The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Seven years since I last read it, I have used all opportunities I have had talking about underrated books to mention The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Random House, Inc. 2010) by Aimee Bender. Recently, at a book club meeting, I remembered the book, driven by romanticism and loyalty towards it, subconsciously deciding to read it again the first chance I get. On my next visit to the library, I borrowed it almost reluctantly, fearing reading it again would change my initial impressions about the book and my memories of it, a cycle of grief that is so desolate and lonely that entering into that vortex requires dedication, perseverance, but most importantly, faith. This time, I read the book, using my lips forming each word in a disciplined whisper, as if reading out to more than one forms of myself. Perhaps it was an attempt to survive any unforeseen departure of the heart or mind, and not remaining lonely, if at all it happens. In the early hours of the morning when I finished reading it, I could breathe again.

Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a treasure trove holding in its pages a phantasmagorical coming together of individuals, landscapes, events, and understandings revealing to its readers a richness that is found in food and in people. It delivers the intricate inner lives of individuals, who immortalized as characters, continue to be in denial, in want, in grief, in sadness, and in need of help. These human-like qualities give the characters in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake certain depth that although for the magical elements in the book, rescues them and presents them as real enough.

Related image
Photo Courtesy:

Rose Edelstein, the narrator, who takes the readers through her life and the lives of people around her, takes care to remember that her “superpower” allows her an understanding that is deprived to most of us. This compassionate witness, is therefore, capable of understanding (and forgiving) her mother’s sadness (even if she denies it herself) and her extramarital affair, her father’s reserved nature, her brother’s aloofness and eventual disappearance, her childhood love marrying the love of his life, and a grandmother that never shows up in person. Rose’s awakening, through her experience of tasting people’s emotions in their food, however difficult and disturbing, launches her to become accepting of others and be true to her own self. This is Bender’s success in writing The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Bender’s epigraph, quoting Brillat-Savarin from his book The Physiology of Taste at the beginning of the book, turns the reader to the use of food as an allegory, an element that contains within it complexity and character, and renders it to those who seek. The epigraph reads,

“Food is all those substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses which the human body suffers through the act of living.”

Food then can be of various forms; any form that feeds, that resuscitates a human individual and its body can be and should be seen as “food”. This way of looking at individuals and their choices is enlightening of their struggles, their needs, and their fears. Bender has used this theme throughout her book even as her characters respond to their environments and try to adapt and survive.

Lane Edelstein, Rose’s mother is on a continuing search for her “food”, her precocious mastery of new skills turns her to a recurring moment where she struggles to find what she wants to do. Eventually, her anxiety and unhappiness settle when she enters into a new relationship outside her marriage. Rose’s father Paul Edelstein survives by limiting himself to a routine, performing it with accuracy that helps him remain stable even as complex events around him confuse and complicate his life. Joseph, Rose’s brother, is a surreal character that outdoes other characters by “disappearing” into himself, which even with its magical qualities resembles most of us the most. His “food”, much like those of us who find it difficult to exist in the material dimension, is a tender levitating alternation between two worlds, sometimes at the same time. Including Rose, who “sat down at the table, alone” to do a tasting of food prepared by her own hands, each of Bender’s characters continues to live, even when they find it hard to do so.

In an interview with Liane Hansen at NPR A Book That Brings Sadness to Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender says, “It’s I guess my hope that there’s a survival but with the complexity that it’s something she’s trying to figure out but she’s pointed in a good direction.” In living and in relating to each other, we can become culpable and often judged to the point of dehumanization for the same. One way or the other, we suffer. However, Bender’s Rose seems to shine a new light upon the circumstances of human existence, a fairly repeated yet profound way of understanding that is rooted deep in compassion and personal reflection. She seems to be saying, we are only different to an extent and that that boundary is almost always created, never existing on its own. We can only hope that while we suffer the act of living, we are “pointed in a good direction.”


Chughtai’s Gainda: Redistributing Literary Space

Related image
Ismat Chughtai | Photo Courtesy:

In the selected writings Lifting the Veil, Penguin Random House India’s Modern Classics brings together some of Ismat Chughtai’s popular (and then-controversial) short stories, a collection that is reminiscent of the times when the cultural mores and traditions reeked of conservative values limiting both social and personal freedoms, particularly for women. Courage, then was not a quality extraordinaire displayed in battlefields or in resistance against the imperium, but also an ordinary, everyday act much like that of Chughtai’s characters, performed often without celebration and with seminal consequences. Ismat Chughtai comes from a long line of women who have lived within patriarchal settings, often under a veil—conversing in hushed tones, walking on tiptoes, and behind closed doors—waiting for the right moment to come out. In Chughtai’s work, these women find their compatriots, and as her readers, we, our own.

