Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Jonathan Bate's biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age

In a brief but dazzling short story about the life of Shakespeare called “Everything and Nothing”, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges portrays Shakespeare as a man without a personality. “There was no one in him,” writes Borges, and this explains why Shakespeare could put himself in the shoes of hundreds of myriad-minded characters, imagine them all from within. Thus the paradox: Shakespeare was not fully a man, and yet “nobody was ever as many men as that man.” At some point, "before or after dying", Shakespeare finds himself before God and makes the demand for a stable, discrete personality, for a “myself”. God’s reply comes: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons – and none.”

In his new biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate attempts to take the measure of how a man of such unpromising circumstances – the son of a small businessman, brought up in an insignificant market-town, educated in an ordinary school – managed to expand his mind, his language, and his imaginative and worldly power to become, as the book’s title asserts, the soul of the age. Or, to adapt Borges, how did a man who should have been nothing end up encompassing everything?

Bate has worked on two previous books that involve Shakespeare: he is the author of The Genius of Shakespeare (1998) , and the co-editor of The RSC Shakespeare (2007), a new edition of the complete works. As would befit such a writer, Soul of the Age is itself founded upon a Shakespearean structure. Bate organises his material around the concept of the “seven ages of man” – infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice (or householder), and then two levels of old age, the latter being “a second childishness” – so vividly described by the character Jacques in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. Making fertile connections between Shakespeare’s plays, what is known of his life, and the beliefs and practices of his times, Bate comes as close to achieving a sense of Shakespeare’s felt presence as any other biographer ever has.

Since he left so few traces of himself, and since so much other evidence has been lost or destroyed, Shakespearean biography has never been a matter of simply collecting and interpreting the sources. Yet there are dozens of other extensive documents left behind by Shakespeare: the plays and poems themselves. Bate quotes approvingly the critic Barbara Everett, who argues, in an essay called "Reade him, therefore" published in the TLS in 2007, that “if [Shakespeare’s] biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.” Much of what Bate posits is a result of interpretation, correlation, juxtaposition. But if his method is speculatory, the result is a very rich, educated, and revelatory speculation.

For instance, is it not significant that in Shakespeare’s earlier works, doctors are usually comic figures, but after the marriage of his daughter, Susanna, to a widely respected doctor called John Hall, the doctors in the plays become “dignified, sympathetically portrayed medical men”? If this is one direction taken by Bate in his exploration of medicine in the world of Shakespeare’s plays, then in another sally he takes note of the wealth of plants, herbs, and flowers named in the plays, demonstrating Shakespeare’s deep engagement, as someone who grew up in the country and had a "field education", with “the herbal economy of rural England”.

This then leads Bate into a meditation on how, although Shakespeare is always identified with the London stage, he always had one foot in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. He always lived in rented lodgings in London, and many of his plays shuttle, just as he himself did, between the worlds of city and country. When the London theatres were closed for periods of a year or more because of the plague ("Plague," Bate reminds us, "was the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare's] life and those of his contemporaries"), Shakespeare returned home. "It is unlikely to be a coincidence," remarks Bate, "that Shakespeare turned to pastoral romance in the plague years around 1607-10: of all of his plays, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are the ones to have the most distinctive air of having been written back home in Stratford." Bate dwells on some of the specific descriptions of flowers or plants in Shakespeare, such the mole on Innogen's breast in Cymbeline, "cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/ I'th'bottom of a cowslip", and asks, "Is there any other English poet, save John Clare, who has such an eye as this?"

Imagine such an approach being replicated with respect to Shakespearean politics and statecraft, Shakespearean language (such as the relationship between Latin, the "high" language of schooling, and English, which was not the self-confident world language that it is now), Shakespearean cosmology, and Shakespeare’s use of both ancient and recent history, and you have some notion of the wealth of ideas and associations in Bate’s book. Bate's discussion of love in Shakespeare, particularly as it is explored through the sonnets, is one of the best I have ever read, and his brilliant analysis of how King Lear enacts a critique of conventional rationalistic philosophy on the subject of suffering and asserts instead, via Shakespeare's reading of Erasmus and Montaigne, the value of the path of "love and folly" in human affairs kept me thinking for several days.

