Sunday, June 24, 2012

When Writers ReJoyce

The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.

Last week, thousands gathered in Dublin and elsewhere to commemorate the Feast of Saint Jam Juice. Bloomsday, as it’s less jocularly known, marks the day during which the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses occur, and given the number of people carousing from morning till night, as Declan Kiberd observes, those celebrating the book probably outnumber those who’ve read it.

It’s a pity that Joyce’s Modernist jigsaw has such an intimidating reputation among readers. Its effect on writers, however, can’t be denied. It’s influenced John Dos Passos, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, “and just about every modern writer who has chosen to experiment with the novel form”, as Gordon Bowker, author of a new Joyce biography, points out.

This isn’t restricted to the English-speaking world, as is evident from two recent novels in Spanish. The English translation of one was published last year, and of the second, last week, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Ulysses’ publication. Both testify to the continuing impact of the novel Joyce called his mistresspiece, his best-loved work.

The first, Julian Rios’ The House of Ulysses, is more a piece of ingenious literary criticism than a novel. Stuffed with puns, it’s set in a museum exhibit titled ‘The Days and Works of James Joyce’. Here, among others, there’s a Joyce-like Cicerone who wears black, has a straggly moustache and “a blind man’s glasses”. There’s also a man with a Macintosh laptop (a nod to the mysterious man in a mackintosh in Ulysses) and three readers, known as A, B and C, who proceed to give us the ABC of the book.

It takes us, chapter by chapter, through what Joyce called in Finnegans Wake his “usylessly unreadable” work, explaining the prose style, references and Homeric allusions. In clearing such thickets, Rios also weaves in information connecting Joyce’s life to the book’s events and characters. Those looking for plot or character-development will have to search elsewhere; The House of Ulysses never pretends to be more than an inventive companion piece to Ulysses, best read in conjunction with it.

The man in a mackintosh also appears in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, a meditation on the effects of reading and writing. For the central character, reading is “a way of being in the world: an instrument for interpreting, sequence after sequence, his day-to-day life.”  This is Samuel Riba, a publisher approaching 60 who yearns to break free from his pigeonholed days in Barcelona, away from his parents, his wife and his publishing business, in decline in the digital age.

Following a vivid dream, Riba decides to visit Dublin on Bloomsday and, in memory of the funeral in the Hades section of Ulysses, plans to hold a funeral for the passing of the Gutenberg era. The current state of literature apart, the novel can also be read as a journey from the margins towards a nebulous centre, as Dublin and New York become Riba’s illusory lodestars.

Dublinesque favours style over plot and contains many references to other writers and artists – among them, Laurence Sterne, Georges Perec, Dave Cronenberg, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Though Joyce is the presiding deity, it’s also haunted by Samuel Beckett and Philip Larkin. As Riba goes in search of his private epiphany, the novel becomes increasingly dream-like and self-absorbed, “a commodius vicus of recirculation”, as Joyce would have gleefully put it. It’s all held together, though, by the desire of both author and character to explore the space between reading and reality, using Joyce’s book as a staging ground.

Both novels, then, have considerable differences but are united by a seriousness of intent shot through with an antic spirit. As Joyce said of Ulysses in an interview with Djuna Barnes, “there is not one single serious line in it”. The book that Edmund Wilson called “perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness” still inspires devotion, which is why tales of vampires and shades of grey will come and go but Ulysses will continue to be celebrated. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anomie And Bonhomie

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai


In keeping with its title, Niven Govinden’s Black Bread White Beer traffics in opposites. This slim novel circles around the perceived differences between men and women, between the duties of husbands and wives, between parents and in-laws, between Christians and Hindus, between the city and the country – and, above all, between races.

The events that anchor the above musings have to do with a trip to Sussex by Amal and Claud, a London-based couple. Claud has just suffered a first trimester miscarriage, and they drive to her parents in the country who are as yet unaware of this mishap. The novel stays close to Amal’s thoughts throughout, as he obsesses over his ‘Indian gene’, his increasingly strained relationship with Claud and his fears and hopes for the future.

Thus, there are alliances between Black Bread White Beer and Ardisher Vakil’s One Day, which similarly deals with a day in the life of a London-based inter-racial couple in a fractious alliance. (In Vakil’s novel, though, it’s the woman who’s from India and the husband who’s British.)

Though Govinden’s prose has a thoughtful cadence, many of Amal’s thoughts come across as essentialist, if not outdated. (“Men do not have best friends the way women do. It…can overwhelm the basic masculine need for secrets and freedoms.”) One looks for elements of satire or irony, but there is little to be found. It’s not without moments of well-observed intensity, but the environment of the novel can be hermetic and airless, given Amal’s paranoid imaginings. Towards the close, there’s heavy-handed mention of a village square’s maypole, an evident symbol of fertility.

