Lost Horizon by James Hilton

★★★★★ (5/5)

Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom.

This was an absolutely mesmerizing and compelling read! It narrates a tale of a utopian lamasery concealed within the majestic mountains of the Himalayas, bordering near Tibet. It is a tale of high fantasy, utopian indulgence and pure, unadulterated adventure which has the power to resonate with one’s spiritual and physical existence.

You see, my dear sir, one of the first steps toward the clarifying of the mind is to obtain a panorama of one’s own past, and that, like any other view, is more accurate in perspective

Synopsis

The novel opens in a bachelor’s club where four English gentlemen are meeting for drinks. The conversation stirs to a plane hijacking that had taken place in recent memory and all four men agree that they were acquainted with one of the passengers named Conway. Later, Rutherford, a novelist, discreetly tells our narrator that he happened to meet Conway and was beguiled by his disappearance and subsequent memory loss. Conway had narrated his entire tale of adventure to Rutherford which the latter had transcribed into a manuscript. Rutherford gives our narrator the manuscript to verify Conway’s astonishing story himself.

In 1931, four people are trying to escape political and social unrest in Baskul by boarding a plane which is headed for Peshawar. The passengers include Conway a stoic diplomat, his hot-headed, young secretary Mallinson, Barnard an excitable American and Miss Brinklow, a Christian missionary. The plane is hijacked and crashes in the farthest reaches of Tibetan plateau. Much to their dismay, the four people find themselves trapped and isolated by wilderness of nature, high peaks and strong winds with no trace of civilization for miles.

It was not an ordinary wind. It was not merely a strong wind or a cold wind. It was somehow a frenzy that lived all around them, a master stamping and ranting over his own domain

Soon enough, a group of rescuers come to their aid and take them to the lamasery which is buried between peaks of Karakul. Here, mystery and adventure commence as the four foreigners are unable to deduce as to why the plane was hijacked, if there was a sinister plan behind this or who or for what measures were they kidnapped. But more pressingly, the existence of a sublime building and its small Buddhist community nestled in an unknown and distant piece of land continues to be a conundrum. They are perplexed by tranquillity of its residents and Conway, Barnard and Brinklow pose many questions as to understand this unknown but wonderful world they have stumbled across. Mallinson, however, is keen on getting on their way and remains inquisitive upon the nature of their departure.

There came a time, he realized, when the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything; when one took things for granted merely because astonishment would have been as tedious for oneself as for others

Conway’s intelligent intrigue in unveiling the secret of this lamasery is not fulfilled until much later into the novel. Would the four of them be able to escape this heaven on earth? This is the prevailing tension underscoring the story, upon which the author builds and heightens the reader’s curiosity. Clandestine nature of the monastery and its residents and Conway’s account of his adventures all tie well with the mysterious ending which leaves upon the reader to deduce its veracity.

It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all

The Lamasery

The peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity

Hilton delves into painstaking but vivid details of the landscape around the lamasery and sublime beauty of the institute itself. Whilst much of cultural action is done away with, through exquisite scenery we are introduced to the philosophy of monks residing at Shangri-La. Their surroundings have undoubtedly had a profound effect on them, changing course of their lifestyles and even age. Their mental health seems remarkable owing to a deep sense of recollection of old memories they possess.

The lamasery is by no means an ancient building. It is fitted with modern plumbing, a central heating system, a large library, music rooms with piano and food from the fertile valley. The Karakal peaks tower above the establishment, sheltering it from the world but many passes open into the valley which goes to show that drifters and wanderers are always welcome.

We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself

Their religious philosophy “Everything in moderation, even moderation itself” seems to reflect their social and moral grounds of thriving in solitude, away from rest of the civilisation. The magnificence of landscape brings about a certain kind of splendour of isolation. As Conway observes Its atmosphere soothed while its mystery stimulated, and the total sensation was agreeable.”

The air, clean as from another planet, was more precious with every intake. One had to breathe consciously and deliberately, which, though disconcerting at first, induced after a time an almost ecstatic tranquillity of mind

They valley of Shangri-La remains physically and spiritually aloof from the negativity of the rest of the civilised world. Hilton prophecies the Second World War in the monk’ beliefs that a war engulfing vast regions would soon be upon them and amidst such turbulent and miserable times, their valley would remain the beacon of hope and enlightenment, of peace and spiritual prosperity.

“We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that time comes.”

The monks’ chief preoccupation lies in pursuit of worldly and spiritual wisdom, enabling them to acquire a deeper and more profound understanding of their personal selves. They can be telepathic and absurdly considerate to one’s trials as demonstrated by Chang who rescues the quartet and introduces them to the many facets of the lamasery. When Miss Brinklow vows to convert the monastery’s followers to her own faith, Chang does not disagree with her. Neither does he take offence with Mallison’s impatience and brash remarks on their lifestyle. Their hospitality is unparalleled and so is their level of tolerance as they are all intensely and actively accepting of strangers from far off lands.

The inhabitants of our valley, for instance, feel that it is ‘not done’ to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another

This kind of indifference arises not from any destructive intentions but from the realisation of one’s inability to change world affairs in grand scheme of things. This ties in nicely with what the four foreigners try to uncover – why were they selected to stumble across this hidden gem? Was it a chance coincidence or a greater plan lay behind their abduction? Answers to these are given when Conway meets the High Lama, a man of great age and sagacity who explains the institution’s incredible history and who himself is enamoured by Conway’s stoicism.

We believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much

In such placid circumstances, notions of Time radically change. Monks live a carefully deliberated life which Miss Brinklow attributes as sluggish and leisurely. Here the dichotomy of the Western and Eastern world collide, with the former indulged in a race against time and the latter dawdling with time, allowing it to run its own course through fate.

He had suddenly come to realize a single facet of the promised jewel; he had Time, Time for everything that he wished to happen, such Time that desire itself was quenched in the certainty of fulfillment

With alterations in perception of Time come changes brought to the realm of memory. The monks are able to traverse through vast distances of their old lives and recall moments with great exactitude. Atmospheric cleanliness at such an altitude brings about clarity of mind which lends to liberating one’s thoughts of impurity and falsehood.

His memory was astonishing; it appeared to have escaped the trammels of the physical into some upper region of immense clarity

In a very telling conversation Brinklow has with Chang, she inquires as to what the lamas do. “They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom,” he replies. “But that isn’t doing anything,” she retorts to which Chang says “Then, madam, they do nothing.” Here once again, the irreconcilable differences between Western and Eastern philosophy in regards to “doing” manifests itself. The former enjoins practical forms of work, with tangible results usually directed at some form of achievement which can be further invested in either advancing one’s own mercenary ambitions or climbing the social ladder. Eastern philosophy is aimed at experiences, placing value on the inner self. This is personified by the monks and their lifelong quest in search for wisdom through indulging in simplest pleasures of life.

Characters

Much like in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, Hilton has a penchant for drawing his characters with phenomenal detail which is also evident in this novel. All four foreigners are unique in their characterisation, their curiosity in regards to the establishment differs to one another yet compliments their general vocations of life. Their contradictory personalities bring about this tale of adventure to life.

