A collection of reviews of David’s work.
The Greater Darkness: By David Rubin. 316 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Co. $4.95
NY Times, 6/16/63
By Joseph Hitrec
David Rubin, a member of the English Department of Columbia University, has spent a year teaching in India. Although such exposure is considered brief by the usual standards, he has written a fine and engrossing Indian first novel. His achievement should give pause to people who hold that only Indians can write well about India. That fallacy turns entirely on what kind of India one chooses to write about.
Mr. Rubin’s India is the one he knows first-hand—a milieu of foreigners, peopled almost entirely by Englishmen, Americans and the Westernized, college-educated top-crust of Indians themselves, who are the most pathetically foreign of all. K.M. Rau, witty and cynical Tamil who owns a rambling mansion at 10 Victoria Road in the imaginary town of Gauhar (in what were formerly the United Provinces of Northern India), is married to an Englishwoman and considers Brahmins and Brahminism the deadwood of modern India. His wife Leslie, speaking with turn-of-the-century Mayfair inflection, presides at innumerable teas and “drinks,” with the top hundred of Gauhar. Several apartments of the huge mansion are rented out—to an English doctor, an Austrian musician, an American teacher couple. There is still room to spare for Kirun, the young niece of the Raus, who comes from London to visit them, while she decides if her future lies with the East or the West. What these foreigners do to each other, believing India is doing it, is the essence of Mr. Rubin’s story.
He tells it skillfully and with insight. For Bill and Carol Ames, a young married couple from California, the stopover at Gauhar means falling out of love and estrangement. Carol luxuriates in the Indian change of air and discovers a sense of oneness with the pell-mell, contagious life around her. Her husband, a humorless prisoner of his academicism, is repelled by it. Soon Carol attaches herself to Dr. Muskett, the English tenant of the mansion, who understands her and, like Carol, is content to take India on its own terms. Bill Ames has a brief fling with Kirun, but their affair is brought up short when she realizes that he is incapable of real emotion. Kirun’s own trouble is lack of identity, for she is torn between her Indian ancestry and her European upbringing. She wears a sari but cannot speak Hindi. She tries a catch-as-you-can affair with her language teacher, and finds the effort to “go native” is beyond her. Loving the American pedagogue might have given her leverage, but she is not Indian enough to take it without being loved in return.
This musical-chairs outline does not, of course, begin to do justice to the texture and sensitivity of this novel, which moves on several levels and exhibits all the marks of a talented, assured writer, including an ability to handle both comic and tragic situations with equal ease. The characters are sharply drawn and wonderfully realized; their loves, alienation and conflicts seem as familiar to us as the pulse of Gauhar that punctuates and envelops them. Yet the author also seems to be saying that the truth about people and their relationships is something they themselves had better approach with circumspection. In the words of one of the Upanishads, darkness surrounds the worshippers of what is not truth, yet a greater darkness awaits those who think they have found it.
Enough of This Lovemaking
By David Rubin, 239 pp New York: Simon & Schuster, $5.95
NY Times, 3/29/70
By Martin Levin
The two short novels that make up this book are loosely connected by water: a lake in India where some of the protagonists meet by chance while houseboating. In the title story a party of jaded jetset types are awaiting the appearance of a holy man who will unkink their souls and help them to “realize God.” The guru’s oblique arrival has a wry touch of Saki about it. No matter that the message could have been obtained as well by a postcard to Dear Abby as on a houseboat in the Vale of Kashmir; wisdom is where you find it.
The other novella, “Love in the Melon Season,” is an entrancing diagram of erotic crosscurrents in an Indian pension. At Mabel Screwwalla’s boardinghouse in Delhi, two Indian airline stewardesses, a German scholar, an American girl anthropologist, two gay hippies, a British economist and sundry other lodgers play musical chairs in a game that Mr. Rubin conducts with brilliant precision. The main roles in this charade are taken by Johnny, a Canadian virtuoso of the sarod (who floats into the second novel) and Sita, a Brahmin clerk in a travel agency. Johnny finds himself in love “of the century-behind-the-times variety.” Sita is betrothed to a fiance of her parents’ choice. What Mr. Rubin makes of this collision between East and West is a pure delight.
