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Monday, November 26, 2007

Those who love: book review

Those who love, by Irving Stone, originally published by Doubleday, 1965, current Signet edition subtitled ‘America’s greatest love story’, priced at $2.65 (as posted at the fantasticfiction.co.uk website)

As most of the readers of this blog probably know, I live a life immersed in books. Many of them have in fact grown up learning to savour the same taste, the same ‘life of the mind’ with me. Some of them urge me from time to time to write reviews of books which have moved me lately. This post should make such folks happy!

I have read countless great love stories from around the world. Among other things, I have learnt that a) one usually outgrows romantic fiction as silly, mushy and unrealistic (or even faintly sick, like Laila-Majnoon and Wuthering Heights); b) that love stories about married couples are very difficult to write (most married people above 30 should know why!), and c) that love stories about real as well as married people are next to impossible – one very great reason being that authors are turned away by the crudeness, emptiness and dreariness of the lives of 99.9 per cent of married folks, and even if a good book gets written, people carry on their real lives only to make a mockery of the book (as I hear Richard Bach did after writing the lyrical and hauntingly beautiful A Bridge across Forever). Nevertheless, knowing from The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Passions of the Mind and Lust for Life that Irving Stone was a master at re-creating intensively-researched historical lives as though he had really lived in those times and inside the minds of his characters, I took up this book eagerly – not least because it was recommended by an old boy whose tastes I respect, because I knew very little about John Adams beyond a few bare and basic facts (such as that he was a lawyer, one of the Founding Fathers, the second President and father of another great President), and because my curiosity was aroused by the fact that Stone should have chosen to interweave a very personal, private story with a very important and involved political (meaning, naturally, public-) life. I expected a good read, and to say that I was not disappointed would be putting it very mildly. This is most certainly the finest real-life love story I have ever read. A wonder that I had to live to be 44 and married for 12 years myself before I got around to reading it!

The story begins in mid-18th century when pretty, vivacious and precociously-educated 17-year old Abigail Smith, daughter of the parish priest of the little village of Weymouth in Massachusetts, encounters a visitor to her father, a scholarly young lawyer who is yet to make a career but has great energy and enormous ambition. It is almost a case of love at first sight (although the courtship is halting and difficult), and they get married not too long after. Presently they settle down in John’s newly-acquired little farm in Braintree (now called Quincy, after one of Abigail’s famous forbearers), not far from Boston, where John is building up a practice. A few years down the line their growing family gets very thoroughly embroiled in one of the greatest events in world history – to wit, the War of Independence (1775-1781) and creation of the United States of America. The story comes full circle almost half a century later, when John has lost the presidential re-election to another (and vastly better-known) titan, Thomas Jefferson, and is sadly preparing to go home for the last time, his life’s work unfinished. He stands on the stairs of the barely-finished Executive Mansion in the new capital, Washington, D.C. (now globally famous as the White House), waving farewell to his wife, who is leaving early to warm the family hearth for him – and she, her eyes brimming with tears of joy, grief, exhaustion and thankfulness, vividly recalls the day young John had turned to face her in her father’s library with arms outstretched, a book in each hand, ‘and their journey had just begun’. Very early in life she had read that a friend is the greatest treasure in the world, for whom no sacrifice and no love is too great, and she was now quite, quite sure that her husband and she had found in each other the most wonderful friends anyone anywhere could ever hope for. It had been a life full of highs and lows, with very long and repeated stretches of extreme uncertainty and every kind of hardship, deserved and undeserved; it had been so fabulous in parts that John had written to her once that with a little embellishment their family life could become the stuff of fairy tales – but over and above everything, it had been a good life, as I understand the good life and have dreamed of lifelong.

I shall not prolong the summary beyond this point. The book is enormously rich in interesting detail, which must be savoured in their entirety, a little at a time, to do justice to the author and the characters in it. It is definitely not a book for those who are in a hurry, and who basically detest books: which, from my experience as a teacher and bibliophile, instantly eliminates the vast majority of contemporary mankind. I shall instead proceed to list the reflections that were aroused in me while and after reading it.

1. That a woman could grow up so free and self-confident and self-assertive 250 years ago in America, despite being brought up in a very ‘old fashioned’ way, in a very puritan social atmosphere, despite being educated only at home, despite having been ‘only’ a housewife and mother all her life, is, to put it simply, incredible: especially when I compare Abigail Adams’ situation with the horrors of humiliation, deprivation and (often self-imposed) narrowness and triviality of mind and occupation that millions of women suffer even today in many parts of the world (as vividly described, say, in Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 book, A Thousand Splendid Suns), including India.

2. That 250 years ago a stay-at-home girl of 17 could, purely by virtue of her own sharp mind and enthusiasm combined with her father’s encouragement, could become so well educated as to be not only capable of but deeply interested in talking about, and holding her own in educated company much older than herself, subjects as diverse as poetry and philosophy, politics and religion, law and economics and medicine, quoting from the greatest artists and authorities ancient and contemporary at the drop of a hat. Having taught for 27 years, I know for a fact that girls of her age, going to the ‘best’ schools available today, as well as 95% of their supposedly educated ‘teachers’, would simply gape if she were to appear among them suddenly for a group discussion: they would either find her an awe-inspiring super-intellectual or a crashing bore, and she would not be able to believe that humankind, with all their pretensions to ‘progress’, had intellectually as well as aesthetically sunk so low! Food for every thinking man indeed: I am haunted by H.G. Wells’ horrible prediction in The Time Machine that technological advancement, combined with the inevitable numbing of the mind and weakening of the body, would eventually reduce mankind to a race of pathetic, helpless brutes surviving only to serve clever and powerful machines!

