Friday, December 19, 2014

Speak, Memory

This review of Janice Pariat's Seahorse appeared in the current issue of India Today.

Written in a folkloric style best described by the epigraph that referenced Alejo Carpentier’s "marvellous real", Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories, Boats on Land, was notable for its evocation of lives past and present in Shillong and its environs. With Seahorse, her debut novel, Pariat extends her range to come up with a filigreed tale of disquiet and discontent, of longing and loss, based on the Greek myth of sea-god Poseidon and his young acolyte and lover, Pelops.

This is the story of Nem, and of the ways he deals with the end of his affair with Nicholas, a charismatic and enigmatic art historian whom he meets when studying literature in Delhi. Arriving in the city from a town in the north-east, Nem finds himself somewhat of an outsider at first; it is Nicholas who opens up for him worlds of art and music he is enthralled by. The role of Ananda to Nicholas’s Buddha ends with the latter’s sudden disappearance. Nicholas had once remarked to Nem that he was struck by the manner in which works of art change in meaning and significance according to shifts in the world outside; similarly, Nem – a blank slate, who empathises with Svevo’s men without qualities -- has to now remake and be re-made.Years later, while on a literary fellowship in London, he is finally offered the chance to piece together and decipher incidents from the past.

Much of Seahorse, then, is about the inscription of desire on the slate of memory. “We are shaped by absence,” thinks Nem. “The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost.” (A sentence that brings to mind the words of the recently-deceased Mark Strand: “In a field/I am the absence/of field. /This is/always the case. /Wherever I am/I am what is missing”.) This sentiment is matched by a mode of narration that, for the most part, shows incidents broken up into separate sequences of action and aftermath; a wholeness comprised of fragments, a mosaic of remembrance and yearning.

It is also the case, however, that the novel sags slightly in the middle, during the long episodes of Nem’s life in London — despite the attempt to provide a harmonic resonance via the loops of longing and variations of sexual attraction that Nem’s friends experience. Then, there are occasions when the poetic threatens to tip over to the portentous (“Prophecies are the most scientific of supernatural phenomena, for they, like science, invest in a single outcome. The one truth.”) In addition, the accident in the English countryside at the end, though it continues the mythic parallelism, does come across as a trifle staged and out of place with Seahorse’s otherwise wistful, gentle tone.

Leaving all of that aside, Pariat’s prose is beguiling: take, for instance, her pithy descriptions of interiors and exteriors. It’s a pleasure of read of the “pale fury” of the Red Fort; of rooms “as desolate as churches”; of the wings of a building “spread long and low, like a bird in flight”; of London being “filled with old light”; and of a “big-bellied sky” pressing against the tops of buildings. Appropriately enough, Seahorse is also shot through by images of water, be they in aquariums, swimming pools or the seaside.

The paradox of memory, writes Pariat, “is that it gives you back what you had on condition that you know it has been lost”. To regain it, she continues, “you must remember it has gone; to remake the world, you need to first understand that it has ended”. Seahorse, then, is a fine and estimable account of the refashioning of an interior world suffused by a pining for what has been lost.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The History Man

This review of Aatish Taseer's The Way Things Were appeared in today's Mint Lounge.

Given the recent kerfuffle over the HRD ministry’s decision to replace German with Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalayas, the release of Aatish Taseer’s new novel is fortuitously well-timed. The Way Things Were is an exploration of the ways in which India’s past influences its present and the attitudes of those who make history serve their own ends, with Sanskrit being a key symbol of the process.

In an essay written a little over two years ago, Taseer dwelt on what his own study of Sanskrit revealed to him: his wish for a “historical sense” was, to his surprise, answered with linguistic roots. He goes on to unpack this: “In India, where history had heaped confusion upon confusion, where everything was shoddy and haphazard and unplanned, the structure of Sanskrit, with its exquisite planning, was proof that it had not always been that way”.

This is a quest that is, at its heart, personal: “My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together”. Clearly, then, The Way Things Were is another step in Taseer’s continuing writerly attempt to find a weltanschauung he can live with. The problem, however, is that in fictional terms, the novel emerges as far too didactic, with its themes and concerns always on the surface rather than dextrously woven into the narrative. Its moral sense is appealing; its more than occasional ingenuousness isn’t.

