Sunday, August 26, 2012

Revisiting The White Hotel

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Pornography and plagiarism. While soft-core versions of the former dominate best-seller lists, writers and commentators are increasingly accused of the latter. All of this in a literary environment in which the hard-won lessons of Modernism seem to be ignored, with English-language writers churning out pleasantly middle-brow novels. It’s instructive, then, to cast a look back at a novel published three decades ago that faced charges of both plagiarism and being pornographic – yet managed to maintain its reputation of being artistically challenging as well as satisfying.

When it was published in 1981, most reviews of D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel in the UK were lukewarm. In the rest of Europe and in the United States, though, reviewers were ecstatic. “Heartstunning”, “haunting”, “dazzling” – and, of course, “lyrical” -- are just some of the adjectives on the first few pages of my silverfish-ravaged paperback copy. The novel went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, losing narrowly to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

The White Hotel isn’t exactly a book to take with you to the beach. Set mainly in the middle of the last century, it deals with the life, neurosis and visions of Lisa, a budding young opera singer, who is treated by Sigmund Freud for – in the language of the time – “severe sexual hysteria”. The novel’s six parts contain erotic fantasy, poetry, letters, postcards, a case study in the style of Freud’s ‘The Wolf Man’ and finally and most strikingly, the barbaric reality of Nazi atrocities. Each part is connected with the other, but without concessions: the reader has to work to make the links.

Some of the fantasies described are indeed sexually explicit, and uncomfortably so; and the latter part of the book that depicts the behaviour of Nazi soldiers at Babi Yar is extremely disturbing. What catapulted the author to the front pages, however, wasn’t this as much as the charges brought against him for appropriating sections of Anatoli Kuznetsov’s 1996 book, Babi Yar, which was termed “a document in the form of a novel”.

Thomas tried to explain this away by pointing to the publisher’s note at the beginning that “gratefully acknowledged” the use of material from Kuznetsov’s book, but many weren’t convinced. In time, however, the originality and strength of the rest of the book won out, with the controversial sections being seen as a postmodern ploy. I’m not so sold on the postmodernity of Thomas’ intention, but the note before the book’s text clearly indicates that there was no intent to pass off the Babi Yar passages as his own.

One of the things The White Hotel sets out to do is to capture the life behind the statistic: to show how, when individuals are barbarously done away with, there are entire real and fantasy worlds that vanish. The specific life in this case is represented through its polar opposites of intense passion and a death wish – that is, through Eros and Thanatos, to return to the language of the Viennese doctor whose case study features so vividly in the novel. This is the artistic choice that led to scenes that were dubbed pornographic, matched by later sections that are unbearable to read. The book’s coda, a redemptive imagining of lives after death, is an effort to mitigate some of the novel’s harsh sting, with the message, as Lisa writes in her fantasy, that “…nothing in the white hotel but love / Is offered at a price we can afford”.

Whether you think of it as very effective or very overdone -- or both -- reading The White Hotel all these decades later makes the ambitions and vision of today’s novels seem painfully circumscribed. It’s time for more writers to take to heart the dictum quoted by Freud in Thomas’ novel: do not turn away from “what, unknown or neglected by man, walks in the night through the labyrinth of the heart”.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Revisiting Chandler's Mean Streets

My column for the Sunday Guardian.

According to a recent report, John Banville will be picking up Raymond Chandler’s mantle to write another Philip Marlowe novel under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black – with the blessings of the Chandler estate. At first glance this may seem like an odd choice, despite the series of Black mystery novels that marvellously evoke a seedy, shifty Dublin of the Fifties. Consider, however: when it comes to Chandler what stays behind is not plot but style; what remains in memory are not events but atmosphere. Such prose, said one critic, “is a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry”. To recreate this mixture, Banville may just prove to be an inspired choice.

That style was supreme was something recognized by Chandler himself. To re-read The Big Sleep is to find a muddle of events featuring, among other things, pornographic rings, blackmail, absent spouses and missing corpses, but holding all of this together is Chandler’s distinctive, cool voice, with Marlowe as world-weary, incorruptible knight-errant walking down the mean streets of 1930s Los Angeles. As Chandler was to write, “In the long run, however little you talk or even think about it, the most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time…the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off”. For Chandler, it paid off in spades.

