She runs away to Italy for the summer. But she does it with impressive finality, selling the house in England and bringing along her (now homeless) hubby and two children, and they then drive about from hotel to bed and breakfast to briefly rented cottage to campsite. There’s a single night spent at a place that they really can’t afford, with the impeccably polite man at the front desk acknowledging the mud-covered would-be guests by giving them the “last” room at half price. (It is so late, he says, that it will go empty if they do not take it.)
To begin, Rachel Cusk tries to teach herself Italian on the dreary ferry that drops them off in France, the first stop along the way. But it is hard to concentrate, and docking is a relief: “We are finished with this boat. We strain for release from its numb enchantment.”
The Last Supper: A Summer In Italy (2009, filed at 945) is a travel book filled with the artwork of Italian masters, and the keenly sketched profiles of the people the Cusks meet. Take the gardener who explains the two hysterical guard dogs caged in his backyard: “If someone tried to hurt me, they would kill him.
“He seems to set great store by this idea, yet he has been wounded to the quick by things of whose scent these animals would not have caught the merest trace.”
A painting of St. Francis preaching to the birds leads the author’s wandering imagination to the lives of Matisse and Virginia Woolf, both of whom, as they lost touch with the real world, happily conversed with the birdies. Yet as she muses, Cusk notes that “the birds listen respectfully” to Francis.
There is much vivid imagery here, with a surprising, always slightly skewed vision that makes clichéd tourist traps fresh again. A literate work where Dr. Seuss is mentioned just a few sentences away from Jane Eyre, it’s well worth your time.
Cusk and her family are fleeing the city, responsibility, and routine. Perhaps that’s why she pushes herself to see differently, and to live differently. Still, after many weeks in Italy, “we are neither tourists nor citizens…. It is difficult to know how to live in the world in the light of it.”
And, what, then, of members of the Commonwealth? Trained as a lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi thought he knew who and what he was: A citizen of India, a member in good standing of the great British Empire. Until he went to another part of the empire, South Africa, and discovered otherwise. He was thrown off a train when he attempted to sit in a first class car, still waving his valid ticket at the authorities.
He returned to India radicalized, knowing that whites had rights, while Indians were expected to be thankful for what they had. He became a legend for his belief in non-violent resistance. (He also didn’t believe in Western medicine, and refused penicillin to his ill wife. She did, indeed, die. And Gandhi’s belief in non-violence extended to telling Jews they should walk into the gas chambers with calm and cool.)
For all that Gandhi did for the independence movement, many believe his attitudes and actions ultimately slowed India’s route to independence. (In fact, argues writer Alex Von Tunzelmann, England was near bankrupt after World War 2 and some bean counters were desperate to rid themselves of expenses like India.
Yet Gandhi’s work after partition may have saved many, many lives.
Those are just a few of the fascinating and surprising suggestions in Indian Summer: The Secret History Of The End Of An Empire (by Von Tunzelmann, 2007, filed at 954.03).
This is the story of a country’s quest for independence. It’s told through the five personalities who deeply impacted events. They are the British Viceroy Dickie Mountbatten, seen as a bit of a joke by many; his wife Edwina; Gandhi; Jawaharlal Nehru, who was destined to become the first Indian prime minister post-independence; and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who demanded and got Pakistan carved out for himself, as a home for a fearful minority Muslim populace.
Indian Summer is an immensely readable popular history, filled with wonderful detail.
The author does not shirk from the nasty (some of the accusations are true, some she believes to be false, some unknowable — Von Tunzelmann was refused access to some documents, and others were destroyed by participants). Readers are warned that the violence is graphic; British soldiers shot and bludgeoned the defenceless, and the rioting at the partition of India and Pakistan led to horrific crimes. It is difficult to accurately count the hundreds of thousands of dead when they have been cut up into pieces.
Nehru despaired of the violence, which pitted Hindu against Muslim against Sikh. He had long promised a secular state. In a way, the shock of Gandhi’s assassination, by another Hindu (rather than, say, a Muslim), helped calm the country.
Although this history hangs on five main characters and their lives in India, the author is British. England (and its accessible archives) gets a lot of attention, as do the Mountbattens. Their lives became intensely interconnected with India and its top politician.
Indeed, while Dickie Mountbatten deeply loved his wife, Nehru loved her just as deeply.
The three came to an accommodation. And when Edwina died, the British admiralty gave Dickie the use of HMS Wakeful: “The coffin was discharged into the waves from beneath a Union Jack. Mountbatten, in tears, kissed a wreath of flowers before throwing it into the sea. The Wakeful was escorted by an Indian frigate, the Trishul. Jawaharlal Nehru had sent it all the way to the English Channel, just to cast a wreath of marigolds into the waves after Edwina’s coffin.”
– Eleanor Brown, Aug. 1, 2014