• Friday, September 29th, 2023

Jhumpa Lahiri, whose real name is Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri, was born in London, England, in 1967 to Bengali parents from Calcutta. Her father was a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and her mother was a schoolteacher. Her family immigrated to London before settling in the United States when Jhumpa was three years old.

In 1989, Jhumpa Lahiri obtained a B.A. Degree in English literature from Barnard College, plus three M.A. degrees in English, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature and Arts and a doctorate in Renaissance Studies from Boston University in the 1990s.

Lahiri has written novels, short stories and essays. She writes in English and Italian and has received several awards for her work. Her books have been translated into many languages. Her second novel, The Lowland, published in 2013, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award and gained Lahiri the 2015 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2005, she became Vice President of the PEN American Center. Lahiri has taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design. She has two children from her journalist husband, the Guatemalan-American Alberto Vourvoulias, and she lives between New Jersey and Rome, Italy.

The story starts between the 1950s and 1960s in Tollygunge, a neighbourhood of the West Bengal city south of Calcutta, with two inseparable young Bengali brothers, Subhash and Udayan Mitra, who are close in age (born fifteen months apart) but different in character.

Subhash is the older brother; he is conservative, introverted, gentle, studious and devoted to his parents. He disagrees with his brother’s violent, politically risky beliefs. The younger brother, Udayan, is daring, idealist and passionate about his political cause, ready to give up anything for it. As the two brothers reach maturity, they follow different paths.

Subhash goes to Rhode Island, USA, to study oceanography, while in India, Udayan is ready to sacrifice his young life for his ideals. He is a Marxist-Leninist and becomes a member of the Naxalite-Maoists, a communist supportive group of Maoist political ideology, rebellious against inequalities and poverty and consequently justifies violence against the government. Udayan is arrested and executed by the police in front of his family.

The Naxalbari uprising was an armed poor peasant revolt in 1967 in the Naxalbari Indian village against local landlords who illegally dispossessed and brutally beat a peasant over a land dispute. The police opened fire on a group of villagers who demanded their share of the crops and legitimate land redistribution to working peasants. The firing killed nine adults and two children. The uprising led to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969 and is still, until today, an ongoing conflict between Maoist groups known as Naxalites and the Indian government.

Udayan’s death is a pivotal point in the story that will affect the future of three generations: his parents, his elder brother Subhash, his young, newly married, pregnant wife, Gauri, and later his unborn daughter Meghna. Following this significant event, everybody’s life around Udayan will be ruined, as illustrated throughout the story, which spans several decades for nearly fifty years and four generations.

His parents will never recover from his brutal killing. Subhash, out of loyalty to his younger brother, marries his widow to save her from living with his family that never liked her and consequently condemns himself to an unhappy life, a loveless marriage on both sides. The author writes about Gauri: “She married Subhash as a means of staying connected to Udayan. But even as she was going through with it she knew that it was useless”.

The author is never clear about Gauri’s character, which is never analysed in depth despite being one of the main characters. By striving to make her a martyr, a tragic victim of circumstances, in order to attract readers’ sympathy, Lahiri makes her a loathsome, cold-hearted, vapid, and unsympathetic person, creating unhappiness around her. Firstly, Subhash, who rescued her from a future grim life with her in-laws, and second, her unloved daughter, Bela, born from Udayan, the beloved husband she mourned throughout her life but nevertheless could not love Bela, the daughter she had from him.

Another puzzling character is Subhash. How can a person remain placid, insensitive, and apathetic throughout his life without being affected by the daunting experiences of so many decades, like heartbreaking events and exile, without revealing meaningful feelings even when provoked?

The Lowland (the book title) refers to a marshy stretch of land between two ponds in a Calcutta suburb where Subhash and Udayan played as children. It is a bleak family saga with a historical background. The story is divided between Tollygunge, a neighbourhood of Calcutta and Rhode Island in the New England region of the northeastern United States. The book is flawlessly written, conveying profound emotions and empathy mainly oriented towards a storytelling description of surroundings rather than characters’ spontaneity and psychological depth, which curtails its strength.

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• Sunday, June 25th, 2023

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in Lincoln, England, in 1916 to a distinguished family of intellectuals and scholar forebears. She grew up in Hampstead and, at the age of eight, was educated at a boarding school at Wycombe Abbey in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, followed by Somerville College, Oxford.

After graduating in 1939, she worked at the Ministry of Food and at the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1941 she married Desmond Fitzgerald, who proved to be an irresponsible, alcoholic husband and father. The couple had three children. The matrimony was irrefutably a failure leading to poverty and hardship. Penelope Fitzgerald’s husband died in 1976, and she died in London in 2000. Her daughter Maria said that her mother worked until the week she died.

