Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Also among the heavy hitters are Philip Roth’s The Humbling (like Ol’ Man River, he jes’ keeps rollin’ on); Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, in which a private eye creeps “out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the LA fog.”; Margaret Atwood’s God’s Gardeners, another one of her dystopian epics; and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a “story cycle” dealing with love, music and death
One hopes that Monica Ali is over her sophomore slump with her third novel, In The Kitchen – a tale of events in a London hotel, which may well turn out to have forebears as unlikely as Sankar’s Chowringhee, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Henry Green’s Loving.
Closer to the subcontinent, there’s Daniyal Mueenuddin's much-heralded debut, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, with some already likening him to no less a personage than Turgenev (the title story is here); William Dalrymple’s non-fiction account of the remnants of pre-codified religious practices in India (an interview on the subject is here); Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, a tale of the criss-crossing paths of three Indian musicians; and Abraham Verghese’s first novel, Cutting for Stone, spanning decades and set in India, Ethiopia and New York.
Then, there’s Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, a ghost story set in rural Warwickshire in the late 1940s, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, which takes place a few years later, with a young immigrant from Ireland trying to forge a new life for herself in New York.
Finally, here’s hoping that the publishing industry finds a way to get back on its feet in the coming year, and that Landmark’s Mumbai branch re-opens so that the city can once again have at least one decent bookstore in which the above titles will be available.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF Julian Barnes
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen once remarked, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. It’s a sentiment that would arouse a wry smile from the 62-year-old Julian Barnes, whose non-fiction narrative, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is a fine-tuned meditation on mortality and confronting the Grim Reaper.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him,” is how he begins, going on to clarify that at a time when Christianity in Europe has largely been reduced to ritual, he misses “the underlying sense of purpose and belief when confronted with religious art” – be it Mozart’s Requiem, Giotto’s paintings or Donatello’s sculptures.
The bulk of the book, though, is a series of deliberations on death and the human response to it. What saves this from terminal grimness or sentiment is that Barnes is never less than clear-sighted, his prose is skillfully elegant, and that there’s more than a touch of puckishness to the proceedings. Defining himself as one who fears death and has no faith, he speaks of his inexplicable night-terrors, with his motivation, quoting Shostakovich, being that “we have to make the fear [of death] familiar, and one way is to write about it”.
Though he clarifies that this is not his autobiography, there’s much here about his childhood, his parents, and of his reactions to their inevitable ageing and demise. His brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, is also a continual presence, with the author spending much time recreating run-ins and debating finer points of philosophical musings on death. Clearly, there’s more than a bit of sibling rivalry that’s continued over the years.
Barnes quotes incessantly from others on the subject, invoking the words of writers and musicians from Stravinsky to Stendhal. In particular, he derives inspiration from 19th century French writer Jules Renard, who once wrote, “I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t”.
Renard’s mode of writing was “compression, annotation, pointillism”, and this is something that Barnes has clearly taken to heart, for his writing is epigrammatic and quotable. “Religion tends to authoritarianism as capitalism tends to monopoly,” he writes in context of his loss of faith; and then, speaking of his craft, he asserts, “Doctors, priests and novelists conspire to present human life as a story progressing towards a meaningful conclusion”. Towards the end, he muses on memory, imagination and truth and his relationship to them as a novelist, coming up with another bon mot: “A novelist is something who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn’t remember”.
Structurally, Nothing to be Frightened Of progresses by means of circularity and repetition and it must be admitted that there are times when this approach becomes much too discursive. Overall, though, the words that Barnes uses to describe the writing of Alphonse Daudet could well be applied to his book, too: “The exact glance, the exact word, the refusal either to aggrandize or to trivialize death – exhilarating”.
Friday, December 12, 2008
BALTI BRITAIN Ziauddin Sardar
Ziauddin Sardar has tirelessly advocated the need to reinvent the ways we look at Islam. In Balti Britain, he takes “a journey through the British Asian experience”, uncovering layers of identity connected to history, geography and family. A worthwhile endeavour at a time when there’s a hardening of attitudes towards multiculturalism, even among supposed liberals from Andrew Anthony to Martin Amis. Unfortunately, despite the debunking of historical myths and heartfelt asides, Balti Britain is narrower in scope than it should have been.
Sardar asserts that the histories of
However, Sardar largely speaks to his own kind: Muslim academics and writers. Their voices need to be heard, but they’re hardly representative of British Asians. Mentions of bhangra and Goodness Gracious Me notwithstanding, the second-generation from
Sardar also demystifies various versions of Islam, reminding us not to tar all those of the faith with the same brush. There is much polemic, too, on the need to re-engage with multiculturalism, especially on the part of the “dominant culture”. But given its limited focus, the addition of the word ‘My’ before Balti Britain would have helped.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it: let’s talk of the best books of 2008.
First, a moment to fight once more the temptation to include novels published in 2007 that I read only this year. (Top of the list being Junot Diaz’s not-so-brief but oh-so-wondrous Great American-Dominican Novel, and also including those by J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Hari Kunzru, Nathan Englander – as well the uncommonly charming Alan Bennett.)
In the interests of full disclosure one ought to also point out that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 does not feature here – not because of any anti-Latin American sentiment or the feeling that Bolanomania has got out of hand, but because of the prosaic reason that I haven’t read it as yet.
So. Now vee may perhaps to begin, as Alexander Portnoy was advised.
In fiction, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, a manic and charged tale of an eccentric father’s relationship with his no-less eccentric son was marvellously subversive and comic. At the opposite pole in terms of effect, but as irresistible, was Joseph O’Neill’s elegant Netherland, which tells, in wonderfully-etched sentences, a post 9/11 story of, among other things, immigrants playing cricket in
At least two collections of short stories stood out: Jhumpa Lahiri’s melancholic tales in Unaccustomed Earth, which explored once again the lives of Bengalis in
It was, yet again, a strong year for non-fiction. (When isn’t it?) Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, part-history and part-travel, was a heartfelt and enlightening journey to the source of the river from which
Rounding off this selection is the short How Fiction Works, another informed broadside by critic James Wood on the ways in which the realistic mode continues to be pre-eminent among novelists: even those who disagree can’t deny the closeness of Wood's reading, the connections he teases out or the ardour of his prose.
Bringing up the rear is a book published in 1961, but back in the limelight because of the just-released film version. Focus your attention once again on Richard Yates’ carefully-crafted Revolutionary Road, that affecting and troubling novel of marital discord symbolising the souring of the American Dream.