Feasting, Fasting
Anita Desai
Uma lives in an unidentified city in India --- somewhere close to the Ganges. Twice she has been betrothed by her father to men she didn't know. The first, after being paid a considerable dowry, decided to put off marriage, apparently forever, and go on to college. The second, was scarcely better:

    The man looked as old to her as Papa, nearly, and was grossly overweight too, while his face was pockmarked. None of this disturbed her as much, however, as did his sullen expression. He so resembled all the other men who had ever looked her way --- they had all been reduced to precisely this sort of unenthusiasm...

At the wedding, the groom, Harish, says to the priest, as he plows through the ceremony, "Cut it short, will you? --- that's enough now." Uma is shipped off to his village, where she works in the kitchen sixteen to eighteen hours a day, serving the family, until her father comes to rescue her. Seems that Harish has another bride (with children) in another city. Another lost dowry. Uma is soiled merchandise, now.

Uma is a strange, somewhat unloveable character --- totally in thrall to her mother and father (she calls them "MamaPapa" or "PapaMama" ("It was hard to believe they had ever had separate existences...") She is given to seizures, where she falls to the ground, thrashes around, and turns purple. She waits on them, is expected to have no life of her own after the disappearance of her two husbands. Her one act of rebellion occurs when the family goes to the river for the ritual bath, Uma plunges into the water, "as if this were what she had been preparing to do all her life." She can't swim, almost drowns, is hauled back to shore, and thinks,

    What it was was that when she had plunged into the dark water and let it close quickly and tightly over her, the flow of the river, the current, drew her along, clasping her and dragging her with it. It was not fear she felt, or danger. Or rather, these were only what edged something much darker, wilder, more thrilling, a kind of exultation --- it was exactly what she had always wanted, she realized. Then they saved her. The saving was what made her shudder and cry, there on the sandbar, soaking wet, while the morning sun leapt up in the hazy, sand-colored sky and struck the boat, the brass pots that the women held, and their white drifting garments in the water.

§     §     §

I can think of no other recent novel that gives one such a strong feel for the taste and smell of India --- the closed bourgeois life, the entrapment of women, the semi-feudal state where their days and marriages and roles are all carefully blocked out for them. Uma is probably slightly retarded; she certainly has little to interest her outside of her collection of old Christmas Cards, an holy and slightly dotty aunt, and her one book, of Ella Wheeler Wilcox --- whose poems she reads over and over again:

    You are wasting your life in that dull, dark room
    (As he fondled her silken folds);
    O'er the casement lean but a little, my queen,
    And see what the great world holds...

But suddenly, two-thirds of the way through Fasting, Feasting, we are transported to New England, to be with Uma's brother, Arun. He has received a scholarship to college, and lives with an American family, the Pattons: gruff father, slightly dotty, in-love-with-consuming mother, anorexic daughter, sports buff brother. It is a jolting move, one that, for the reader, seems to have little to do with the tale of Uma.

But, by now, we have come to trust this most ingenious author. What we find is that the Patton family, in their consumerist suburban home, are little different from the family that Arun has left behind in India. At one point, he comes upon Melanie, in the kitchen, devouring, alone, a tub of ice cream, "with renewed ferocity" --- ice cream she will immediately throw up in the bathroom. It's a moment of truth for Arun. He sees "something he knows:"

    a resemblance to the contorted face of an enraged sister who, failing to express her outrage against neglect, against misunderstanding, against inattention to her unique and singular being and its hungers, merely spits and froths in ineffectual protest. How strange to encounter it here, Arun thinks, where so much is given, where there is both license and plenty.

For 150 pages, Ms. Desai captures for us, thorough none but the simplest language, the tight, controlled world of an Indian middle class family. Then, for a final 75 pages, she captures the tight, controlled world of an American middle class family. She limns these two disparate worlds with such skill and insight (and, too, with such compassion), that one cannot help but be moved, both by the artistry, and by the despair.