Having three children did not stop Fitzgerald from working. She worked in 1960 as an English teacher at a performing arts school, then at Westminster Tutors. Before starting her writing career at the late age of fifty-eight, she had been teaching for twenty-six years before becoming the manager of a bookshop in Southwold, Suffolk. She wrote biographies, novels, short stories, essays and reviews. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 and the Golden Pen Award in 1999, among others.

Although not as well-known as other writers as she deserves, Penelope Fitzgerald is considered among the most significant British writers since 1945. The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s second novel, published in 1978, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was adapted into a film in 2017. It is based on the author’s own experience working in a bookshop while living in an abandoned Suffolk warehouse.

The story is set in 1959 and has, as a main character, the lonely, courageous middle-aged widow, Florence Green, who does not endear herself to the villagers and does not care to. With her modest inheritance, she has her heart set on opening the first bookshop in the small, parochial, East Anglian seaside fictional town of Hardborough.

Nothing seems to dampen her enthusiasm despite living in a primitive conservative community based on set orders. By opening her bookshop, Florence wanted to change the life of the villagers, to challenge the mentality of some of them, who say: “she has a shop full of books for people to read. But what for?” Unintimidated, Florence believes in her motto: “where there is life there is hope”.

However, Florence is unaware that her endeavours and hard work to fulfill her dream by transforming the long dilapidated, damp property called Old House she purchased for her bookshop is doomed. The reason is that it collides with the ambitions of a retired general’s wife, Violet Gamart, an influential, embittered, wealthy, prominent figure in town, who has entirely different plans for Florence’s Old House and who is, in general, an undefeated Machiavellian schemer.

Violet Gamart wants to transform the house into “a kind of” arts centre, and nothing will stop her plans and certainly not Florence Green’s bookshop. Gamart resorts to various schemes. She calls an education officer to investigate the employment of Florence’s diligent and only helper, the under-aged school girl, Christine Gipping. She also seeks the help of her successful nephew, a member of parliament, to pull a few strings to issue a parliamentary bill for legislation permitting the public purchase of “any buildings wholly or partly erected before 1549 and not used for residential purposes.”

Florence, hesitant about selling a recommended new book published in 1955, titled Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, asks old Mr Edmund Brundish, a member of one of Hardborough’s long-established families, for advice on stocking the novel for her bookshop. He encourages her to go ahead and sell Lolita, which he considers to be a good book. Florence buys two hundred and fifty copies. The controversial novel is a big hit, attracting queues in front of the bookshop and crowding the street, allowing Violet Gamart to call the police and constituting one more incident against Florence.

Acquiescing to defeat, Florence Green realises to her own detriment that she fits nowhere in this community, even after spending ten years among its residents. She has no choice but to submit to reality and yield to a power stronger than herself, regardless of her courage and determination. She has no support apart from the help of the esteemed Mr Brundish, who lives isolated from the world but seems to be “au fait” with all the occurrences in his community.

He decides to stand up for Florence Green against Mrs Gamart’s insidious plotting, aware that she is powerful and malevolent against whoever stands in her way. Mr Brundish goes to Mrs Gamart and cries out loudly to her to leave his friend Florence Green alone, storms out of the room and dies on his way back home.

Unfortunately, Mr Brundish’s untimely death leaves the forlorn Florence defenseless, without relations, connections or money. Crushed and disheartened, she quits and “as her train drew out of the station, she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.” And not surprisingly, they had never had one before hers.

Despite the drama owing to the main character’s hardship, her fight for what she stands for, and the unhappy ending, the author resists falling into pathos. Nonetheless, the reader cannot help feeling deep sympathy towards the protagonist’s shuttered dream. Fitzgerald’s skillful touch, and her distinguished prose, enhance the straightforward story’s fluidity.

However, the abrupt ending is disappointing, as well as the choice of the author to focus only on the moral standards and customs of a narrow-minded, insulated English village and by singling out a controversial book, Lolita, more than immersing her readers in the beautifully fascinating world of books on library shelves.

Nevertheless, this concise novel, which could have benefited from more descriptive detail, is bleak, lively, sardonic and not without humour. It describes the unadorned facts of everyday human life with its paltriness, obstacles, failures and struggles against the power of corruption that defeats hard work and honest intentions. Unfortunately, the story’s subject and what it refers to is timeless and still holds true today.

In her statement in 1998, Penelope Fitzgerald said: “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?”