgust, and kept wondering how I would have fared as a Catholic in the England of the 50s. Perhaps my faith would have evaporated a little too early, who knows. FYI, most of these guys fell out of faith eventually and couldn't care much about Sundays any more.
Then was the turn of Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, published in 1995. Wicked, British, and a modern-day Catcher in the Rye, of lesser proportions. I got to know about bands that I didn't know existed and also fell in love with Nick's narrative style. Casual, matter-of-fact, and very bold.
Third was Nice Work, by Lodge again, a book I had read long back in the early nineties as a PG student. Or perhaps when I was a salesman in Calcutta. In this book the British universities, living off grants and government dole meet British industries, probably on the brink of a recession, through two people, Robyn Penrose and Vic Wilcox. They try hard to understand one another and eventually the book triumphs in being able to make each understand the world of the other. Robyn, belonging in her ideal world of socialism and equality can't figure why the dirty jobs in the factory are being done by the Asians and how unscrupulously the management can get rid of them without a single thought. Vic, on the other hand, is aghast at the way people while away their time over coffee in the universities, apparently working. For him, spending money studying arts is itself a huge waste for the government exchequer, an idea that I quite liked. Not to side with him, but the very thought and the way it is argued, is worth giving a dime for.
Yes, Lodge makes them sleep with each other, something that I couldn't understand the need for. But maybe that symbolized the mating of industry with higher education. And when Lodge wrote this novel in the late eighties, the universities were trying to make money and sustain themselves. Maggy Thatcher had cut the grants. Gone were those days of idyllic lounging in the vast open spaces thinking of Saussure and Derrida and refuting everything that's said because it isn't what it apparently seems. Semiotic theory was always confusing.
Fourth came Roald Dahl's Going Solo, a book I finished overnight. It is racy, it is from the pen of the master storyteller, and what a story it is! It is devoid of any symbolism, full of stories from the second world war, and replete with images of Africa. Black and green mambas, Tiger Moths and Hurricanes, ju88 bombers, 109s and 110s from the Germans, and one guy called David Coke, who would have been the Earl of Leicester had he not been killed in his Hurricane by the Germans. This story, a real one, was so vivid and so nicely told, I couldn't for a moment put down the book.
I loved it when he comes back to the arms of his mom. For a moment it made me think of my mom, whom I lost a decade back. It also made me reflect on my life, which has been so dull and actionless unlike his. But then who wants to grow up in the middle of a war? That's what I would call the ideal storybook.
Next in line are some more British favorites from the libraries of our parents, I guess: Gerald Durrell, Tolkien, and Jerome K. Jerome. Yes, you won't believe, but I haven't ever read them apart from snippets or paras here and there. And then I will re-read some Peter Mayle, another British author settled in France, whose novels are free and beautiful. You can feel Provence in his stories, as if you are there, good French wine, and crimes that seem almost Italian in their panache.