Books that defined sensitivity of the age A layman’s reflections on books of the 20th century
My first foray into serious literature was Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. I was thirteen, in class seven, and it left me overawed and hero worshipping Captain Nemo, who, deeply embittered with the world (I forget why) instead diverted all his energies to build a futuristic submarine called Nautilus. This, of course, was science fiction. The world paid tributes to Captain Nemo when the first submarine was actually built in 1948- a hundred years after it was envisaged in his, and Jules Verne’s mind. The submarine was named “Nautilus”.
But I could read only about 400 of the 700 pages of the small print. It was three years later that I read Charles Dicken’s “David Copperfield” cover to cover in original. My joy knew no bounds. The complete works of Sherlock Holmes soon followed. By the end of class XII, I was ready to take on more serious stuff. Thus started my long affair with classical Russian literature and much else.
But I digress. I am supposed to write about the greatest books published in the 20th century, not the 19th (all three mentioned above are 19th century). Neither am I supposed to write on my own evolution as a bibliophile. But, however much as I would like to stick to the main theme, I cannot get either the 19th century or my own periscopic view off my back. I would, therefore, seek the reader’s indulgence in two respects.
Before discussing the 20th century books, I will briefly mention some of the books published in the 19th century. The more I think about it, the more I feel that all books that have profoundly moved me, or influenced me, are old 19th century works.
Two, the volume of books printed in the 20th century is just overwhelming, both in quantity and the range of subjects. What follows, therefore, is a collage of my readings as a layman rather than any authoritative or sweeping judgements.
The most powerful impact that any book made on me was Nikolai Chernesvesky’s “What is to be Done?”. Other Russian writers like Dostoevesky, Turgnev, Saltykov- Schedrin, Pushkin, Gogol and Chekov also made a deep impact with their running concern on the role of the intellectual in shaping and changing society. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with its vast canvas, range of characters and the vision of history as a self- governed Gargantuan force, remains certainly the greatest novel ever written.
Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (that I read when in class X), “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte” and Capital (specially the first three chapters of Vol. I) formed the bedrock of my subsequent convictions and beliefs. For a long time, whenever I was in doubt, the first impulse was to turn to the “Eighteenth Brumaire”. The sheer clarity of expression and application of the historical method to analysis of contemporary France is an education in itself, and generations have grown up learning fundamentals of Marxist analysis from this little book.
Having said that, and with the preceding as a backdrop, the first 20th century book that comes to mind is “Mother” by Maxim Gorky (1908). Russian literature took a sharp turn with the emergence of Pavel, the first working class hero. But then it only reflected the great movement then underway in Russia that culminated in the Socialist Revolution of 1917- the last of the great European revolutions in a period of deep political upheavals that started in 1789.
The series of pamphlets that Vladmir Lenin wrote at the time continued to resound for a major part of the remaining century, providing a political impetus that found an echo in all parts of the world. Lenin, “the man who lived politics 24 hours of the day”, became the most published and most read political author in the century. His “What is to be Done?”, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy”, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” and “The State and Revolution” became compulsory reading for working class activists as well as armchair revolutionaries, for those on the Left as well as for those who came close to it- and there were many.
His “April Thesis” is startling not only for its political significance but also for its length- it is hardly a few pages long- much like Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” where Marx came closest to envision a socialist society.
Much of what Lenin wrote, however, came under a cloud later in this century, not only from opponents, but also from those within the socialist movement. The most significant of these was fellow communist Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” that turned many a dictum on its head. Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” marked a significant break, even as it claimed to be a continuation of Lenin’s ideas.
In England, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm provided excellent and insightful Marxist interpretations in history and culture. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” and Hobsbawm’s “Primitive Rebels” are landmark writings, the latter pre- empted, if not spawned, the subaltern school of historiography.
Closer home, D.D. Kosambi blazed in new trail in Indian historiography. A mathematician by training, his works on ancient India- though dated by today’s standards- were a watershed. His “Culture and Civilization of Ancient India” remains one of the most influential books on ancient India. “An Introduction to the Study of Indian History” continues to go into reprints decades after its first publication in 1956.
