Sunday, December 23, 2007

Other Books of the Year lists

And among other year-end lists, Mark Thwaite's ReadySteadyBook, one of my favourite literary blogs, has a list of very unusual titles suggested by various hands in a Books of the Year 2007 symposium, while Mint's end-of the-year review, which I helped put together, has recommendations from a bunch of great writers, including the versatile Amit Chaudhuri (singing from his great album This Is Not Fusion at a concert in Bandra this evening), Siddhartha Deb, Mukul Kesavan, the ever-moving, ever-shifting, ever-travelling Amitava Kumar, Kalpish Ratna, Tim Harford, and the ever-vacationing yet miraculously hard-working Sonia Faleiro.

And my own piece below is marginally new and improved, and longer as well with the haddition of new luminaries in Hasan, Haigh, and Hitchens.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all the readers of The Middle Stage!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Books of the Year 2007

Here is a list of the books I enjoyed the most this year, with a paragraph on what I found especially good about each one. All of these books will make for great presents, but you should exercise some caution in gifting The Ugliness of the Indian Male and even God is not Great, while for War and Peace and India After Gandhi you will need extra-large wrapping paper.

Because of work on my novel on the one hand, and weekly reviewing for Mint on the other, my reading this year was more non-fiction-heavy than last year, and that is reflected in this list - next year I hope to be back to reading fiction in a more concentrated fashion. Where the title of the book is hyperlinked it leads to a longer essay on that work.

I have read several biographies of Gandhi, but the range, depth, narrative poise, and density of detail of Rajmohan Gandhi's Gandhi: The Man, His People and The Empire (Penguin Viking in India, Haus in the UK) made for one of the most intense reading experiences I have ever had. Every page of this massive work is radiant with the intelligence of not one Gandhi but two; reading it was like receiving a moral education in 600 pages. This work also lead me to some of Rajmohan Gandhi's other books, including the many striking ideas of his survey of South Asian history Revenge and Reconciliation.

An even more ambitious project, which might be seen as taking off from where Rajmohan Gandhi's book finishes, was Ramchandra Guha's massive history of India since 1947, India After Gandhi (Picador in India, Macmillan in the UK, Ecco in the USA). Speaking at the launch of the book in Bombay, the distinguished journalist and editor of Loksatta Kumar Ketkar perceptively observed that India After Gandhi was in a way "your, mine and our autobiography". Given the extent to which our sense of our own lives depends on our understanding of our past, there could hardly be a more important book this year for Indian readers, particularly those of my generation, than Guha's. I particularly enjoyed the superb chapters on the Partition, the Indian constitution, and the contributions of our own Founding Fathers: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel and others, and the copious notes and citations at the back of Guha's book were a treasure trove of information and signposts. My only problem with India After Gandhi is that, even at 900 pages, it is far too short. When a biography of Picasso can run to three volumes, why not the history of six decades in the life of a nation?

No work of fiction gave me greater pleasure this year than the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building (Fourth Estate in the UK). Wandering in and out of the lives of the characters - rich and poor, traditionalists and rebels, innocents and corrupts - who live in the building of the title, Aswany's omniscient narration is richly freighted with sympathy, and takes such delight in life's sensual pleasures as to reveal not only the predilections of the characters but also suggest something about the private nature of the author. I found the anguished and morally pure youth Taha el Shazli's betrayal by secular life and journey towards fundamentalist religion far more convincing than similar arcs in many better-known novels.

The best novel I read by an Indian writer this year - in fact I've just finshed reading it - was Anjum Hasan's Lunatic in my Head (Penguin/Zubaan), set in the provincial "hill-encircled small town" of Shillong in the north-east, and with a cast of characters even larger than The Yacoubian Building. Hasan's narration, too, takes a high view of her characters, revealing expected connections and overlaps between disparate lives, but what I enjoyed most about her book was its mass of luminous observations of people and places. In one scene the college lecturer of English literature Firdaus Ansari is taken home by her assertive, self-possessed older colleague Flossie Sharma, and suddenly sees her private face, her vulnerability: "Flossie had changed into a faded sari and removed her lipstick and kajal. She had a sort of backstage look, as if this were the real, somewhat decrepit version of the clever painted performer one was used to seeing in public." She had a sort of backstage look - I thought this and many other such moments very fine.

Milan Kundera's The Curtain (Faber & Faber in the UK, HarperCollins in the USA), the final instalment of a trilogy that also includes The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, brought to a close one of the most thrilling and enduring adventures ever made in literary criticism. Brimming with radiant and provocative notions, rich in highly detailed and revelatory analyses of passages from works by Cervantes, Kafka, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Gombrowicz and others, and emphasising at every turn the novel form's unique power to illumine human nature and human situations, Kundera's book is a love letter to the novel that converts its readers to the same love. Here is a beautiful passage from the book: Kundera is arguing that the word "prose" stands not just for a category of writing but also for a set of values, that of the everyday, the concrete, the corporeal: "The everyday. It is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well; for instance, the magical charm of atmospheres, a thing everyone has felt in his own life: a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment; the wind rattling the windowpane; the monotonous voice of a professor that a lovesick schoolgirl hears without registering; these trivial circumstances stamp some personal event with an inimitable singularity that dates it and makes it unforgettable."

VS Naipaul's A Writer's People (Picador) was a crabbier, more austere work than Kundera's, but there was still a great deal to take away from this supremely iconoclastic mixture of reminiscence, literary criticism, and invective from one of the greatest living writers of English prose. Not the least of this book's pleasures was Naipaul's account of his years of making a living as a book reviewer in the nineteen-fifties. Naipaul too reveals himself to be a great admirer of Flaubert; I feel more and more ashamed at having not read Madame Bovary yet.

The central idea of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (Picador in the UK, Norton in the USA) - that France as an overarching entity was a conception foreign to the very people who lived within it till the arrival of modernity - was perhaps not as so striking as the way in which Robb brought the many worlds of eighteenth- and nineteeth-century France vividly to life: reading this book was like a journey in a time-travel machine. It was not just my historical knowledge that was deepened by Robb's refulgent book, but also my vocabulary. Robb writes sentences of great beauty and density, and I don't believe there can be many writers of English who work so hard at using all the resources of our language.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (Free Press in the UK) was without a doubt the most forceful autobiography I read this year. Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, but in midlife, fleeing an arranged marriage, she became a refugee in the Netherlands and found herself in a world in which "human relations could be different", even for a rank outsider like her. The pleasure of her book is in how she sifts through personal experience to fashion larger arguments about institutions and structures, and in her willingness to voice controversial conclusions about Islam and about the limits of multiculturalism. The form of the autobiography has become too shallow; in Hirsi Ali's case we can see and hear again the urgency and fascination of the self thinking about its relationship with the world and with its own past. "The soul cannot be coerced" - that phrase from Infidel still rings in my mind.

Kang Zhengguo's Confessions (Norton) tells a story similar to Hirsi Ali's, that of an individual in conflict with his or her environment. In this case the adversary is the paranoid Chinese state, which reproaches or incarcerates him for all manner of crimes against it, such as reading banned books or keeping a diary. The difference is that in Zhengguo's case, the soul can be coerced - there is nothing he can do in his position but obey, repent, in some cases by writing long confessions ("Lenience for confessors - severity for resistors!" is a favourite catchphrase of his captors). But the beauty of Zhengguo's book is that it is not just a simple document of official persecution. Rather, it throbs with the vitality of unlikely friendships made in prison and labour re-education camps, of the exact sensory texture of days spent working in a brick kiln and in a plantation, of the opportunities for furtive romances, of dreams of food and leisure, listening to banned stations on radio, and reading proscibed texts. In Zhengguo's narration the simplest activities take on a vivid, burnished quality. A sublime autobiography.