Conway

It was his fate in life to have his equanimity always mistaken for pluck, whereas it was actually something much more dispassionate and much less virile

Conway cherishes a dispassionate and humble life. He is never too zealous about any prospect, nor does he look down upon potential adventure with pessimistic gloom. Out of all four, he perfectly embodies the monks’ philosophy of moderation. From realising that the plane had been hijacked to coming across the lamasery, his intrigue is never fanned by curiosity which seeks to displace the order of things. He allows events to take their own course and in doing so allows himself a similar fluidity. He is tolerant of Mallinson’s consistent anxiety in leaving their refuge and whole-heartedly accepts the hypocrisy of Barnard and Miss Brinklow’s stringent notions.

Mallinson

Mallinson is impudent and impulsive from the very beginning. These character traits can be attributed to his young age but do not fully explain away his persistent displeasure with the establishment. He makes curt remarks about the place despite being well taken care off. His life in England awaits him and he is impatient in resuming it with his fiancée. He is unable to come to terms with reality of what he witnesses, and willingly abstains from indulging in the beauty his circumstance has to offer. Mallinson becomes almost insufferable as the novel progresses, demonising his friends who no longer desire to leave the place.

Barnard

Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronizing things without being offensive

Barnard is an exciting character but lacking in depth of either Conway or Mallison. Later in the novel he is shown to be a master criminal whose grand schemes brought about the downfall of Wall Street. With notice of his extradition issued in many countries, he assumes the new identity to escape imprisonment. He has a friendly disposition towards Conway and others even though Mallinson disregards him occasionally. He too finds solace in the refuge of Karakal and is inclined towards staying back.

It was curious to think of that heavy, fleshy, good-humored, rather paternal-looking man as the world’s hugest swindler

Miss Brinklow

Miss Brinklow’s character portrayal is shorter than the others but owing to her religious background, she assumes an important position. For her, Buddhist practices reflect indolence of mind and body and she avows to stay back in order to convert the residents to her own faith. She resorts to learning the Tibetan language and acutely observing their cultural lifestyle in order to better understand and communicate with them.

Chang

He was rather taken with this latest phenomenon, a Chinese who spoke perfect English and observed the social formalities of Bond Street amidst the wilds of Tibet

Chang is the monk who first receives these four strangers and extends to them an invite to shelter in the lamasery. He is quite secretive in what he uncovers regarding the monastery and its history, never allowing too much information to take over his guests’ uninterrupted curiosity. Yet, he unveils enough for them to be deeply excited about the prospect of staying here for the unforeseen future. He disregards Mallinson’s insults with a light-heartedness that even shames the latter at times and encourages the four of them to discover the riches of the establishment – a library with vast collection of tomes from all corners of the world, the heavily embellished rooms and deep and serene pools, the residents living in the valley and such. He forms an immediate affinity with Conway and recognises his shrewdness in approaching the mystery of Karakul.

The High Lama

On one of these sat a small, pale, and wrinkled person, motionlessly shadowed and yielding an effect as of some fading, antique portrait in chiaroscuro. If there were such a thing as presence divorced from actuality, here it was, adorned with a classic dignity that was more an emanation than an attribute

The High Lama to which only Conway is introduced is an elderly sage. His worldly existence is so old that he has almost faded into his surroundings. It is he from whom Conway learns the astonishing past as to how the lamasery came into existence in this wilderness and solitude. In divulging the secrets to Conway, the High Lama also asks of his loyalty to not speak of these to his friends. The High Lama is telepathic and only after long conversations is Conway able to deduce that he is the founder of this very establishment.

The whispering ceased for a moment, and to Conway, stirring slightly, it appeared that the High Lama had been translating, with fluency, out of a remote and private dream

The High Lama explains the nature and purpose of this lamasery built in such seclusion and details the events which would ultimately ravage the world. Amidst widespread pandemonium, the monastery would emerge solely to disseminate once again hope and wisdom which would have been crushed under lusts of war. He bequeaths to Conway the leadership of running the lamasery after his imminent demise and trusts him to carry on the ancient traditions of acquiring wisdom through solitude and contemplation.

We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom, and by our clairvoyance of the future

A Mystifying Ending

It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality

The ending of the novel confounded me! From the very start it is clear that somehow Conway was able to come back to Chinese civilisation which is where Rutherford meets him. But it is unclear as to what makes Conway finally decide leaving a place he was so at home with. Naturally he seems to be the last of the four to ever walk out on such a heavenly place which suited all his temperaments and present and future ambitions. Yet when Mallinson implores him to escape, after putting up resistance at first, Conway eventually acquiesces.

At one instance, Chang tells Conway that the High Lama usually refrains from meeting newcomers this early on “Because, you see, it is a great strain on him to talk to the average newcomer. The mere presence of human passions is an unwelcome and, at his age, an almost unendurable unpleasantness.” And as soon as the High Lama confers the seat of leadership upon Conway’s shoulders, he passes away. Could it be that owing to High Lama’s telepathic abilities, he was able to envision Conway’s desertion which in one or another is guided by Conway’s admiration for Mallinson? And that, whilst Conway was able to be vastly dispassionate and removed from excitement of life, he cared for the boy too much and ultimately conceded to his demands, and that this passion manifested itself to the High Lama towards the end of his life and he died in its presence? This is surely a far-fetched idea, but upon my reading of the last chapter, this is all I could surmise.

The question of reality, if Conway actually experienced this adventure, is left upon the reader to deduce according to their personal understanding of the story. Had this been a grand flight of imagination, it would not explain Conway’s ability to play the lost pieces of Chopin. Neither would it justify Rutherford’s various findings when he went after Conway. But since Conway gives his account of the story to Rutherford, he can be considered an “unreliable narrator”.

I suppose the truth is that when it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive

Another explication for Conway’s sudden change of mind can be attributed to the moment he discloses the secrets of the lamasery to Mallinson. The High Lama had confided the history and purpose of this establishment to Conway, trusting him to keep this information only to himself (it would be revealed to other three in due time). But in pursuing Mallinson’s change of heart to stay back, Conway reveals the secret thereby breaking the “spell” under which Conway was inextricably linked to this valley.

Concluding Thoughts

This is a story steeped in a mysterious adventure and adorned with the mystical. Reading this book is an experience of sheer loveliness and tranquillity, whereupon the cryptic world is only subtle in its manifestations. Hilton keeps the tension flowing, the reader is keen to know more but not coercive since the world of the lamasery is splendid and fully engrossing. One feels that upon learning the answers to myriad of questions, the spell would be broken which is reflective of the last chapter. It enamours the reader with richness of story-telling and navigating across unknown lands.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone seeking absolute delight of classics!