Nor is Bate an unredeemed bardolater. In fact, in one of the best and most surprising moments of The Genius of Shakespeare, he argues that the profusion, range, linguistic depth, and artistic worth of Shakespeare's work were matched in his own lifetime by a contemporary, born two years before him in 1562: the great Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Lope wrote hundreds of plays and sonnets, and was, like Shakespeare, "wily in his aspectuality". Like Shakespeare, Lope's characteristic form "was a mingle of tragedy and comedy, high and low, the poetic voice accordingly shifting from elegance to coarseness." Perhaps, Bate suggests, it was the politics of empire and of language that played a role in Shakespeare's preeminence:

[Lope] answered to every element of my prescription of a world-genius in literature. But Spain went into decline and Lope was not translated. The whole of Shakespeare has been translated into scores of languages; less than ten per cent of Lope's surviving plays has ever been translated into English.
Twentieth-century physics has made the idea of the co-existence of "alternative universes" easier to comprehend. Picture an alternative world in which Spain triumphed over England. Lope then would have triumphed over Shakespeare and I would be writing a book called The Genius of Vega. What do we learn from our picture? That the apotheosis of Shakespeare was and was not a matter of historical contingency. It was a contingency insofar as it happened to be Shakespeare, not Lope. But it was a necessity because the chosen one had to be a particular kind of genius and could therefore only have been Lope or Shakespeare.
Among the aspects of Shakespeare’s nature that emerge most clearly from Bate’s book is his prudent business sense. Making a survey of the dramatists who were Shakespeare’s competitors – Marlowe, Greene, Kyd, Nashe, Dekker – Bate shows that many of them died young, or in penury. In contrast, Shakespeare not only lived frugally, he was also the first playwright of his time to become a joint-stockholder in a theatre company, thereby ensuring his financial stability through a share of gate receipts, and his indispensability as the company’s in-house dramatist. Even though he never bought a house in London, he acquired and consolidated a massive property back home in Stratford, as if wishing, after his years of physical and mental roving, to retire as a big fish in a small pond. It is these homely details, as much as the evidence of his subject’s genius, that make us warm to Bate’s book, and leave us feeling on such intimate terms with Shakespeare that we too can address him, as God does in Borges’s story, as “my Shakespeare.”

A list prepared by Bate of more than a hundred of the best books on Shakespeare is here. Of these, the two I would most like to read are recent ones with very similar titles but different approaches: AD Nuttall's Shakespeare The Thinker and Phillip Davis's Shakespeare Thinking. And one excellent book Bate doesn't mention, but which I enjoyed enormously, is Allan Bloom's set of resplendent readings of individual plays called Shakespeare on Love and Friendship. Here is an essay by Bate about the authorship controversy associated with Shakespeare: "Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist", and another recent piece on one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, "The mad worlds of Thomas Middleton", which you should read closely if you are interested in issues of textual scholarship. Among the books mentioned in this essay is "Gordon Williams’s magnificent three-volume compendium of filth, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature", which currently retails on Amazon at just over $500). And Bate offers a short tour of the room in which he works here, as part of the Guardian series on writers' rooms.

And here are two old posts: "Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare" (which also has links to about a dozen excellent essays on Shakespeare), and "Memories of Borges and the old Twentieth Century bookshop". A review of another recent major literary biography, Patrick French's book on VS Naipaul, is here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Surender Mohan Pathak's The Sixty-Five Lakh Heist