Although I lean more to the religious than the atheist side of the fence of agnosticism, that did not stop me from relishing the crackling energy and brio of Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (Atlantic Books in the UK, Twelve Books in the USA). Hitchens makes a belligerent case for “the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations” for everything we attribute to god. Chapter One of Hitchen's polemic, "Putting It Mildly", is here.

Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of the 2006 Nobel laureate for Economics Muhammad Yunus, was published several years ago but only appeared in India this year (Penguin). Yunus's enormously humane and patient book makes the case that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate, "but because they cannot retain the return of their labour." Hence, to emerge from the shackles of poverty, they need access not so much to development aid, social welfare or skills training as capital. Yunus's inspiring story of how he set up the Grameen Bank from scratch in the seventies and built it up over three decades is interspersed with trenchant observations on contentious issues in economics. Banker to the Poor offers a searching critique of some tendencies of contemporary capitalism - by an avowed capitalist.

Politicians usually write dreadful prose and make highly expedient arguments, so it was a great pleasure to read the lucid and principled opinions of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope (Crown in the USA, Canongate in the UK), an autobiography and campaign manifesto rolled into one. I admired not only Obama's thinking but also his refusal to demonise or in any way misrepresent his opponents, an essential requirement for honest debate that is almost always honoured only in the breach. Although it looks unlikely that Obama will win the Democratic nomination for President against Hillary Clinton, no reader can come away from his book without a sense of his intelligence and integrity.

A century after Constance Garnett, the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have been revolutionizing our understanding of the greats of nineteenth-century Russian literature with their brilliant translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol. Although I am still only a third of the way through their new translation, six years in the making, of Tolstoy's massive War And Peace (Alfred A. Knopf), there is no doubt in my mind that my newfound enjoyment of Tolstoy - I left off reading Garnett's translation of Anna Karenina halfway - has something to do with their rigorous attention to his language and syntax. I will write a longer essay about this once I finish the book - which may be February.

Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Black Kite), one of two essay collections he published this year (the other was Men In White), had at its core a set of dazzling essays on the distinct nature of Indian nationalism and secularism, while also dabbling productively in such areas as the influence of the Urdu language and worldview on Hindi cinema, the place of the South in the Indian imagination, and the contradictions of American foreign policy. Kesavan is not only one of our worthiest public intellectuals but also one of our best prose stylists.

In a year replete with books about India, whether on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of independence or in deference to India's growing stature in the world, few works approached the quality of the Australian foreign correspondent Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma (HarperCollins in India and Australia). The depth of Kremmer's engagement with his adopted country, his curiosity about not just the crisis ushered in by Hindutva but also the larger tradition of Hinduism (his book returns often to the question of the impact of 6, December 1992 - when he was present at Ayodhya - on India), and the beauty of his language (there are many superb descriptions of landscape which a lesser writer would simply pass over) make this one of the best books I've ever read on India.

Sumantra Bose's Contested Lands (HarperCollins in India, Harvard University Press in the USA) was remarkable for the skill and patience with which it navigated the murky histories and numerous charges and counter-charges of the long-running struggles over territory and sovereignty in Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Bosnia. After absorbing Bose's long-historical view of these disputes I realised how superficial, even distorting, most journalistic coverage of fresh eruptions in these contested lands really is. And unlike most scholars, Bose does not have a one-size-fits-all solution for what are apparently similar problems; I was very impressed by the way he meticulously laid out the specifics of each case. Indeed, Kesavan's volume and that of Bose could usefully be read as a pair, because of their cogent warning, from different perspectives, against the dangers of majoritarian thinking in India and nations around the world.

The superb compendium Polish Writers On Writing (Trinity University Press) brought between two covers all the great names of twentieth century Polish literature - Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Gustaw Herling - thinking about the writer's relation to his or her time, his craft, his language, his tradition. I spent many thrilling nights hearing these powerful voices speak out in the silence of my room.

And finally, the reports and columns on the 2006 Ashes series collected in Gideon Haigh's All Out (Black Inc. Books) made for some of the most sumptuous cricket reportage you could ever hope to read. Despite Australia's 5-0 rout, the series was historic because it marked the swansong of two of cricket's greatest bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Haigh's descriptions of Warne in action are superb: when later generations want to find out what the special atmosphere of Warne in control of the game's pace and flow was really like, they will turn to Haigh.

And among the many books I wanted to read - hopefully I'll do so next year - but could not were Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, Julian Bell's Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, Mario Vargas Llosa's Touchstones: Essays in Art, Literature and Politics, Bohumil Hrabal's In-House Weddings, Sandor Marai's The Rebels, Simon Armitage's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night, and Ambarish Satwik's Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire.

And my best-of-the-year selection from last year is here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The tumbfalling prose of EE Cummings

This review of EE Cummings's prose work Eimi appeared yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle. The picture below is one of Cummings's self-portraits.

In Michael Schmidt's enthralling survey of the length and breadth of English poetry Lives of the Poets, the writer of such famous poems as "Buffalo Bill's/defunct", "since feeling is first" and "somewhere i have never travelled" is given this amusing introduction: "Edward Estlin Cummings was born with capital letters in 1984, in Cambridge, Masschusetts." But even if he was born with capital letters and had to stay that way all his life, in his own poems Cummings (this was the most prominent of all his rejections of typographic convention) always used the first-person pronoun in the lower case. As he joked in a letter to his mother in his thirties, "I am a small eye poet".

Two of those small i's can be found embedded in the title Eimi, one of two large and rambling prose works Cummings wrote in his youth, now reissued after nearly fifty years. Eimi is an account, in diary form, of a five-week journey made by Cummings to the Soviet Union (in the wake of other American writers such as Dos Passos and Dreiser) in the spring of 1931. There is of course no word like "eimi" in the English language, but Cummings liked to get syllables to ring and resonate, and his title permits all kinds of interpretations: exuberant ("Hey, me!"), quizzical ("Eh - me?") or even an echo of "enemy", which is what the Soviet regime no doubt considered him after he was done with his mordant survey of that country.

At the time of Cummings's journey to Russia his country was still struggling with the aftermath of the Great Depression; conversely, Russia's Communist regime had the best reputation and the best press it ever enjoyed. It had the admiration and support of intellectuals of a socialist or utopian bent the world over, and its vision of an all-powerful state leading society towards a radical classlessness (an echoing word that might have come straight from the Cummingsian lexicon) and a planned economy supplying the needs of every citizen seemed like a powerful rebuke to the reactionary practices of the West.

Cummings, however, was an implacable opponent of collectivism: if anything, his poetry expresses an exuberant individualism that borders on the anarchic. But the political critique of Eimi is made implicitly, through the use of different registers of language. The narrative enacts a linguistic clash between the whimsical, freespirited tone of the "i" or "me" and the joyless theories and formulations of the Soviet state, parroted by its sympathisers and members of the Russian intelligentsia.

In the early chapters of Eimi the narrator arrives in Moscow and checks in at the Hotel Metropole, where he meets a fellow American now settled in Russia who, in a mock-heroic allusion to the Divine Comedy, is given the appellation "Virgil". In reality "Virgil" was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, grandson of the American poet and an ardent admirer of the Soviet experiment. "Mymymymymy," gushes the starry-eyed Virgil, "How I envy you. Seeing Moscow for the first time…."

