Monday, April 30, 2012

The Long And Short Of Sentences

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Guardian.

Take a deep breath before you start to read Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis: the first sentence of the novel is six pages long. (I would have counted the number of words, but then, I would have missed the deadline.) It’s a sentence that is both feverish and descriptive, the extended opening note of a hallucinatory anthem to Mumbai.

You’ll come across a comparatively shorter sentence – only about three pages long – in the Marquez short story, ‘Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship’, from his collection, Leaf Storm. The rhythm of this single-sentence short story matches the ocean liner’s passage it describes, speaking of careful, patient craftsmanship. I don’t envy the translator, though.

In a recent article, Pico Iyer writes that he’s using longer and longer sentences “as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment”. With each clause of such a sentence, he continues, we’re taken further away from easy reductionism, realizing that meaning isn’t finite and bite-sized. As he – rather wonderfully -- says of Philip Roth: “His is a prose that banishes all simplicities while never letting go of passion”.

Long or short, sentences aren’t something that most Indian writers in English seem to pay attention to. This is not to say that they use them without regard to grammar – although that can be the case, too – but that, more often than not, they’re simple, declarative carriers of meaning and assertion. This is a style that sees the sentence not as a work of art in its own right, but simply one among a number of unremarkable bricks shoring up a prose edifice. The result is a novel constrained by the very materials that enable it to exist. I’m not upholding meandering late-Jamesian prose here; there’s music to be found in the sentences of Hemingway and Carver, too.

It boils down to a love and respect for language and the realization that it is capable of being fashioned to convey themes and plots with richness and complexity. Jhumpa Lahiri, in a piece co-incidentally written shortly after Pico Iyer’s, speaks of how she used to underline sentences she found notable for “their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment”. As she says, “In fiction, plenty [of sentences] do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil.” When she’s in the middle of a work, sentences arrive, “fully formed in my brain”: “I tend to hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. They are spoken to me, I’m not sure by whom.”

Such observations would please Stanley Fish. The American literary theorist – who’s been criticized for his relativistic take on the humanities, among other things, and who was the inspiration for the character of Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s campus trilogy -- lauds the art and craft of sentence-making in his new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. It’s a primer for would-be writers to master the nuts and bolts of how words connect in logical ways to create memorable sentences. Or, as he puts it, the “skills of coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration”.

Somewhat unusually, Fish encourages writers to use sentence structures as models, asking them not to, at the start, worry about meaning: “Content will be a distraction and…the skill of writing well-formed, clear, and tightly organized sentences will be acquired by focusing on forms”. Though there are many examples of classic sentences from writers such as Montaigne, Woolf, Stein, Hemingway and more, the book is marked by analytical enquiry, some of it tedious – without, however, getting lost in intricacies of grammar.

The one that stands out from the many that Fish quotes to illustrate sentence forms is by John Updike, from his piece on a 1960 Fenway Park baseball game during which batter Ted Williams hit a memorable home run. Twelve words: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky”. Marvellous. As for this column, it was on the page while it was still on my mind. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Critics And Enemies Of Promise

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Critics can’t write good novels. This is as it should be, I suppose, given that the faculties required are quite different. As always, there are exceptions, and in this case John Updike is the notable one. Not only did he write more than 30 novels and short story collections, he contributed regularly to publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books: these pieces were later published in fat volumes from Odd Jobs to the posthumous Higher Gossip.

On the other hand, take James Wood, the influential critic who’s won his fair share of admirers as well as detractors for championing realism in fiction. When he tried his hand at a novel, the results were middling. The Book Against God, published in 2003, was a sensitive but dour story of a vicar’s son grappling with theological questions. Not many ripples ensued.

The one critic who obsessed more than most about his inability to produce a sterling novel was Cyril Connolly, eminent man of letters and editor of the literary journal, Horizon, in the England of the Thirties and Forties. For years, all I’d read of Connolly was the infamous quote that seemed to be the only thing that outlived him: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Connolly’s seminal Enemies of Promise – a book that, shamefully, I only just read – is where that quote is from; as I discovered, the book’s aphoristic nature, delightful though it may be, isn’t the only reason to read it.