After a chequered career as poet, reviewer, teacher, accountant and oil company executive, he tried his hand at writing for pulp magazines, finding success with The Big Sleep in 1939, when he was 51.  He followed this up with other novels featuring Philip Marlowe – notably The Long Goodbye and Farewell My Lovely -- giving rise to the genre of noir thrillers that have dominated shelves since. (Though mention must also be made of Dashiell Hammett, a clear influence on Chandler and to whom he paid tribute in his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder’.) Later writers such as Ross McDonald and Elmore Leonard and movies such as Double Indemnity and Chinatown, to name only a few, all took forward the brooding atmosphere and wise-guy dialogue Chandler was known for. The influence extends further: as Pico Iyer has pointed out, those from Brazilian novelist Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza to Haruki Murakami have all, at one time or the other, fallen under the spell of Chandler’s almost affectless prose.

It’s not that the reception to Marlowe was completely uncritical. Edmund Wilson claimed to have liked Farewell My Lovely, but then added waspishly that Chandler was “a long way below Graham Greene”. Borges was more dismissive, stating, “The atmosphere in Chandler and Hammett’s stories is disagreeable”. And Martin Amis, some years ago, said that Chandler’s The Big Sleep hadn’t aged well. In this, there is some truth: to read expressions such as “if you want to pick lead out of your belly, get in my way” – to take just elements of the prose, not the setting -- is to find sections of the book amusingly irrelevant. Other Chandlerisms, however, still endure: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” is a lovely sentence for a detective novel, as is: “She gave me one of those smiles that the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”.

The Chandler estate has tried to continue his legacy before, calling upon mystery writer Robert Parker in 1989 to complete Chandler’s unfinished manuscript, Poodle Springs, followed by another Philip Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream – both of which met with a lukewarm reception for their tepid recreation of Chandler’s prose. Something that ought to illustrate for Banville the perils of refurbishing a much-loved voice. Another trap, of course, is the descent into parody, something that the Chandler style has lent itself to over the years: look at Woody Allen’s piece, ‘The Whore of Mensa’, for example, or Jason Harrington’s ‘The Man who Repaired Laptops’ published in McSweeneys this month. If Banville, a master prose stylist, steers clear of these pitfalls, his Marlowe novel will be well worth waiting for.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reading While Travelling

My column for the Sunday Guardian.

On a recent two-week work trip, the Kindle resolved at least one dilemma: that of how many books to take along.  It was, in any case, stuffed with new e-books I hadn’t begun, innumerable samples of others, and recent issues of a few periodicals. More than enough. But because old habits die hard, I also carried some paperbacks: John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour (as it was set in the city I was going to be in); Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (which I needed to re-read in order to write last week’s column); and Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz (which I’d been putting off reading for some time).

Much to my surprise, I finished the Lanchester and the Boll, as well as new issues of the London Review of Books and the NYRB -- and downloaded Pankaj Mishra’s new book before departure, making inroads into it on the flight back. This is quite unusual: before most trips, for work or otherwise, I spend more time deciding what books to take along than actually reading them, and return with almost all unread. It’s not that I don’t feel the need to read when away from home – it’s more to do with being able to devote more time to reading when in familiar surroundings. This time around it was different, probably because I was away for longer than usual.
Reading while waiting for a flight at an airport is another skill I have yet to master. Walking up to the flight gate and spotting others immersed in paperbacks or e-books causes a twinge of envy. I’m more likely to seek something fattening to eat, or to wander around the bookstore looking for more to add to the unread pile. And every time there’s an illegible announcement on the PA system, I imagine it’s to inform me that my flight is either delayed or on the verge of taking off.

It’s better once I’m on board; after all, what else is there to do during a flight, especially if you’re travelling alone? Watching movies on that little screen has never been very satisfying, and as for the food, the less said the better. Although on one flight, when I was immersed in the Kindle -- after they’d announced that it was OK for electronic devices to be switched on – a passing attendant raised her eyebrows and asked me to turn it off. (Perhaps she’d assumed it was a giant phone?) When I indicated that the wireless wasn’t on, her eyebrows shot up further, so I hastily went ahead and turned the device off, anyway. Visions of being handcuffed to my seat without any reading matter had arisen before my eyes.