--- Sylvia A. Rockfort

John Szarkowski
They say that Walker Evans and Man Ray were heavily influenced by him. He worked in obscurity until the last few years of his life (he died in 1927). His subject --- at least for this volume --- was Old Paris, but that included ancient statuary, gardens, walls, and trees from the surrounding area. His photographs are stark, often sharp, carefully arranged. They are serious, somber --- except in those few where he allowed the reflection of his camera and himself to appear, usually superimposed on the window of a store (women's clothing, men's formal attire, wigs).

The hundred photographs here come with commentary by John Szarkowsky --- a commentary that ranges between the informative and the silly. Informative when we learn that the photograph of a wagon is but one of a series called La Voiture à Paris, or that the composition of his pictures --- so careful, so assured and balanced --- might be the result of the fact that he was also an amateur painter, although not a very good one; or that the masonry buildings in "Crépy-en-Valois" have the "habit of preserving its own archeological record....the larger arch above the surviving door was big enough to give entry to a carriage; the smaller one would accommodate a horse."

Silly when we read that the trees we see reflected in the waters at Saint-Cloud are not real trees, nor real reflections of trees --- but a photograph of trees, and their reflections. Or that the shot of a Cypress could have been called

    "Clôture blanche," in which case we might have noted that it was made six or seven years after the great Paul Strand picture White Fence, which Atget surely never saw.

Or, of the photograph Luxembourg:

    It would be inadmissible to say that this picture is about life and death, or gain and loss, but one might possibly say that it is about evanescence.


    It is surprising to remember that when Versailles was new photography had not been invented, and it is tempting to wonder if André le Nôtre, the designer of the gardens of Versailles, knew what they really looked like.

As my friend Billy Joe of Texas would comment: "Say who?"

No matter. Szarkowski is obviously one of those guys who likes talking to his sweetie, loudly, in the middle of movies. The photographs float nicely above the text, as they should, and their composition, and, above all, their feel of the life of Paris and the countryside from seventy-five years ago is so powerful that we can forget the noisy whispering from this peanut gallery, and praise the Museum of Modern Art (and the publisher Callaway) for giving us such a delicious collection.

Djuna Barnes
(Modern Library)
Djuna Barnes died in 1982, in a tiny apartment, in Greenwich Village, a recluse, hounded by a public she detested. Of all her novels and plays, Nightwood, published in 1936, has attracted the most interest. Modern Library thinks enough of it to send it out here, again, to a waiting world. It was praised by the likes of Graham Greene and Edmund Wilson. Elizabeth Hardwick claims that it is "accomplished with a high, cool, and loyal belief in the possibilities of words in place and out of place... instruments of revelation." T. S. Eliot (whose introduction is included in this volume) said, "It is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it."

Well, I guess that leaves out all us poltroons with our low-life poetic taste: give me "Barrack-Room Ballads" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Then I turn to Ms. Barnes and I run into passages like this and wonder where these "experts" are coming from:

    Be as the Frenchman, who puts a sou in the poorbox at night that he may have a penny to spend in the morning --- he can trace himself back by his sediment, vegetable and animal, and so find himself in the odour of wine in its two travels, in and out, packed down beneath an air that has not changed its position during that strategy.


    The America, what then? He separates the two for fear of indignities, so that the mystery is cut in every cord; the design wildcats down the charter mortalis, and you get crime. The startled bell in the stomach begins to toll, the hair moves and drags upward, and you go far away backward by the crown, your conscience belly out and shaking.

We learn from the descriptive notes up front that we are dealing with a book on lesbian love (Robin, Nora, and Jenny), and that although it was frank for its time, it was not pilloried in the same way as The Well of Loneliness. I'm guessing that Barnes was not abused for her frankness because no one could figure out what she was muttering on about. At its best, she writes like deSade (in style, not in content) on an off day. At its worst, it reeks of the lumpy noodling of gothic novels like Melmoth the Wanderer and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

We imagine a graduate student in English at Tulsa State will soon enough be writing a thesis on "The Parallel Uses of Carter Mortalis as Symbology in Nightwood," or "The Humble sou as an Attribute of Dissonance in the works of Djuna Barnes." For the rest of us, our only prayer is that the recrudescence of interest in this occlusive author will not be seen as A Brave New Wave for imitators in what's left of American Literature.

--- Lolita Lark

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