The characters who form the twin poles of the novel are Toby, otherwise known as His Highness the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, and his son Skanda. Toby, a reserved and sometimes pusillanimous Sanskrit scholar, ironically finds himself out of place in a country whose past he has striven so hard to understand, and he finally leaves India for good in 1992. The novel opens in the present, with Skanda – also a student of Sanskrit, now based in Manhattan and working on a translation of Kumarasambhava – being informed that his father is on his deathbed. He leaves for Geneva and then arrives in India, carrying his father’s ashes with him.

The book progresses through an admixture of past and present, detailing Toby and Skanda’s lives, respectively. An abundance of other characters fills the novel’s pages, from Uma, Toby’s first wife and Skanda’s mother, to their extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts, to Maniraja, Uma’s second husband. This profusion of individuals apart, Taseer’s clearly conceived of his novel in epic terms, for it deals with or touches upon several incidents from India’s recent and remote history, from the Hampi invasions to the treatment of the Mughal princes after 1857 to the Emergency to Bhopal to Indira Gandhi’s assassination to Babri Masjid.

This, in a sense, is a key weakness because, apart from episodes such as the treatment of Skanda’s uncle during the 1984 riots, many of the other incidents are treated by way of drawing-room discussions, with Skanda, Toby and their kin making oracular pronouncements on the subject. (As a contrast, take a very different novel, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and see how it gets down to the roots of how people suffered during the Emergency years.) Added to this are frequent authorial interjections on the same lines, as in: “The violence of a civilised society, though men may dress it up as anger or grief, has the quality of a celebration”, or: “They spoke rapturously of India, but dreamed of the West. Of European cities, shops and duty-free goods…in their hearts, they were hungry materialists, who wanted nothing so much from life as a Japanese washing machine or a German toaster.”

Those familiar with Taseer’s earlier work will discover common patterns, from an estranged father to a mother’s next relationship with a pushy business magnate to a protagonist making his way through their disparate worlds. Such true-to-life resemblances continue with other characters based on real people, such as Gayatri Mann, who “lived abroad with her husband, the publisher Zubin Mann…She made documentary films on Bangladesh, on secret India, on the timelessness of Hinduism…In the West, she traded on India; and in India, starved for news of the West, she carried back stories of the latest fashions…”. There’s also the writer Vijaipal Sooprasaat, with his strong views on Hampi, among other things, and whose ideas are sought to be appropriated by those seeking an Indian resurgence.

Though it certainly takes skill to delineate changes in such a vast cast of characters over the years, the key dialectic of The Way Things Were -- understanding the past as a shaping force on the present versus shaping the past in the light of the present – is spelt out time and again, almost essayistically, which is the hallmark of underdeveloped polemical fiction. Take Gayatri Mann’s outburst, for example: “This new order [will use] the epics, the poets, Manu, Ayodhya, whatever – and they will hollow them out of meaning. They will make slogans of them. That is what they want them for, as symbols of their rise, nothing more.” One can appreciate such sentiments without necessarily agreeing with the way that Taseer has worked – or not worked – them into his novel.

“The big relationships are like the big novels, messy, chaotic, imperfect,” says Skanda, towards the end of the book. “They operate by emotional logic.” The Way Things Were is both an emotional and messy novel, but not a very compelling one.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

If On A Winter's Night A Professor

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Beset by thoughts of a mysterious incident, an alienated individual walks alone down city streets facing an unnamed crisis and re-evaluating his existence. Readers of Haruki Murakami will find such a premise familiar, and as it happens, these are the elements of his next project, too. Only, they aren’t from a novel he’s writing but one that he’s translating into Japanese, according to a recent tweet by Harvill Secker. The work in question: Professor Andersen’s Night, by acclaimed Norwegian author Dag Solstad.

The novel, longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, was first published in 1996 and translated into English by Agnes Scott Langeland in 2011. It’s of the type that people call an existential mystery (and the sort of thing they have in mind when they say that Paul Auster is an American writer of European novels). As such, it’s qualitatively different from other dark-hued Scandinavian works that have captured the popular imagination of late, be they novels by Steig Larsson and Jo Nesbo or TV shows such as Forbrydelsen and Broen.

