Sunday, June 30, 2013

Summoning The Muse

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Ah, the artist’s life. Behold the lonely garret, the pacing of the floor, the looking up at the heavens for inspiration. And when it does strike, the hours of blissful creation, after which it’s time again to wait for the Muse.

This myth of the artist is largely just that – a myth. Overlooked is the role of discipline, the perseverance needed to drag oneself to the table day after day and put down the pieces that make the whole. (“Sooner or later,” V.S. Pritchett wrote, “the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”)

Rituals are an indispensible aid to such discipline and artists have depended on several over the years, from the stimulating to the unhealthy to the bizarre. William Styron and Gustave Flaubert, among others, knew this well. The former once tacked on his doorframe a piece of cardboard with a quotation from the latter: ''Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.''

Then, there was the beleaguered Franz Kafka, who once wrote to Felice Bauer: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvre.” Such manoeuvres are the subject of a fascinating new book compiled and edited by Mason Currey. Titled Daily Rituals, it started as a blog in 2007, which, with growing popularity, was requisitioned by a canny agent. Currey's goal is “to show how grand creative visions translate to small daily increments; how one’s working habits influence the work itself, and vice versa.”

Culled from a series of interviews, memoirs, biographies, letters and other sources, Daily Rituals is a window into the practices of well-known writers, philosophers, architects, mathematicians and more. An alarming number of people, for instance, confess to arising early in the morning, from Anthony Trollope to Alaa al Aswany to Emily Dickinson. For many, this began as nothing more than a practical consideration. As Toni Morrison has said: “Writing before dawn began as a necessity--I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama--and that was always around five in the morning”. (James Joyce, that lucky sod, awoke at 10 in the morning and lay in bed till 11, "smothered in thoughts".)

Other rituals are more languid. Truman Capote once proclaimed, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping”. For others, puffing and especially sipping were integral parts of their day. Kingsley Amis and Capote apart, there was Winston Churchill, who started at 11 a.m. when he “took a weak whisky and soda to his study”. As for W.H. Auden, “he swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.)”

Not all rituals involve the bottle. Dickens was an inveterate walker, as was Tchaikovsky. Ingmar Bergman was known for afternoon strolls to clear the mind, and Haruki Murakami has written about his love for running.  Similarly, for architect Bernard Tshumi, “I work best either under pressure or by emptying my brain over the weekend. That blank state is helpful. It is like an athlete before a competition.”

Healthy or otherwise, rituals are clearly at the service of talent, not a substitute for it. This is what Balzac, prodigious coffee-drinker, meant when he noted, “Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.” Perhaps that's a hint to end this piece.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Curious Case Of Don Pablo Neruda

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

It’s been almost 40 years since Pablo Neruda, "the first great poet of the Spanish language since the 17th century” as Carlos Fuentes called him, died of cancer. Or so they said. Now, after a case brought about by Chile’s Communist Party, there’s speculation that he may have been poisoned at the behest of Pinochet. Following an exhumation, a hunt is on for those responsible -- with the alleged suspects ranging from former Nazis to CIA agents to disreputable doctors.

These events, as the poet’s nephew Rodolfo Reyes said recently, are “worthy of a crime novel”. As it turns out, there happens to be a recent detective novel in which the poet plays a significant role. The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero, doesn’t venture into speculation over the causes of Neruda’s death, but does hypothetise over some of his relationships. It was first published in Spanish in 2008, with a serviceable though sometimes clunky English translation being released last year, and features the intrepid detective Cayetano Brule who’s appeared in other works by the author.

Ampuero, the Chilean ambassador to Mexico and creative writing professor at the University of Iowa, has written of how, growing up in Valparaíso, he could glimpse Neruda’s house from his window. Thus, “I wrote this novel…staying true to the actual history of Chile between 1970 and 1973, because I admire him as a poet, because I was curious about him as a neighbour, and because his personal life intersected with crucial moments of twentieth-century history”.  His high regard for Neruda is in evidence, but it’s not that he treats him uncritically throughout – for example, a character tells the detective: “I have nothing against him as an artist. He deserved the Nobel. What I don’t like is the representation of women in his poetry, nor do I like the way he treats us.”

