Wednesday, October 03, 2007

# 72 A House for Mr. Biswas – V.S. Naipaul

While lunching with Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden noted an advertisement that struck a chord. After work, he arrives home, eager to tell his wife about a vacation cottage for sale, but the audience is against him. Norton has already spilled the beans to Alice and his own wife, Trixie.

The women don’t believe they can afford the cottage. Defensive yet defiant, Kramden cracks open the paper and declaims, “Come to Paradise Acres, the ideal place to spend your summer vacation… $989 buys you a dream house in this enchanted wonderland.”

Kramden argues that he needs a haven from the sonic assault of his daily bus route and from the noise and crowd of his miserable New York apartment. In his mind it’s a chance to partake in the Good Life. TV viewers know otherwise; the stage is set for another failure for the hero, “a dreamer whose visions of upward mobility are constantly thwarted,”
according to The Museum of Broadcast Communications.

The comedic bubble-bursting detailed in “
Cottage for Sale” is typical of The Honeymooners. The episode, the 43rd installment of the Kramden and Norton saga, aired on January 23, 1954. In the early ‘50’s The Honeymooners appeared in sketches on other variety programs; the show’s sole full season lasted from 1955 to 1956. Afterward the characters returned sporadically in skits and specials as late as 1976 on account of their enduring popularity, thanks in part to reruns in syndication.

Why is Ralph Kramden so funny and so resonant?
A Gallery of Archetypes cites him as an avatar of the Clown, “who does his best work as an Everyman.” The web site amplifies:
“The Clown reflects the emotions of the crowd, making an audience laugh by satirizing something they can relate to collectively or by acting out social absurdities. In general, the messages communicated through a Clown's humor are deeply serious and often critical of the hypocrisy in an individual or in some area of society.”
Jackie Gleason described his creation more matter-of-factly: “The poor soul hasn’t got a hell of a lot of ability. But he keeps trying… He's just an ordinary guy who is trying to make it and can’t do it.”

In conceiving The Honeymooners, Gleason based the Kramdens’ dreary dwelling on the Brooklyn apartment he grew up in, even using the same address, 328 Chauncey Street. The borough has embraced its fictional son: the
sign welcoming visitors via the Brooklyn Bridge quotes a Kramden trademark line: “How sweet it is!”

Three years after “Cottage for Sale” first ran, a writer at Oxford University began contemplating in fiction his father’s hardscrabble upbringing 2200 miles south of New York City in rural
Trinidad and then its capital city, Port-of-Spain. V.S. Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, finished in 1960 and published in 1961, describes another scheming Clown/Everyman lured by real estate.

As the cottage does for Ralph Kramden, the house for Mohun Biswas represents an opportunity for a little dignity. When Biswas very tenuously attains kingship of his tenement castle after numerous struggles, he takes pleasure in its relative tranquility (“to hear no noises except those of his family”), echoing Kramden’s desire to be free of clamor next-door, and in its relative autonomy from extended family (“to bar entry to whoever he wished”), mirroring Kramden’s irritation at the frequent presence of a domineering mother-in-law and neighbors such as Alice’s card-playing friends.

Biswas buys his home due to a slick, false piece of salesmanship in the same manner Kramden is victimized by the bait-and-switch of a con-artist salesman. Each hero is overmatched in the marketplace and too proud to admit it. Biswas pays $4,000, an exorbitant sum for his means. Accordingly his wife, Shama, disapproves of this purchase and all his prior rash expenditures—she carefully manages the family finances as Alice manages the Kramdens’ kitty.

The Biswas house quickly proves to be structurally deficient as does the cottage the Kramdens and Nortons buy together for $989 ($7,200 in 2006 dollars). When the New Yorkers first arrive at their new getaway, Ralph and Ed are ridiculously dressed in matching coats, displaying their naiveté toward “vacationing.” The Biswases demonstrate similar inexperience when traveling to the beach for the first time as a family; the underlying cause of poverty adds a melancholy strain.

Whereas the Biswases are stuck in their home and forced to make piecemeal upgrades, the Americans fortuitously shed their albatross and sell the cottage for $1,000. They then learn that the new buyer will flip it for $4,000 (this identical amount emphasizes the high cost of the Biswas house a decade earlier in Trinidad) to the state, which is building a highway through the property. This buyer has “advance information,” a commodity Kramden never has—he’s only a peon in the System and barred from the rapid accumulation of wealth. Biswas is also excluded from such information, whether licit or illicit, such as arson intended to reap insurance money, a tactic called “insuranburn.”

Biswas doesn’t commit arson but he does inappropriately set clearing fires to fields, nearly burning down a house. In his cottage Kramden is similarly inept; he dumps kerosene in the wood burning stove and almost blows up the joint. Neither hero is a modern-day
Prometheus, a master of fire, a defining role of Man.