The Mind and Heart Against Overwhelming Odds
Cassio and the Life Divine, by David Rubin (305 pages; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95)
Kansas City Star, 9/12/65
By Theodore M. O’Leary
An overwhelming sense of loss and waste, of misplaced love and elusive faith have accounted for some of the our most notable modern novels—Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night” and Charles Wertenbaker’s “The Death of Kinds” come quickly to mind.
Following in the same line is David Rubin’s “Cassio and the Life Divine,” a handsomely written and richly varied novel of romantic intellectual wandering among the contradictions of modern India, finding less than he seeks.
Rubin’s first novel, “The Greater Darkness,” was also set in India. In 1964, it won an award in England for being the most promising first novel published there in 1963. Such a citation implies even better things to come and now, little more than a year later we have one of them. In the offing there is still more, for Rubin is reported to now be working on a novel about American political life.
This is a hopeful prospect for those who feel that one of the unfortunate gaps in American literature is the curious scarcity of thoughtful and honestly written political novels despite, or more accurately because of, the efforts of Allen Drury, Fietcher Knebel and the like. Rubin’s political novel may lack melodrama, pat issues and oversimplified characters but this reviewer will wager that the issues it raises will not be transient and its characters will not be unwittingly created simpletons.
The promise is contained in “Cassio and the Life Divine.” Peter Cassio is the son of a Greek-Jewish mother and a father who he describes fondly as a “Neapolitan violinist, confidence man and philosopher.” At 29, Peter has a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia, has fought in Korea, taught in Egypt and when this novel begins is at loose ends in India. He has completed a year of teaching at a university in the mythical city of Gauhar.
Now, low in funds, he is passing time while waiting to take passage back to America and his family’s small farm in Connecticut, menaced by the pending construction of a super highway. Peter is still filled with anguish by memories of his lovely sister, who died of leukemia while he was in Korea.
It is partly to come to terms with the fact of Marina’s death that Peter listens to so many swamis and visits one ashram after another. He seeks to discover is the various holy men have anything to offer to a man who has put most of his faith in what is sensual and what is beautiful, some of it flesh, some not.
Peter craves life in all its aspects. He values sex—and also music. He accepts poverty but enjoys luxury. He is equally receptive to what is comic and what is sad and if one sometimes jostles the other, he is not surprised. He is a skeptic who believes fervently—in kindness. That probably is what prompts him to say of a Jesuit priest, “I liked him because he was genuinely kind; his religion came from his kindness, perhaps; anyway, the contrary wasn’t true.”
To a man of Peter’s eclectic nature, India with all its extremes and its paradoxes is irresistible. He can see through its religious charlatans, while also recognizing religion’s importance to the poor masses because for them it “defined the reasons for living when there obviously weren’t any.”
This is far more a novel of mood than of plot. What narrative line it has centers mostly around Peter’s infatuation with Susanna Palfrey, a 19-year-old American girl, impulsive and restive and unhappy in the care of her half sister, married to a rich American fooling around Indian for our government (Rubin is contemptuous of most of our foreign service people in India).
But the relationship of Peter and Susanna is among the least notable aspects of Rubin’s novel. Lying at the heart of it is the story of a man of intelligence and compassion, moving about in a country where those two qualities are lightly valued, perhaps because they can avail so little against discouraging odds. In the end, Peter discovers that about the most he can do is to rescue one filthy and crippled stray dog.
Peter’s discovery, Rubin would seem to suggest, may be the sum of wisdom, a corollary of faith and the end of Peter Cassios’ quest.
