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When the bell tolls

When the bell tolls
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First Published: Sat, Feb 06 2010. 01 15 AM IST

Happily ever after? Gilbert explores the challenges and joys of marriage.
Happily ever after? Gilbert explores the challenges and joys of marriage.
Updated: Wed, Feb 24 2010. 06 33 PM IST
Among the many miracles of which a book is capable, surely the greatest of marvels is that of voice. Although we all have access to a common language, the same grammatical and syntactical structures, and a shared vocabulary, human personality proves itself endlessly capable, when it thinks strongly and independently, of creating quite unmistakable and unforgettable rhythms on paper.
Happily ever after? Gilbert explores the challenges and joys of marriage.
Think of V.S. Naipaul’s grouchy and penetrating rumble or Orhan Pamuk’s wheeling and sensual meditations or Shakespeare’s knotty and supercharged phrases or Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s wry, sunny and garrulous narrations. Often far more emphatically and memorably than even a real person speaking in a distinctive accent and timbre could, a book packs a presence for all time to come between two slices of cardboard, waiting to speak as soon as the reader’s eyes meet the page. When married to intelligence and a love of language, literary voice creates a pleasure as trippy and seductive as any of the other human highs.
Voice is particularly important to the genre of memoir— that branch of literature in which a person speaks candidly, intimately, often vulnerably, about his or her experiences on a particular theme. It is voice which must, above all other things, be supplied as the reason for the stupendous success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (2006), a book about a middle-aged woman regaining her self-possession through a set of different experiences in three countries in the wake of a catastrophic divorce. In stark contrast to the lamentably simple-minded, manipulative and often downright mediocre books to be usually found on best-seller lists, here was a hit book that was actually often sophisticated, tough-minded and ambitious.
As Gilbert writes in the introduction to her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, the success of Eat, Pray, Love was totally unanticipated (she had already written two well-reviewed, but modestly successful works of fiction and a biography of an American naturalist) and for a while completely threw her writing gears out of order as she attempted to come to terms with writing for a mass audience hungry with expectation. Thankfully, most of the qualities on display in her breakthrough book are easily transferred to her new one, which is a freewheeling meditation on modern marriage seen through the streets, again, of a peculiar crisis in her life.
If Eat, Pray, Love gave us a Gilbert on the run from a marriage of which she despaired, Committed throws up a Gilbert on the run again from marriage—but this time (and this is the paradox explored in the book) from marriage with a man she does love. Felipe, the pseudonym she gives her new partner, is a Brazilian-born businessman 17 years older than her, gentle, kind, stoical and himself the protagonist of a bad divorce. The two meet in Bali, fall in love slowly and without abandoning their own personalities, and keep up an itinerant relationship, meeting sometimes in Bali and more often in Philadelphia, Gilbert’s home. Then a thunderbolt strikes.
Felipe is denied entry into America for visiting too often on a tourist visa and in the same stroke his livelihood, which is dependent on his visits to America, is badly shaken. The only choices before the couple are for Gilbert to leave home permanently or— horror of horrors—to marry. Can this marriage be something more than just an imposition? Gilbert decides to find an answer by sketching out a vast, densely plotted map of marriage—its history, its many challenges and discontents, its private and public meanings—as she waits for state permission to marry.
To me the frame of Gilbert’s story seemed slightly contrived and she is not always persuasive when she leaves the comfort zone of her own culture (I was mystified by her assertion that in India, 3 May is “National Broken Hearts Day”). But she has plenty of very smart things to say about intimacy, infatuation, equality, autonomy, freedom and duty in that private space set up by two people, and writes very clearly and compellingly on questions that puzzle and agitate each one of us in some measure (not an easy thing to do). While she often calls on studies, surveys and scholarship to buttress her points, mostly she just uses herself and is both an excellent witness of her own mind and an accomplished observer of her partner. This is a sage, funny and altogether substantial book for grown-ups about the many faces of marriage and—at least from this particular open-minded bachelor—comes warmly recommended.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Feb 06 2010. 01 15 AM IST