a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: classics

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.

You know, I’d decided to stay away from horror and the resolve seems to have lasted barely two months and about twelve books. I suppose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier isn’t horror in the strictest sense, it’s a mystery and a romance; but it is ruthless, daring, packed with haunting emotion and brutally honest; which makes it everything I wished to avoid about horror and am glad I didn’t.

Summary: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is definitely one of the most iconic book beginnings ever. Right from the very first words, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier maintains an engrossing style. The book begins with our narrator giving us glimpses of her life in the present in a hotel, with her husband, and nostalgic memories of another life, in a place called Manderley that she dares not mention to her husband. Then our unnamed narrator takes us back to when she first met her husband, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo.

When they first meet, the narrator is a naive twenty one year old orphan working as a lady’s maid for the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. Maxim de Winter is a handsome middle aged gentleman who is known for his fabulous house, Manderley, and the fact that his wife drowned a year ago. Both find escape from their lives in each other’s company, and when it’s time for the narrator to leave to New York with her gossipy employer, Maxim de Winter proposes to her and offers her to accompany him to Manderley.

‘A little while ago you talked about an invention,’ he said, ‘some scheme for capturing a memory. You would like, you told me, at a chosen moment to live the past again. I’m afraid I think rather differently from you. All memories are bitter, and I prefer to ignore them. Something happened a year ago that altered my whole life, and I want to forget every phase in my existence up to that time. (…) You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively that all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.’

But in Manderley, which is scenic and mesmerizing, things aren’t as easy as the new Mrs. de Winter supposed. She can see her husband is happy at home, but he’s also distant, and prone to the oddest mood swings. And as she soon begins to discover, the house and its people and relations are still stuck in the past. The the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, looms over the narrator, stifling her, making her an intruder on her own life. Wherever she goes, it’s Rebecca this, Rebecca that, “she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.” Their neighbours, the narrator feels, compare her with Rebecca and she falls short. Rebecca’s old lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers hates the narrator for trying to replace her mistress, and tries to sabotage her relationship with Manderley at every turn. The gossip torments our uneducated, untrained, innocent narrator and the expectations bog her down.

And in the midst of it all, there’s the mystery of Rebecca’s death. As if an accomplished sailor drowning in her own boat wasn’t odd enough, the narrator finds Mrs. Danvers and a strange man in Rebecca’s old room, Maxim pales at even the barest mention of his first wife, a crazy guy called Ben living in the cottage where Rebecca spent her many nights has freaky things to say about her, and as the narrator tries to piece together the tragedy of Manderley, she wonders if Maxim would ever love her as he loved Rebecca.

My thoughts: The narration is evocative, urgent, authentic. The descriptions are vivid, richly suspenseful. But for me, it’s the construction of the book, the falling in to place like a puzzle of the story, the timelines, the little technical details like never revealing the narrator’s name, and never actually showing us Rebecca, we see not even a picture, only the impression she’s left on those alive and what the narrator makes of it, the truth revealed is all the more shocking hence. I love the writer for showing us just enough to help us guess the truth on our own. At the end it’s not a story we’ve been told, it’s something we’ve experienced – and that lends it its intellectual charm.

For the first time in a long time, I wrote about the book first in my diary and am now typing it out. I’ve written three pages of notes. I’ve written how I love the brooding aristocratic Maxim and his relationships, especially with his sister and his ever carefully calm and composed exterior. It occurs to me how you can never guess the torment inside anybody, no matter how well you think you know them. Poring over my notes, I realize I could never fit them into a conventional review; the scenes that stand clear in my memory; how Mrs. Danvers tried to coax the narrator into taking her life, how the narrator burnt the page of the book of poems with Rebecca’s writing on it, how she seethed at the thought of Rebecca calling her husband Max and how even at the end the narrator never did end up calling him that, how she never fit in, accidentally saying Mrs. de Winter was dead when she answered the phone, how she never second guessed her judgments nor doubted her self image. It’s a coming of age story; a story of her youth through the voice of her aged wisdom. At twenty one, I find Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier perfect in some places and mysteriously irrelevant in others, the book is terrible in so many ways, but it also makes me just a little hopeful.

They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then – how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal.

A few weeks ago I told someone I don’t like Romantic books. It was in reference to Frankenstein, which isn’t my favourite book at all. That being said, that was a generalization that I would like to take back. From now on, when someone says gothic romance, I’ll think of Rebecca and be happy, and sad. What a book. The funny thing is, I’m already reading the book again as I type this and it is still just as engaging. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you to read this book. If you have, tell me, did you like it?

I might say that we have paid for freedom. But I have had enough melodrama in this life, and would willingly give my five senses if they could ensure us our present peace and security. Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind of course we have on moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – Dickens in December


Dickens in December is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia.


I may be a bit late in finding my way to Dickens but I am hooked. There are three things I realized in succession as I read the book, the three things which made me fall deeply in love with The Old Curiosity Shop.

First: Dickens was a great judge of character, I thoroughly enjoyed the occasional snippets about human nature. Not to mention, the characters in the story and their behaviours are strikingly real. Second: Wow, he could really write. The rich language and the beautifully apt descriptions made reading the book the most treasured experience. Third: He was certainly a masterful storyteller. Not a single moment of the story was particularly spectacular and yet none of it was dull. I do know it was bleak, but it just wasn’t Thomas Hardy bleak. Okay. I don’t quite know why or how, but I found the book very engrossing.