The Greater Darkness
By G.C. Hedge, $4.95
The most famous of novels by Western visitors to India. E.M. Forster’s appeared almost forty years ago, in 1924. The new one, by a young English teacher at Columbia University who spent a year in India, has many of the Forsterian virtues, including a detached, ironical point of view and a discriminating narrative style. To a city somewhere in the north (Mr. Rubin calls it Gauhar) comes William Ames, an American sociologist, and his wife, Carol. There they encounter scholars, barbers, poets, politicians, pseudo-intellectuals, house servants, etc.—also a few imported types, most Christian missionaries or resident English relics of the lately departed British Raj. They also meet Kirun Rau, a sulky and charming Anglo-Indian girl, educated in England and still unmarried, who lives in Gauhar with her wealthy grandparents, who deligh in explaining to visiting Americans what India “means.” After some months Bill Ames is no longer sure of what much of anything means, nor is Carol—and for this and related reasons their marriage cracks up. Oddly enough, the Ameses are the least fully realized of Mr. Rubin’s characters; but Kirun, her grandparents and other Indians are convincingly drawn, and the experiences of the Ameses in their midst, comic or dramatic, are vividly described. “I called the manager of the Caltex station. He was repairing a Mercedes motor. I said, ‘Babuju, this man is dead.’ ‘Go away,’ he said, ‘I am busy, I must not be bothered.’ ‘But Babaji, the man is dead.’ ‘Then what need have we to do anything? We cannot help.’ This, I thought, was very sound. So I went away. An hour later I was going by and the leper was draped over a rickshaw being taken to the river. A few days later as I went by I noticed a spot, like a grease stain, on the road where he had died. Non omnis moriar, you know. And last Saturday, what do you think, there was another leper, almost exactly like the former one, sitting on that spot. Only it was his right arm, not his left, that was eaten away, or I might have thought him the same man. The babuji was still trying to repair the Mercedes….”
Three Dark Passages to India
THE GREATER DARKNESS by David G. Rubin. New York, Farrar, Straus, 1963.
Columbia Spectator, 9/12/65
By Robert C. Pinckert
Mr. Rubin, once a member of the Columbia English Department, has returned to India to teach. One hopes that his decision to return was not affected by disappointment that his first novel, without a doubt a distinguished one, made no louder splash in the world of letters earlier this year. Why The Greater Darkness was pestered by foolish reviews — except in the Sunday Times, which did well to keep the book for two months in its necrological column, “And Bear in Mind”—and why it was ignored by the more respected journals requires some comment.
This novel is entirely out of fashion, done in a nineteenth-century manner — Balzac is Rubin’s master. It is a social novel, filled with credible people (in fact, dozens of them, perhaps too many) who reveal themselves primarily in their speech. The book has no dwarfs or dreams in it, is not about alienation, inversion, or addiction. It is not experimental, and shows no tricks of style or form. As in the best writing, here there is no style: the story having eaten up the style, the reader is not distracted by it. Rubin’s feat is comparable to the writing of a major symphony by an unknown composer.
The novel deals with the effect that India has upon three visitors: an American sociologist named Ames; his wife Carol; and Kirun, an Anglo-Indian girl who has been reared in England. Kirun, through whose eyes India is first seen, is a prig. Because of her youth, her coldness, and confused heritage, she cannot form an attitude towards India or even towards those with whom she lives. She returns to England where she will not be noticed.
Ames is a bright, well-meaning social scientist (God save the mark) who lacks, in every sense of the word, grace. His wife quite properly leaves-him, though she does not do so consciously, not because he is appalled by India, but because he hates it. To him, it is a madhouse, a “privy, a place i where a leper may disappear, leaving a spot of grease in the roadway. Like John Stuart Mill, Ames sets himself bravely against the darkness, exercises his faith in the melioration of the human condition, and refuses to think of God.
From her arrival in India, Ames’s wife Carol (who descends from a noble line of American heroines, including Carol Kennicott of Main Street) is touched by the imminence of death and by the holiness of all that lives. Acknowledging both, she is led towards saintliness. Perhaps Rubin’s outstanding achievement is to convince his readers of her goodness:* she does no obvious good works—unless these may be allowing herself to get pregnant and loving a dirty little three-year-old named Juggernath. Rather, she is a basin, not the fount, of goodness.