Virgil serves as a kind of foil for Cummings/Dante: the narrative is built around these two figures. Virgil takes Cummings around the city: on their wanderings they take in various sights and scenes, watch proletarian plays (Dana was a theatre professor), ingest uniformly bad food in restaurants, and attempt to call on Maxim Gorky, "the world's foremost proletarian of letters". They meet intellectuals who live in various states of ideological servitude, and who call up the "comfortable minds" of Cummings's poem "the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls". These "unmen", as Cummings piquantly calls them, address the poet as "Comrade Kemminkz" and justify "from soup to nuts the ways of Marx to man".

None of this is reported in a conventional manner. In prose as much as in poetry, Cummings's lines are a vehicle for typographical leaps of daring, experiments with and distortions of syntax. Even at its most controlled it is distinctively a poet's prose, looking to forge a new sound from language. Nouns, verbs and adjectives are always forming cliques instead of mixing in the accepted fashion: on a street the narrator notices "listless dinky runningnose children"; switching rooms in the hotel, "I pluck yank jerk and twitch possessions here there and nowhere". Works are broken up by dashes and semi-colons, and neologisms explode on every page, such as a man who, beautifully, "siftdrifts" towards the narrator at a party (that is, both drifting amongst people and sorting through them for interesting ones at the same time), or a group of people who emerge from a tram "tumbfalling".

Cummings's poetic reputation has waned from the high of his last years, when he used to leave his readings, rockstarlike, by a "secretbackentrance". Yet he still has his admirers, and his words turn up in all kinds of unusual places (most recently in Nikita Lalwani's Booker-shortlisted novel Gifted, which quotes the line "nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands"). The republication of Eimi revives a fascinating part of the oeuvre of a poet perhaps more talked about today than read.

And two good selections from Cummings's poems can be found here and here.

And an old post about a far more difficult encounter between a poet and Stalinism: "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam".

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

In Democratiya and Pragati

My essay on Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose, which I posted here some months ago, appears this week in the winter issue of the political journal Democratiya.

And my recent essay on Shashi Tharoor's recent book about Indian elephants, tigers and cellphones reappears in the December issue of Pragati.

And my apologies - my regrets, rather - for not having been able to post any new essays for so long. But over December there should be new essays here on EE Cummings and Mukul Kesavan, and a selection of the best books of the year.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India

A newspaper column is, as demonstrated by its best practitioners, a minor but nevertheless demanding art form, the essence of which is to give memorable expression to the topical by linking it to deeper realities. Those who carry it off most successfully on the Indian scene – Ramachandra Guha, Vir Sanghvi, Girish Shahane, Santosh Desai, Mukul Kesavan, Swaminathan S. Aiyar - delight and provoke us not only with their command over their subject but also their flair for shrewd generalisation and the economy and lucidity of their expression.

Sadly none of these qualities are visible in Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms are aimed at the reader with a quite breathtaking conviction. Tharoor has never been a very good columnist anyway, so his unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to expose more clearly his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.

Let us begin with the thought. India, pronounces Tharoor, is an ancient civilization of great diversity and richness, "a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities", "a land of contrasts". Our pluralist ethos is our greatest strength, yet because we have so many differences we often lapse into anarchy and division. Our economy is booming and our middle-class expanding; the cellphone is the symbol of this economic revolution. But a large chunk of our population still languishes in poverty, and if we don’t attend to this problem then, in Tharoor's heavyhanded metaphor, the elephant which is turning into a tiger may turn back into an elephant.

Tharoor asks us to mark also that elected leaders are often corrupt and unprincipled, and a blot on the name of democracy. Corruption is so endemic that the size of the black economy is probably as large as that of the white economy. To turn now to cricket: cricket emerged in a foreign land, but its spiritual home now is India. Cinema: movies are the great Indian national pastime, and Bollywood dominates popular discourse in India. Health: Indians are somehow acutely conscious of personal hygiene but unmindful of public sanitation. The mango: the mango is the king of fruits, but it sells at prices that make it the fruit of kings. Although Tharoor is an Indian writer writing about India for Indian readers, his writing is somehow pitched at the level of, say, a Norwegian writing about India for Norwegian readers.

Tharoor's interpretation of particulars is as dismaying as his stultifying generalities. Nowhere is he more wearisome than when composing elaborations on his favourite theme: the Nehruvian idea of India's unity in diversity. Take his reflections on the rise of the cricketer Irfan Pathan. That Pathan, a Gujarati Muslim and the son of a muezzin, could play for India and attain the popularity he did in the wake of Gujarat 2002 is for Tharoor "a testament to the indestructible pluralism of our country". This is dubious in itself, but a further advertisement of pluralism, Tharoor avers, was the Indian team itself,a champion side "including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a wife named Donna". Tharoor here carelessly seems to confer an honorary Christianity upon Sourav Ganguly's wife Dona – one can't see any other reason why her name merits a mention – to fill up a blank in his pluralist headcount.

Elsewhere Tharoor recounts an incident, which he knows only through the testimony of "two American scholars", of a Muslim girl whose father refused to let her play one of Krishna's dancing gopis in a play, but had no objection to her playing a stationary Krishna holding a flute. Anybody can see that this story is marked by doubt and confusion (and distaste for low activities like dancing) as much as assent, but for Tharoor it is "a lovely story that illustrates the cultural synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in northern India". Tharoor sees himself as a proud carrier of the Nehruvian torch, but is happily oblivious to how complacent and patronising a Nehruvian he is.

Nor is Tharoor much more edifying when talking about another of his pet subjects, "the new India". Watching the excitable cricketer S. Sreesanth slog a bullying South African fast bowler over his head for six and follow it up with a frenzied war dance, Tharoor is convinced that this incident epitomizes "all that is different about the new India" – bold, fearless, confident. As the flagbearers of the bold new India and the secular and pluralist India respectively, Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan may, to go by Tharoor's reading, be the most meaningful pair of new-ball bowlers in the history of cricket. Tharoor continues: "Sreesanth's India is the land that throws out the intruders of Kargil…that wins Booker Prizes and Miss Universe contests." I felt embarrassed even reading such twaddle.

Of course we have still not approached one of Tharoor's main subjects, one that looms almost as large in the book as the India he loves so. This topic begins with the same letter as India and stops right there: it is the writerly self, the "I". Tharoor is a highly energetic and committed self-promoter: in fact some of the most ingenious writing in his book takes the form of his acrobatics of self-aggrandizement.

Consider these two examples. Coming across a photograph of a sadhu chatting on a mobile phone at the Kumbh mela, Tharoor remarks that this contrast "says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today's India – a country that, as I wrote many years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time." In another passage about India as a land of contrasts and extremes, Tharoor closes a paragraph with the lines: "Any truism about India can be imeediately contradicted by another truism about India. I once jokingly observed that 'anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true.'"

What is going on here? In these lines we find not one but two Shashi Tharoors – Shashi Tharoor present and Shashi Tharoor past – supporting each other in confirmation of the most trite characterisations. Tharoor is not only saying something that all of us keep saying, but also insisting that he said the very thing earlier, as if by a continuous process of self-quotation he can lever the thought into the domain of his personal copyright. The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone abounds with such predictable moves out towards India on the one hand and preening gestures in towards the self on the other.

Not all of Tharoor's book is so tedious. In one chapter he argues persuasively that Hindutva, an ideology without any base in Hinduism even if it shares the same root word, is in effect a separatist movement, one that appeals to a majority rather than a minority. Another section offers some useful profiles of little-known or neglected figures. But most of Tharoor's writing is just noise. Although we know from Tharoor that "anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true", there is little chance about the same diversity of opinion about a work so banally, so fatally, in love with India as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone.