Each hero’s essential incapacity is evident in his comically distorted physicality. Biswas’s calf muscles lack tone to such an extent that they are often compared to swinging “hammocks.” His poor fitness stems from malnutrition dating to early childhood—by harping on this detail Naipaul indicts a world-order in which billions cannot eat properly. Kramden is obese and the frequent butt of fat jokes, even in “Cottage for Sale.” In reality Gleason the
wealthy actor was a celebrated gourmand; in the context of The Honeymooners and the running barbs about Kramden’s appearance, we see an early depiction of beer-chugging gluttony as a characteristically American form of poor nutrition.

These unfit men don’t take insults lying down. In fact, they hurl more than they catch. The trading of invectives supplies the bulk of the humor in both A House for Mr. Biswas and The Honeymooners, and it points again toward the
archetype: “The shadow aspect of the Clown or Fool manifests as cruel personal mockery or betrayal.”

In 2005 a writer for The American Spectator, James Bowman, looked back at Kramden and
elaborated on the character’s depth:
“[He] looks more and more like a tragic figure. At least he was like King Lear or Othello or Oedipus in not knowing something about himself that the audience did know. In his case, what he didn't know was that his self-presentation was transparent to them, and that everyone could see through his bluster to the weak, vain, greedy, petty self that he thought to keep hidden.”
The episodic nature of the sitcom, Bowman adroitly notes, evokes a crucial difference between Kramden and the classically tragic character brought to “irretrievable ruin.” Kramden isn’t ruined—he returns every week, renewed for more humiliation and frustration. Bowman compares him to the ever beleaguered Wile E. Coyote; we can up the ante and compare Kramden to Sisyphus, whose eternal sessions of futile rock-pushing exemplify “thwarted upward mobility” to be sure.

The French existentialist
Albert Camus considered the doomed Greek in 1955 while the full season of The Honeymooners ran. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus sees the icon as “happy” despite the absurdity of his labor because “His fate belongs to him.”

Ah, Fate, the abstraction so compelling to the ancients. According to the Greek philosopher,
Heraclitus, a contemporary of Buddha, “A man’s character is his guardian divinity,” widely interpreted as “Character is fate,” meaning that our actions and intentions determine our life-paths. This notion significantly influenced Western thought: the German Romanticist Novalis quoted this fragment, and the English novelist Thomas Hardy in turn quoted Novalis.

The extents to which Kramden’s and Biswas’s character strengths and flaws determine their own fates could be debated forever. They are often at the mercy of mystical, natural and social forces beyond their control. For example, “A Cottage for Sale” opens with Alice Kramden and her friends playing bridge, a card game interweaving skill and chance. They commiserate that another woman’s husband “got a promotion.” They’ve gotten a bad deal in life, the scene suggests, and Kramden, the off-camera hero, is fighting against the luck of the draw.

Fate announces itself early in A House for Mr. Biswas. In the prologue we learn that the hero dies (and therefore the ruined Biswas resembles Lear, Othello and Oedipus more than does Kramden). In his last weeks he marvels at his “stupendous” achievement of home ownership, suggesting the state of happiness Camus described.

Indian civilization saw fate as broader than one’s ultimate state in this life. Karma, the “law of cause and effect,”
asserts that a soul’s destiny progresses or regresses during its reincarnations. Actions during past lives affect our present lives; our actions today will affect our subsequent lives.

In a novel by an ethnic Indian about ethnic Indians, replete with Hindu terminology, beliefs and rituals, Naipaul notably preferred to write the English “fate” to the Sanskrit/Hindu/Buddhist “karma.” One might see this as a small token of the author’s pro-Western stance for which he has been both
lauded and reviled.

Thanks to their
colonial presence in India, formalized in 1757, the British have digested karma more often and fully than have Americans. Three popular songs, all by British artists, entertain us with idiosyncratic interpretations of this concept.

John Lennon, the three other Beatles and fellow musician Donovan
studied transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968. Lennon’s 1970 song, “Instant Karma,” sloughs off reincarnation and places cause-and-effect in the here-and-now.

“It’s up to you,” Lennon sings, investing every human with the power to love and live with meaning today. “You’re a superstar,” he adds, envisioning a radiant firmament in which “we all shine on.”

Naipaul presents a more complicated view. His ironical outsider, Mohun Biswas, is at birth cursed by a Hindu pundit to lead an unfortunate life—a message opposite to Lennon’s. Despite this damnation, Biswas doggedly struggles to shine, albeit dimly, against the bleak backdrop of Third World economics and cultural disconnect.

“Karma is important,” chirped
Thom Yorke, the tousled sparrow for Radiohead, a band from Oxford, about the 1997 song “Karma Police.” “The idea that something like karma exists makes me happy. It makes me smile.”

A post-modern composer par excellence, Yorke frequently displays cheeky irony when discussing the often sinister imagery of his songs. He
added, “’Karma Police’ is dedicated to everyone who works for a big firm. It’s a song against bosses.” The lyrics lament corporate suppression of individuality, as so astutely illustrated in the comic strip, Dilbert. The invocation of karma emphasizes the unavoidable presence of thought control.

