Sunday, April 20, 2008


No library shift for me yesterday, so it was an opportune time to head out to Motuihe Island with my friend Fab to do some tree planting as part of the Motuihe Island restoration project. The fair weather with occasional spitting was ideal for our activity, and soil conditions ten times better than my own garden. Hence, it was not as strenuous as I had expected, but I can't speak for the people like Fab who dug holes - I mainly carried saplings and planted them. With a group of less than twenty, we managed to get 507 trees into the ground that morning alone. Go us!

I was very tickled by the fact that we were literally carted around the island on a tractor, standing upright in our 'cage'. I felt like I was in a chain gang, sans the chains and abjection!

I don't consider myself a very physical person, even though I enjoy hikes/gardening, so the novelty of physical labour brought to mind the passage below from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. It is a beautifully-written extensive passage about the likeable aristocrat Levin's attempt at joining his peasants in their labour. Ignoring its political overtones, this passage is an exultation of the activity of work, the pure joy from working communally and the abandonment of intellectualisms.

"...The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when his arms no longer seemed to swing the scythe, but the scythe itself his whole body, so conscious and full of life; and as if by magic, regularly and definitely without a thought being given to it, the work accomplished itself of its own accord. These were blessed moments..."

I remember being impressed by the length at which Tolstoy describes Levin's physical engagement. Levin also tries, unsuccessfully of course, to form some sort of camaraderie with his employees. His character is perpetually torn between two worlds: the intellectual life of the aristocrat (Tolstoy himself was a Count) and the physicality of the labourer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Review of Everyman by Philip Roth (*spoilers included*)

So I have just read Everyman by Philip Roth. The novel is about one man's lifelong preoccupation with death.

It paints a lonely and desperate picture of old age - if this is the general experience (say it ain't so...), it's a bleak story indeed. But then again, our everyman (yes, he is nameless throughout the book) blames his loneliness on being a disloyal husband/father. Perhaps Roth is telling a morality tale, then, which isn't attractive. After all, the protagonist's brother, Howie, who doesn't appear to stray like him, enjoys a rich old life with a loving wife and four doting children.

The most enjoyable bits are his relationship with his brother and memories of their father's jewelry store. It's clever of Roth to set this idyllic time within a jewelry and watch store, jewels representing permanence and watches Time. His father's store is described as an Eden, "a paradise just fifteen feet wide by forty feet deep disguised as a jewelry store", and so the mere passing of time banishes the sons from this Eden.

The old man's lust for women brings to mind a recent film, Venus, with Peter O'Toole as a charming, sexed up geriatric named Maurice. In Venus, old age is similarly described as a lonely time, and Maurice fumbles around for physical pleasure, probably for him the last thing worth living for. The difference between Maurice and Everyman is that we get to see a fuller life in Maurice: in old age, he still enjoys acting, has friends, reads books, etc. Whereas Everyman the book is a succession of anecdotes about death and hospital emergencies.

Nevertheless, the concluding pages are satisfying, what with the matter-of-fact conversation Everyman has with the gravedigger, the final character he meets. Also satisfying is when death finally comes and we are spared any further bleak thoughts on life. I might also add that it is quite a chilling ending to have the moment of death articulated as a horror vacui.

Roth may not agree, but the gravedigger is the true 'everyman' to me, because I suspect people in general do not dwell on death as diligently as this main character does. I suspect most people carry on with their jobs without even thinking about life/death, even though they may face it daily, just like the gravedigger.