3. It is a matter of great shame that I knew so little of how great a man John Adams was (with all his faults and follies), and how long, hard and brilliantly he toiled to create the American Constitution and nation (which have not only endured but inspired and struck with awe virtually every nation on the planet since his time) – especially considering that I (and I believe most non-American people) knew so much more about his illustrious contemporaries and colleagues, such as Ben Franklin and George Washington and Jefferson. It was hugely unfair on the part of fate, I think, that this ‘atlas of independence’, the nickname his countrymen remember him by, lived and worked lifelong in the shadows for the most part, and, in addition, suffered almost lifelong from genteel poverty in contrast with the men mentioned above, so much so that his wife was often driven to despair, and had to worry constantly about how to keep her little farm going and afford the parties and school her children and pay off all her little debts even after she had become the nation’s first lady! The quiet, loving, wise and utterly dedicated way she stuck by her man all her life and not merely kept the family going and brought up her children well but provided the only shoulder John could lean upon when all was bleak all around can only be called heroic, and it was only fitting that her husband understood everything and was grateful all his life (although, admittedly, he never made her happy by pushing for the kind of legislation and social reform that she privately wanted as one of America’s earliest advocates of women’s rights). He knew well how right the Bible was when it said ‘A man who has found a good woman has found a good thing’. My God, what a couple! No wonder Stone decided that John Adams’ life could not be retold without telling us about his wife at the same time.

4. I am deeply gratified to learn – beyond what I knew already, and that was quite a bit – how profound a role books and reading and writing played in the lives of not only the Adamses but of America as an idea and a nation-in-the-making. To the extent that the tradition has continued in America, it is no wonder that they still produce most of the Nobel Prize winners even today, and that lots of good books still sell in the millions. What I worry about is that I hear a great deal of how unacademic the mass of Americans have become these days, how obsessed with indolent fun and technology they are, how most of their progress over the last 50 years has been brought about by hardworking and well-educated immigrants from all over the world, and how much of the worst in their popular culture is blending horridly with all that is worst in our culture, so that so many Indians these days no longer read anything (that is to say, anything outside technical cram-books for passing examinations and pulp fiction) and are actually quite happy if not proud about it.

5. I found it most reassuring to find that yet another tradition remains unbroken among the best Americans: despite being terribly busy all their lives, the Adams man and wife managed to bring up their children just as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton did with Chelsea 200 years later, in a much more distracted and frenetic age: and by bringing up children I expressly do not mean merely providing for them everything from a secure hearth to food to sundry tutors to entertainment, things that can be bought with mere money and require investment of neither time nor brains – ‘busy’ parents in India may please note!

Now this is becoming a long post, so I had better stop here. But if anyone takes the trouble to look up John and Abigail Adams on the internet and then reads the book, I do think that he or she might get back to thank me.


Bijit said...

Dear Suvroda,

As would be obvious, I could not resist being the first to write a comment on your book review.

While reading your post, I could not help but go back to that book, though with a completely different perspective. It is not that such lives are an absolute rarity in our country (the lives of Sri Jagadish Chandra Bose and Smt. Abala Bose on one hand and Desbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Basanti Devi on the other would amply bear out my contention), but it is lamentable that we do not have the voice to sing the paeans to them as they so richly deserve and as Stone has so lyrically done for so many eminent personalities in a long span of life. Where do we have the works with the vision of a Will Durant or even an Irving Stone in this country? The last that I can think of is still "Sei Samay", of a good three decades vintage!

One can only hope that someone somewhere will do justice to the myriads of luminaries that illuminate our own history and culture. (Ghulam Murshid's "Ashar Chhalone Bhuli" is a ray of hope that all perhaps is not lost yet, though Stone's lyricism is not there).

And for those who might love to read more of the off-beat and rarely available (in Indian markets) books of Irving Stone, the biopic of Charles Darwin, "The Origin", would prove to be a reader's delight, as all Stone biographies naturally are.

Your post would surely enthuse more people to read the book reviewed. As a guide to them, or at least those who are in Calcutta, I would like to mention that the book, though not available readily in the book-stores, can be found in the USIS Library on Chowringee Road, Calcutta.


Greek.theatre said...

I will revive my memebership of USIS to read this one. This review was so warm and personal. I can vouch that as a review article this is strikingly original(I generate reviews and I know the amount of stupid pedantry some of them are capable of!). We look forward to many happy hours of reading such 'reviews'. A request, Sir, please do write somthing on a film that you have seen and loved.-Arani

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Just two comments on this blogpost so far: and yet so many people get so insanely angry when I sneer at them, saying that no matter what degrees they have acquired and how 'busy' they are, people who don't read books and book reviews do not deserve to be treated at par with humans at all if civilisation is to be preserved! In Eliot's words - written three generations ago - we can at best be called 'technological savages'!