Friday, August 22, 2008

Storytellers

Finished The Canterbury Tales. At times, the genius took my breath away - like the Wife of Bath segment. Started off on Jane Austen's Emma (1816). Austen truly is a genius of the novel - quiet and wise. What an artist! It is held by many that true character is revealed by extremities of situation - a Conradian view. To know what you are, you have to visit the heart of darkness. But I remember someone having said: "Any fool can face a crisis. It is the day-to-day living that wears one out." In that sense, Austen's quiet observations of domestic life may be one of the truest statements on the human condition. I remember reading her Persuasion years back and feeling it to be like a story told by a very wise, very old woman. A lesson that can be learnt only through experience. Experience and age were the very themes of the novel. Reading Emma now, I am also aware of the formal construction of the novel - its art. An unobtrusive narrative that flows with very few agitations, with a slightly detached air that lends a cosmic comicality to man and woman's most ardent efforts. At the same time free from the sentimentality that cloys some of the best work of Dickens, who was the later novelist. In some ways, Dickens is more feminine than Austen - for control of form, I think Austen ranks higher. Both are, however, among the great entertainers. Once, in a grey mood, I thought of Dickens' novels and looked forward to life again! Long ago, under the stars of a cold night, after the raw meals of the hunting life, we gathered about the communal fire and listened as the old man spun his tale. And for many this was the time of day they looked forward to the most. Life in its living gave no pause to reflect. But now as the old man weaved his plots, we saw the moral in the event, our character reflected in the one who stayed and fought or in the one who ran away, the patterns of life. And we learnt that understanding and wisdom is a great thing, and though among the last of life's fruits, not among the least to be prized.

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