The first story in the collection, Gainda published in the year 1938, is among Chughtai’s earliest published works that in its quality of reflective narration, fragmented dialogue, and partial description builds a platform for discussions on caste, class, gender, and sexuality. Exploring the themes of caste and class oppression, female friendships, premarital sex and pregnancy, domestic violence, and romantic relationships and their disparate consequences within high societies, Gainda has a reverberation that is akin to the sound of truth. The young narrator has a distinct style of re-membering events from her past, events that she has witnessed but has escaped from unscathed. One can imagine a gentle peek from Harper Lee’s very own Jean Louise Finch, as Chughtai’s narrator continues her dramatic recollection.

Image result for Ismat Chughtai lifting the veil
Lifting the Veil | Photo Courtesy:

The story begins with, “This is OUR shack,” (1) a proclamation made by the young narrator as Gainda and she smoothen the ground to begin their play-pretend. The act of claiming one’s own space, a feminist act, symbolises a breaking away from the society that confines not just physical bodies but also expression, exploration, and agency. In its own limited way then the secret meetings between Gainda and the narrator encourage a special bond beyond that of class and caste realities raising political consciousness among the girls even if they do not understand them yet. Little is known about Gainda, the young narrator’s description is often limited to her perception of what “important” is. She describes her awe and desire to be like Gainda, becoming “the sole owner of a set of glittering silver jewellery…” and strutting “around showing off her finery” (3).  Yet the disjointed pieces of information come together as if filling up a puzzle, revealing Gainda’s particular story within a long-surviving exploitative system.

Gainda is not the archetype of rebellion; she is but a shy, cheerful, knowledgeable girl who “was a treasure-trove of such [‘strange’] events” (8), acting her part as a young widow, and as an impressionable adolescent discovering her sexuality, interests, and desires. Chughtai’s treatment of Gainda in the story, however, elevates the young girl and her story to a status equal to those who have been documented to create history. In addition, the roles accorded to multiple female characters such as Amma and Bahu, including the use of a second narrator of the same sex,  redistributes literary space (“This is OUR shack” (1)), to hold stories like that of Gainda’s. As the literary critic Edward W. Said writes in his Introduction to Culture & Imperialism (1994), “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” So is kyriarchy and the patriarchal spaces and narratives it allows.

Chughtai claims this space again when she gives only a marginal role to her male characters; although, even that cursory glance is enough to confirm their position, status, and power within the household. Yet their absence does not remove them entirely or consume the consequences resulting from their actions or inactions; much like a portentous cloud, they continue to direct the course of events resulting in a gendered distribution of labour, prize, and suffering. The male members, as they take off to dominate the world outside the household, cause the womenfolk to clean the mess left behind, both literal and figurative. The women clean up the mess with such proficiency, hiding the “filth” behind their own veils, such that men continue to exist and enjoy a privileged status. No wonder then that “lifting the veil” is an uncomfortable act, at least for one-half of the society. Gainda is only one of those many uncomfortable acts.

The Lagoon: Joseph Conrad

Related image
Joseph Conrad | Photo Courtesy:

The Polish writer Joseph Conrad, born in the year 1857, was known to create long and short works of fiction, most of which told tales of the household or of the sea. Conrad worked as a merchant seaman, eventually receiving the title of Captain, a career that had a tremendous influence on his writing—stories he heard or witnessed on his sojourns became his subjects. Some of his popular works include novels such as Nostromo (1904), Heart of Darkness (1899), An Outcast of the Islands (1896), and The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) and short stories of the fame The Idiots (1896), The Lagoon (1897), Amy Foster (1901), Karain: A Memory (1897), The Tale (1916), and more. Conrad is known to alternate between his longer works and short stories, publishing short stories while he continued working on his novels, allowing him to earn sustenance, even as his writing career continued. Conrad was buried in Kent where he settled during the last years of his life.

Conrad’s craft was richly endowed with impressionism, narration, the use of figurative language, description, and symbolism. Human fragility, its experience of and response to trauma, was a repeated theme in Conrad’s work, particularly in his collection Tales of Unrest (1898). The Lagoon, originally published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1897, possesses the very potpourri of themes that Conrad has contributed to the English literature. In addition to realism and a deep observance of Nature, The Lagoon is also a tale bearing accounts of a time when the world was divided into imperial powers and their colonies, a division that ransacked the world literature of multiple narratives, diversity, and inclusion.