The novel starts with Cayetano in present-day Chile on his way to take up a new assignment. He has the “independent, fun-loving spirit of a dreamer,” plying a trade that involves cases such as “tracking a loose woman, the theft of a day’s earnings from a soda fountain, or death threats from an aggressive neighbor”. Pausing at a café, he reminisces about his first case, which began in 1973 when he met Don Pablo at the Valparaiso mayor’s house. The ailing 70-year-old poet asks him to call upon him the next day, and subsequently urges him to find the whereabouts of a mysterious, missing doctor.  Neruda had come across this supposed oncologist in Mexico City decades ago and now has his reasons for wanting to track him down. (The years have taken their toll, he says, in passing, “though they still don’t deprive me of the desire to write, and to love.”)

Cayetano embarks upon this mission, fortified by the novels of Simenon, even as it occurs to him that “Maigret could never accomplish anything in a region as chaotic, improvised, and unpredictable as Latin America”.  The case isn’t as simple as it appears, and Cayetano has to journey not just to Mexico City but also to Havana, La Paz and East Berlin, widening his search to include the doctor’s wife and daughter for reasons that become apparent as the investigation continues. Intercut with his sojourns are first person accounts of Neruda ruminating over the women in his life, from Josie Bliss to María Antonieta to Delia del Carril to Matilde Urrutia (who compiled and edited his posthumous memoirs).

Though The Neruda Case isn’t as taut and gripping as one would have liked, there are several sections that are well done. Ampuero creates a satisfying sense of place, with little portraits of the cities that his hero travels through. The recreations of Chile at the cusp of Pinochet’s coup are heartfelt, and Neruda’s appearances in the novel are also compelling, with his pronouncements on poetry, dreams and love. Whether the poet was poisoned, or simply succumbed to the ills that flesh is heir to, it’s undeniable that his lines will live on.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Novella As Suicide Note

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the most moving things Virginia Woolf wrote was the suicide note to her husband Leonard shortly before she took her life on March 28, 1941 by wading into the River Ouse. This is roughly a handwritten page in length, about the average for such messages. In the case of French painter, photographer and writer Édouard Levé, however, it’s the entirety of his last work that’s been viewed as a suicide note. Levé submitted the manuscript of this novella, bluntly titled Suicide, to his publisher in October 2007; just a week later, he hanged himself in his apartment in Paris.

Suicide is barely 130 pages long and ingeniously written, but, given the circumstances of its publication, it can make for unsettling reading. Levé – who was influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo movement – has a style that’s precise and fragmentary at the same time. It’s been called a form of literary cubism, and can be seen as a series of arcs that encircle the subject. Translator Jan Steyn has said of his works that “they are frequently compared to pointillist paintings, but perhaps it would be more useful to compare them to his own photographic series: a sequence of similar but discrete elements that add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts”. (Interestingly enough, this technique is mirrored in the Dalkey Archive edition’s cover art.)

The novella takes the form of a second-person address by the narrator to a friend who committed suicide years ago: “You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared…You could be sleeping. You are twenty-five years old. You now know more about death than I do”.  In statements that are true of the book’s architecture as well as its intent, the narrator says: “To portray your life in order would be absurd: I remember you at random. My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag”.

What follows is a literary autopsy, a series of highly compressed and seemingly arbitrary memories set down to make sense of the suicide of a character who – in the words of the bumper sticker – was diagonally parked in a parallel universe. “You did not leave a letter to those close to you, explaining your death,” we’re told, and the book itself, then, is a form of explanation. The novella also raises the question of how we look back on such a life. The untimely death becomes an organizing principle: “Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding a meaning for them”.

