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.