The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

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Jurassic World and the return of wonder

The other day I saw the trailer for the new Jurassic World movie and shared it with my friends. We squealed like school girls quite unlike world weary adults that we are, and decided that June 2018 was a long time to wait. This movie is special to our generation because as kids it was probably one of the first movies we saw in theatres which brought a different world alive to us. Sadly they haven’t kept the magic alive. Jurassic World was a waste of a brilliant premise. Dinosaurs paraded around like cattle. People riding dinosaurs like donkeys isn’t what we come to see in cinemas. A big mela but with dinosaurs as a spectacle for the movie going audience. Frankly I was underwhelmed.

There is a line in the movie, “No one is impressed by a dinosaur anymore and the kids look at it like it’s an elephant”, which I quite agree with. The number of herbivores roaming around in lush greenery was unbelievable. Ever heard of the phrase too much of a good thing?

Dinosaurs used for military purposes was bizarre and we actually see them hunt like a pack of wolves. Evolutionarily hounds didn’t come into picture until much later. In a movie aimed at kids there was too much violence. Or perhaps I’m just old school.

Filling in the gaps in genome with the genes of other animals (like the ability to camouflage from the tree frog) was far from believable. But some parts were shown well like imprinting, rearing in isolation and an animal figuring out its place in the food chain.

I couldn’t channel the 6 year old in me to keep pace with the 10 year olds who were watching it with me. My movie viewing was peppered with far too many questions than I’d have liked. (Note to self – never take two 10 year olds to the movies together.) The solo movie going experience is delightful and more immersive as you are left alone with your thoughts. I realized, barring a few close friends I am now used to watching movies alone and I like it that way (will wonders never cease?). But it was also quite nice. I was sneaking looks to see the expressions on their faces to gauge if they were following the story and enjoying the movie or were scared so I will be prepared accordingly. When there was a blood curling scream and my young cousin sank into her seat petrified I realized there is no preparation here, you learn on the spot. (Parents have my utmost respect.)

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The Sense of an Ending (film)

Let me make it clear from the outset The Sense of an Ending isn’t a film you watch while munching popcorn. It is a very quiet movie and every sound is important. It is also not a film you watch with giggly friends (it is not a hangout movie). Of course the name is a dead giveaway. Spoilers ahead.

Ritesh Batra has done a commendable job on adapting The Sense of an Ending into such a lovely film. Philosophical and minimalist like the book but he has redeemed Tony Webster, the unlikable protagonist at the center of it. I love that it ends on a good note, quite unlike the book which ends with unrest (and a punch to the gut). Because Barnes does not believe in redemption. A crusty curmudgeon who sees the error of his ways late in his life but that he does is enough for the audience. The film ends with hope and you carry that into your life.

The film flits effortlessly between the past and the present like the book. Nothing is spelt out in the film too, and if you can believe me, it is more enigmatic than the book; you have to read between the lines and carefully observe what is unfolding on screen to get the complete picture.

Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn!) plays the retired Tony Webster. He is given a profession here as a camera shop owner unlike the book. He does something constructive with his time other than ruminating on the past, and ruining his present by trying to imagine how different scenarios would have played out. It’s what we all do from time to time but allowing it to take over your life is foolishness. Is that what you want to do with your one precious life?

Tony was delusional, unable to see things as they are; he couldn’t see it when Veronica was his college girlfriend and even now when he is an old man. Like Tony, most of us just bumble along in life and try to do the best we can. When the truth finally dawns on him, he is shattered but picks up the pieces and endeavours to do the right thing in his own way. But one’s right is another’s wrong. Continue reading “The Sense of an Ending (film)”

Thoughts on rereading The Sense of an Ending

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Before reading

This year I am going back to The Sense of an Ending. I have never read it after I read it the first time because I didn’t own the book then. Years later, when I do own it, I still haven’t read it yet. A lovely paperback, I kept putting it off  and saying to myself that the timing wasn’t right. What was stopping me? Is it fear of failing the book or thinking it might not stand up to the first delirious experience or spoiling something untouched by revisiting it?

Anyway I’m rushing to finish it before I see the movie, that is, if it does release in the small town where I live.  The release date being pushed off multiple times isn’t a good sign. On the plus side (if it can be called that) there will be a gap between my rereading the book and watching the adaptation. (Update – After postponing the release date week after week, it finally didn’t release here.)

A little bit of history.

Circa 2012. We were at Oxford bookstore together one evening doing the usual – hunting books, catching up, not exactly carefree students because adulthood was rearing its ugly head, but we were less attuned to the ways of the world, and more dreamy, assured that like in books, things will work out for us. When we spotted the hauntingly beautiful book cover and read the title, we were sold. Also, The Sense of an Ending was thinner than most prize winners hence, much less likely to bore us to death. The hardback was a thing of beauty and my friend bought it. She immediately read it and passed it on to me. I read it even though final exams were knocking at my door. Needless to say, it was a great read.

Now you know why I have been putting it off. What if my expectations won’t do it any justice the second time around? It’s crunch time. Time to dive in. Five years later we will see where we stand and how good is my understanding of the book. And what new I can take from it.

Spoilers ahead.

After reading

Five years later it is both new and familiar at the same time, though at different places. There is more philosophy than I remember but the prose is sparkling. I might be biased here because I am a fan of his work and will probably read everything he writes. Each word packs a punch. The Sense of an Ending has to be read very slowly, and has to be read many times to understand everything. Even then something would remain beyond reach because Veronica’s character remains an enigma from start to finish. She keeps  mum instead of expressing what bothers her at any given point in time.

The Sense of an Ending teaches you to live with grey. It is something I have trouble coming to terms with, even today. All the characters are unlikable. This time around I observed that the tone of the book is unforgiving, to the point of being acerbic.

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