Image result for the lagoon joseph conrad
The Lagoon | Photo Courtesy: z–

On one of his journeys in the Malay Archipelago, the anonymous white man traversing a river is on the lookout for a resting place even as the twilight falls. Conrad deftly creates the scene evoking visions of the surrounding dense forest, “somber and dull, stood motionless and silent on each side of the broad stream.” (93) The white man’s boat is the lone object that is adamant on pursuing movement, everything else had been “bewitched into an immobility perfect and final.” (93) To the white man, who is accustomed to movement inspired by his imperial culture, the gloom and stillness of the colonial land is equivalent to that of Hell. Conrad carefully creates this image, using darkness as a revelatory symbol, “darkness oozed out from between the trees, through the tangled maze of the creepers, from behind the great fantastic and unstirring leaves; the darkness, mysterious and invincible; the darkness scented and poisonous of impenetrable forests.” (94)

At the end of the clearing, the lagoon where Arsat’s dwelling awaits him can be seen, sitting amidst the shallow waters and according to natives, watched over by ghosts and spirits. Upon seeing the white man, Arsat beseeches him into his hut to show him his suffering wife, Diamelen, who he thinks will not make it through the night. The two men, sit on the platform, each in his own anguish, while Arsat narrates a story from his past. “Therefore I shall speak to you of love. Speak in the night. Speak before both night and love are gone – and the eye of day looks upon my sorrow and my shame; upon my blackened face; upon my burnt-up heart.” (95) Arsat seeks redemption for having betrayed his brother, a betrayal that became the cause of his eventual death even as he witnesses the prolonged pain and suffering of his wife, preparing to die.

Arsat’s suffering is characteristic of a man, who has in his passion sacrificed his principals, and has unintentionally become a killer, in this case, of two individuals. His particular agony is without redemption, at least as he believes, “I can see nothing”, yet in the safe company of his friend, he tries to find an answer (101). Conrad’s use of two narrators in the story creates for his readers the effect of a story within a story that promises excitement, perspectives, and freedom from attachment. In the white man’s disinterested observing eye, the reader, much like Arsat can find relief, knowing well that there is no need to get attached. The white man, owing to his identity, power, and status can leave and return to his life without burden or moral distress. In Arsat, the reader finds a cautionary tale. It is as if, Conrad is saying, men like Arsat have suffered so owing to their subservience to passion, listening to “the hunger of my heart” and inability to pursue logic. (97)

It is then difficult to read The Lagoon without worrying about the presence of “the clash of civilizations”, the polarity of the white race in its interaction with and interpretation of the indigenous races of the world. Throughout the story, the reader can feel the almost-prophetic presence of the white man, who in the absence of a name except being referred as Tuan (equivalent to sir/mister), delivers declarations of the nature, “We all love our brothers” (101) and “There is nothing”. (101) It often leaves one wondering as to the purpose of the white man in the story. Arsat, on the other hand, is a perfect third-world native, physically strong, loyal to the white man, conscientious, in need of redemption and waiting for a saviour.

Conrad’s treatment of Diamelen is particularly crude, who although is important enough and around whom events centre themselves, is without her own voice. Diamelen is birthed to the reader through the observations of the men about her, firstly the white man who sees her in her deathbed, and then by Arsat, who tells the white man about his rescue of her and their escape that led to his brother’s death. It appears that Diamelen, only in her final moments, finds her true self and her own redemption, for nowhere else does Conrad mention of the impact of the earlier events on Diamelen as he so vividly does for Arsat. It begs the question, “what would be the state of the short story if Diamelen had narrated it?” and leaves one aware that Diamelen herself would have suffered from guilt, in addition, to witnessing Arsat’s unstable and troubled mental state. That Conrad does not regard all his characters alike, especially his female characters who are sacrificed to deepen the drama and depth of his male characters, is a practice that has found a place in popular cinema and fiction even today.

Despite the controversial interpretations, Conrad’s relentless use of writing tools including the metaphor, simile, anaphora, alliteration, assonance, and personification render a lyrical reading to the short story. Conrad says of his work,

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line… It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence.” (emphasis added)

The symbolism, preserved in the binaries of light/darkness, heaven/earth, peace/unrest, violence/calm, and many others, deliver a fictive quality to the scene, setting, and time. However, the characters appear commonplace, their personal stories rich with realism, so much so that it is possible for them to survive outside the story. The human condition as captured in its timeless battle with emotions—guilt, fear, love, betrayal, anger, pain, and hope—bring a unique existential design to the story and the themes of life and death, “the very truth of their existence” give the characters a tenderness that can absolve Conrad of his other misgivings, if only temporarily.

Supplement this with The Lagoon and A man in crisis: selected short fiction of Joseph Conrad by Simona Klimková.