At first glance Enemies of Promise seems neither fish nor fowl: about half of it is an analysis of contemporary fiction and pitfalls that await the would-be writer, and the second half is a memoir of Connolly’s youth. However – as Connolly himself mentioned – there are clear correspondences. The magisterial critique of the one is made resonant by the personal tone of the other. Thus, the book can be read as an investigation of the reasons why he – such a promising young fellow– was unable to come up with a novel of worth. Or, as he put it, “a didactic enquiry into the problem of how to write a book which lasts ten years”. (The one novel Connolly wrote, The Rock Pool, was judged unwieldy and uneven: he had difficulty finding a publisher. As he wrote in Enemies of Promise: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising”)

I must admit I found myself skipping paragraphs, especially those containing references to writers of his time, many of whom are not so well-known nowadays. Many judgments, though, are spot on: “Contemporary books do not keep. The quality in them that makes for their success is the first to go; they turn overnight”. There’s praise for E.M. Forster; more patrician is the comment on Virginia Woolf, who has “the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing” (though he lauds The Waves). There’s also his famous classification of prose styles into the Mandarin and the Vernacular, with Henry James being an example of the former, Hemingway of the latter. Overall, “I do not say one is better than the other; there is much to admire in both; what I have claimed is a relationship between them”.

His litany of traps lying in wait for the novelist  -- from money to success to domesticity -- still rings true, as does his discussion of professions that sap the will of the artist-in-waiting, among them teaching, journalism and advertising. (He would, no doubt, have reacted with alarm to Twitter and Facebook.)

Much of this is made personal in what follows: childhood, the hated early days at Eton and the later more-at-ease time there. (Among his classmates was a boy who came to be known as George Orwell: “I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one”.)

A cultural critique; an analysis of why he couldn’t write the book he wanted to; autobiographical musings; an unusual mirroring structure: why, had the tone been different, it could almost have been written by Geoff Dyer. Hold on, he’s already done that, hasn’t he?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why The Rushdie Memoir Should Have Been Called Laurence Fielding James

The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.

Salman Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa years, due to be published this September, is one of the most keenly-awaited books of the year and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy before someone in India decides that it’s caused offence. The recently-announced title, however, surprised me: it’s called Joseph Anton, which was one of Rushdie’s aliases when he was in hiding. As Rushdie says in the publisher’s description of the book, “I made up a name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov”. They’re two of the writers he loved, the release states, quoting Rushdie again: “I made it the title of the book because it always felt very strange to be asked to give up my name, I was always uncomfortable about it, and I thought it might help dramatize, for the reader, the deep strangeness and discomfort of those years.”

Semantically speaking, having a favourite writer and being inspired by a writer isn’t necessarily the same thing. However, it’s justified to assume that there’s a fair degree of overlap, especially when one’s profession is to create worlds from words. Which is precisely why the feeling of mild astonishment at the title.

The style of writing that Rushdie is known for is, to use a by-now shop-soiled term, magic realism. Go beyond the surface level of the fantastical, however, and there is much mischievousness, playfulness, inversion and other forms of inventiveness in Rushdie’s work – things it has in common with, say, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And this approach owes a lot to novelists of the 18th century.

In earlier interviews, Rushdie has confessed to his admiration for such writers, among them Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding and Jonathan Swift. The correspondences are evident. Yet another feature of Rushdie’s work is the well of wordplay he dips his pen into to sprinkle his prose with puns, spoonerisms and portmanteau words. By way of illustration, I still recall how I chuckled when I read of a character in The Moor’s Last Sigh with the name of Jamshedjee Jamibhoy Cashondeliveri, known as Jimmy Cash, an obvious reference to Mumbai’s Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney.  Elsewhere, he’s notably used the word “disoriented” to refer to “a loss of the Orient”. This trait, so much a part of the appeal of his work, is in turn derived from his stated admiration for James Joyce.