More of my favourite lines:

Rich Portrayal of Landscape

  • Watch the sunrise upon Everest, he had found the highest mountain in the world a definite disappointment. But this fearsome spectacle beyond the window-pane was of different caliber; it had no air of posing to be admired. There was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice cliffs, and a certain sublime impertinence in approaching them thus
  • While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky
  • As if the wind were whirling splinters of light out of the stars
  • Magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth
  • Such virgin splendors merely emphasized the facts of isolation and danger
  • Something that had no romantic appeal at all, but a steely, almost an intellectual quality
  • Fringing the pool were posed a brazen menagerie of lions, dragons, and unicorns, each offering a stylized ferocity that emphasized rather than offended the surrounding peace

Characterisation

  • Slight touch of priggishness which I remembered in Wyland Tertius had not diminished with years
  • It was plain that he was reconciling the claims of compatriot courtesy and official rectitude
  • There was something rather Elizabethan about him—his casual versatility, his good looks, that effervescent combination of mental with physical activities
  • But besides all that, he was a man one simply didn’t make mistakes about—to see him once was to know him always
  • He was the sort of man who, being used to major hardships, expected minor comforts by way of compensation
  • It was during such a solitude, with his body sinking and his mind lifted to beatitude, that he had hoped to give up his soul
  • Perrault, if a little beyond such human passions as friendship or affection, was yet endowed with a rich benignity of mind which touched the youth as water upon a parched soil

Conway’s Character

  • There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all
  • He faced facts nonetheless frankly because he did not trouble to enunciate them to the others
  • It was a pleasant prospect, but not one to sigh for in anticipation.
  • His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things
  • There was no doubt of one thing; he would be able to dine out on his yarn for at least a season. But would he enjoy it?
  • To tell his story in the past tense would bore him a great deal as well as sadden him a little
  • He could yield himself to love that was neither a torment nor a bore
  • He narrated rapidly and easily, and in doing so came again under the spell of that strange, timeless world; its beauty overwhelmed him as he spoke of it, and more than once he felt himself reading from a page of memory, so clearly had ideas and phrases impressed themselves

On the Impending War

  • “The whole game’s going to pieces.” Conway found himself remembering and echoing it with a wider significance than the American had probably intended; he felt it to be true of more than American banking and trust-company management. It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government House; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world
  • The loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world
  • I saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy
  • And he perceived that when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air
  • The long talk, with its varying phases, had left him empty of all save a satisfaction that was as much of the mind as of the emotions, and as much of the spirit as of either; even his doubts were now no longer harassing, but part of a subtle harmony
  • Conway remarked with a smile: “I suppose you’re certain, then, that no human affection can outlast a five-year absence?” “It can, undoubtedly,” replied the Chinese, “but only as a fragrance whose melancholy we may enjoy.”
  • There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos
  • But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • There was a quality in the air of Shangri-La— perhaps due to its altitude—that forbade one the effort of counterfeit emotion
  • The savor was slender, elusive, and recondite, a ghostly bouquet that haunted rather than lived on the tongue
  • Emulation is, after all, a young man’s spirit
  • The room was now a whorl of shadows with that ancient benignity at its center
  • Gives one the feeling that Time is like some balked monster, waiting outside the valley to pounce on the slackers who have managed to evade him longer than they should.
  • My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds

Aphorisms

  • Putting up a fight without a decent chance of winning is a poor game
  • One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness
  • Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another
  • I often think that the Romans were fortunate; their civilization reached as far as hot baths without touching the fatal knowledge of machinery
  • Yet to Conway it did not appear that the Eastern races were abnormally dilatory, but rather that Englishmen and Americans charged about the world in a state of continual and rather preposterous fever heat
  • To the demand of a wise man there is always a response
  • The first quarter-century of your life was doubtless lived under the cloud of being too young for things, while the last quarter-century would normally be shadowed by the still darker cloud of being too old for them; and between those two clouds, what small and narrow sunlight illumines a human lifetime!
  • And, most precious of all, you will have Time—that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it
  • The excitement of love does not make for an easy surrender
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Crimson Papers by Harris Khalique

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

There is a war waged against nuance, wit, complexity, subtlety, ambivalence and the very possibility of creating art.

“Crimson Papers” by Harris Khalique is a collection of four essays comprising of the author’s personal mediations on struggle, suffering and creativity in Pakistan. He infuses religion, politics, history and culture of Pakistan to put across an incredibly effective and tolerant viewpoint. His assessments of the country’s chaotic past and turbulent present are shorn of prejudice, biasness and skepticism. The reader can sense kindness in his voice as he tends to explain the present circumstances of Pakistan not through a myopic lens but with a liberal and indulgent tone.

I am conscious of both the isolation that has descended upon Pakistan in the imagination of other nations and the ripping existential stress Pakistan has been experiencing for the longest period of time.

My attempt at reviewing this book leans towards answering the two questions Khalique asks in the Preface “Why must I write about all this? More hauntingly, what difference will it make if any?”

Blood

When it comes to India, Pakistanis are either in love with the idea of a secular India, believing it has already materialized while their own country rots and decomposes, or they consider everything Indian as an open or disguised plot for absolute Hindu ascendancy aimed at destroying the great Pakistani state and its people.

The first essay titled “Blood” deals with issues of national, religious and political identity whilst delving in the history of Partition which brought about two grave problems to grapple with, the creation of Kashmir and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Innumerable sacrifices made by people of the subcontinent helped their posterity achieve two separate nations on account of differing identities but their martyrdom has gone in largely gone in vain given the present tribulations suffered by minorities on either side of the border.

Or they maintain their belligerent positions on the cold and barren Siachen Glacier, which happens to house the highest military posts in the world, proudly established by two of the poorest countries.

The essay starts off enumerating on the hatred both Pakistanis and Indians harbor for their neighbor. This animosity, perpetuated by the political, military and bureaucratic elite of both countries, has become deeply ingrained in our social psyche so much so that even the most disadvantaged and illiterate of us has strong notions of aversion for the neighboring country. The creation of Kashmir remains to this day the most conflicting matter of international importance, a perpetual threat to peace in South Asia.

Kashmir has become central to peace in South Asia whether that is a reality or not.

The creation of West and East Pakistan in 1947 also multiplied the misery of Pakistanis who were separated with thousands of miles between them, yet linked to the one idea of creation of Pakistan. The issue of language, Urdu or Bangla, became a seed of permanent discord between the two wings of Pakistan. Quaid’s famous speech in Dhaka which emphasized on Urdu being the national language was used by West Pakistanis as a final declaration of superiority of Urdu. Yet, they conveniently forgot that in the same speech Quaid categorically mentioned that each province had the right to choose their official language.

The Bangladeshi state also wishes to subsume small ethnic or political identities in the name of nationalism, like the Pakistani state wishes to subsume all different identities in the name of Islam.

The author elucidates on the plight of ordinary citizens during the ’71 war in which both pro-East and pro-West belligerents wreaked havoc on one another. Merely twenty-four years had passed since the Partition and the subcontinent was once again plummeted into raging fires caused by internal troubles which had been brewing for some time now.

It is shocking that people with such a limited understanding of human society and a warped sense of history have ruled Pakistan with impunity.

The author then links the two wars between Pakistan and India with identity crises experienced by Pakistanis. Military rule coupled with a failing democratic system has given rise to religious and nationalistic extremism. Certain political and social truths must be acknowledged before we, as a nation, can come into harmony with each other’s differences. Tolerance of divergent ideologies is the one value we must all embody in order to make our society more peaceful and accommodating.

But it is more of a cultivated social relationship between the same class of people, who at the same time may be benefiting from the economy of tension, insecurity, jingoism and war.

Sweat

The privileged in our society want everyone to conform.