The title is an inversion of the name of an album by British band Scritti Pollitti, whose previous release was called Anomie and Bonhomie. There’s a lot of the former and just a late-stage glimmer of the latter in Govinden’s novel.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

All The News That's Unfit To Print

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian.

Intrepid seekers. Naïve ingénues. And cynical hacks. In fiction, journalists generally fall into one of those categories, more often than not, the last one. Thus, the tone of novels about the newsroom is usually farcical, following the example set by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Such was the case, for example, in Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, set in the dying years of Fleet Street.  Last year, though, there was Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, an affectionate, nostalgic look at the staff of a struggling newspaper in Rome. That daily wasn’t bothered with setting up a website because, as one of the senior staffers put it, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” It’s hard to think of anyone feeling that way nowadays.

A similar sentiment is voiced by one of the journalists in The Spoiler, a recent debut novel by Annalena McAfee. McAfee’s background is suited to such an enterprise – she’s had over three decades of experience as a journalist, the last six years at The Guardian’s Saturday Review supplement, which she helped set up. (By the way, the novel is dedicated to her husband, a certain Ian McEwan.)

Set in the London of the late Nineties, The Spoiler revolves around the past and future of news reporting, shifting between the points of view of the two central characters. First, there’s the 80-year-old Honor Tait, a feted former foreign correspondent and war reporter who’s been called “the newsroom Dietrich”. She’s visited every city of importance, from Madrid to Calcutta, has been married thrice, has won the Pulitzer, and has rubbed shoulders with “a procession of artists, poets, politicians and Hollywood panjandrums”  -- General Franco, Frank Sinatra, Jean Cocteau and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, to name a few. In the other corner is Tamara Sim, a 27-year-old reporter who works with The Monitor as a freelance sub editor and writes for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip magazine. She’s a repository of show business trivia, “a grandmistress of gossip” with a knack for “What’s In/What’s Out, Going Up/Going Down, Good Week/Bad Week” lists.

To begin with, then, these two come across as archetypes, not as full-fledged characters. Improbably, Tamara is asked to interview Honor and the meeting – which occurs after too many pages of backstory – is a clash of opposites. When Honor mentions T.S. Eliot, Tamara thinks of the West End musical; when she makes a reference to the Library of Alexandria, the industrious Tamara makes a note: “Chk: who is Alexandria? What happened to her library?”

Great fun though this is to read, McAfee’s satirical mask starts to slip as the coiled plot unfurls. Tamara’s sleuthing turns up revelations that the tabloids pounce upon and the tone shifts to something darker. This, despite comic set pieces such as the defining characteristics of those who work in a paper’s news, sport, books, obit and other sections.

What colours the book like drops of black ink in clear water is Honor’s later predicament and her observations on the present. Speaking to Tamara of the rise in the use of the first person singular, she says, “Isn’t that what all you young journalists want to talk about these days? Yourselves, your pasts, your feelings, your relationships.” Reports in the popular press are dismissed as “imbecilic morality tales for an amoral age”. For an earlier generation, “the vulgar publicity, the public exposure, brought…by airing family business, private affairs, in confessional memoirs or newspaper articles would be completely abhorrent, unthinkable”. (Take that, Facebook.)

The Spoiler, then, is decidedly uneven in tone, yet worth reading for its enjoyable moments of high farce and the light it throws on the way we consume what we call “the news”. Some would dismiss Honor as elitist and hidebound but there’s much truth to her opinions. At one point, she feels, “The young were all gunslingers now, each one a little Goebbels, reaching for their revolvers whenever they heard the word culture”.  Ouch. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby Should Have Been Set In India

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Given Baz Luhrmann’s love of the flamboyant, it’s entirely possible that he’s going to miss the trees for the wood with his forthcoming remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The recent trailer does nothing to assuage this concern. As Ta-Nehesi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic, tweeted: “The problem is The Great Gatsby probably should be an indie flick. The beauty of the book is its small quiet take on a big loud time.” That big, loud time was, of course, America’s so-called roaring Twenties, a riotous age of Art Deco, flappers, jazz and Prohibition.

(For those interested in Meyer Wolfsheim, the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie, he’s described by Fitzgerald as “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril”. Some casting.)

Many have commented on how Fitzgerald’s best-known work is still relevant to today’s America, but what’s interesting is that there’s much about it that’s relevant to urban India, too. Consider what Fitzgerald casts his eye on: a worship of money, amorality, social climbing, an aggrandizement of surfaces -- and car accidents. In short, “the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men”.

Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, comes to New York to learn the “bond business” and profit from the financial boom. Books on finance stand on his shelf “in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew”. Such shining secrets are what newly-minted Indian MBAs in finance as well as feverish Dalal Street speculators hunger after, downturn or no downturn. How riches affect the way one sees the world is beautifully caught in Gatsby’s remark about Daisy, his long-lost love: “Her voice is full of money”.