And a recent essay on another book about the meanings of India: "Mark Tully and India".

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On Ilan Stavans's Love and Language

My review of Ilan Stavans's Love and Language appeared last weekend in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two of the prolific and polyglot scholar Ilan Stavans' previous books are titled On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days, so it is no surprise that his latest work, a disquisition on love in the form of a dialogue with the translator Veronica Albin, is also replete with word clusters and etymological burrowings, and connects the emotion and its expression with the title Love and Language.

This is because for Stavans, the limit of our language is also the limit of the world - an idea that led this reader back to Allan Bloom's complaint in his book Love and Friendship, which covers roughly the same territory as Stavans' volume but through a focused reading of a dozen great texts, that "there is an impoverishment today in our language about what used to be understood as life's most interesting experience, and this almost necessarily bespeaks an impoverishment of feeling."

Although Stavans is not as agitated as Bloom, implicit in his work, too, is the notion that an antidote to love's debasement as both word and feeling may be supplied by literature, mythology and the history of ideas. Stavans avers that humankind's understanding of love is in constant flux ("Who can prove what Cleopatra felt for Antony is the same as what Heloise felt for Abelard?"), demonstrating in an enthusiastic and sometimes idiosyncratic survey how economic and social conditions, religious strictures and literary and artistic tropes have led to love being understood very differently across time and across cultures.

Stavans sees romantic love, which is what the word "love" brings most immediately to mind in our culture, as being only the third of a set of concentric circles, flanked by self-love and love of family on one side and love of God and love of community (or in its modern form, of country) on the other. This is useful not just for the aptness of the geometric metaphor - the circle is the most pervasive emblem of love, such as Plato's theory in the Symposium of love as two sundered halves meeting - but also as a reminder that desire must be schooled by the tough demands of self and family before it can successfully engage with the other. Stavans quotes Alexander Pope: "Self-love, the spring of motion, acts the soul."

Yet the thrill and the thrall of romantic love are unlike that of any other. The marvel of it is not just that we are so powerfully, and sometimes enduringly, sucked out of our orbits by another human being; there is also the extent to which, belying all logic, we venerate and idealize the loved one, finding beauty in his or her simplest word or gesture. As Simone Weil wrote, "Two things cannot be reduced to any rationalizing: time and beauty." Stavans rightly criticizes reductionist explanations of love based on biological or psychological theories. Freud, he asserts, may have revolutionized our understanding of sexuality, but not of love. On the contrary, his theories drain love of its sublime element.

The metaphors of poetry, Stavans suggests, may provide a more accurate map of love than any scientific treatise. This brings up one of the central ideas of the book, which is that love and literature are inextricably connected. Drawing on Octavio Paz (to whom he has been compared), Stavans notes how the erotic act and the poetic act both have their roots in the power and fecundity of the human imagination. "Imagination turns sex into ceremony and rite, language into rhythm and metaphor." And it is to language - a system of sounds that gives material expression to nonmaterial things - that we turn, even if inarticulately, to give expression to the ravishment of love.

If there is a fault with Love and Language, it is that Stavans is perhaps too erudite for his own good. This creates two related problems. One is the rambling and associative nature of his meditations. Digression is, of course, more typical of dialogue than of writing, but while the ones here are diverting, they not always productive. On a number of occasions, names and incidents are called up in a somewhat perfunctory fashion, as if more from serendipity than choice. Sometimes the many peripheral details supplied by Stavans ("Walter Benjamin, called by Terry Eagleton 'the Marxist Rabbi,' who committed suicide in Port Bou, Spain...") unravel the tension of the text.

The other problem is that Love and Language is essentially a work of intelligent synthesis, and therefore a little more placid than is ideal given the fevers and disquiets prompted by its subject. Other than his contention that Socrates was not so much a tragic hero executed on a motivated charge as a highly aware martyr, Stavans does not really get his hands dirty. He has backers for all his ideas, and so his inquiry becomes a little too bookish. There is plenty of talk of love in this work, but the shock of love is sometimes too much at a distance.

An excerpt from Love and Language can be found here.

And here are some old reviews for the Chronicle (these incidentally are three of the best novels I have had the privilege of writing about): Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano, Leila Aboulela's Minaret, and Malika Mokeddem's Century of Locusts.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Congratulations to Amit Varma

...for winning the Bastiat Prize 2007!

This comes not just from me but separately from The Middle Stage itself, as Amit used to write it till he generously allowed me to take it over in April 2005. Amit, your old blog wants to know if it can persuade you to return!

Manish Vij of Ultrabrown has a photograph here of Amit looking resplendent in a suit, in the company of wife and candlestick.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Travelling with Graham Robb

Apologies for how static this site has been all month, but this actually portends a good thing in my life, because after months of being home and sitting at my desk every day I have been travelling. Yesterday, on a halt in Delhi, I contemplated the pleasant shape of my broad semi-circle around the top half of the country, from Bombay to Delhi to Kolkata and back with stops in Dehradun, Bhubaneswar and Kharagpur. Some quick sums in my tattered notebook put the figure at about seven thousand kilometres over road and rail in two weeks.

And as it happens I’ve found the perfect book to accompany me on my travels: Graham Robb’s fabulous new work The Discovery of France. Robb’s area of specialisation is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, but thus far he has always threaded his interest in social history through literature: his books on Rimbaud and Balzac are among the finest contemporary examples of the genre of literary biography.

His new book takes the reader into the mental and physical universe of the millions of faceless people who, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were at the work of “discovering France” – gradually working their way into a sense of a world larger than that of their immediate village and province. The word pays, Robb observes, is translated today as “country” but it derives from pagus, or the area controlled by a tribe, and refers not so much to the abstract nation but to a smaller region that people thought of as home: "A pays was the area in which everything was familiar...To someone with little experience of the world, the pays could be measured in fields and furrows."

The France of this time was not "French" in any recognizable sense (just as people living on the Indian subcontinent had no sense of what the term "Indian" might mean). People's affiliations were to local places and traditions, local deities and saints, dialects highly specific to their town or village, local laws and strictures. People lived in a world where life spans were far shorter than they are today, yet the sense of time passing was far more burdensome and made life feel longer.

The limits of their universe were by the standards of our times highly circumscribed. "Until the invention of cheap bicycles," writes Robb, who himself went across France on a bicycle for his book, "the known universe, for most people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles." News of the wider world arrived on the tongues of pedlars, pilgrims, and smugglers; people lived at the mercy of disease, poverty, epidemics and catastrophes. “Life for most people was a game of snakes-and-ladders with very short snakes and very long ladders.”

Even where there were broadly shared traditions of heritage and culture, these were more obvious to outsiders than to the people themselves. France was in effect a country waiting to be discovered by its own citizens, each one of whom knew a part intimately but had only the dimmest conception of the whole.

The human relationship with the divine inspires some of Robb’s best observations. Although most of the country was nominally Roman Catholic, religious practices (as in, say, Hinduism) owed as much to pagan rituals and local customs as to any overriding theology. And the god or saint who resided in the village church or shrine was seen as a personal, embodied deity not interchangeable with those of neighbouring villages. Heavenly beings in this world, writes Robb, “were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers.”