The suicide appears to have been the result of a long-standing depression. Medications were tried and then abandoned because of their after-effects. In words that remind one of Peter Kramer’s ruminations in Listening to Prozac, the narrator writes: “Was a little bit of fake happiness worth losing your free will? You decided to give up these chemical crutches, which either split you in two or made you stupid”.

Given the highly personal nature of such recollections, as the above example illustrates, one has to wonder whether the “you” being addressed is actually “I”, and if the narrator – who may or may not be a stand-in for the author – is the real subject of this work. Do we find, in these pages, the author’s own life and reflections flashing by? Given Levé’s actions shortly after submitting the manuscript, such musings are inevitable.

“Suicide is the night train, speeding your way to darkness,” wrote Martin Amis in his metaphorically titled novel. “You won't get there so quick, not by natural means. You buy your ticket and you climb on board. That ticket costs everything you have. But it's just a one-way.” Levé boarded that one-way train in 2007, following others such as Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima and Cesare Pavese, but left behind a series of jottings about his journey for the rest of us to ponder over.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Bookshelf As A City

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Consider the bookshelf.

At first glance, just a receptacle for books, to make sure they’re at hand as and when needed.

Pierce this prosaic veil, and you’ll find that each one is a city. Some are large, some small; some are baroque, some unpretentious. Some are sparsely populated, little more than overgrown settlements; others are acquiring the lineaments of a metropolis. And some – the most fascinating of the lot – are sprawling, teeming with ideas and exchange, drawing more and more into their ambit.

Such bookshelves contain inhabitants from all over, near and far. Of these, there are those that speak softly, going about their business in a hushed manner; those that are boisterous, claiming more space for themselves; and those that rest content with the influence they have. Jostling and pushing, they rub against each other, asserting their individuality but, against the odds, comprising a single unit.

The hinterland is constantly being claimed and re-claimed. Volumes are squeezed into crevices and arrangements are reshuffled: those that stand side by side can, at short notice, be asked to lie in stacks. Sometimes, those of odd size and shape find themselves next to each other, with the rest, rejoicing in their regularity, looking aslant at them. The read, the unread, the borrowed, the bought, the loved and the skimmed occupy common ground. Encroachments are frequent, first, at the borders, and soon spilling onto adjacent sites such as tables and surfaces meant for other household objects.

Some sections are better cared for than others. Books squeezed into the back – facing the ignominy of double shelving – can be neglected, and others hard to reach lie undusted, despite best efforts. Sometimes, an area out of favour for years will find itself in fashion again almost overnight; typically, this happens after intrepid exploration throws up forgotten yet fascinating volumes. To those who look upon this city for the first time, it appears to be no more than a riotous jumble; others, aware of its neighbourhoods, find it mesmerising.

At times, there are departures. With age, some volumes can no longer withstand cramped quarters. Others are found wanting: their contributions are insufficient, their charms have waned. With regret, these are despatched, but the crush of those wanting to take their place is so great that gaps are instantly filled. The city returns to satiety.

Organising and planning this landscape, then, is no simple matter. Uprooting and re-laying out established sectors can be complex and time-consuming, a task that’s often well-nigh impossible. There are those who say that a bookshelf’s residents ought to be arranged by theme; others insist that the alphabet is a better guide. Some segregate in terms of colour and others do so by age. There’s no denying, though, that the bookshelf, like the city, is another example of the immutable law of entropy. Systems sink into disorder and randomness; the keenest eye and the most indomitable will are laid low.

