Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Favourite Unread Books Of The Year

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

What a year it's been for not reading. From translated novels to Indian debuts to American bestsellers to British award-winners, they skulk on my Kindle and lurk on my shelves, each one a priceless memory of time spent doing anything other than reading. Few pleasures come close. Here, then, are my favourite unread books of the year, in no particular order of merit.

To begin with, there were the big novels -- big in terms of size, big in terms of accolades. The sheer heft of these volumes, containing intricate interactions between characters spread all over the globe, was so impressive that I had to spend a whole morning squeezing out space on the shelves to accommodate them. This is why, alas, I only had time to read the just the first few pages of one of them before being pulled away to save the brave explorer in a new version of Temple Run. (Priorities, people, priorities. Not to mention marauding monkeys.)

Then, there were the works of non-fiction that spoke of the rise of India, the decline of the West, the resurgence of China and the diversity of Bora-Bora. What insights, what analyses, what weaving together of personal anecdotes and public observations! I put one of them down for a minute to ponder over the writer’s interpretations, only to find a little later that as I had lightly dozed off, I was unable to pick it up again. I will soon, of course.

From Europe came the novellas, little existential depth charges that spoke of mankind’s helplessness in the face of a malign universe as well as in the plate of stale croissants for breakfast. These were beautifully translated and packaged; I could look at the cover art for hours. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve done so far. Each one is etched into my brain.

Next, the novel from America that everyone was talking about, the one that was ecstatically seized upon by the cognoscenti, the one that you simply had to have an opinion on if you were to be Among Those Who Count, the one that spoke of high philosophical ideas in the guise of an unvarnished tale about the pleasures of obtaining fresh croissants for breakfast. Immediately after purchasing this, I came across so many perceptive Facebook posts touting its charms that I felt I knew it intimately without having to read a word of it.

History and biography, too, played a large role in my year of not reading. After all, who wouldn’t want to enrich one’s knowledge of the present by learning about the long shadow of past events and the deeds of men who define our age? I do need a few uninterrupted hours to really get into these books, however: I wouldn’t want to do the authors’ labours a disservice by simply skimming. Until I find such time, though, I’ll just have to make do with checking out the Wikipedia entries on their subjects. They’re quite informative, too.

As always, Indian writers didn’t disappoint this year. In particular, there was the much-heralded debut about love in a small town that was called “lyrical”, “incisive” and even “luminous” by the reviewers. I must confess that I read so many of the reviews that all the details of plot and characters were revealed to me. I spent time sending congratulatory tweets to all the critics instead, and am now eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up.

Books aside, there was also the joy of collecting the year-end issues of magazines, with their lyrical, incisive and luminous articles on the highlights of the year gone by, not to mention the lists of the year’s favourites. I have a shiny stack of them next to my bed, which I’m going to turn to as soon as I clear the backlog of other such issues. Right now, I’ve reached 1977, and Saturday Night Fever is sweeping the nation. I can’t wait to find out whether they made a sequel.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Defence Of Eloquence

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

Apart from the larger issues that have come to the fore during the Tehelka imbroglio, the many e-mails in public have thrown light on our reactions to the way words are used. Tejpal's style in these exchanges – “penance that lacerates”, “adamantine feminist-principle insistence”, “light-hearted banter” -- has been much mocked and seen as an attempt to obfuscate, not illuminate. In contrast, the woman journalist's responses have been clear and consistent, not to mention courageous.

Such suspicion of high-flown language isn't new. Plato was famously skeptical of sophistry and rhetoric, with Aristotle defining the latter as a set of skills that would enable one to persuade people of a given argument. From the Puritans on, the land of the free and home of the brave has favoured a plain style with succinct, declarative sentences, something upheld and championed by the influential Strunk and White. In England, George Orwell was one of many over the years who called for short words and unadorned diction; as he put it, “good prose is like a window pane”. Many contemporary writers, from Naipaul to Hemingway to Carver have followed suit, though in their own distinctive manner. (This is not to suggest that writing clear prose is a simple matter; arranging words to make them mean exactly what you want them to mean can be fiendishly difficult, whatever the style.)

In e-mails, official correspondence and other such communication, it's unarguable that the simpler the better, without the pollution of jargon and unnecessary legalese. With other forms of writing -- fiction and verse, for example -- it's not as obvious. While one clearly isn't advocating mendacity, if we all switch to such straightforwardness, we lose much of the beauty that language is capable of.

