Friday, March 22, 2013

Merry Go Round - W Somerset Maugham

The best part about reading novels set in the Edwardian period, in England, is that that society resembles the Indian society in many ways. A rigid moral code defying which meant attracting collective social frown; the existence of a strict class division, violating which led to social derision and people going about their lives under these social norms , sometimes digressing but most times conforming. Merry Go Round was my third Maugham novel and it shares many traits in common with the other Maugham novels I read before, like character examination, a slow build up, adultery etc.

But the book is also different from the other two I had read in various ways. Merry Go Round is a commentary on the Edwardian society: how social rules shaped the lives of people, how a rigid class division was maintained, the shallowness of all this etc.

The narrative has several strands. Merry Go Round starts with a house party and then pans out into a novel tracking the lives of the guests at the party. The host of the party, Miss Ley, is a spinster who has inherited a fortune from another spinster and is the moral axis around which the other characters in the novel revolve.

There is Basil Kant an aspiring writer who marries a barmaid because of an unexpected development, overlooking his feelings for Mrs Murray - and the marriage suffers. There is Herbert Field, a clerk and poet, who is suffering from tuberculosis and Bella Langton at 40 double the age of Herbert marries him to tend to him in his last days and sees the poet die. And there is Frank Hurrell, a cynic, who abhors the conventional life. And there are many more to bring about a complete social interplay of characters, some conformists and some rebellious.

Maugham has skillfully pitted the rebellious characters against the conformist ones to throw into sharp relief his voice and views against those of the Edwardian society. The book mainly cocks a snook at the rich the employing class which held people economically dependent on them to the very moral codes that their socials peers and companions violated.

In another review of a Maugham book, I had said that his observations on human character and other things form an important part of Maugham’s narrative. In MGR they are plenty and they leave you feeling edified.

MGR was published in 1902 and is not among Maugham’s famous works. In fact, the novel has been completely forgotten. But you will find Maugham at his best in character development, interplay of plots and a commentary running in the background climaxing in a strong condemnatory message about the society in which the plot is set.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Novel plot challenges modern day technologies bring

When you try to write a novel or short story set in the ‘pre-Internet and mobile phone’ era, you realize how these technologies have changed our lives. I’m trying to write a novella (my third attempt to write one having failed twice before to take my attempts to conclusion) which starts from the early 80s and ends somewhere towards the end of the last decade, 2010s (roughly), spanning 30 years. Such being the timeframe of it, half of it is set in the period before the Internet and mobile phones arrived. While writing situations, I realized how the two technologies govern our lives today making them very different from the lives before the  arrival of mobile phones and the Internet.

The plot traces Anoop Nandi through his stay in Bangalore in the 80s and what happens to him after he leaves the city - all the way to current times with other characters coming in as the plot progresses. The novel is not about Anoop alone but three friends who had lived in Bangalore in the 80s and how their lives unfolded later, each representing a separate perspective on life.

The first half of the novel is set in the 80s. Anoop and I stay in Bangalore as friends and colleagues but we can talk and exchange details about each other only when we meet in office or each other’s residences, physical places. These physical places are important for us to stay connected, to exchange details about each other and so on. (Being migrant workers in Bangalore we didn’t have landline phones and landline connections were very difficult to get those days anyway.) In modern times, mobile phones and of course social networking sites would play the role of a connecting platform. You wouldn’t necessarily need an office or someone’s residence to be in touch with your friend. This makes our lives today very different from the pre-cell-phone-Internet times.

And being used to our modern lives as we are, you have to constantly remind yourself while writing a plot based before the advent of modern communication technologies that a lot of what we take for granted today were not available then. So a person had to either have a landline at home or go to a public booth to phone someone up. A person had to send a telegram to give an urgent news to someone else. Etc.

You can best feel these time-gap differences when you are building a tight situation-based plot: how a character is informed by another character about an accident that suddenly killed someone close to the character being informed; if two characters have to be separated for a period such that they completely lose track of each other, in ‘pre cell phone Internet’ times it would be very easy to do them part, but today due to social networking sites it’s almost impossible for two persons to be untraceably lost to each other.

I’m struggling with these details particularly because my plot is based in both pre and post communication revolution times, but these are just auxiliary details for my plot – they may convey dynamics of the times in which an action is set, but they don’t contribute to the essential plot. Albeit, for, say, detective stories where small details actually form the main plot, the technology angle can make lot of difference and present a challenge to the author. First he/she has to decide whether his characters use these technologies; if yes, at what level, how frequently; if no, why. And so on.

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