The second essay “Sweat” traces the struggles and subsequent failures of many socialist movements in Pakistan. The forerunners of progressive ideology might have scattered in vain, their works all but vanished without a trace but their efforts continue to this day be ingrained in present day political discourse. The author was personally acquainted with many of these leaders and through recollection of their names and endeavors, he manages to keep their legacy alive. Humbling stories of Ahmed Bashir who was a government official as well as a social worker, Begum Majeed Malik who was a literary patron and many others elucidate on the nature of those who in troubling times were bold enough to summon progressive ideas and disseminate them among masses.

The only use of writers and filmmakers envisioned by the state was to promote and propagate the narrative of the incumbent government, particularly whenever there was a military ruler in power.

Criticism

Whilst the author has gone to great lengths in mentioning notable as well as discreet names, many references in terms of personalities, their works and general stories evaded me time and time again. Without exploring the struggles of many historic and social persons in detail, the names alluded to in the book remain just that – mere names one can flip through without giving them a second thought. I found myself quite annoyed by the author’s persistent nature of naming someone, describing their work in a mere general statement and going ahead with explaining in length how the author came to know personally the concerned individual. To me this seemed a little too self-indulgent, and even though I have resorted to searching for these names and their struggles, the book leaves me hollow on many occasions. I feel that this runs contrary to what the book aimed for and had the writer given little less space to his personal affiliations and wrote more about the nature of work these incredible people of the past and present were indulged in, the book would be more wholesome and true to its intentions.

Tears

There are physical, emotional, social and economic cogs a person coming the educated and affluent middle class has to bear when deciding to side with and work for the weaker segments of society.

The third essay titled “Tears” accounts for the myriad of sacrifices made by five Pakistani women out of which three had been assassinated, one suffered in prison and the other experienced profound loss of losing her loved ones in a bomb blast. These five narratives are woven within the tapestry of extremism, sectarianism, persecution of minorities, ethnic strife, provincial separatism and the ever shrinking space for intellectual and creative thought.

Internal struggles are waged in the underbelly of this collective journey.

This essay starts with a brilliant metaphor for different classes of Pakistan, all passengers of the same train, undertaking the same journey but segregated on account of their economic, religious and ethnic class. The elite occupy air conditioned parlors of the train whilst the upper and middle class occupy First and Economy class compartments. The lowest class are confined in the constricted and overcrowded bogies, the passengers wrestling one another to find “more elbow room”.

Still they want more leg space to stretch, not just for the body but for the imagination: the agency to reason, the possibility to question, the freedom to comment, and the ability to reject. They harbor the desire to know where this train is headed.

The essay further discusses the problem of bigotry and religious extremism which have wounded this nation from its very roots. Shabana, a singer and dancer from Swat Valley was killed by Taliban after refusing to surrender to their ideologies. Aasiya Noreen belonged to the Christian minority who was sent to jail on charges of blasphemy. Parween Rehman, a social worker helping people transform their lives through physical changes in their surroundings as well as mental and emotional changes in acknowledging their selves, was shot and killed. Sabeen Mahmud, patron of arts and literature and by extension, dissent, was killed as well. Saeeda Bibi of the Hazara community in Balochistan lost her son and son-in-law in a bomb blast which targeted the Shia minority.

How barren Pakistan and its society will become if the contribution of non-Sunnis to the collective civilization, culture, thinking, and sensibility is discounted.

Through these five exemplary women and their sacrifices, the author highlights many of our country’s problems. We are embroiled not only in an external war but an internal battle of intellect and reason. From Taliban’s rise in Pakistan’s north-west to the suppuration of Sunni-Shia conflict, from stifling voices asking for rights for minorities to openly silencing dissenters through “bombs, bullets, petty actions, or caustic words”, intolerance has been on the rise for many years now. General Zia’s era sowed the seeds of discord which to this day have plagued our nation’s quest for advancement and improvement.

There is a cost of speaking for the poor and writing for the oppressed in the face of an omnipotent system where elites and mafias collude to eliminate any difference, leave alone any challenge to their absolute authority.

Contradictory notions of what ideology of Pakistan maintains remains a perpetual thorn in our collective conscience. We are unable to reconcile the idea of an Islamic nation with that of a secular one. Western ideology propagates that Church be separate from the state, but it is inapplicable to our identity, first and foremost as Muslims and then as Pakistani Muslims. History books have long established the fact that concept of Partition grew out of the idea that Muslims and Hindus would not be able to live together once the British left. This evidently renders creation of Pakistan on basis of religion. But from the very beginning, our political and national constitution was based on the one British left behind. This confusion has bred many of the problems our nation faces today. We have allowed reactionary clerics to use religion to advance their own control of the country’s ideologies whilst the politicians have appeased to their every whim in order to maintain their political hegemony. Our leaders are hypocritical in manipulation of nationalistic as well as religious fervor, steering the masses from one end to another, which has resulted in widespread discontentment and confusion.

Criticism

The author says:

The elite perpetuate. In many other countries, the elite, even with all its contempt for the lumpen, would lead and take others along in the wagons behind them and know where they all are going. In Pakistan, the elite remain indifferent.

I somehow disagree with this statement since it takes a very xenocentric stance. The poor languish in misery everywhere in the world, irrespective of the economic status the country enjoys. Hunger is hunger, disease is disease no matter where one resides. Similarly, the Wall Street elite of USA are no different in their mercenary motivations than the political elite of Pakistan in their power-wielding incentives. Granted on surface, one controls the economy and the other has hold of a nation’s political structure, but politics and economy are inextricably linked. The innate nature of greed and self-interest knows no geographical boundaries nor identifies one’s color. Evil is evil, its indifference to humanity similar in all forms.

Ink

As events impact nations, words impact individuals.

The fourth and last essay of the book is aptly titled “Ink” in which the author delves into the creative spirit of Pakistani poets and writers who have upheld the truest philosophy of social and political dynamics of Pakistan. Khalique mentions different creators whose works have imbibed nature of revolution, stirring emotions in their listeners and readers. Where politics and bureaucracy failed, arts and literature held the reins of social sanity, drawing in people from all fields of life to unite in their vision and perspective. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Qurutulain Haider, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sarmad Sehbai, Fahmida Riaz and Munir Niazi are just some of the names he mentions who have been pioneers of literary enlightenment in the subcontinent.

Art has the power to subvert and the power to heal, sometimes separately and sometimes collectively.

The essay starts off with the duality of language that harasses our understanding of what it means to be a Pakistani. Urdu is our mother tongue but widespread usage of English, especially in official context, has lent disorder to our society. This mayhem is further proliferated on grounds of provincialism and anti-Western sentiments. Whilst the author acknowledges that “English is the language that brings power, prosperity, privilege, and prestige” he also notes that “selective promotion of English is not directed at culturally modernizing Pakistan and expediting its intellectual development…but it is there to ensure the exclusion of the majority of people from participating in making decisions that affect their lives.”

Next the author offers his opinion on the perennial debate of prose versus poetry and which genre best epitomizes consciousness and is truest to life and nature. For Khalique, the premise of this argument is moot since art as a whole “functions as a free-floating signified. Utilitarian motives kill it. Art is feared because it is subversive.” Thus to differentiate and categorize art in order of objectivity is ridiculous. He advocates the genre of poetry as being as dominant and effective as prose.

Poetry is wonder and power structures evaporate in the wonderment of poetry.