Robb's refulgent book reminds us powerfully of the attractions of the regional and the local in our age of globalism. Its highly detailed account of patterns of trade and migration, pilgrim routes and smuggling networks, religious traditions and proverbial and folkloric wisdom, burrows out a world loosely stitched together in motley colours, on the cusp of earthshaking changes (the railways, the telegraph, the newspaper) that would alter its sense of itself for good. It is very easy to import an Indian (or some other personal) parallel into hundreds of observations that Robb makes: his loving attention to the French past rouses us to think about our own remote familial and regional past. I'll just quote a paragraph in closing to give some sense of the richness of detail of his text. This passage seems to me to beautifully marry fact with feeling:

These seasonal migrants were once a more obvious presence, in towns as well as the countryside. On certain days, the main squares of towns and cities filled up at dawn with hundreds of families who had walked through the night with their sickles wrapped in spare clothes. The markets were known as loues or louées. Harvesters wore ears of corn, shephers sported tufts of wool and carters hung whips around their necks. Domestic servants wore their best clothes and carried a distinctive bouquet or some foliage to serve as indentification. The employer would make them walk up and down to prove that they were not crippled and inspect their hands for the calluses that showed that they were hard workers. A coin placed in the hand sealed the contract. As the day wore on, the crowd of hopefuls became smaller, older and more decrepit. Those that remained at the very end of the day might follow the harvest anyway as gleaners, covering hundreds of miles in a month or two before returning home.

Update, July 18, 2008: Claire Armitstead on The Discovery of France after it was awarded the Ondaatje Prize ("The unifying concept of the book is mobility - or, in many areas of provincial France and for most of its history, the lack of it. Therein lies the irony of being a cyclist historian of the 21st century: in its early days, the bicycle was all about speeding things up, about making distances seem smaller, and communities closer. Now, in the era of transnational autoroutes, its great virtue is slowing things down, enabling the researcher to note the particularity of people and places...")

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some recent reviews

As I have lots and lots of work to take care of, and then more lots once those first lots are over, I haven't been able to write a post this week.

But here are links to some recent reviews for Mint: on Akbar Ahmed's Journey Into Islam, Nalini Jones's debut collection of stories What You Call Winter, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On looking through Ted Hughes's Selected Translations

Two things need to be noted at the outset about the new volume of Ted Hughes's Selected Translations, a selection that includes poems from the entire range of the European tradition, from Aeschylus, Euripides, Ovid, and Seneca to sections of the medieval long poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the moderns: Lorca, Eluard, Yehuda Amichai, János Pilinszky and Yves Bonnefoy.

One is that, unlike most translators, who are comfortably multilingual or at the very least bilingual, Hughes was far more at home in English than in any other language: in producing these translations he often worked with preliminary versions produced by collaborators or sometimes by the poets themselves (such as those of his contemporary Amichai, a close friend). And secondly - and perhaps following naturally from Hughes's position, his particular competency as well as his limitations - is his minimalist, literalist theory of translation, reflected not only in these poems but explicitly articulated in the editorials he wrote for the influential journal Modern Poetry in Translation, which he founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort.

If Hughes was not among those skeptics and naysayers who believe that poetry is always lost in translation, he also believed that there was nothing to be gained by a certain kind of translation: one in which a translator is not so much a conduit as an active player. In an editorial for the third number of MPT (1967) he wrote that he and Weissbort held that in translation "the first ideal is literalness. The very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word versions is what makes our own imagination jump."

In the 1982 edition of MPT he wrote, looking back, that instead of translations that somehow domesticised the original, "we favoured the translations that best revealed the individuality and strangeness of the original. This usually meant a translation that interposed the minimum of the reflexes and inventions of the translator….We were happily resigned, that is, to all the losses sustained by the most literal translation of the verbal sense. Most often, oddly enough, we found the closest thing [to the ideal] in translations made by poets whose first language is not English, or by scholars who did not regard themselves as poets….Yehuda Amichai seemed good in any translation, but the best, the most touching and haunting, were by himself."

Whatever the problems with this approach - and note that in emphasising a scrupulous word-for-word fidelity to the original, Hughes does not simultaneously call for a similarly close rendition of the poem's form, which is arguably as much a site of its meaning as its language - I took a great deal of pleasure in dipping into this beautifully produced and meticulously annotated volume (the notes are by Weissbort) and found lots of poems in it that I liked, some by poets I'd never read before.

Here is one, "Harbach 1944", by János Pilinszky, translated by Hughes from a crib made by the poet János Csokits. Pilinzsky (1921-1981), a Hungarian, saw from up close the horrors of the Second World War, doing time in German prison camps. His poem evokes, in a series of unforgettable images, the spectacle of a band of exhausted and doomed labourers working at night - a memory that, as the first line asserts, the speaker has never been able to leave behind:
Harbach 1944

At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul an immense cart.

Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.

They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines

and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other's footsteps.

The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.

Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.

Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the faraway celestial troughs

because, prepared for their coming
like an opened cattle-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
death gapes to its hinges.

The faraway celestial troughs, death with its gates "flung savagely back" - these scything images are a reminder to us prose writers that we should always read poetry. Regular encounters with the intensity and concision of verse serve to discipline our work, our forms which encourage and allow for expansion, and can sometimes lead to us making lazy choices of words or phrases in the knowledge that there are masses of other words to distract the reader's attention.

And here is a very different kind of suffering - a lack with which the speaker has more or less made his peace - in Hughes's translation (in collaboration with Antonela Glavinic) of the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran's "A Blind Man Sings To His City":

A Blind Man Sings To His City

The rain stops. Now from the drains,
From the attics, from under the floorboards
Of the shattered homes in the suburbs
Oozes the stench of the corpses
Of mice. I walk seeking
No special meaning in this. A blind man,
To whom it has been given to see
Only what others don't. This
Makes up for my deprivation: in the south wind
That touches me I recognise the voices
Of those who left this city. As if they were crying.
There, scent of the linden trees, close.
I know
The bridge is near, where my step and my stick
Will ring differently - more light
In the sound.There, now, right by my ear
Two flies mate in the air.
It will be scorching hot again
Brush past me,hot
Smelling of bed, smelling of lust. I walk muttering
To God, as if He were beside me:
'Surely nobody in this city
Better than me - better than me, God,
To whom you have given never to see
The face he loves.'

I like very much the absolute certainty (and the rhyme) of "There, now, right by my ear/Two flies mate in the air" as well as the closing lines, both plaintive and gruff, aggressive and defensive. The blind man says that he has never been given the opportunity to see the face of God, but surely he knows that even those blessed with sight do not get to see the face of God either. One might propose then that his meaning is angular: the face of God is the world itself, from which he is walled off by his blindness even though he is part of the same order of creation.

An essay by Hughes on János Pilinszky can be found here, and some more translations of Pilinzsky's poems by Michael Castro and Gabor Gyukics here. You might also want to read Lajos Koncz's essay "Ted Hughes and János Pilinszky". An exchange between Daniel Weissbort and David McDuff on issues of translation in The New York Review of Books in 1982 is here. Some more poems from Selected Translations are here, including the very fine “O fold me away between blankets . . .” by Mário de Sá Carneiro.

And an old post about another fine Hungarian poet - "The despair of Attila Jozsef" - and two recent posts on other poets in translation: Constantine Cavafy and Wislawa Szymborska.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Moving house

I'm moving house this week, and as all of you who've ever had to move house must know, its an exceedingly timetaking and backbreaking job, especially when there are a few thousand books to think about. So I won't be able to post anything for a few days. Back next week.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul

My review of Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul appeared last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph.

If Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, the two best-known Turkish novelists in the English-speaking world, have one virtue in common, it is that both have persistently interrogated their country's self-image, contrasting the narrowness of Turkism with the cosmopolitanism of the old Ottoman empire. Both have gone on trial, too, under an infamous article of the Turkish Penal Code for the crime of "insulting Turkishness". In terms of their viewpoints there is not much to choose between them. Shafak's latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, shows her though to be a more attack-minded and perhaps less sophisticated novelist than her great contemporary.