Solstad’s style is marked by a sonorous, repetitive rhythm that, Bernhard-like, mirrors the mind of a man going around in circles. This is a divorced, fifty-five-year-old professor of literature who, when the novel starts, is settling down in his Oslo apartment for a solitary meal on Christmas Eve, more to observe traditional customs than anything else. Now comes a taste of what’s to follow: “the customs he observed and the celebration he thereby took part in, in his own way and without any feeling of obligation to his family or others, beyond the feeling of duty he felt to himself, and that actually came from within, pointed to a meaning of some kind which for him was meaningless”.

Gazing out at the windows opposite his apartment, the professor suddenly witnesses what he thinks is a murder taking place. So far, so Rear Window, but what happens next is quite un-Hitchcockian. He’s thrown into a frenzy of inaction, afflicted by analysis paralysis. He considers calling the police and the ramifications thereof; finally, he realises, “I know I should have done it, but I can’t. That is how it is, I simply cannot do it”.

As he’s been invited to a friend’s house for dinner the following night, the professor decides to ask him for advice but this, too, he cannot bring himself to do. While depicting the dinner itself, Solstag makes clear that the professor’s predicament is but a metaphor for his generation. Former radicals, now a part of established society whose fires have cooled, their attitudes “had perhaps only been a chance expression of the spirit of modernity, which was their one great fascination”. Now, with increasing affluence, they eat and drink well, own holiday homes and cars and boats. Their state is further spelt out: “intellectuals in a commercial age, and deeply influenced by what stirs the hearts of the masses. What stirs the hearts of the masses are the consequences of our own inadequacy”.

Still nursing his secret, the professor visits Trondheim for a short break, where he mets another associate with whom he engages in dispiriting conversations that reflect his inner crisis. He reflects on the sputtering out of modernity in the twentieth century, affirming our historical inadequacy and meagre cultural inheritance: “…it isn’t Ibsen’s work we perform, it’s Ibsen’s reputation”.

And so poor Professor Andersen returns home, still having told no-one about what he has witnessed, when he suddenly bumps into the man he believes to be the murderer. Those looking for thrilling denouements ought to have realised by now that they’re not to be found here. The professor’s crisis is not one that affords an easy resolution. “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be faced,” as Kierkegaard, the philosopher from Solstad’s part of the world, once said, reminding us that it’s our crisis, too.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murakami's Book Of Sand

This review appeared in the latest issue of India Today.

Haruki Murakami’s new novel is quite unlike the baggy mess that was his earlier 1Q84. Here, there are no Little People, towns of cats and skies with two moons. It does bear the usual Murakami trademarks – alienated characters roaming Tokyo, references to jazz and classical music, the leaking of the past into the present and a collapsed distance between fantasy and reality – but it is closer to his “quieter” works such as Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. Yet, there’s an odd insubstantiality to the novel which makes it less than satisfying, an unintentional colourlessness that seems to have leaked into the text from the character of the protagonist.

The eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki, when the novel opens, has fallen “like Jonah in the belly of the whale…into the bowels of death, one untold day after another, lost in a dark, stagnant void.” This suicidal mood arises because he has suddenly and inexplicably been excluded from a charmed circle of four high school friends, all of whom have names related to colours: Miss White, Miss Black, Mr Red and Mr Blue. Tsukuru alone is a colourless and lacklustre Mr Average, but there’s also “something about him that wasn’t exactly normal, something that set him apart”.

Tsukuru changes a great deal after his friends summarily announce that “they did not want to see him, or talk to him, ever again”, thus banishing him from a fraternal Eden that once was an “orderly and harmonious community”. Now in his mid-thirties, a solitary creature of habit, almost an automaton, he lives in Tokyo working for a company that constructs railway stations (Tsukuru, you see, means “to make” or “to build”). Into his life comes a girlfriend who, wanting a more meaningful relationship, urges him to finally investigate the cause of his rejection, something he has turned his back on all these years. “You need to come face to face with the past,” she tells him, “not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up, independent professional.” And so the man who builds stations that enable people to converge and connect embarks on a journey to meet his former friends and find the reason behind his own uncoupling.