Many critics of poetry are of the opinion that this genre largely falls short of providing rational tools for struggle. It may evoke and stir, induce people to action but its maximum potential is reached merely with raising slogans. Khalique defends poetry and offers to not relegate it under prose since “both are equally important to understand nature, humanity, society, and our collective perpetual quest for a more meaningful existence.” Each genre has its own subjective manifestations of thought and expression where brevity and elucidation are both necessary for critical thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

It is because of art and creativity in Pakistan that hope refuses to sink in the deluge of sorrow.

To the question Khalique asks in the Preface regarding what difference this book can make, I have a simple answer. The author’s kind consideration with which he deals with sensitive matters without making anyone a scapegoat or vilifying opposing thoughts is a lesson to be learnt in exercising opinion-formation. Although I did not agree with a few of his statements, they did not offend me. Rather, they invited me to contemplate on their nature. And even though the writer did not indulge in the efforts made by many personalities mentioned in the book, I am now aware of their names on which I can research on my own time.


Aphorisms and Quotes

(Some quotes are paraphrased)

  • We live in an age where fiction is written in haste and sold in abundance
  • The idea of any country is as worthwhile as its citizens consider it to be. Being part of a state is about consensus while citizenship is about belonging.
  • “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” – Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot
  • Putting anger into context can make you sympathize with the one who is angry.
  • “A myth cannot be challenged once the majority begins to accept it as the eternal truth.” – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
  • Even if the atrocities were much smaller in magnitude…the truth has to be established.
  • I am one of those who subscribe to the idea that battles can be won and lost, but no one wins or loses a war.
  • It is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual development of any society if it decides to look the other way, or become selective with facts.
  • In any person, character is more important than ideology.
  • The desire for power and domination can make bedfellows out of strangers.
  • “Power, to be effective, must inscribe itself on the senses” – Terry Eagleton
  • “It is highly rational for a nation always in a state of war to elect combatants as its leaders.” – David Grossman. The fact that combatants are the nation’s leaders decrees that the nation remains in a constant state of war.
  • “Mediocrity is promoted by creating a ‘conspiracy of noise’ in its favor and genius is suppressed by hatching a ‘conspiracy of silence’ against it.” – Jean Cocteau

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

★★★★★ (5/5)

“A friend is a present you give yourself.”

Crazy, uplifting, heart-warming and an absolutely exquisite read. Matthew Quick’s “The Good Luck of Right Now” is a story full of oddities but at the heart of it lies compassion and warmth. This epistolary novel doubles as an entertaining as well as a profound read on the human condition – how the most insignificant of us are blessed with a spirit of creativity and reason and in the harshest of circumstances can summon will to alter lives for better.

We don’t know anything. But we can choose how we respond to whatever comes our way. We have a choice always. Remember that!

Bartholomew Neil, our quirky protagonist, has spent thirty-eight years with his mother, tending and caring for her in sickness which ailed her towards the end. After her death, Bartholomew is left alone in an emotionally distant world. He begins to compose letters to Richard Gere, her mother’s favourite actor, believing the actor to be of some help to him. Through the course of these letters, Bartholomew tries to explain his humble situation with references to causes near and dear to Mr. Gere’s heart such as the “Free Tibet” movement.

Sometimes I worry that I just don’t believe enough in any one thing to make a significant contribution to the world

Soon after the mother’s death, Father McNamee, an old family friend and the mother’s closest confidante moves in with Bartholomew. The priest defrocks himself and traverses on a mission to converse with God on his own. Father McNamee comes with his own emotional baggage and identity trials and soon we learn that he is bipolar. Bartholomew’s counsellor Wendy is against this co-dependency and arranges therapeutic sessions for Bartholomew with another counsellor Arnie. Wendy too, much like all the other characters, comes with her own dark story.

If he were a house, one of the windows would have been smashed and the door would have been ajar. It was like he had been broken into and robbed

At these sessions, Bartholomew makes acquaintance of Max who mourns the loss of his cat Alice. He uses expletives in abundance but in a harmless and charming way. Max happens to be the brother of The Girlbrarian, a girl working at the local library with whom Bartholomew had been smitten by for the longest time but was unable to muster enough courage to talk to. This happens to be one of the many happy coincidences our protagonist identifies as a result of his mother’s death and his attempts at gathering his life together. Max and his sister Elizabeth are embroiled in their own eccentricities, believing in alien abduction and wearing amulets to ward off alien creatures.

And what is reality, if it isn’t how we feel about things? What else matters at the end of the day when we lie in bed alone with our thoughts?

Soon the four of them, Bartholomew, the priest, Max and his sister make a trip to Canada, the former duo in order to meet Bartholomew’s real father and the latter wanting to visit Cat Parliament. Bartholomew meets another tragedy and a sudden realisation of the truth whilst the two siblings are able to fulfil their own goals. Their companionship helps heal old wounds amidst all the uncertainty life throws at them.

Beyond the everyday ins and outs of our lives, there is a greater purpose—a reason

All these characters are profusely damaged and may appear “not normal”. Bartholomew and Max live in an illusory world unable to fend for themselves, Father McNamee becomes a drunkard, Wendy is subjected to domestic violence, and Elizabeth lives an elaborate lie. Amidst all this peculiarity, all the characters share a common goodness of heart which helps not only themselves in surviving this unforgiving world but also assists in forging unbreakable ties with each other. Bartholomew is eager to learn and move on with his life. Father McNamee despite his bipolarity seeks a journey towards and a defining answer from God. Not even his illness is able to sway him from his faith. Max has a massive heart and cherishes an innocent desire and Elizabeth plays along with her older brother’s idiosyncrasies.

I wanted to be with Elizabeth—just to sit next to her silently for another five minutes would have been divine. I also wanted to be by myself too, which was confusing.

The alliances these incongruous characters establish are based on mutual respect for each other’s belief’s and personalities. They are incredibly kind and resourceful, accommodating each other’s follies and whims without a second thought. This is why Bartholomew lets the priest stay over and even offers his house as a refuge for Wendy. This ties up with the ending in which Bartholomew extends the invitation to the two siblings who had been evicted prior to their journey to Canada.

Your appearing to me is just another koan, something to ponder deeply but never answer or solve. The universe hiccups, and we poor fools try to figure out why

The epistolary nature of the story lends it a dream-like quality. Bartholomew maintains one-sided communication with Richard Gere the actor, believing him to be reading his dispatches and offering assistance by appearing in front of Bartholomew whenever he is in trouble or is unable to form his own view of a social situation. References to the Dalai Lama and Buddhist concepts of kindness and altruism help Bartholomew create his own world view.

Pray that your heart will be able to endure whatever happens to you in the future—your heart must continue to believe that the events in this world are not the be-all and end-all but simply transient unimportant variables

With humanity and gentleness at the very core of this story, “The Good Luck of Right Now” evokes feelings of tranquillity amidst the chaos of this world. For many readers, it can even be inspiring in terms of making sense of the disorder. The adage “good luck of right now” more or less can be held similar to “everything happens for a reason”. The Mother’s death snowballs Bartholomew’s life in a series of wonderful and sometimes unfortunate chance occurrences which ultimately enable him to get on with his life despite his autistic condition.