After a while, then, attempts at organization cease and growth is organic. The most one can do is to try and create loosely affiliated areas -- within which there will creep in elements that are unaffiliated. With time and patience, the city will grow familiar and a sense of where and how to travel will arise. As Walter Benjamin wrote when unpacking his library, “What else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

There will be meanderings down detours and alleys, and if the gods of serendipity are smiling, one will emerge from such excursions with not just the sought-for volume, but also others that promise riches. In the words of Margaret Mead, a city is “a place where there is no need to wait for next week to get the answer to a question, to taste the food of any country, to find new voices to listen to and familiar ones to listen to again.” Quite so.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Gandhi's Experiments With Reading

This week's Sunday Guardian column

On a winter’s day in 1904, four wagons, each pulled by 16 oxen, set off from Durban with a load of precious cargo. Fording rivers and braving rugged terrain, they reached their destination safely, with the burden being unloaded and installed in a corrugated iron building. The cargo was the printing equipment of an organization known as the International Printing Press, which had just been shifted to the first structure of the 100-acre Phoenix settlement, Gandhi’s South Africa ashram. From its plates emerged periodicals and publications that were immensely influential in disseminating Gandhi’s ideas.

In a fascinating new book, Gandhi’s Printing Press, Johannesburg professor Isabel Hofmeyr discusses and analyses the origin and nature of these publications, focusing on Indian Opinion and Hind Swaraj, and shows how their specific nature reflected Gandhian thought. Of particular interest is Hofmeyr’s slant towards Gandhi’s views on reading, which resonates with our fragmented, frantic age.

For Gandhi, an ideal mode of reading was akin to satyagraha, a way of asserting sovereignty over the self. (As others have noted, many activities that Gandhi was known for, such as spinning, fasting and celibacy, were also individual acts in a public sphere.) Hofmeyr dissects this approach: “Through patient reading, through a careful selection of texts, through mentally inserting ethical extracts into hasty news items, and through resisting macadamization, readers could slow down the system, turning themselves into nodes of autonomy not through abstract ideals but through these small daily textual practices.” Further, by phasing out advertisements from Indian Opinion and taking scant note of copyright restrictions, he tried to will into being a reader who was simultaneously liberated from the compulsions of the market and strictures of the state.

This was in the wake of the Victorian age, with inventions such as steam trains, steamships and the telegraph hastening the pace of everyday lives. As Hofmeyr writes, "Commentators expressed dismay at a situation where dramatically increased volumes of print turned reading into an indiscriminate, addictive, incoherent activity in which people became machine-like.” A reflection of the situation that prevails today, with those such as David Shields – as the author notes – encouraging a disjointed mode of writing, one “built from scraps”.

In the excerpts, summaries and abridgments that constituted the pages of Indian Opinion can be seen Gandhi’s attempts at meeting the needs of the reader-as-satyagrahi. Interspersed with news items culled from other sources were quotations from people such as Tolstoy and Thoreau, almost as though to make people slow down and reflect on what they had read. “Week by week I poured my soul into its columns,” Gandhi writes in his autobiography, and one effect was to hone a prose style known for brevity and clarity.

Exhortations to the reader to pay attention and ponder are an essential part of Hind Swaraj, originally a pamphlet for readers of Indian Opinion. Here, Hofmeyr writes, “reading became a way of thinking about satyagraha as a patient rule of the self”. This meant not just reading, but re-reading, clipping extracts, discussing them with others and allowing ideas to percolate until they informed action. Memorization was also called for, which, apart from other benefits, enabled readers to visit imprisoned satyagrahis and narrate sections to them. (Incongruously, while reading this, one was reminded of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.)

This, then, is a Ruskinian mode of reading, “a form of work, self-discipline and cultivation of inner nobility”. In addition, there’s an emphasis on reading at the speed one is comfortable with, matching the rhythms of the body and not making haste for haste’s sake. The focus shifts from what and how much to read, to how.

Clearly, such apotheosis makes great – some would say unrealistic -- demands upon the reader. The rewards, as spelt out by Hofmeyr, are that “those who do so with virtue and application will turn themselves into true readers and writers, exemplars and analogues of self-ruling subjects, and miniature and summarized zones of sovereignty.” An ideal as much worth aspiring to nowadays as it ever was.