There is much exposition, especially in the early sections, to do with the characters of the friends, their togetherness and their meetings, and this has the effect of robbing the narrative of a certain granularity. Then again, this being Murakami, the narrative is intertwined with tales and occurrences that can best be described as otherworldly, especially when it comes to another solitary character whom Tsukuru befriends in Tokyo. Death tokens, auras, six-fingered individuals and intense sexual dreams put in appearances, among other things, and characters openly engage in ruminations on philosophy, free will, the nature of evil, the unfolding of talent and the qualities of solitude. We’re thus encouraged to look upon reality as we know it in a new light. In the words of one of the characters: “One thing I can say, though, is that once you see that true sight with your own eyes, the world you've lived in till now will look flat and insipid. There's no logic or illogic in that scene. No good or evil. Everything is merged into one.”

Tsukuru comes across his friends again without too much trouble; they’re in infrequent contact with one another now, and his pilgrim’s progress even takes him to Finland to meet one of them who has settled there. The reason that they turned against him all those years ago comes as a surprise to him, containing as it does shades of the Marabar Caves episode in Forster’s A Passage to India. This provides Murakami with more opportunities to cogitate on the space between emotional and rational reality, with Tsukuru wondering whether he has just one self belonging to just one world, and whether the actions of one impinge upon the other. In his valiant attempt to bridge these divergences, he learns, among other lessons, that “there is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.” Deep.

At times, Murakami delineates with grace and tenderness moments of connection between individuals, as well as the opposite, agonising periods of sorrow and solitude. As with his earlier work, the effect of music on characters is movingly shown, in this case notably Liszt’s Le mal du pays, part of a suite titled Years of Pilgrimage. “Our lives are like a complex musical score,” Tsukuru thinks. "Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It's next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there's no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein.”

The conclusion is characteristically open-ended, and though this fits in with the unresolved aspects of reality that Murakami has explored in almost all of his work, in this case it comes across as more functional than whimsical, a consequence of a certain tossed-off quality. Towards the end of the novel, one of Tsukuru’s friends tells him that “the truth sometimes reminds me of a city buried in sand. As time passes, the sand piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what's below is revealed.” That explains it: with Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, there’s too much sand and too little city.

Turning Books Into Art

Today's Sunday Guardian column.


'A Bit Of Paper Art' / Etsy.com

Earlier this month, a Mumbai gallery showcased a book collection featuring volumes designed not to be picked up and read, but to be viewed as works of art. Here, there were “book sculptures”, pages with gold leaf illustrations, books embedded with bullet casings, pages folded into shapes of waves, butterflies and more. Ironically, if inexactly, the show was entitled Reading Room.

Artists have been using books as material for a while; last year, hurrying through an overseas mall, I was brought up short by a large installation in the foyer featuring the work of Los Angeles-based Mike Stilkey, who paints surreal figures of horses, dogs, cats and people, among others, on the spines of discarded books stacked together. (The highest of these is 24 feet tall and made up of 3,000 volumes.) “Books don't hold the same amount of power that they used to, because of the Internet and whatnot,” says Stilkey, “and [people] throw them away at an alarming rate”.  With the rise of the e-book, it’s the physicality of the printed book that has become its defining characteristic.

This is also reflected in the increasing attention paid to book covers: look at the ingenious and impressive designs of Chip Kidd, for instance. The apotheosis of such efforts so far could well be graphic novelist Chris Ware’s acclaimed Building Stories, comprising 14 separate printed works -- broadsheets, magazines, pamphlets and more – enclosed in a box.

The case of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, however, shows that such attention to presentation can go too far. In addition to the striking cover, there’s also a sheet of stickers designed by Japanese illustrators pasted within, supposed to represent Murakami’s characters and their concerns. (My copy’s sticker sheet remains within; I haven’t bothered to remove or inspect it, before or after reading the novel.)

Interior designers and fashionistas have been quick to capitalise on the nature of the book-as-object. The website of one design firm affirms that there’s “nothing like a well styled bookcase filled with books, accessories, collectibles, and photos that add warmth, intrigue, and uniqueness to a space…They can make a bare wall go from blah-to-beautiful”.  Coffee table books have long been seen as elegant decor accessories, and one can only avert one’s eyes from bookshelves where volumes have been arranged according to the colour of their spines. More evidence of form over content comes in a recent New York Times article which mentions that NYC’s Strand bookstore is one of the places you can order books by color or spine size; further, on Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, retailers offer “instant libraries”, colour-co-ordinated books in “ocean hues” or “custard to cream colored.”