Shafak's novel drives the distant past into the path of the heedless present through a multi-generational narrative, and it addresses explicitly a controversial episode in Turkish history, the massacre of perhaps a million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915-16. The bastard of Istanbul is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate child of one of four headstrong sisters who live together as one family - the Kazanci men having an unfortunate habit of dying young. Asya does not know who her father is and has been taught not to bother with trying to find out; she is similarly indifferent to her country's history.

The single living Kazanci man, Asya's uncle Mustapha, has settled in America and married a divorcée of Armenian descent. When Mustapha's step-daughter, Armanoush, arrives suddenly in Istanbul on a search for her family's roots, the Kazanci women are forced to accept the truth that the novel dramatises, which is that "the past is anything but bygone". Thus, Shafak's double-sided narrative demonstrates how the Armenian diaspora and the Turkish people live in different time frames, one community still nursing the wounds of old crimes, the other living in a present that accepts no responsibility for the past.

Yet it could be said that, on balance, Shafak's novel is not all that novelistic. Its characters lack true freedom and interiority and can seem mere symbols or meanings fitted into an overarching structure. Indeed, one suspects that what seems to be a problem with Shafak's theory of character may really have to do with her choice of language. Shafak is that rarity, a bilingual novelist; she began writing novels in Turkish, but this is her second novel in English.

Yet deadly flat sentences such as: 'If her passion for books had been one fundamental reason behind her recurring inability to sustain a standard relationship with the opposite sex...' raise doubts about whether even a novelist as gifted as Shafak possesses the understanding and intuition to successfully dramatise her ideas in two languages.

And an old post: on Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Necessary and unnecessary steps in Constantine Cavafy

No matter how many times one has read the poems of Constantine Cavafy, to come back to them again, after all those encounters with others books, other poems, is to be taken once again by surprise. "Sadly I see the ladder of poetry/reaches high, so very high" complains the novice poet to a more experienced one in Cavafy's poem "The First Step". "Unhappily for me, I'll never climb higher/ than this first step where I stand." Of course Cavafy went well past that first step, all the way up the ladder: those who think him the twentieth century's greatest poet are not few in number. But it is worth noting, as an example of Cavafy's practicality and clearsightedness, that even this poem about a poet fretful about his lack of progress beyond one step ends with the older poet's wise counsel: "Even this first step/is a long way from ordinary people./..../You've reached here, no small feat. Just what you have done is a great glory."

This is among the sentiments that emerge most powerfully from Cavafy's poetry: that setting out on one's own requires unusual courage, and even the person who has taken only the first step has done something truly worthy, for he has knowingly made himself an outsider, exposed himself to the gaze of those very same "ordinary people" with whom he has broken (this idea carries a particular charge in Cavafy's poetry because he was homosexual). Here is the thought again in the poem "Growing Strong", taken from Aliki Barnstone's fine new translations of Cavafy:
Growing Strong

He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
He will honor some laws,
but mostly he will break both law and custom,
and he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously towards knowledge.
How easy and economical the poem is: it seems almost to write itself from the first line onward, and it is resolutely unmetaphorical - Cavafy always choses understatement over ornament. The effect of the poem lies almost totally in the varying force and strength of the individual lines, which give us the sense of a voice thinking aloud, its pitch rising and falling (note the work done by the words "will" and "must", and the slightly self-satisfied and therefore self-ironising air - "virtuously" - of the tidy close, the only line of the poem that is also a complete sentence). And observe also that Cavafy is never the advocate of total, all-consuming revolution, whether in personal life or in politics: even here he says, of the person who wishes to grow strong, that "He will honor some laws" and "half the house must be torn down".

Cavafy's insistence that we not be afraid of "the destructive act" goes hand in hand with a respect for tradition: politically he was a conservative and not a radical. His poem "In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE", although set two thousand years in the past, seems to speak directly to the twentieth century and its totalitarian horrors with its message that nobody is as likely to repeat the errors of history as those who want to sweep away all of history. This is Barnstone's version:

In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE

There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.

Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.

They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it.
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.

And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go—
things that are nevertheless hard to dismiss.

And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.

Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring reget.
Certainly, and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.
As Edward Said notes in his book On Late Style, in Cavafy "the future does not occur, or if it does, it has in a sense already happened. Better the internalized, narrow world of limited expectations than that of grandiose projects constantly betrayed or traduced." (Said's five or six pages on Cavafy make up probably the best passage of the book. He also writes: "One of Cavafy's greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm.") Lapidary is exactly the word for Cavafy.

Barnstone's work compares favourably with the standard English translation of Cavafy: the Collected Poems by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Although her lines often depart only slightly from those by Keeley and Sherrard, sometimes they produce an improved tone. Here is a comparison of two versions of one of my favourite Cavafy poems, the plangent and totally unforgettable "Voices":

Ideal and loved voices
of the dead, or of those
lost to us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes the brain hears them in thought.

And, for one moment, with their sounds,
sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives—
like music at night, remote, fading away.

(translated by Aliki Barnstone)


Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.

Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.

And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life’s first poetry—
like music at night, distant, fading away.

(translated by Keeley and Sherrard)

Though there is not much to choose between them, I find I prefer the opening of the first, with its simpler formulations and fewer pauses making for a graver sound. On the other hand, Keeley and Sherrard have a smoother close, while Barnstone's version has the word "sounds" twice one upon the other, which to some ears might sound jarring as it does to mine.

Some more translations from Barnstone's book are available here and here, and the entire set of Keeley and Sherrard translations here. Here are some of my own choices: "Body, Remember", "Candles", "He Asked About The Quality", "But The Wise Perceive Things About To Happen", "Waiting For The Barbarians", "Since Nine O'Clock", and "The God Abandons Antony".

Also, the writer André Aciman compares four different translations of Cavafy's poem "The City" in an essay called "Translating Cavafy". And there is a large selection of essays on the theory and practice of translation in this old Middle Stage post.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On VS Naipaul's A Writer's People

A shorter version of this piece on VS Naipaul's A Writer's People appears today in the Observer.

The path leading up to VS Naipaul's A Writer's People is littered with a writer's rubble: the debris, that of canonical figures knocked off their pedestals. Henry James: "that dreadful American man…the worst writer in the world actually." Thomas Hardy: "an unbearable writer…doesn't know how to compose a paragraph." Ernest Hemingway: "didn't know where he was, ever, really." EM Forster's A Passage To India: "it has only one real scene, and that's the foolish little tea party at the beginning." Jane Austen: "If the country had failed in the nineteenth century no one would have been reading Jane Austen."

These slashing denunciations provoked the question: if not these, then who were this writer's people? But as it turns out, Naipaul's reading has been as ambitious as the peregrinations through the decolonised world which marked the second phase of his career, after the success of his early novels. The essays of his book encompass figures as disconnected in time, space and reputation as Flaubert, Derek Walcott, Mahatma Gandhi, Anthony Powell, Polybius, Virgil, the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, and Naipaul's own father Seepersad. These are writers who have struck him in some way with their "ways of looking and feeling".

Naipaul's operative idea through the book is not so much prose style (though naturally he has his preferences there) but something larger, more numinous: a quality he calls "vision". For him how well a writer "sees" is what makes his work forceful, ageless, truthful. Those who see clearly bring to their work some original perception of the world, do not merely imitate established forms, treasure precision, avoid rhetoric. Bad writers are verbose and tend to over-explain; even worse, they are often intellectually dishonest.

