Friday, November 26, 2010

Windowpane Or Stained Glass?

George Orwell wrote that good prose ought to be like a window pane. But those such as Nabokov, Banville and Updike prefer stained glass. The next instalment of my Yahoo India column.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Family Matters

This appeared in today's DNA.

FREEDOM Jonathan Franzen

In an essay for Harper’s magazine in 1996, Jonathan Franzen rued the contemporary novel’s inability to engage with culture in the manner in which, say, the 19th century novel did, when  new instalments of work by writers such as Dickens were awaited, pored over and discussed. As he wrote, “The ambitious young fiction writer can’t help noting that, in a recent USA Today survey of twenty-four hours in the life of American culture, there were twenty-one references to television, eight to film, seven to popular music, four to radio, and one to fiction (The Bridges of Madison County)”.

Franzen’s much-commented-upon 2001 novel, The Corrections, exploring “the possibility of connecting the personal to the social”, was an impressive attempt to overcome this, being a study of an American family over the years. His new novel, Freedom, has been greeted by a blare of trumpets, and not just from the literary pages. He’s become the first novelist in ten years to make it to the cover of Time magazine; the book has been hailed by some quarters as “the best novel of the century”; and it’s climbed up and stayed on the bestseller lists from the moment of publication.

Freedom, then, arrives with numerous expectations, and though many are realized, it must be said that it doesn’t live up to all of them. Franzen’s subject is again the American family and, in exploring the vagaries of the lives of its members, he brings out the tenor of the Bush years in America.

It opens with a bravura first chapter introducing us to the Berglunds – Walter and Patty, and their children, Joey and Jessica – entirely through the eyes of their neighbours in St Paul, Minnesota. Walter is a born do-gooder, and Patty is serially conflicted; as their lives unravel, one observer unkindly calls them “the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven”.

From here, we move to a lengthy section comprising a journal that Patty has written of her formative years, at the suggestion of her therapist. This manuscript plays a key role later in the book when it is read by two other characters, provoking a sudden change in circumstances. (In this manner, Franzen tries to combine his brand of realism with more modern methods of telling.) The problem with this record of Patty’s school, college and wedded years it that the overall tone is too ironic and knowing for us to fully believe that it’s emerged from her pen.

The narrative moves on, with detailed and rich accounts of the characters’ inner and outer lives. We’re told of Patty’s increasing loneliness and despair, Walter’s search for meaningful work, Joey’s relationship with his parents, love interests and shady business deals, and of Walter’s old friend, Richard Katz, an indie musician who achieves a degree of fame he’s ambivalent about. Befittingly, the novel is also rife with cultural markers to indicate time’s passage, from books to music to movies. (It’s odd, however, that though all the characters’ lives are deeply delved into, it’s the daughter Jessica who’s comparatively ignored.)

The tangles and triangles in all of these people’s lives are explored in an unhurried manner that brings out all their rainbow-hued complexity, and this is Freedom’s greatest achievement. There is much bleakness and heartbreak to be found in these pages, more than occasionally leavened by sly humour -- Joey’s dislike of the acronym MILF, for example.

In keeping with the title, the novel also investigates what it means to be free, in various contexts: from that of a housewife seeking validation to the social ramifications of a nation flexing its muscles overseas. Sometimes, these notions appear a tad heavy-handed, almost as though Franzen is willing himself to insert such concepts into an already smooth narrative.

It’s in the second half that the experience of reading the novel flags: Franzen’s suave, knowing prose, so impressive to begin with, rolls on and on, sometimes unevenly, and one starts to harbour a feeling that he’s too much in thrall to his characters to let them go. In particular, the detailing of Walter’s efforts at ecological conservation tend to pall.

Freedom, then, is layered and ambitious in the way too few books are in today’s times. Alas, as Browning’s Andrea del Sarto would have said, its reach exceeds its grasp.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tusker Tale

This appeared in last Saturday's The Indian Express


In the tale of the blind men and the elephant, each person describes the animal in a different manner, depending on the part that he feels. Something similar occurs in Jose Saramago’s last, posthumous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.

The novel is inspired by the true story of an Indian elephant and his master travelling from Lisbon to Vienna on foot in 1551. In Saramago’s telling, the pachyderm, named Solomon, is a gift from the king of Portugal to his cousin, the archduke of Austria. Solomon and Subhro, his mahout, travel by land across Portugal, by sea across the Mediterranean and finally traverse the Alps, in the manner of Hannibal’s army.

The officers who travel with them, and the people they encounter along the journey, react to the elephant in ways that reveal more about their self-importance and insecurity than the actual animal itself. The animal emerges as larger than life, open to interpretation:  “Some even say that man himself was made out of what was left over after the elephant had been created…”

Commanding officers and priests, in particular, show themselves to be equally susceptible to petty vanity, Saramago’s way of gently mocking different sections of of the state. In particular, he pokes sly fun at Christian theology, sometimes contrasting it with Hindu myths, especially that of the origin of Ganesha.