Elsewhere, there are people who choose books as fashion accessories; presumably, if you’re in a nostalgic mood you can venture outdoors with a copy of a Victorian bestseller -- after ensuring that the shade of the jacket matches your own jacket, of course. (Authors, too, aren’t immune: an online men’s clothing store recently held up Samuel Beckett as a style icon, pointing out that “Gauloises, Jameson and tweeds make the Nobel Prize winner a paragon of geezer cool”. One can’t go on, one goes on.)

Leaving such fashion-forward folk aside, artists are, of course, entitled to choose whatever objects they think best suit their purposes.  One can’t, however, help but feel a sense of unease at treating a printed book purely as raw material. Such volumes are manufactured objects, yes, but certainly not in the same category as, say, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp famously employed for his own artistic ends. Such is the minefield of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. You know things have gone too far when you hear of German artist Dieter Roth’s installation, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used the results to stuff sausages, creating what’s been called literawurst. Cheeky, but hard to swallow.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Papa's Wives

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

The pair is the primary creative unit, wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk recently in the New York Times. “At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head.” Many times, one half of the pair goes unacknowledged, especially in the case of writers and their wives. The obvious examples are those of Vera Nabokov, Nora Joyce and Zelda Fitzgerald; it’s only of late that their contributions have been paid attention to, with biographies and fictionalised accounts of their lives.

Two recent novels continue such revivification, both dealing with Ernest Hemingway’s better halves. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife revolves around Hemingway’s first, Hadley Richardson, and their time in Paris, while Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway encompasses all four of the writer’s wives. The former is more focused on the ways in which Hadley helped her husband flower as a writer, while the latter, with its decades-long span, also shows how the significant women in his life shaped him (and vice versa).

Much of the charm of The Paris Wife comes from its evocation of the city in which the 21-year-old Ernest and the 28-year-old Hadley lived during the 1920s: “filthy and gorgeous, full of rats and horse chestnut blossoms and poetry…The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers.” Here, Hemingway was to meet others who influenced him (notably Gertrude Stein), drink copiously, travel over Europe as a journalist and, of course, start work on the pared-down short stories and novels he was acclaimed for.

Hadley, meanwhile, “closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper”, spent her days practising the piano, attempting French cooking and occasionally accompanying him on his jaunts. She’s clear about her role: “It was shockingly unmodern—and likely naïve, too—but I did believe any sacrifices and difficulties in our life were worth it for Ernest’s career.” By 1927, however, it all came to an end; they were divorced after Hemingway’s affair with Vogue journalist Pauline Pfieffer, who became his second wife.

McLain does provide emotional depth to historical facts, but overall, The Paris Wife could have done with less sentimentality and overstatement. Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway is more ingenious and artful, both in structure and in telling. Set in the last weeks of each marriage, it circles back to first meetings and memories, like a hand of overlapping queens in a deck of cards, each one coming to terms with loss. Wood’s Hadley has more spirit, as do the other wives, especially Martha Gellhorn, war reporter and novelist, who at one point feels that Hemingway “is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything. Wives and wives and wives…”

Hemingway’s small apartment above a sawmill in Paris is an important setting in both novels, and Mrs Hemingway also brings to life the other locations where his wives nourished and inspired him: the house in Key West, Florida; the one in FincaVigia, Cuba; and his final home in Sun Valley, Idaho. Here, Mary Welsh, his last wife, came to grips with his suicide and later, gathered together his posthumous papers. Among these was the manuscript for A Moveable Feast, his nostalgic account of 1920s Paris, thus bringing the saga full circle.

Reviewing two early biographies of Hemingway, Raymond Carver wrote that one grew weary of and ultimately saddened by Hemingway’s actions: “one display after another of mean-spiritedness and spite, of vulgar and shabby behavior”. That reaction, not unmixed with some sympathy, remains after reading these novels. The antidote, as Carver went on to suggest, is to re-read his fiction itself: “How clear, serene and solid the best work still seems”. The Paris Wife and Mrs Hemingway are necessary reminders of the women who enabled him to produce such work.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Voices From The City

This review appeared in today's Indian Express.