For instance, Naipaul finds both good and bad things in Flaubert. He praises the style of Madame Bovary. Even though Flaubert's reputation is that of an ambitious, even self-flagellating stylist, the language of his great novel is "plain and clean and brief". Indeed, the continuous pleasure and surprises of its details are in stark contrast to the straining and languor of Flaubert's historical novel Salammbô. There the novelist's determination to parade the fruits of his research "sets up a barrier between the reader and what is being described". The writing rings false because it is too detached, overstated, theatrical.

Similarly, Naipaul bestows warm praise - a Naipaulian warmth still a bit cold by the general standard, but exceptional from Naipaul - on Gandhi. The Autobiography of Gandhi is "direct and wonderfully simple"; the book is a masterpiece. Even Gandhi's petitions to the authorities were "concrete and precise, without rhetoric". But it is important to note that Gandhi the writer is inseparable from Gandhi the man, the man who learnt from his labours to see.

Naipaul's writing here reprises and builds upon the chapter on Gandhi in An Area of Darkness (1964), the first of his three books on India. In that book, too, the emphasis is on Gandhi's powers of discernment, his vision: "He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct, and this directness was, and is, revolutionary….He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see." The centrality of this verb see in Naipaul's idea of a writer's work is echoed in a slightly different, more paradoxical, way by Proust, who also imagines the writer as a kind of optical intrument that clarifies both self and society: "Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth."

Again, the young Gandhi, like the young Vidia, left the simple moral world and easy satisfactions of his provincial environment to voyage to England and seek a place in the world. Naipaul admires his diligence, his assiduous self-fashioning. Gandhi's travels, "first to England and then to South Africa, made him see that he had everything to learn. It was the basis of his great achievement." Naipaul compares Gandhi to the Buddha: "Both these men make wounding journeys." The reader may hear here the shadow of an allusion to Naipaul's own wounding journey from "the periphery to the centre".

As ever, Naipaul's sentences are tightly coiled and and muscular: they seem to be revealing something even when Naipaul is merely summarising. His recapitulation of the movement of a poem by Virgil - one that "celebrate[s] the physical world in an almost religious way…making us see and touch and feel at every point" - is as delectable as the poem itself. I enjoyed in particular section in which he recalls the years he supported himself by reviewing books. The concerns of this passage are mundane things like word counts, the ways of literary editors, factions and petty rivalries, the pleasure and the dread of seeing oneself in print - gossip that makes the day go by.

Of course, it is Naipaul's own "way of looking and feeling" - his pessimistic and controversial assessment of formerly colonised people confused and resentful, his depiction of an Islam as cloistered and oppressive as colonialism - that has made his work so controversial. A Writer's People also carries the breath of his olympian disdain, notably in the chapters on Walcott and Powell (the latter begins with this sentence: "This will not be an easy chapter for me to do"). But this is a thrilling tour through literature from a man who more than anybody else embodies what it means to be a writer.

An excerpt from Naipaul's chapter on Derek Walcott can be found here, an older essay called "On Being A Writer" here, and an essay on RK Narayan not included in this book here ("All languages have their own heritage, and English cannot easily escape its associations with English history, English manners, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible. Narayan cleansed his English, so to speak, of all these associations, cleansed it of everything but irony, and applied it to his own little India. His people can eat off leaves on a floor in a slum tenement, hang their upper-cloths on a coat stand, do all that in correct English, and there is no strangeness, no false comedy, no distance."). And I have always admired Naipaul's essay "The Universal Civilization", the rousing close of which I quote here:

It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
Lastly, here is Amitava Kumar's lovely essay from six years ago, "A Notebook For Mr.Biswas".

And some other posts on Nobel laureates: Orhan Pamuk, Saul Bellow, and Wislawa Szymborska.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mark Tully and India

This is the last of an informal four-part series on India to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. The other three are "Jawaharlal Nehru as a writer of English prose", on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Mahatma Gandhi, and "The art of oratory, and the great speeches of modern India".

India can be a foreign correspondent's nightmare, very hard to get in its entirety even to those wholly committed to the search. The intense and irreplicable peculiarity of India - the residual presence of outdated modes of behaviour and thought from the days of the Raj, or the widely divergent experience of daily life along lines of caste and particularly gender, to take just two examples of how both the near and distant past continue to work on the present - is of course hard to miss for anybody except those totally habituated to it, but it can nevertheless perplex the intellect seeking to break it down into its constituent elements.

From this perspective, the books of Mark Tully are an especially noteworthy contribution to the literature on modern India. Indeed, because he has now spent the best part of four decades in close engagement with the country, because his travels as the BBC's Chief of Bureau have brought him in contact with all kinds of places and people, and because he is part-insider, part-outsider in a productive way, Tully is probably better tuned into India than most Indians, with their limited access to the great sprawl of their own country and its past.

Tully's latest book and perhaps last book on his adopted country, India's Unending Journey, is a work both off and on the beaten track. This is because, after a series of highly agile, capacious and erudite books about contemporary India, hospitable to all kinds of viewpoints, Tully has in closing written a volume that resembles the traditional "India's message to the world" book customarily written by well-meaning visitors.

In part this is because India's Unending Journey - there is something cliched about the title itself - is the most autobiographical of Tully's books, as also the most polemical. The balance between observed detail and overarching argument is different from that of Tully's previous books, and the writing is more clearly addressed to the western reader. Tully makes a critique of aspects of western life though the lens of India, and thus addresses two constituencies at one go. In some ways he flatters his adopted home at the expense of the civilization in which he grew up. Although Tully knows that India itself, with its manifold problems, has yet to find any kind of balance, the argument he extracts from the experience of "forty years of living in India" is how the West itself is now unbalanced, unquestioningly secular and meanly materialist.

In his youth Tully briefly trained to be a priest in the Church of England, and if anything the autobiographical tone of his new book explains why the question of religion, and the place of religion in an increasingly secular climate on the one hand and a radically shrunken world where previously hostile faiths are forced to co-exist on the other, lies at the heart of his work on India. For in India not only is it taken for granted that you believe in God (as a Goan priest tells Tully), in a way that is no longer so in Europe, but also the other, the stranger, is always in one's field of vision, forcing upon every citizen the imperative of co-existence.

It was in India, writes Tully, that he refined his understanding of religion and came to believe "that a universal God made far more sense rationally than one who limits his activities to Christians", which is the sense of exclusivity, of chosenness, that his upbringing and later his abortive training as a priest taught him and which is shared by dedicated believers of the three great monotheisms. This explains his position on two dominant strands of contemporary Indian thought: he feels equally distant from "a secularism which seems to respect no religion, and a nationalism which carries with it the danger of only respecting one". The view that "any cause that is not secular is illiberal, seems to be illiberal itself," he remarks (not surprisingly some of his critics in India have accused him of being a BJP sympathiser). The religiosity of Indians is clearly congenial to Tully's temperament (while in the west "Mammon is triumphant and God on the retreat"), as is the openness and syncretism of Hinduism, even if it has recently taken on a militant aspect.

For instance, in a beautiful essay called "Altered Altars" in his previous book, India In Slow Motion, Tully sets out with his partner, Gillian Wright, (best known to Indian readers as the translator of Shrilal Shukla's comic novel Raag Darbari), to investigate Goan Christianity four decades after the departure of the proselytising Portuguese. Under the Portuguese, Goa "was the headquarters of the mission to convert the Orient, and was often described as the Rome of the East". But on his visit Tully finds churchgoing tinted with all kinds of borrowings from Hinduism; social life has managed to liberalise doctrine. Where representatives of the Vatican once promoted a spirit of exclusivity, priests are now preoccupied with the necessity of making their church "an Indian church".