To turn to the Joseph of his memoir’s title, it’s V.S. Naipaul who’s more commonly linked to Conrad, with the Swedish Academy anointing him as “his heir” when it awarded him the Literature Nobel in 2001. Naipaul himself has written perceptively about the Polish émigré – both of them, as has been said, were raised in one world and, via the English language, made themselves at home in another. Typically, though, Naipaul has insisted that Conrad hasn’t been an influence, adding for good measure: ''Actually, I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad”.

As for Anton Chekhov, his short stories, needless to add, have had a tremendous influence on many writers over the decades, with even the magisterial Nabokov calling The Lady with the Lapdog "one of the greatest stories ever written” (though he had his doubts about the rest of Chekhov’s oeuvre). Read Nabokov’s Spring in Fialta and you’ll find clear parallels with The Lady with the Lapdog. Chekhov’s reputation continues to grow: in America, in fact, writing programs across the country should just go ahead and install small busts of him in every classroom. The point really is that Chekhov’s stories are known for their undemonstrative yet masterly evocation of the agitations of everyday lives; as a realist, he’s nonpareil. Rushdie’s style is so very different.

Which makes it all the more odd that the author of Midnight’s Children would choose Joseph Anton as an alias. One would have thought it would be Laurence Fielding James. Or even the other way around.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting The Jewish Into Jewish-American

This is the first of my columns for New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian

 When I first read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, I was struck by the audacity of the material. Only Roth, I thought, could conceive of a plot in which a young writer, visiting an older mentor’s house, begins to suspect that the young woman he meets there is none other than Anne Frank, who has survived the Holocaust and is now living anonymously in upstate New York. In that book – and others – Roth explored contrasts common to much Jewish-American writing: between identity and assimilation, secularism and religion, tradition and modernity.

Of late, however, there’s been debate over whether the ‘Jewish’ in ‘Jewish-American writing’ ought to be dropped altogether. With such writers being integrated into the mainstream, does the distinction hold anymore? The argument sometimes assumes other forms, such as Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s dismissal of diasporic Jews as "playing with Judaism…it’s masturbation”. (Portnoy’s Complaint, anyone?)

I’m not sure if we should discard the category just yet. In particular, two recently-published books illustrate a specifically Jewish-American way of looking at the world: Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander and the short-story collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. In both, one finds “laughter and trembling so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two”, as Saul Bellow once described Jewish fiction. And in both, one finds, once again, Anne Frank.

In Hope, protagonist Solomon Kugel moves with his family to an old farmhouse  and, investigating sounds from the attic, discovers an ancient, bitter crone who claims to be Anne Frank: “I survived death in my youth and I’ve been surviving life ever since”. (And later:  “I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945”.) After decades in hiding, she’s now writing a follow-up. Auslander’s tone throughout is mordantly funny as a paranoid Kugel attempts to make sense of his situation. There’s much Woody Allen-esque riffing on subjects that range from gluten-free diets, real estate and unlikely ways of dying. Beneath this is a serious concern: are Jews still defining themselves by the horrors of the Holocaust, and is it time to move on?

There’s something akin to this concern in the title story of Englander’s collection. Here, two Jewish couples – one in Miami, the other from Jerusalem -- catch up on a Sunday afternoon, the wives being old friends who haven’t met in a while. Narrated by a wisecracking husband who alternately feels empathy with, and dislikes the others, it’s an afternoon during which vodka is drunk, pot smoked and secrets spilled. Just when you think the story is moving towards an epiphany – the couples go out of the house to get drenched in a shower – Englander has them come back inside and play “the Anne Frank game”, speculating on which friend, neighbour or relative would provide sanctuary in the event of another Holocaust.

Though Englander’s tone is more measured and less astringent than Auslander’s, there’s a similar comic vein that occasionally emerges. At one point, the husband says of the other couple that they “went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power”.  Meanwhile Auslander, in Hope, has Kugel muse in a bookstore: “Twenty full-page photographs inside, promised the cover of the Buchenwald book. Now more ghastly. Twenty percent more depressing”. In another Englander story, there’s a character with the unfortunate name of Yitzy Penis, which reminds one of Auslander’s memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. Other Englander stories, set in Israel and in the US, often have a parable-like nature, the same trait that can be seen under the surface of Hope.