In his recent The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth joins those who have pointed out how Shakespeare used the art of rhetoric to give his plays so much of their power. Calling him “the master of the memorable line” Forsyth goes on to demonstrate this by many examples. To mention just a few, there’s alliteration (“Full fathom five thy father lies”), pleonasm (“To be or not to be, that is the question”) and aposiopesis ("No, you unnatural hags/I will have such revenge on you both/That all the world shall…”).

Forsyth also illustrates how “the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording” have helped many other writers (not to mention songwriters and copywriters). Oscar Wilde was a master of antitheses, for example: “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves”. P.G. Wodehouse was known for his transferred epithets: “His eyes widened and an astonished piece of toast fell from his grasp”. T.S. Eliot did the same thing: “In a mere three lines of ‘Prufrock’ retreats mutter, nights are restless, hotels are one-night”. Moreover, “in Dickens' strange mind, mists were lazy, houses crazy, and snowflakes went into mourning and wore black".

Forsyth’s engaging examples to do with rhetoric apart, the firmament of contemporary fiction -- as I've written earlier -- is studded with literary stars for whom plain and simple just wasn’t enough. Nabokov is one of the more distinctive prose stylists, and his heirs are many, from Martin Amis to Will Self. Most Irish writers are possessed of the same sensibility: John Banville for one. Another John, John Updike, once described his style as "an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due".

 As Forsyth says towards the end of his book, by using more than one rhetorical figure: “I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” That may be carrying things too far, but the writers who view the elements of language as musical notes that make sentences dance are well worth paying attention to. On that point, I'm adamantine.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Portuguese Sends A Postcard Home

My Sunday Guardian column.

Those who continually claim that the novel is dead are simply those who have closed their eyes to its potential. It remains unmatched as a form to, among other things, ask questions that have no neat answers and explore how we react to changes. Importantly it’s also a vessel for linguistic experiment. Alas, too few novelists nowadays attempt to take advantage of these possibilities.

The Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares isn't among them, as his four-novel Kingdom cycle amply reveals. These novels are loosely linked by overlapping characters, themes and a prose style that depends on defamiliarisation – almost as though a Martian was sending a postcard home from Earth, to borrow from Craig Raine. Such boldness and versatility has earned the young writer a clutch of awards as well as encomiums from other novelists. After he won the Jose Saramago Prize for writers under 35, the author after whom the prize is named commented, “In thirty years’ time, if not before, Tavares will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true... Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.”

The punch delivered by one of the novels in the Kingdom series, Joseph Walser’s Machine, is a good example of Tavares’s style, which has been called that of "alienated recognition" by one critic. Set in an unnamed European city, the novel follows the fortunes of Joseph Walser, an unassuming factory worker. Tavares delves into the symbiotic relationship between Walser and his shopfloor machine, riffing on the differences between the human and the mechanical and “the swiftness with which [machines] transform causes and necessities into beneficial effects”. Chaplin’s Modern Times was a comment on the mechanization of labour; Tavares takes this a step further to expose our double-edged dependence on means of production, making a distinction between things crafted by the hand and those created by the mind.

The novel now starts to fill in more details of its protagonist’s life and world. His wife is having an affair with his philosophical and garrulous factory overseer, and this personal invasion is matched by an invasion of the city itself: a war is underway and citizens live under occupation. These events too, as translator Rhett McNeill points out in his introduction, are described “as if they were occurring for the first time, divorced from both their historical resonances and their usual linguistic milieus”. This leads to several penetrating observations. “To be a patriot in peacetime is to be a coward, because it’s too easy,” writes Tavares, and then again, in a statement that echoes the rhythms of his prose: “Every man in time of war, individually, on his own, founded, as it were, a Ministry of Normality, which established, essentially, repetitions. Because only repetitions…allowed each individual to wake up to find themselves human the next day.” People make history, but history also makes people.

For a novel that’s so short, there’s a lot that Tavares manages to pack in, and this without making the whole appear inordinately rushed.  Allied to the Janus-faced nature of machines and the citizen’s experience in times of war is the role and nature of unpredictability and choice. This is brought out in scenes where Walser engages in games of dice with his friends who are later to rage against the war machine. “There were six numbers stuck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere,” Walser thinks. “It was this precision that excited him, this precision that was well-defined by immutable limits that, nonetheless, allowed room for his peculiar decisions.”

 History and morality, unpredictability and determinism, people and objects: these, then, are the axes around which Joseph Walser’s Machine swiftly rotates. Large themes indeed, but Tavares demonstrates the skill and insight to do justice to them. One of his earlier novels is entitled Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique – and that’s not a bad way to think of this one, too.