You cannot beat time; you can only enjoy it whenever possible, as it zooms by endlessly.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone seeking a light-hearted and cheery inspiration. It was an honour and absolute delight to know these remarkable characters.


My Favourite Lines

Characterisation

  • She smelled like the mothballs she kept in her drawers and closet
  • “Mmmmmmmmm,” he finally said, or rather he moaned. The noise seemed to bubble up from deep within him like a monstrous belch that had been waiting a long time for the opportune moment to explode.
  • His forearms were thick and he had a great belly, but he was solid all over and not jiggly like a fat man
  • The bruise on her wrist jumped out of her sleeve once more, ugly as a cockroach emerging from under a floorboard
  • I remembered Father McNamee’s eyes sucking at me like whirlpools
  • His yellow teeth looked like petrified pieces of corn, and the way he was looking at me made the wrinkles in his face appear deeper than usual—so cavernous, I wondered if he had to clean them with a Q-tip
  • Her voice was . . . reluctant and damaged and beautiful and maybe like a bird with a broken wing singing unfettered all alone in the wilderness when she thinks no one is listening
  • It was like she was maybe making a wish and sealing it with a double blink—or at least that’s what I imagined
  • Our new therapist, whose name is Dr. Hanson—she’s a tiny lady whose ballerina bun doubles as a pincushion for writing utensils

Funny Instances

  • It was as if giant invisible scissors had cut all of her lively dancing marionette strings
  • A giant pink elephant had filled the room and was crushing us against the walls, making it increasingly difficult to breathe
  • Like maybe some secret division of the government had worked out an equation for people’s lives—like you just plug in the variables of your existence and you get the guaranteed outcome
  • “What? Why?” I said. “My father is really alive? You’ve been in touch with him? There’s a preserved human heart on display?”

Misc.

  • “Richard?” Mom whispered to me on the night she died. That’s all. One. Single. Word. Richard? The question mark was audible. The question mark haunts me. The question mark made me believe that her whole life could be summed up by punctuation.
  • I get sidetracked easily by interesting things, and for this reason, people often find it hard to converse with me, which is why I don’t talk very much to strangers and much prefer writing letters, in which there is room to record everything, unlike real-life conversations where you have to fight and fight to fit in your words and almost always lose.
  • She actually used that word. Sentimental. As if it were a character flaw. Like it was horrible to feel. To admit that you missed things. To care. To love even.
  • I stood in the hallway for a time, wondering why—after spending the entire day with three people—I felt so much lonelier than I had ever before in my entire life
  • I was partly nervous to meet my biological father, but the larger part of me thought that my meeting him was completely impossible, and so I wasn’t all that nervous, because how can you fear impossibility?
  • How could I be angry with a man I’d never met?
  • She picked the right side of the bed, so I hugged the left edge all night long

A Girl I Knew by J.D. Salinger

Favorite lines

• Probably for every man there is at least one city that sooner or later turns into a girl.
• She was there, and she was the whole city, and that’s that.
• She had immense eyes that always seemed in danger of capsizing in their own innocence.
• Maybe I consistently hesitated to risk letting the thing we had together deteriorate into a romance. I don’t know any more. I used to know, but I lost the knowledge a long time ago. A man can’t go along indefinitely carrying around in his pocket a key that doesn’t fit anything.
• I saw a girl standing on it, completely submerged in the pool of autumn twilight. She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. The way the profile of her face and body refracted in the soupy twilight made me feel a little drunk.
• Leah’s knock on my door was always poetry – high, beautifully wavering, absolutely perpendicular poetry.
• “My fahzzer is wedding us when I have seventeen years,” Leah said, looking at a doorknob. I merely nodded. There a certain foul blows, notably in love and soccer, that are not immediately followed by audible protest.
• He looked up, and, as I didn’t outrank him, gave that long Army look that holds no interest or curiosity at all.

The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster

★★★★★ (5/5)

“One thing must be understood: I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What is extraordinary begins at the moment I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it.”

This is an utterly moving and beautiful memoir, chronicling the author’s meditations on his father’s death, happy coincidences and driving forces of his own life which give meaning to his existence. Split in two, the first part of this book deals with the author straining to give a definite form to his father through memories. Auster wants to embody the vague image of his father, a complicated and lonely man, in concrete terms in order to resolve his unanswered question of what his father meant to him.

At times I have the feeling that I am writing about three or four different men, each one distinct, each one a contradiction of all the others.

The second part deals with Auster’s reflections on his own life, a myriad of chance occasions that have propelled his life in a certain direction. He ruminates over his own identity as a father to his son Daniel and draws parallels from his younger self to his older self as a human, a husband and a father. In urgency of recollection, Auster becomes a man of solitude much like his absent father. This is an incredibly insightful look into the author’s life in which he uses wealth of words and memories to refine the process of introspection.

As if he were going both forward and backward, into the future and into the past. And there are times, often there are times, when these feelings are so strong that his life no longer seems to dwell in the present.

Portrait of an Invisible Man

In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man. Invisible to others, and most likely invisible to himself as well

Auster begins the book by reflecting on his recently deceased father’s life. Sam Auster had always been an emotionally distant father to Paul and his sister. After separating from his wife, he lived an increasingly solitary life, absent from his children’s lives though investing some time with his grandchildren. He was a man of mercenary ambitions owing to privations he had lived through as a child. His fear of poverty was the one driving and motivating factor of his life. The writer begins to unveil his father’s flawed character through some incidents he experienced as a child and then later on as a young adult. A young boy always seeks his dad’s approval in all his endeavours and on most accounts Sam faltered as a father.

Like the house that was well ordered and yet falling apart from within, the man himself was calm, almost supernatural in his imperturbability, and yet prey to a roiling, unstoppable force of fury within

One of the most defining factors of Sam’s life as a lonely man is found in the house he inhabits. Paul brings to life the abode of his father, drawing countless parallels to his father’s psyche and to his residence. The house was to be sold in a few weeks but Sam’s untimely death intervened. Paul brings his wife and son along to clean the house and stumbles upon a past mystery which tends to explain his father’s absence as well as his childhood.

He uncovers the mystery of his grandfather and in the process he is able to reconcile with his father’s image as an untiring man, fearful of destitution and scrambling to hide a warm and kind heart. His father’s vulnerability was shrouded in deliberate absence interspersed with moments of familiarity.

It was negligence that governed him, not memory, and even though he went on living in that house all those years, he lived in it as a stranger might have

The writer also aims to discover the form of solitude his father had embodied throughout his life. This conscious loneliness also manifested itself in the author’s life and in trying to decipher his father, Paul undergoes the process of self-realisation. This is further commented upon in second part of the book.

Solitary in the sense of retreat. In the sense of not having to see himself, of not having to see himself being seen by anyone else.

Paul vividly describes his father’s character without reference to any distinct trait. In my mind’s eye I was able to wholly consolidate Sam as a living, breathing human being – a man who had lived through a childhood tragedy, had fathered two children with considerable taciturnity and had resolved himself within the small space he occupied. One marvels at the author’s impeccably brilliant description of his father’s solitude without making the reader pity him.

In retrospect, nothing could have been more trivial. And yet the fact that I had been included, that my father had casually asked me to share his boredom with him nearly crushed me with happiness.