Admittedly, Auslander’s novel is one where the conceit is played out for too long, and Englander’s collection is uneven. But with the quips, Yiddish phrasing, paranoia and interrogation of history, these books show a sensibility that can only be termed Jewish-American. By being specific, both also contain themes that are universal. In the words of another writer from another country – Paul Murray, in Skippy Dies – they tell us that “life makes fools of us all sooner or later. But keep your sense of humour and you’ll at least be able to take your humiliations with some measure of grace.”

Big City Blues

A condensed version of this appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

MUMBAI NOIR Ed. Altaf Tyrewala

Writers thrive on decay. Fiction's fertile ground is one in which things are out of whack, giving rise to confusion, chaos and conflict. As such, the current state of the city of Mumbai ought to provide rich pickings, especially when it comes to the noir genre. Some of the 14 stories in Mumbai Noir – a part of the series by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books live up to the task of mirroring urban bleakness; many others, however, are tepid and underworked. Such patchiness threatens to capsize this noir’s ark.

What’s on offer here is some romanticizing and nostalgia, much obsession with the aftermath of terrorist attacks and the requisite dose of seediness. The cynicism and jadedness that defines the genre: not so much. In his introduction, Tyrewala mentions “the restraints set by the noir genre, which stipulates, among other things, an unflinching gaze at the underbelly, without recourse to sentimentality or forced denouements”. Sentimentality and a forced denouement are, however, what mar the very first story, Riaz Mulla’s ‘Justice’, a story about minorities and ordinary men and women affected by terrorism.

Appropriately enough, deadbeats, sex and decadence are on parade in Avtar Singh’s atmospheric ‘Pakeezah’, about a young man’s swift slide into debauchery among the dance bars and underworld of the city. Abbas Tyrewala’s ‘Chachu at Dusk’ shares some of these qualities; however, though not without a certain flair in the telling, it manages to lose itself in mists of nostalgia. With its unlikely grafting of Raymond Chandler onto low-life Mumbai,  Ahmed Bunglowala’s ‘Nagpada Blues’ is cheeky and likeable, but strictly speaking is more hardboiled than noir. You could say the same of Jerry Pinto’s ‘They’, which also has the not inconsiderable merit of using the Bambaiya patois effectively.

In other stories, though the writers get the atmosphere down pat, they don’t make their protagonists play too much of a role in arriving at the denouement. In R.Raj Rao’s ‘TZP’, about a gay professor’s dubious liaisons and run-in with the law, the said professor stands by while the police complete the investigation, with an ending that can be seen coming from a long distance away. In Smita Harish Jain’s ‘The Body in the Gali’, about a police officer investigating a colleague’s killing, there are effective scenes set among the world of eunuch prostitutes, but  the final realization dawns with something as simple as cleaning out the dead policeman’s desk. When it comes to eunuchs, Sonia Faleiro’s unsettling ‘Lucky 501’, about the community welcoming a teenager into their tribe, is stronger in observed, intimate detail.

There are other noteworthy stories here, but whether they can be classified as noir is a moot question. Annie Zaidi’s chilling ‘A Suitable Girl’, about a single woman and her stalker, demonstrates, among other things, a deft handling of two points of view. Altaf Tyrewala’s fatalistic ‘The Watchman’, about a security guard’s paranoid obsession, has a pleasing, jagged prose rhythm well-suited to its subject. Namita Devidayal’s ‘The Egg’, about a south Mumbai housewife with a mood disorder dealing with her curmudgeonly cook, evokes the protagonist’s increasingly claustrophobic circumstances with a sure hand. And Paromita Vohra’s ‘The Romantic Customer’, about a cyber-café employee’s incipient love affair, is impactful for its open-endedness and portrayal of characters who are neither black nor white, just doing what they need to do to get by.

Otto Penzler, editor and owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookstore, once said of the characters of noir fiction that they’re “dark and doomed – they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless”. Unfortunately, such traits – and the nihilism and existentialism also associated with the genre – are present only in bits and pieces in Mumbai Noir.