Engglishhh
Altaf Tyrewala
Fourth Estate/Harper Collins


We bemoan the crumbling infrastructure of Indian cities, but there’s another substructure that we all depend upon, one that’s essential for us to go about our day-to-day lives with a semblance of normality. These are the cooks, drivers, security guards, maids and others who do their work behind the scenes so that we can do ours. Often, it’s only in their absence that we sense their worth.

Unsurprisingly, one doesn’t come across too many such characters in fiction from India written in English -- even though there are exceptions, such as those who populate Murzban Shroff’s story collection, Breathless in Mumbai and Balram, narrator of Aravind Adiga’sThe White Tiger. Now, as if to redress the balance, there are a great deal of them who crop up in Altaf Tyrewala’s short story collection,Engglishhh.

Many of these stories have previously appeared over the last few years in periodicals such as Caravan and Tehelka, but what holds most of them together – apart from a Mumbai setting -- is this attention to a class of people whose inner lives are often ignored, a trait that was evident in Tyrewala's debut novel as well. Here, for example, we track a harried maidservant during the course of a day in which nothing is more precious to her than a bottle of mineral water; eavesdrop on the thoughts of a building security guard obsessed with premonitions of death; and, in a maneuver similar to No God in Sight, come across linked vignettes of dashed hopes from the lives of a liftman, a security guard and other service staff in a large office building.

This is not to say that Tyrewala offers up turgid slabs of social realism that are hard to digest. There’s an undercurrent of light heartedness, almost cheekiness, in most that make them a pleasure to read, a large part of which is because of the use of demotic Mumbai rhythms. There is a satirical edge, too, chiefly to do with the behaviour of the middle class as well as others in thrall to their own hypocrisy, such as in the tale of the director of Indian porn. Similarly, the title story hilariously sends up a blind belief in numerology and its assumed advantages by creating a new form of English, one that’s “the most fortune-fetching and life-altering language in the history of the world”.

However, the longest story here, the extended saga of a multinational fast food company’s clown mascot who comes to life, is less than satisfying, not only because of the over-determined nature of the narrative but also because of its uneasy mix of broad-brush burlesque, realism and mockery. Constrictive plotting is to be found in other stories too, such as the tragicomic saga of a man who steals a cellphone to discover unpleasant truths close to home, but it works better here because of a more focused narrative zest.

In one of the stories in the collection, a son accompanying his father’s body in a hearse muses on “the advantage of living in an overpopulated nation: the individual experience could be made pedestrian in an instant by setting it against the collective.” In the acts of ventriloquism in Engglishhh -- “fictional dispatches from a hyperreal nation”, as the subtitle has it -- Tyrewala does the opposite: he plucks out pedestrian and not-so-pedestrian experiences from the collective and renders them unique.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Short Story's Lonely Voice

My Sunday Guardian column.

We’re all aware that the novel is dead. People have been making pronouncements about its demise for ages, even as new novels continue to appear and thrive. When it comes to the state of the short story, though, the word used to describe it is “renaissance”: apparently, the form has been undergoing one for decades. Clearly, though, there’s been more of resurgence of late. As Paul McVeigh, director of the London Short Story Festival, points out, it’s the short story that has won against the novel in the recent International Man Booker, the Nobel, the Folio Prize and even the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This also shows the short story’s flowering in terms of style: it’s not just the quiet realism of Alice Munro that’s lauded, but also the telling vignettes of Lydia Davis and the satirical observations of George Saunders, among others.

What is it, then, that makes for a good short story? Though there have been many theories of the novel over the years – from Bakhtin to Forster to Lukács -- there have been fewer assessments of the short story. Most of them are to be found in essay collections, introductions to anthologies and writers’ own musings.One of the most well-regarded remains Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, based on a series of lectures the Irish writer delivered at Stanford in 1961. As Russell Banks writes in the introduction to the Melville House edition, this arose out of “a need perhaps to sum up a lifetime’s ruminations and writings on the subject—theories and beliefs hammered out and tested in lectures, arguments, essays, debates, and discussions for over forty years”.