This tiny paragraph is hardly all that I want to say about the book. There will be more over the course of this month. Till then, here are some of my favourite moments from the book:

(on conscience)
In the majority of cases, conscience is an elastic and
very flexible article, which will bear a deal of stretching and adapt itself to
a great variety of circumstances. Some people by prudent management and leaving
it off piece by piece like a flannel waistcoat in warm weather, even contrive,
in time, to dispense with it altogether; but there be others who can assume the
garment and throw it off at pleasure; and this, being the greatest and most
convenient improvement, is the one most in vogue.

(on separation)
Why is it that we can better bear to part in spirit than in
body, and while we have the fortitude to act farewell have not the nerve to say
it? On the eve of long voyages or an absence of many years, friends who are tenderly
attached will separate with the usual look, the usual pressure of the hand,
planning one final interview for the morrow, while each well knows that it is
but a poor feint to save the pain of uttering that one word, and that the
meeting will never be. Should possibilities be worse to bear than certainties?
We do not shun our dying friends; the not having distinctly taken leave of one
among them, whom we left in all kindness and affection, will often embitter the
whole remainder of a life.

(an old woman talks about her long dead husband)
Now that five-and-fifty years were gone, she spoke of
the dead man as if he had been her son or grandson, with a kind of pity for his
youth, growing out of her own old age, and an exalting of his strength and
manly beauty as compared with her own weakness and decay; and yet she spoke
about him as her husband too, and thinking of herself in connexion with him, as
she used to be and not as she was now, talked of their meeting in another
world, as if he were dead but yesterday, and she, separated from her former
self, were thinking of the happiness of that comely girl who seemed to have
died with him.
(…and, this is the kind of language I was talking about.)
It had been gradually getting overcast, and now the sky was
dark and lowering, save where the glory of the departing sun piled up masses of
gold and burning fire, decaying embers of which gleamed here and there through
the black veil, and shone redly down upon the earth. The wind began to moan in
hollow murmurs, as the sun went down carrying glad day elsewhere; and a train
of dull clouds coming up against it, menaced thunder and lightning. Large drops
of rain soon began to fall, and, as the storm clouds came sailing onward,
others supplied the void they left behind and spread over all the sky. Then was
heard the low rumbling of distant thunder, then the lightning quivered, and
then the darkness of an hour seemed to have gathered in an instant.

I can’t wait to start reading A Tale of Two Cities. After completely relishing this, I can only imagine what that would be like! Which is your favourite Dickens novel?

Reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina


I spent a little over a month reading Anna Karenina, hoping
and praying for the book not to end. It was my first Tolstoy, and I have to
say, one of the best reading experiences of my life. Tolstoy is known,
according to that little book analysis at the beginning of my edition (I can’t
seem to remember who has written it) for his ability to make fiction seem real,
and the characters do almost walk right off the pages. I am certain, that Anna
Karenina is one of the best works of literary realism.
Someone asked me a while ago what the book was about, and my
reply, “A love affair and the social and personal disasters it leads
to” just didn’t seem to cut it. It is a book about an entire Society, I
would now say. Religion, politics, marriage, happiness, insecurity, death,
aristocracy, social obligation and everything in between. I used to think it
was beautiful and amazing how writers can come up with a whole new world, a
bizarre, fantastic world; which is why fantasy was my favourite genre. I think
now, that it is much harder to come up with a world that so closely resembles
real life. To write an (almost) nine hundred pages-long story, with not just a
single one-directional plot, but a combination of the lives and concerns of
about fifty characters, strung together by the fact that they live in the same
society.
Tolstoy managed to keep me engaged the entire time, because
it was not just a world entirely new to me, but a world that might just have
been real once upon a time. Fascinating. The writing had an amazing flow to it,
and I would like to believe that little was lost in translation. The book was a
page-turner, but not in the sense that I wanted to find out how it ends, but
because I wanted to find out just what happens next. I loved that the book
wasn’t only about the charming Anna Karenina and her tragic love affair with
Count Vronsky. What wonderfully contrasted the story of Anna Karenina, was that
of Konstantin Levin, (possibly my favourite character) the socially inept
landowner, who is more or less a representation of every individual’s search
for some substantial meaning of life.
Ultimately, the one thing that hit me the most about the
book, is what Tolstoy has to say about family. It is a book about different
people, their lives intersecting by a matter of chance, coping with their
everyday problems, while their fates are decided by the already defined
society.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s ability to describe even the littlest of things in
a way that you feel you’re actually there is commendable. You realize so much
about the characters just from the way they move, sit, talk. Throughout the
book, Tolstoy has described things from the outward social view as well as
given you a glimpse into the characters’ minds, their thoughts, opinions, their
seemingly unpredictable decisions. You also see, and this was the one thing I
really appreciated, the different characters from each other’s viewpoints. I
think that gives the most insight into the way people think, the quick
judgments we make, the small insecurities, envy, jealousy, anger. I was really
amazed at how precisely the author has displayed the emotions flowing through a
person at every stage, how well he has shown arguments and fights and little
bursts of anger.

The story gave me so much to think about; I have been
chewing my brain on the contents of this book since last night (when I finally
finished reading it.) In all probability, I have yet to grasp many aspects of
the book. Some things might strike me later, or when I read the book all over
again. But there’s one thing I am entirely sure of at this moment, (and it
isn’t just the post-reading excitement talking) this is the most amazing book I
have ever read and I would love to re-read and re-experience it!

(I have the Back to Classics Challenge to thank for, without which I would never have taken up the daunting task of reading this enormous book!)