After all, Paul isn’t seeking our sympathy. He is merely acknowledging the existence of a father figure, his reticence and compassion, and in doing so, the author is finding more of himself as a man and a father to his young son Daniel. The beauty of the prose lies in one of many such instances where Auster whirls the reader into his personal life, showing just enough for the reader to grapple Sam’s circumstances and leaving the rest on natural empathy so that the reader may concoct their own image of Sam Auster.

He did not seem to be a man occupying space, but rather a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man. The world bounced off him, shattered against him, at times adhered to him—but it never got through

Another aspect of story-telling which give this a deeply intimate feel is Paul’s personal interludes. Amidst narrating a somber incident, he takes a break and allows his self to intervene, complimenting the difficulty of the writing process with summoning memories which are haunting. He reveals confusions associated with writing about his father’s death, the perils his own identity faces and infuses it with obstacles of writing in order to overcome them. A particularly favourite passage of mine is:

Nothing now for several days… In spite of the excuses I have made for myself, I understand what is happening. The closer I come to the end of what I am able to say, the more reluctant I am to say anything. I want to postpone the moment of ending, and in this way delude myself into thinking that I have only just begun, that the better part of my story still lies ahead. No matter how useless these words might seem to be, they have nevertheless stood between me and a silence that continues to terrify me. When I step into this silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.

These interludes lend a more “human” quality to these intensely personal memoirs. Given that this was Paul’s debut work, I am mesmerised by his audacity to lay bare the most private of thoughts, many of which are cloistered within the deepest recesses of our mind.

The Book of Memory

These tiniest of images: incorrigible, lodged in the mud of memory, neither buried nor wholly retrievable. And yet each one, in itself, a fleeting resurrection, a moment otherwise lost

Second part of the book reads more like short essays, expounding on the nature of coincidence, the overarching theme of father-son relationship, the eternally prevalent question on notion of time and its passage, the present in reference to past, the significant journey from infancy to adulthood and on traversing through one’s memories to form one’s identity.

This reluctance, he began to realize, was a product of fear. But fear of what? Of walking back into his own past? Of discovering a present that would contradict the past, and thus alter it, which in turn would destroy the memory of the past he wanted to preserve?

The Book of Memory is further divided into thirteen books. In each book, the author touches upon one subject from his life, alluding to himself as A. and a myriad of other characters with only single-letter initials. He recounts his life in Paris as a struggling poet and translator, a father of an ailing son undergoing divorce, a son to his now deceased father as well as a son and friend to another well-wisher whose death brings back memories of his dad.

More than an emanation of his mind. He feels himself sliding through events, hovering like a ghost around his own presence, as if he were living somewhere to the side of himself—not really here, but not anywhere else either

The author refers to himself in third person which amplifies his quest for introspection. Seeing himself as A. and not as “I” or “me”, Paul is able to delve deeper into his incessant need for being present in the now as well as the past. He aims to reunite his personal history with factors that led to his current circumstances. This further leads to recollection of chance happenings that have strung his life and identity together. Paul refers to this as the “rhythm of life”.

A young man rents a room in Paris and then discovers that his father had hid out in this same room during the war. If these two events were to be considered separately, there would be little to say about either one of them. The rhyme they create when looked at together alters the reality of each…It is only at those rare moments when one happens to glimpse a rhyme in the world that the mind can leap out of itself and serve as a bridge for things across time and space, across seeing and memory

Concluding Thoughts

 Memory in both senses of the word: as a catalyst for remembering his own life and as an artificial structure for ordering the historical past

This was an utterly refreshing, sad but poignant read. It is a memoir devoid of extraneous self-indulgence, something I felt terribly with Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”. Meditations on death need not be superfluous nor be embellished with fanciful attributes. Similarly, mourning the dead as Auster does is more about assembling broken connections and trying to make sense of a tragedy rather than belittling it as a mere misfortune of grand proportions. In reuniting with his father’s image, Auster discovers more about himself than he would have had, had he nourished a bygone grudge.

Far from troubling him, this state of being lost became a source of happiness, of exhilaration. He breathed it into his very bones. As if on the brink of some previously hidden knowledge, he breathed it into his very bones and said to himself, almost triumphantly: I am lost.

“The Invention of Solitude” rejoices in life and its most trivial aspects amidst loss and bereavement. It beckons the reader to embrace the oddity of life. Paul Auster’s self-analysis is brutally honest without any grandiose statements. Choppy sentences, exquisite character detail, reference to himself in third person are all used adeptly for this memoir to be deeply personal yet inviting and engaging. It is sublime and poetic. A highly recommended read!

For it is only in the darkness of solitude that the work of memory begins.


Favorite excerpts

On Solitude

  • Standing there not as objects but as remnants of thought, of consciousness, emblems of the solitude in which a man comes to make decisions about himself
  • Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known
  • Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months, if not many years, of one man’s solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude. A man sits alone in a room and writes
  • Whether the book speaks of loneliness or companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude
  • As in Pascal: “All the unhappiness of man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room.”
  • To imagine a solitude so crushing, so unconsolable, that one stops breathing for hundreds of years.

On Death

  • The suddenness of it leaves no room for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort it. We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality
  • Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.
  • Eventually, it would be as though he had never lived at all
  • When that life ends, the things change, even though they remain the same. They are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to.
  • Things are inert: they have meaning only in function of the life that makes use of them
  • If A. had experienced one kind of death earlier in the year, a death so sudden that even as it gave him over to death it deprived him of the knowledge of that death, now he was experiencing death of another kind, and it was this slow, mortal exhaustion, this letting go of life in the heart of life, that finally taught him the thing he had known all along.

On Memory

  • No sooner have I thought one thing than it evokes another thing, and then another thing, until there is an accumulation of detail so dense that I feel I am going to suffocate. Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing
  • the most important thing is always the biggest thing. Perspective is lost in favor of proportion—which is dictated not by the eye but by the demands of the mind.
  • This odor was inseparable in my mind from the idea of “grandma.”
  • As the hasp fell down and I raised the lid, there it was, all over again—that smell, wafting up towards me, immediate, palpable, as if it had been my grandmother herself. I felt as though I had just opened her coffin
  • If a man is to be truly present among his surroundings, he must be thinking not of himself, but of what he sees. He must forget himself in order to be there. And from that forgetfulness arises the power of memory. It is a way of living one’s life so that nothing is ever lost.
  • The pen will never be able to move fast enough to write down every word discovered in the space of memory
  • Even as adults, we have buried within us a memory of the way we perceived the world as children
  • Most vivid is the smell, as if poverty were more than a lack of money, but a physical sensation, a stench that invaded your head and made it impossible to think
  • There is no fixed center to any of this (“a universe in which the center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”) except perhaps the child’s consciousness, which is itself a constantly shifting field of perceptions, memories, and utterances

On Passage of Time

  • he can feel himself alive in the present, a present that surrounds him and permeates him, that breaks through him with the sudden, overwhelming knowledge that he is alive
  • was long cured of his passion, but he had not dismissed her altogether from his mind, clinging somehow to the feeling of that passion, although she herself had lost importance for him
  • For a moment, without being aware of it, she stood in front of that picture, which had been painted nearly eighty years before, and A. saw, as though leaping incredibly across time, that the child’s face in the painting and the old woman’s face before him were exactly the same. For that one instant, he felt he had cut through the illusion of human time and had experienced it for what it was: as no more than a blink of the eyes. He had seen an entire life standing before him, and it had been collapsed into that one instant.
  • He is remembering his childhood, and it has appeared to him in the present in the form of these experiences. He is remembering his childhood, and it is writing itself out for him in the present