The short story, says O’Connor, has never had a hero: “What it has instead is a submerged population group—a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better.” It’s this “submerged population group” that, to his mind, is the key to unlocking the short story’s secrets. This “Little Man”, as he goes on to explain, is omnipresent: “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape”. These aren’t just voices of those from underground but also of those standing against convention, marching to their own drummer and illuminating uncomfortable truths about the way we live.

This, to O’Connor, is also the essential difference between the novel and the short story. In the former, he writes, at least one character must represent the reader in some manner— “as the Wild Boy, the Rebel, the Dreamer, the Misunderstood Idealist” – and such identification leads to some concept of normality and relationship with society as a whole. Not so in the short story, with its “sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society”. It’s evident that there’s as much to debate on as chew upon in the author’s pronouncements, which often veer towards the oracular.

O’Connor goes on to apply this thinking to the work of some of his favourite authors, and also explores other aspects of what, to him, makes for a good short story -- primarily a moral dimension and a realistic, non-experimental approach, all of which leads to “applied”, organic, as opposed to “pure”, storytelling. One could disagree with his conclusions, and many will, but what is fascinating is the way he draws parallels between writers to bring out their strengths and weaknesses: Hemingway and Joyce; Browning and Turgenev; Kipling and Poe; Maupassant and Chekhov (in passing, he claims that ‘The Lady with the Lapdog’ may “well be the most beautiful short story in the world”).

Parts of The Lonely Voice do come across as dated (he lauds Lawrence) or downright cussed (he’s less than charitable about Katherine Mansfield). One-size-fits-all theories can be Procrustean beds, especially for a form as protean as the short story, but there’s no denying that O’Connor provides a stimulating and always impassioned argument in favour of his own informed views. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

We Need To Talk About Jerry

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

The spirit of J.D. Salinger still haunts us. Years after his death, there’s continuing speculation over his reclusive life and writing. Recently, there was David Shields and Shane Salerno’s Salinger, filled with scraps of information gleaned from those who knew him, not least of which was the revelation that the writer’s estate intends to release more of his work. Last month, there was the slim J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist by novelist Thomas Beller, an account of Salinger’s life and relationships through the prism of Beller’s own sensibilities; one life refracted through another, so to speak. Now, there’s the intriguingly titled My Salinger Year, by poet and writer Joanna Rakoff.

This isn’t a tell-all account of a hushed relationship, as with Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World. In 1996, Rakoffworked as an assistant at Harold Ober Associates, the venerable New York literary agency that represented Salinger, and this is a report of her time there, including her handling of the many fan letters addressed to the author. My Salinger Year is most of all a bildungsroman: Rakoff’s education at the agency is matched by a corresponding coming-of-age saga out of it. Slices of a vanished New York; a young woman making her way in the world; and reflections on the ways of the literati: the same ingredients are to be most recently found – albeit treated less skillfully – in Janet Groth’s 2012 memoir, The Receptionist: An Education at the New Yorker.

Rakoff’s prose is precise and evocative, revisiting and conveying the feelings experienced by her twenty-three-year-old self when adapting to the strangeness of a new job and archaic environment. It’s with the same sensitivity that she handles her after-work life: her fraught relationship with a domineering boyfriend who has socialist leanings, their efforts to rent an affordable apartment in New York, her shifting relationship with her parents, and her meetings with friends who have moved on (some of which unintentionally come across as an earlier generation’s version of Lena Dunham’s Girls).

When it came to Salinger, Rakoff’s instructions were clear from day one. After a terse “we need to talk about Jerry,” she’s told to “never, never, never give out his address or phone number….Don’t answer their questions. Just get off the phone as quickly as possible….Our job is not to bother him. We take care of his business so he doesn’t have to be bothered with it.” Fan mail was to be answered by a form letter drafted in 1963. Such missives were many: from old acquaintances, war veterans, editors and, of course, rabid fans, mainly teenagers expressing a sentiment that could be summed up as “Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me. And you, Mr. Salinger, are surely the same person as Holden Caulfield. Thus, you and I should be friends.” Rakoff dutifully sends off the form letters, but at times she’s unable to stop herself from sending out letters of her own, words of advice to those whose personal circumstances are oppressive. (The irony is delicious and evident.)