There’s much of the author’s trademark style in the way the novel is written. Paragraphs go on for pages and quotation marks are done away with in favour of run-on dialogue separated by commas. In addition, proper nouns are democratised by doing away with capitals. One gets used to all of this surprisingly quickly, and the cumulative effect is to add more than a degree of orality to the narrative, all aided by Margaret Jull Costa’s adept translation.

 This aspect is emphasised further by Saramago’s impishness. There are frequent asides to the reader, some of them self-referential: “Now, this story has not lacked for reflections, of varying degrees of acuity, on human nature, and we have recorded and commented on each one according to their relevance and the mood of the moment.” At other times, he gleefully skates over centuries: “It’s a shame that photography had not yet been invented in the sixteenth century, because…we would simply have included a few photo from the period, especially if taken from a helicopter, and readers would then have every reason to consider themselves amply rewarded and to recognize the extraordinarily informative nature of our enterprise.”

The book’s second half has something of a rushed air, especially when contrasted with the first; and Subhro the mahout does come across as a bit of a cipher, with one remaining unsure of his motivation. For all that, The Elephant’s Journey is a pleasure to read in the way that an updated parable for our times would be a pleasure to listen to. A folktale, then, but one told in the knowing, ironic tone of a person who has seen the world and its foibles more clearly than most.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For Laughter, Against Forgetting

This appeared in last Sunday's edition of New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian 


Two years ago, a Czech newsweekly announced that in 1950, a young Milan Kundera had informed the Communist authorities about the presence of a Western agent in the country, leading to the latter’s arrest and incarceration. Kundera, however, termed the report “an assassination attempt”, denying it completely. The incursion of the past into the present; of one identity into another; and of the political into the personal: the episode had some of the hallmarks of Kundera’s own fiction.

The nature of fiction, its role and development and the responsibility of the artist  have, as a matter of fact, been subjects that have pre-occupied the Czech √©migr√© of late, evident from his non-fiction work such as The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed and Curtain.

With his latest, Encounter, he continues these speculations. This comprises a collection of pieces of varying lengths written over the years – some disappointingly short, some not; some revised, some not. Here, there are musings on modernity, on novelists close to his heart, and on artists and musicians that he feels ought to be better known. Those who are familiar with Kundera’s novels will find many of the same themes that are present there, such as the nature of nostalgia, questions of representation and selfhood, and the role of comedy at a time when humour is the last thing that one would expect.

A dominant and important strand of thought in Encounter is the view of the novel as “a completely necessary investigation” into society and the individual’s role within it. In particular, Kundera says, “the art of non-seriousness” is one of the unexplored alleyways of the novel, with Rabelais as one of its chief exemplars. He rues the drowning out of the 18th century writer’s narrative voice – puckish, individual, and colloquial – by the more formal rhythms of the 19th century novelist, a theme he had also written about in Testaments Betrayed.

When it comes to more recent changes in the novel’s form, Kundera says that it was after World War One that the sheer size and externality of events had the potential to transform human beings as much as, if not more than, changes from within – and it’s the novelist’s job to understand and reflect this.

There are many scraps, gleanings and observations on novels that have struck him over time, and he unlocks their art by using unconventional keyholes. For example, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has him musing on how most protagonists of great novels do not have children, or his riff on the role that nostalgia plays in Philip Roth’s Kepesh books. (As for the former observation, one could offer Roth’s own Swede Levov from American Pastoral as a rebuttal.)

Kundera is, of course, steeped in the European avant garde and there are several references throughout to writers and artists of that movement – some familiar, many not. He also shines a searchlight on novelists that he feels should have a wider audience. There are, for instance, two lengthy essays dealing with the 19th century Frenchman of letters Anatole France and his The Gods Must Be Thirsty, and the 20th century Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and his The Skin.

Music and art also feature in these pages, with Kundera analyzing the essence of Francis Bacon’s paintings – comparing him with Beckett in being modern in a world that is wearying of the modern. Then, there’s a meditation on the operatic works of Czech composer Leos Janacek and his status as a European anti-romantic standing against kitsch. Both of which once again remind one of Kundera’s own work.

Though for most of the time Kundera wears his learning and opinions lightly, there are also moments of despair, such as in a 1995 piece written to commemorate 100 years of cinema. Here, he says that film as technology nowadays is “the principal agent of stupidity…and of worldwide indiscretion.” He continues: “We have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying”. At least we still have those such as Milan Kundera to remind us that absolute fidelity to the novel and to art is not only important, but vital.