Gatsby himself is a model of reinvention, rising from a penurious but confident James Gatz of North Dakota to the suave, affected Jay Gatsby of East Egg, a person who hosts resplendent parties where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”. Gatsby’s shady past – from bootlegging to possible financial malfeasance – doesn’t bother his guests too much: they are “agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key”. Businessmen with dubious antecedents being feted by those around them, social climbers with connections: these are what one sees in the pages of the Indian papers every day. As for the media itself, newspaper reports are described in the novel as “grotesque, circumstantial, eager and untrue”.

Such social climbing applies in the novel to geography, too. Gatsby’s mansion is in West Egg, a former fishing village, while the old-rich section of Long Island lives in East Egg, looking at the arrivistes across the bay with a mixture of dismay and fascination. One can’t help but be reminded of the plush gated communities and business zones emerging on the outskirts of our cities, to rival and sometimes destabilise traditional city centres. (“Welcome to New Cuffe Parade”, say the advertisements, referring to a development off Mumbai’s Eastern Express Highway.)

Another theme that reverberates throughout the novel is that of heedlessness -- specifically, how the negligence of the privileged can be ruinous for the rest. As Fitzgerald writes of Daisy and her husband, the brutish Tom: “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. The vast carelessness of the rich and of the elected and the mess they make: surely, one doesn’t need to elaborate on how this applies to the subcontinent.

Baz Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic Romeo + Juliet transplanted Shakespeare’s play onto modern-day Florida. He should have transplanted Gatsby onto modern-day India: now that would have been worth waiting for.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Writers Can Learn From Katrina Kaif

The next instalment of my column for The Sunday Guardian.

“What is the job definition of an actor? Technically, you must perform your scene, endorse products and do stage shows.”

The Writer awoke with a start to the cacophony of the alarm clock. Bleary-eyed, he rolled out of bed, joints aching because of the unaccustomed use to which they were put at last night’s dance rehearsal. Next week, he would begin a series of stage shows to promote his new novel, and he had been put on a gruelling schedule. The phone trilled; it was the Writer’s agent. “Awake, are you?” the agent said.  “Hot, strike while the iron is.” “Listen –” the Writer began to protest weakly, but the agent cut him off, dropping the Yoda impersonation in the process. “Do you want to go back to starving in an attic, burning manuscript pages to keep warm, applying for grants and teaching unlettered English students? Writing doesn’t pay. Unless you’re Dan Brown.”

While the Writer yawned, the agent spoke enthusiastically of how a writer’s job wasn’t just writing anymore. Publishing profits are down, he said. Old models don’t work,  he continued. Look at actors like Katrina, showing the way to professionals ready to embrace a brave new world of possibilities, he concluded. By this time the Writer had fallen into a light doze, which he snapped out of when the agent began to sing “Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” in a high-pitched tone.

Under the shower, the Writer thought longingly of the old days. A book tour, a few readings, some radio and TV appearances, and he could get back to writing his next book. Now, he barely found time to write, squeezed as he was between dance rehearsals and practicing lines he would have to recite in front of the cameras. He held up a shampoo bottle. “To give my best, I need to look my best,” he said, in a dull monotone. Why couldn’t the people who write TV commercials come up with better lines? He’d tried re-writing some scripts, but his efforts were met with hoots of laughter, especially the one in which a man finds himself converted into a giant beetle overnight and attracts beetles of the opposite sex  by judicious application of the right deodorant.

An hour later, the Writer was in a large room along with a dozen other scribblers moving to the music that blared out of large speakers. “No, no, no,” said the annoyingly fit dance instructor coming up to him. “Put more energy into your pelvic thrusts! This sequence is meant to capture the essence of your novel – that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. I want to see your hips trying to break free of those chains. Otherwise, how will your readers get the message?” He pranced off as the Writer wiped the sweat off his brow, meeting the sympathetic gaze of other authors who had similarly been instructed to embody the themes of their own novels, from loss of innocence to the discovery of hope under trying conditions.

Rehearsal done, the Writer was rushed to a studio to shoot a commercial for a new brand of chocolate. “Look,” the bearded director said, looking intense, “this is a scene where you’re sitting in front of your typewriter, hands frozen on the keys. Then, you look at a bar of Delish, your eyes light up, and you say: Whenever I’m stuck for words, I reach for Delish. Instant energy for instant ideas! We cut to another shot where you’re happily munching and typing away. Got it?”

“Er,” said the Writer, “I use a laptop.”

“We’re aiming for a retro feel,” said the director wearily, “so if you don’t mind, let’s just go ahead.” He turned away and the Writer heard him mutter to a passing light-boy, “Who does he think he is, Katrina?”

Much later, long after sunset, the Writer reached home and crawled wearily between the sheets. His last thought before he fell into a dreamless sleep was to wonder whether it was too late to follow his parents’ advice to become a chartered accountant.