Kosambi had the onerous task of writing history in a country where written sources are sparse and local variations plentiful. It was his deep sensitivity to life that led him to extend scientific inquiry to the study of society.
His quintessentially humanistic streak is reflected in his own words. “The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”
Others, from within and without, provided scathing indictment of the Soviet society, notably Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” and Solznitzyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Koestler’s Bukharin- like character Rubashov, personified the dilemma and tragedy of those who led the revolution and then became its victims. It is astonishing that the novel was written in 1940 at all- at the height of Stalin’s power and the extremly limited information about Soviet Union outside.
The Great War of the European nations, later termed World War I was the backdrop of “The Good Soldier Sjevk” by Jaroslav Hasek, the Czeck writer, possibly the finest satire on war written in the century. Sjevk, in his various roles, including as an orderly to numerous army officers, often lands into problems despite his good intentions and like most honest citizens of the modern world finds himself to be a patriot, and even a ‘soldier’, more by accident than ambition. It is a hilarious and humane novel, both at the same time.
It is, however, Gabriel Garcia Marquez who deserves pride of the place with “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. The narrative in One Hundred Years moves through a maze of subtle and often innocuous looking images and metaphors so that one finds the fantastical and mythical interacting with the live and the real. The transmission of ideas and inventions from the outside world to the small village of Macondo takes place through the wandering gypsies so that what reaches them is a bunch of scattered and seemingly unrelated ideas.
The formation of the world- view of the founder of the village Arcadio Buendia, and his successors evolves through this mixture of myth, fantasy and science through the corruption of the spoken word, mingled with songs and tales. Flying carpets and disappearing acts are a part of the hazards. The untiring and fruitless efforts of the alchemists and the dreams of the pioneers of flying transports one to the times of struggle, hope and ecstasy.
Garcia’s works, despite his impeccable roots as a writer of protest, are not propagandist. His vision of his native land is expressed in his novel- Love in the Time of Cholera, which is the story of two separated lovers who rediscover each other in old age. At one level this is a case of old age romanticized, at another, it is the romanticization of Latin America’s tryst with destiny and a conception of a new civilization for the continent. Suppressed for so long, denied its historical role and the seemingly unending brutality of life are sought to be reconciled in a future old age.
In the much acclaimed The General in his Labyrinth, he profiles the George Washington of South America- Simon Bolivar in the last ten days of his life. These are days of retreat. It is the examination of a political leader who has forsaken his people- a character so familiar in Latin America because of repetition. It is a study and an indictment of a weak, indecisive and dithering leadership. It is their legacy that has played havoc with Latin America. It is also the legacy which, ironically, has produced a whole body of literature recognized the world over.
Were there any worst books of the century? This is much more difficult to answer but one book that did let one down was Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj”. Gandhi is undoubtedly India’s greatest contribution to the world after the Buddha. He was a unique mass leader and one who is continuously being re- discovered by later generations. “Hind Swaraj”, which he considered to be the closest to his formulation of a theoretical framework for his political ideas, was a big let down for its anti- modernism and comments that fly in the face of logic.
Finally, what does one look forward to in the coming century? There are some books that one would like to re- read mainly for the nostalgic aura about them. Tintin comics that I read in school top the list. Then there are those that one either “forgot” to read or have been repeatedly postponed. Gerald Durrel’s delightful animal stories fall in this class.
Then there are others that one has not read because of ignorance and the most prominent of these is Allama Iqbal, who wrote much in Urdu but much more in Persian.
Iqbal’s stress on the development of the self came a fresh breeze, as part of his critique of Sufism, he stressed on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasized the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposite stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:
Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam
(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made the earthen pot out of it
It is me who made mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)
He is a unique poet, sung in the national songs of two countries, but ignored in one and unfairly mis- interpreted in the other.
I will end by returning to the theme that I started with and my growing up in the shadow of the 19th century works. One hopes that there would be many books published in the 20th century that may still be waiting to be discovered in the new century. After all, Karl Marx, the single most powerful influence on 20th century thought (Reuters has declared him to be the “Intellectual of the Millennium”) was little known, much less read, and still less understood outside a small circle in his own age.
Bhupinder (The writer, 32 years old, is a software engineer.)
December 18, 1999
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 23 Jan 2001