Story-telling

  • The made-up story consists entirely of meanings, whereas the story of fact is devoid of any significance beyond itself
  • A man encounters his old love on a street in a foreign city. It means only what it is. Nothing more, nothing less
  • For this is the function of the story: to make a man see the thing before his eyes by holding up another thing to view.
  • If the voice of a woman telling stories has the power to bring children into the world, it is also true that a child has the power to bring stories to life. It is said that a man would go mad if he could not dream at night. In the same way, if a child is not allowed to enter the imaginary, he will never come to grips with the real

Character of Sam Auster

  • His house was just one of many stopping places in a restless, unmoored existence, and this lack of center had the effect of turning him into a perpetual outsider, a tourist of his own life. You never had the feeling that he could be located.
  • A man without appetites. You felt that nothing could ever intrude on him, that he had no need of anything the world had to offer.
  • For as long as he lived, he was somewhere else, between here and there. But never really here. And never really there.
  • He never talked about himself, never seemed to know there was anything he could talk about. It was as though his inner life eluded even him.
  • Like everything else in his life, he saw me only through the mists of his solitude, as if at several removes from himself
  • The world was a distant place for him, I think, a place he was never truly able to enter, and out there in the distance, among all the shadows that flitted past him, I was born, became his son, and grew up, as if I were just one more shadow, appearing and disappearing in a half-lit realm of his consciousness.
  • Again and again throughout his life he would stare a thing in the face, nod his head, and then turn around and say it was not there
  • The way he spoke: as if making a great effort to rise up out of his solitude, as if his voice were rusty, had lost the habit of speaking. He always hemmed and hawed a lot, cleared his throat, seemed to sputter in mid-sentence. You felt, very definitely, that he was uncomfortable
  • There was a musical, airy quality to it. Whenever he answered the phone, it was a lilting “hellooo” that greeted you. The effect was not so much funny as endearing. It made him seem slightly daft, as if he were out of phase with the rest of the world—but not by much. Just a degree or two. Indelible tics.
  • He even pronounced his words a little oddly. “Upown,” for example, instead of “upon,” as if the flourish of his hand had its counterpart in his voice
  • In a family that had already closed in on itself, this nomadism walled them off entirely. There were no enduring points of reference: no home, no town, no friends that could be counted on. Only the family itself
  • This was rule by caprice. For a child, it meant that the sky could fall on top of him at any moment, that he could never be sure of anything.
  • Having been without money as a child, and therefore vulnerable to the whims of the world, the idea of wealth became synonymous for him with the idea of escape: from harm, from suffering, from being a victim. He was not trying to buy happiness, but simply an absence of unhappiness. Money was the panacea, the objectification of his deepest, most inexpressible desires as a human being.
  • Each thing was understood only in terms of its function, judged only by how much it cost, never as an intrinsic object with its own special properties
  • His excuse for never taking us to the movies: “Why go out and spend a fortune when it will be on television in a year or two?”
  • You did not go home because you were finished, but simply because it was late and you had run out of time. The next day all the problems would be waiting for you—and several new ones as well. It never stopped. In fifteen years he took only two vacations
  • How he managed to pick himself up and go in there every day is beyond my understanding. Force of habit, or else sheer stubbornness

S.’ Character

  • lived in a space so small that at first it seemed to defy you, to resist being entered. The presence of one person crowded the room, two people choked it
  • In his penury, he had managed to provide for himself more efficiently than many millionaires do
  • Everything became absurd and luminous in that laughter. The world was turned inside out, swept away, and then immediately reborn as a kind of metaphysical jest. There was no room in that world for a man who did not have a sense of his own ridiculousness.
  • The bond was still there, but as time went on A. began to wonder if it was not, in fact, a memory of that other bond, formed six years earlier, which sustained this bond in the present
  • A towel was never just a towel, but a “Turkish towel.” A taker of drugs was a “dope fiend.” Nor would he ever say “ I saw…,” but rather, “I’ve had an opportunity to observe.…” In so doing, he managed to inflate the world, to turn it into a more compelling and exotic place for himself

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • Each time I opened a drawer or poked my head into a closet, I felt like an intruder, a burglar ransacking the secret places of a man’s mind. I kept expecting my father to walk in, to stare at me in disbelief, and ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. It didn’t seem fair that he couldn’t protest. I had no right to invade his privacy.
  • But even the facts do not always tell the truth.
  • We spent a lot of time together, she in her loneliness and I in my cramps, waiting patiently in doctors’ offices for someone to quell the insurrection that continually raged in my stomach
  • My grandfather had been sitting in a chair next to his wife with one of his sons standing between his knees—and he was not there. Only his fingertips remained: as if he were trying to crawl back into the picture from some hole deep in time, as if he had been exiled to another dimension. The whole thing made me shake.
  • A whole world seems to emerge from this portrait: a distinct time, a distinct place, an indestructible sense of the past.
  • The odometer read sixty-seven miles. That also happened to have been my father’s age: sixty-seven years. The brevity of it sickened me. As if that were the distance between life and death. A tiny trip, hardly longer than a drive to the next town.
  • It is equally true, perhaps, that once this story has ended, it will go on telling itself, even after the words have been used up.
  • To follow with Bruno’s notion that the structure of human thought corresponds to the structure of nature. And therefore to conclude that everything, in some sense, is connected to everything else
  • It is not so much that he dreads climbing the ten flights of stairs when he gets back, but that he finds it disheartening to exhaust himself so thoroughly only to return to such bleakness.
  • The snores swell gradually, and at the peak of each cycle they become long, piercing, almost hysterical, as if, when night comes, the snorer had to imitate the noise of the machine that holds him captive during the day
  • The world has shrunk to the size of this room for him, and for as long as it takes him to understand it, he must stay where he is. Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place, it would be absurd for him to think of looking for another.
  • When night comes, the electricity dims to half-strength, then goes up again, then comes down, for no apparent reason
  • The emaciated limbs, the shriveled testicles, the body that had shrunk to less than a hundred pounds. This was a once corpulent man, whose proud, well-stuffed belly had preceded his every step through the world, and now he was hardly there
  • Everything seemed to be repeating itself. Reality was a Chinese box, an infinite series of containers within containers. For here again, in the most unlikely of places, the theme had reappeared
  • No one is less cynical than a magician. He knows, and everyone else knows, that everything he does is a sham. The trick is not really to deceive them, but to delight them into wanting to be deceived
  • The superiority of the Collodi original to the Disney adaptation lies in its reluctance to make the inner motivations of the story explicit. They remain intact, in a pre-conscious, dream-like form, whereas in Disney these things are expressed—which sentimentalizes them, and therefore trivializes them
  • A wisp of puniness against the bulk of his father, he dreams of acquiring inordinate powers to conquer the paltry reality of himself
  • If there is to be any justice at all, it must be a justice for everyone. No one can be excluded, or else there is no such thing as justice. The conclusion is inescapable
  • He lays it out on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again. Remember.