Rakoff also manages to speak to Salinger on the occasions he calls for his agent, during which he commends her efforts to be a poet and, being hard of hearing, refers to her as Suzanne. Their one meeting is disappointingly anticlimactic, consisting of little more than a handshake, despite “a strong and bizarre—and inexplicable—urge to hug him”.

“What really knocks me out,” Holden famously says in Salinger’s Catcher, “is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Salinger evidently evoked the same feeling in his readers because of his distinctive, intimate writing voice. Rakoff, a late convert, comes to realize just this -- “I loved him. I loved it all” -- and her memoir is an intimate, engaging account of finding her own voice. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Literary Potshots

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

We need more satires and parodies. Everyone nowadays is far too ponderous, thin-skinned, ready to take offence: such attitudes should be skewered. When it comes to novels and novelists, too, talk is largely of the Purpose of Art, the Bold New Direction and the End of Reading, accompanied by knitted brows and weighty self-expression. The Swifts and the Waughs are consigned to the past. Into this breach steps Edward St Aubyn with his new novel, Lost for Words. This isn’t a bittersweet, semi-autobiographical saga, as with his Patrick Melrose novels, but a sharp send-up of contemporary writing and writing prizes. When it was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction last week, the news was greeted with the inevitable headline: “Novel mocking literary prizes wins literary prize.”

It’s not that the subject hasn’t been handled in fiction before: just last year, there was Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time, a rant on the state of publishing and the bestseller list, as well as Filippo Bologna’s sardonic The Parrots, dealing with three writers vying and conniving for a prestigious literary award. Now, St Aubyn’s Lost for Words comes as another reminder that a prize can be a flawed yardstick with which to judge a book. The one in question in this novel is the Elysian Prize, clearly modelled on the Man Booker. (St Aubyn’s own Mother’s Milk narrowly failed to win in 2006, losing to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.) The group behind this fictional prize, dealing in genetically modified crops, is keen on a good public image; earlier, they had to face “some regrettable suicides among Indian farmers, whose crops had failed when they were sold Cod wheat, designed to withstand the icy rigours of Canada and Norway rather than the glowing anvil of the Indian Plain”.

Lost for Word’s chapters alternate between various authors, publishers and agents hoping for a favourable outcome on the night of the awards, as well as the judges and the pressures on them. One among the latter group is Penny Feathers, formerly of the Foreign Office and writer of breathless thrillers -- any resemblance to Stella Rimington, erstwhile Director General of MI5, writer of novels featuring female intelligence officers and chair of the judges for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, is not entirely coincidental.

There’s also the lordly Sonny, six hundred and fifty-third maharaja of the former Indian princely state of Badanpur, who hopes to win with his huge novel, The Mulberry Elephant. However, it’s not this book but his aunt’s palace cookbook, entered by mistake, which makes the shortlist (“fiction artfully disguised as culinary fact”) and this causes Sonny and others much heartburn. As this and other such incidents show, St Aubyn’s novel is rich in farce. His barbs are pointed and aimed at the pretentiousness of the establishment. One of the judges is all for “relevance”; another is interested in “good writing”; yet another lauds a novel by asserting that “it creates a participatory reality”.A Beckett-inspired novelist rues “art based on impact, rather than process, structure or insight” and another enjoys reading historical fiction because “one met so many famous people…like reading a very old copy of Hello! Magazine”.

Throughout, St Aubyn provides lengthy extracts from the titles on the Elysian longlist, adding to his novel’s pleasures. It can thus also be read as a handbook of pastiches, most enjoyable of which are sections from an Irvine Walsh-influenced work, “a harsh but ultimately uplifting account of life on a Glasgow housing estate”, entitled wot u starin at:  “ ‘I told yuz nivirivir to talk to uz when aymtrackin a vein,’ snarled Death Boy.”

Clearly, St Aubyn has had great fun in writing Lost for Words, which shows even in the names of agents and publishing houses (John Elton; Page and Turner). More mischievous than mean-spirited, it should be read with the same roguish spirit it displays when bayonetting its targets.