Her marriage inevitably dies, her needs die, upon her being sainted, and her usefulness to the novelist dies too. But Rubin does not step in to have her killed: that is done accidentally, and believably, by a mob of religious fanatics. The book’s epigraph is from the Upanishads: “All who worship what is not truth enter into blind darkness; those who delight in truth enter, as it were, into greater darkness.” Carol’s greater darkness is not doubt, but annihilation. The book is unsettling: darkness, blind or greater, is hardly comfortable. Who would buy a book with such a title? (How curious to observe that Rubin is no longer teaching at a university whose motto is “In lumine tuo…”)
Despite the weightiness of its meaning, The Greater Darkness is not at all solemn or depressing. There is something in this novel for every reader, as indeed there is in many of the good novels. For the cynic, there are brilliant and fierce satires, on an Indian town meeting, for example, and another on an American woman in the Taj Mahal; for the ladies, there is the fantasy of identifying with the sexually faltering but finally redeemed heroine; for the movie moguls, an elephant stampede and the collapse of a river bank at a religious jamboree; for the mental tourist, the absolute veracity in the picture of India (Rubin knows Indian languages, religions, and arts); and for the intellectual, a complex structure.
The novel is built according to principles of musical composition—here, remarkably, the principles of Indian music. Each chapter is named and somewhat modelled after an Indian “raga,” that is, a scale and a mode suited to a particular time of day, or season, or mood. Thus, Carol dies to the “Raga of Sohini,” the. last watch of the night, and is buried to the “raga of Vasant,” or spring song. Music is so cuningly woven into this novel as to contribute to the meaning. It is not accidental that when Kirun returns to England, to the tune and rhythm of “Vasant,” she carries a “sitar,” the Indian guitar, boxed in an infant’s coffin. Also, the nine chapters of the book contain references to the nine gates of the human body. Though the intellectual reader may believe that such complexities in the book’s structure suggest a merit in the work, they are actually valuable insofar as they help the writer to take pains about his true business.
In having told what happens to the three main characters, I do not think I have betrayed too much of the story. Rubin himself lets the perceptive reader know through subtle suggestions exactly what is going to happen: he has mastered a technique known only to the most mature and talented writers and composers—that of anticipation. His grand virtue as a writer, his love for people and their talk, is inseparable from a minor vice, to which I would draw his attention: he frivolously spends too much time on frivolous characters, who retard the action. Veronese was criticized for putting dogs and Germans into “The Marriage Feast at Cana.” Rubin has done something of the same sort.
Robert C. Pinckert is Assistant Dean of Columbia College. He also teaches freshman English.
Flesh Stumbles on Despite Spirit’s Will
Cassio: The Life Divine by David Rubin, 305 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95
Cleveland Press, 2/18/66
By Ed Powers
David Rubin’s novel is not, thank God, another tea-party meeting of East and West. It’s an exhilarating collision.
Peter Cassio, free-loading across India, provides the pratfalls in an impious search for nirvana. But his body gets in the way of his spirit—it stumbles, runs into trees, falls into rivers, and weakly succumbs to other men’s wives, food and liquor.
Wildly complicating his own search is Elinor Godshaw who burdens him with another, a search as allegorical as that of the Holy Grail: To rescue her sister Susanna from the influence of Swami Krishnaraja Nair. Susanna’s almost as elusive as his own spirit, but he finds her, discovers he loves her, and also decides the Swami is the most genuine holy man in India’s spook racket.
Nobly, they join forces to fight the further displacement of displaced persons and lose not so nobly. Disenchanted, Susanna leaves them for a cipher named Rodney.
From the bookshelf
Cassio and the Life Divine, by David Rubin, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $4.95
Christian Science Monitor, 10/7/65
By Florence Casey
This is a good, highly entertaining novel, one that meets all the current international standards of intelligence, allusive wit, and sociological sophistication. Foot-loose mystics, university professors, members of the New Left and New Right, as well as the less pompous employees of the federal government are almost certain to find it amusing and personally significant.
Cassio and the Life Divine
David Rubin. Farrar, $4.95
Publisher’s Weekly, 7/19/65
The physical, erotic, and spiritual adventures of a young American teacher adrift and yet at home in India. He is grieving hauntingly for his sister, who died young, he is looking for some kind of religious belief, and he is falling in love with an American girl, also a pursuer of Indian religion. This is awkward because he has been hired to find her and return her to her evil—but rich—half-sister. The author’s writing is flowing, witty and brilliantly expressive of the Indian mind and landscape. The hero is anything but stuff, his taste in shapely young women is good, even if it makes trouble for him, and his approach to religion is individualistic. A bright, highly unusual novel.