Kramden and Biswas toil below Yorke’s subjects and Dilbert on the food chain. They are excluded from the management of and capitalization on ideas and people. Biswas for a spell directs plantation workers but he does so disinterestedly and without real authority. Like Kramden he follows his erratic dreams and urges, making him admirable but unsuited for institutional conformity. He is always a prime candidate to be fired.

In 1983 another Brit understood karma on his own terms. Concerning Culture Club’s worldwide hit, “Karma Chameleon,” Boy George said,
“The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature's way of paying you back.”
Noble sentiment there, smacking of aggrandizement. The
lyrics read more like the revenge of a scorned lover; they fit into the soap opera of Boy George’s break-up at the time with drummer Jon Moss, and it was widely noted that “George admitted that many of the songs he wrote and recorded with Culture Club were actually directed toward Moss.” For Boy George, the addressee of his song combats rather than accepts romantic destiny and his true self—he should embrace that he is a “lover” not a “rival.”

The injection of romance into cosmic cause-and-effect brings to mind the impotence, mainly socioeconomic, of Ralph Kramden and Mohun Biswas—neither has meaningful disposable income. Kramden is perpetually childless (and sexually impotent?), but he is also
happily married to Alice, “proving that love does not need glamour to survive.” He is paid back in sustained conjugal passion the way Boy George wants his addressee to be compensated.

Biswas, on the other hand, is certainly not sexually impotent. He has had four children by the time he is 33. The narrative’s repetition of this fact, along with references to a multiplicity of poorly governed, underfed children in the extended family, suggests a quiet but insistent authorial recommendation for birth control. Unlike Kramden, Biswas does not experience romantic love in front of us. One even wonders how and when his children are conceived; the Biswas’s relations are always fraught and the two do not express much more than a grudging simpatico.

The most negative expressions between the Kramdens and Biswases relate to domestic violence. “
To the moon, Alice,” Kramden often yelled, and it became a signature phrase. In “Cottage for Sale” he twice threatens his wife: “One of these days, pow, right in the kisser!” and “I’d like to belt you right now.” These empty threats—Alice never once feared Ralph—represented the height of comedy to the contemporary audience of The Honeymooners since they underscored Ralph’s futile attempt to exert power. There’s little comedy and much discomfort in viewing those threats today.

Mohun Biswas in fact hits his wife, to his discredit, but the context of the narrative also asserts his powerlessness as a traditional patriarch. Biswas’s violence is lesser in degree and frequency than that of the members of his extended family: other husbands beat their wives regularly, even brutally, and the women beat their children mercilessly. These beatings are not just condoned, they are bragged about. Again, there seems to be an insistent authorial protest toward a despicable, unproductive group behavior.

The preeminent feminist novelist, Virginia Woolf, calmly excoriated the commonality of this practice, as she
cited a canonical history book: “Wife-beating, I read, ‘was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low.’”

This comes from Woolf’s 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, which famously introduced the theme of modest spatial independence as a prerequisite for intellectual and artistic development. Mohun Biswas, a frustrated writer himself, intuitively grasps this concept while he yearns for not just a room but an entire house in which he can dream and over which he can lord. As a poor patriarch but a patriarch nonetheless, he partially attains an artist’s shabby dignity to which his wife and daughters are not entitled.

Biswas and Kramden could not frame their quests for real estate in such a context. Naipaul himself, at a
seminar, somewhat affirmed the constricted perspective of his hero, as seen in this exchange:

Q: What do you think are the larger themes of Biswas?
NAI: I think that the theme was outlined very simply - the theme about a man getting a house.

We can also read this as the author’s disingenuous simplification of the novel, in contrast to Boy George’s stretch toward greater meanings in his compositions.

The centathlete read A House for Mr. Biswas and meditated (though not transcendentally) on its meanings while often seated right next to ethnic brethren of Mohun Biswas. A rail commuter on New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line between New York City and Trenton will note the
substantial and rising number of Indian-Americans boarding and detraining at Metropark, Metuchen, and Edison. (Viewing the three stops’ linkage on a map, on a northeast-to-southwest diagonal, recalls the three stars of Orion’s Belt, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. This asterism probably inspired the layout of the Egyptian pyramids at Giza.)

The lives of these fellow commuters, men and women carrying iPods, laptops and cell phones back and forth from suburban comfort, on the surface do not resemble that of Mohun Biswas. However, his tragic life, inspiring and disturbing, offers much food for thought as a train skims over the New Jersey wetlands, beside egrets and decrepit factories, under the northern sky. How sweet and sour it is.


JK said...

amazing blog, dude... feels like going to a college lcture with a Prof you really like...

The Centathlete said...

Thanks, JK! Let's think of this not as a lecture but as what the late great philosopher Richard Rorty called a "conversation."

Murr said...

Wow! You really can write! Superb stuff.