Back home, I still have on the bookshelves a bulky, yellowing paperback edition of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which has been my companion on at least three journeys so far.  However, I’ve only managed to read the first few paragraphs of Justine, the initial volume; in fact, I’ve started the page over so many times that I can offhand recall portions such as “the thrilling flush of wind”, “sky of hot nude pearl” and “I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child”. It’s a great opening which promises much, but so far I haven’t been able to go further, distracted every time by thoughts such as: “Should I turn down the air-conditioning? Should I go outdoors and explore instead of lying here reading? Is this pillow too soft? Should I turn up the air-conditioning?”

Too much of this, and I achieve the state captured in a quote attributed to baseball player Satchel Paige: “Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit”. After which, I just sleep. Now that it’s Durrell’s centenary year, I’m firmly resolved to finish the tetralogy before December. If I manage to regulate the temperature, that is.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Words, Labels And Heinrich Böll

Today's column for the Sunday Guardian.

Consider, to begin with, the following scenario: Women whose morals are questioned because they leave home alone and (gasp) dance with men at parties. Sections of the media falling over themselves to report what they consider to be scandals as well as threats to national values. Suspicion and fear of anyone who espouses left-leaning and radical causes. Those who think this environment is unique to today’s India should pick up Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, written in 1974, which satirises and dissects these very tendencies – in barely 140 pages.

The book, published two years after Böll won the Literature Nobel, deals once more with his chosen themes of institutional abuse of power and its effect on the common man and woman. As Salman Rushdie has written of The Safety Net, another one of Böll’s novels, “...the real tragedy, for Böll, is the replacement of the old kindnesses, of human values, by the remorseless, amoral world of the technologists.” By technologists, he refers to the press, the police and others in positions of authority imposing their views on the rest by the use of force.

The story of Katharina Blum’s lost honour is narrated in the book’s first few pages, being cast in the form of an objective report stitched together after consulting a variety of sources. Thus, the structure of this “polemical parody” itself is ironic. Overnight, the eponymous Katharina, a good-hearted, hard-working housekeeper, is first picked up by the police and then picked upon by a malicious newspaper. Her crime? At a party one evening, she befriended a young man under suspicion of being a terrorist, and subsequently helped him evade the law without realizing what exactly he was wanted for.

After the police release her from incarceration, an unscrupulous reporter continues to write scurrilous pieces, twisting and distorting both facts and interviews. (“Murderer’s Moll Won’t Talk!” is a typical headline.) Katharina’s life turns upside down; among other things, she begins to receive anonymous postcards with offensive and derogatory messages – the equivalent today of being hounded by trolls on Twitter and Facebook. Driven to desperation, she seeks out and, rather dramatically, shoots the errant reporter, after which she coolly surrenders to the police.

It’s a subject that Böll was drawn to because he himself was pilloried by the press and by right-wing sympathizers in 1972 after he expressed doubts over the treatment of Ulrike Meinhof. Böll’s opinion was that slanted newspaper reports on the activities of the Baader-Meinhof extremists had deprived her of a fair trial, and for this he was harassed to the extent of having his house searched by the police. (Meinhof was to later die in prison, allegedly a suicide, though more than a few have contested this.)

It was from such a background that Boll’s late novels such as The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Safety Net emerged. This also explains why, in the former, Böll is explicit, and acidulously so, about the damage that irresponsible media can cause: “Here is a young woman, cheerfully, almost gaily, going off to a harmless little private dance, and four days later she becomes (since this is merely a report, not a judgment, we will confine ourselves to facts) a murderess, and this, if we examine the matter closely, because of newspaper reports”.

In a Paris Review interview a few years before he died, Böll memorably said, “Behind every word is a whole world”. This draws attention to another important concern in his work: the proper use of words, awareness of their meanings and of what happens to individuals when words turn into labels. What, then, is fact, what is fiction, and what lurks between the lines? All these years later, it’s a still a message worth paying close attention to.