Tully attends different services around the state, and reports on the particularities of each one. Among the ways in which worship has taken on an Indian face, he notes, is in the relationship between believers and God. While the Portuguese had wanted to impress the Indians with the awesome majesty of "a God who lived on high", now typically the priest "became one with his parishioners worshipping a personal God, more a friend than a king". Tully confesses he is uncomfortable with these altered altars - "I came from the old tradition...I found it easier to worship God in majesty, rather than God the social worker who battles for the poor, or God the personal pal of the charismatics."

But everywhere in this essay and others in the book - on the history of the Sufi faith, on farmers's problems in Karnataka, on cyber-governance in Hyderabad, on the reinvention of Rama by the BJP - there is evidence of Tully's talent for what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description". Although the title India In Slow Motion is primarily a reference to the "peculiarly Indian form of bad governance" that has immiserated Indian people and retarded economic growth, it might also be understood as a metaphor for the writer's painstaking methods.

Tully's warming belief in his adopted country, or more precisely the best of what it has to offer, leads him to overestimate India. For instance, in India's Unending Journey he contrasts "our Western habit of seeing issues in black and white" with the Indian belief in balance and reconciliation. "If there is one thing I have learnt from India," he writes, reprising a hoary platitude, "it is to appreciate how little in life is totally black, or indeed, purely white."

This radically exaggerates the gap between western and Indian civilization. "Balance" may be an avowed ideal in India but it is clearly not a reality, and the secular temper of the West that Tully criticises often facilitates a reasoned discussion of issues without the shrillness, misplaced sense of superiority, and contempt for the rule of law that marks the contribution of aggressively religious organisations or people to Indian debates. It is hard to resist the suspicion that it is Tully's impatience with the west that makes him overturn the dominant paradigm. For even if Tully has learnt to appreciate from India how little in life is purely black or white, it can safely be said that there are millions of Indian people who themselves show no sign of having learnt this from their country, and whose faith, whose sense of their history, and attitudes towards their wider society constrict rather than enlarge their lives - which is the emphasis, for example, of VS Naipaul, the titles of whose works on India or Indian characters include the words "area of darkness", "wounded", and "half a life". Reading Tully, conversely, one might feel it is western civilization that has become an area of darkness. I don't think that day has come just yet.

We end, then, with two paradoxes. One is that Tully, by dint of his decades of travel and exceptional learning, has a more sophisticated sense of India and its past than many Indians, who cleave to exclusive and partial views of it. But two: because of its insistence on distilling the meanings of Indian civilization into simple assertions that don't hold up for very long, India's Unending Journey actually waters down a perspective on Indian life that is strongly made, even if never explicitly stated, by Tully's other distinguished books.

And here are two essays by Tully, "My unending journey through India" and "Still in slow motion".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted

I confess that when I first looked at Nikita Lalwani's Gifted I put it down quickly. This was because the first sentence on the back-cover blurb - "Rumi Vasu is ten years, five months, thirteen days, two hours, forty-two minutes and six seconds old" - seemed to me characteristic of a tendency of bad literary fiction the world over: the tendency towards irrelevant detail, which, like a reflection in a shop window, points back towards the narrator instead of establishing something significant about the character. This sentence appeared to me a particularly egregious instance of this, because for all its fastidious attention to specifics of time it becomes inaccurate even within the time taken to read it or think it.

I only looked at Gifted again when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, but on reading it I have come around to thinking the judges have actually made a fairly astute choice. Regardless of whether it goes on to win a formal honour (it is pointless to think of novels primarily through the lens of prizes and awards) it is a sparky contribution to Indian letters. And it is so not only for its theme - which is that of the Indian family, and within it the characteristic tenor of parent-child relations, which tend to remain stagnant even as the child matures and finally becomes an adult - but also for the quality of its writing, which for large sections of the book is unusually precise and rich.

The protagonist of Gifted, Rumika Vasu or Rumi, is a child prodigy with a highly developed aptitude for mathematics, and her father, a university professor at Cardiff, is determined to make sure that she makes the best of her talent by passing her A-levels well before the appointed age and gaining entry into a place like Oxford. Early on in the book, when Rumi is just a child, she does not see her talent as a curse, only as a gift. The detail on the back cover about her age appears in the novel on page 17 of my Penguin edition, and it takes on a different quality there because it is Rumi herself who is shown computing it, as part of the patter of a host of charming thoughts about numbers:

She looked at her watch again. Now she was 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 4 seconds old. She sang the numbers song in her head. It was almost a lullaby, one she had known since she was a child, the tune working like a step graph with a line that rose and rose, then flattened out when it got to sixteen, ending with a comforting monotone. [...] The figures continued in her head...they were wholesome, even numbers, created through doubling alone. 32 and 32 are 64...128...256...512. Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly. It made her think of her dad's big, warm, open hands, the lined palms in which she used to put her face on Sunday mornings when he and her mum were in bed. He used to pretend those hands were crocodile jaws waiting to gobble her up. That had been when he hadn't been so obsessed with mental arithmetic and getting the right answer.
A long passage humming with mathematical thoughts ("Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly" is to my ear a beautiful touch) ends with a slight grumble of complaint about the consequences of that mathematics in Rumi's family life. Even as they establish a present reality, unfolding spontaneously in the protagonist's lively mind, the details foreshadow what is to come.

Immigrant life in Cardiff is depressing; the burden of being the class geek troubling; the small social circle of the Vasis, further restricted by Mahesh to ensure his daughter's discipline, boring. Rumi daydreams often of her family's previous visit to India, where the visits to other branches of the line and the encounters with unknown cousins and savoury eats made for such excitement. She dreams of escaping to India, and knows just enough of history to see how that history can be used to triumphantly legitimise her rebellion:

And then it would be announced in Assembly, how she was leaving them behind - Rafferty, Harris, the lot of them. She'd get her hair cut in advance, with a big fringe that spiked up a bit, and somehow get hold of a ra-ra skirt. When the list was read out at the end for football, table tennis and all that extra-curricular stuff, she'd raise her hand.

She's get up and say, "Yes, I have an announcement. I'm moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren't cruel and rude and don't make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I'm never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say that British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it [...]. So it doesn't make much sense for me to live here, to be honest, because I don't agree with it. I'm going back to where I came from.

She knew that she would have to make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn't take it personally. Or maybe she'd warn them in advance, so that the shock of what she was about to reveal, about their own history as British people, didn't upset them too much.
This is really a complex triple-sided point, because while Rumi registers her protest at the British, and amusingly leaves out the two boys in her class who are friendly with her, we can see from above her that what she wants to escape, ironically, is not so much Britain as her own, resolutely Indian, family in Britain.

Not all of Gifted is as good as this. If Lalwani's contention, through the tracking of her protagonist at different stages of her childhood and adolescence, is that Indian parents, even highly educated ones, often don't know how to deal with their children as they grow older, infantilising them and denying matters like their growing awareness of their sexuality, then to my mind her book to some extent duplicates these faults this by managing the protagonist less well she grows older. I was wearied in particular by the repeated descriptions of the teenaged Rumi's obsession with chewing cumin seeds. But there is a great deal of genuinely lively and vibrant writing in this novel, to go with its diagnosis of a major faultline in Indian society.

And old posts about two other works of comic fiction that have something to say about the encounter between imperial and colonised cultures: Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third and Parashuram's "The Scripture Read Backwards".