At one point in Surender Mohan Pathak’s The 65 Lakh Heist, the pleasure-loving Labh Singh (a.k.a “Matar Paneer”), one of the conspirators involved in the heist, is so happy when the planning is completed and it is time for the revelry to begin that he lets out a cry of “Balle!” This homegrown sound has long been missing from the streets of Indian fiction in English (think of how many "hurrays" and "bravos" one hears instead). It is precisely this taste of the local, together with the adroit fulfilment of genre expectations, that make us say “Balle!” to this classic crime novel by a colossus of Hindi pulp fiction, deftly translated by Sudarshan Purohit, a young software engineer based in Bangalore.
The 65 Lakh Heist was published in 1977 as Painsath Lakh Ki Dakaitii, and it was the fourth book in Pathak’s hugely popular “Vimal” series, selling an estimated three lakh copies. Now, in its English version, it is the second pulp-fiction title offered by Blaft, after their widely acclaimed Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction published last year. Of course, in its new incarnation, the book is no longer “real” pulp – printed on the cheapest paper, sold for a pittance – but a kind of canonised and reified pulp, beautifully produced and, at Rs.195, priced the same as an average paperback. The question to be asked then, perhaps, is the question that must have been asked by the novel's first, most demanding readers: is it still value for money?
I should say it is. I read the book in three hours while waiting for a 3am flight, and it certainly helped those dreaded hours melt away. The tension kicks in from the very first sentence (“Mayaram lit a new cigarette and looked at his watch”), and we are up and running. Mayaram Bawa of Amritsar, an accomplished cracker of safes (for which reason he has earned the moniker “Ustad”) and a chronic jailbird, wants to pull off one last heist before he calls it a day. He intends to enlist the best talent in the business to make sure the operation is a success, and when he spots the wanted criminal Surender Singh Sohal, better known as Vimal, in a gurudwara, he knows that luck is on his side. Vimal has been on the run from the police for long, and unless he helps Mayaram now, his secret will be out.
Pathak, who has also translated some of James Hadley Chase into Hindi, turns out four books a year to this day. His qualities are those of the best pulp-fiction writers: a love of danger and double-crosses, guns and molls, in terms of material, and narrative speed in terms of form. He also writes very good, economical dialogue. His translator serves him well by scrupulously preserving the idiomatic core of the material (such as the line, “They chanted Bolo Ram for him a year ago”, or the phrases “Jaago Mohan Pyaare”, “Papaji”, and “Aaho”) while transferring the rest into a smooth, unshowy English.
Vimal has a particularly intriguing backstory – we learn that he is so bitter because “his wife Surjeet Kaur and her lover had conspired to get him jailed for embezzlement”. If the The 65 Lakh Heist has a failing, it is that character development more or less comes to a stop after the first half, and the rest is all action, concluding with a shootout in a garage. But one could say these are the problems endemic to the pulp-fiction form, in which a character's progress often culminates not in a change of heart or a renewal of perspective but with the sound of a gunshot. On all other counts, there is much to admire in this book, and I put it down looking forward to reading more of the team of Pathak and Purohit in the years to come – or perhaps months.
A slightly different version of this review appeared last weekend in Mint.

Monday, April 06, 2009

"Clouds" in Italian

If you're a writer, it's always a big moment in your life when your work appears in translation for the first time. In part, this is because no writer's sensibility is formed any more (except perhaps writers who work and read in languages with very small catchments) by a monoglot literary culture; much of what we know and love is through translations, and a world without translation would leave every reader and writer alarmingly impoverished. So having one's own work translated feels like an admission ticket into a bigger, more connected, literary universe.

And it's something of a shock, too, looking at all those strange words which are supposed to be yours. Recently a book came for me in the post, and I opened the package quickly, found my name on the contents page, and began to hobble through this paragraph of Italian:


In questa città sembriano tutti stanci, sempre. Sudati, it viso ricoperto di una sottile pellicola di sporcizia. Spesso, nel corridoio di un autobus appiccicoso, ci colpiscono i visi tirati, incattiviti della gente e distogliamo lo sguardo per puntarlo altrove. Siamo così vicini...tanto da vedere i pori sulla pelle della persona accanto, da sentirne l'odore. Ci pestiamo i piedi a vicenda, origliamo conversazioni, sgomitiamo per guadagnare spazio. Siamo praticamente sempre tra i piedi di qualcuno, ciascuno è il motivo di sofferenza dell'altro. "Per favore, preparate it contante," dice un cartello, e un altro "Vietato mettere i piedi sul sedile." None c'è posto nemmeno per tenerli a terra, i piedi.
This is the opening paragraph of my story "Clouds", and it appears in a translation by Gioia Guerzoni in an Italian anthology of new Indian writing called, simply, India, alongside stories and reportage by Altaf Tyrewala, Tishani Doshi, Susan Mridula Koshy, Sarnath Banerjee, Samrat Choudhury, Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Sonia Faleiro, Anindya Roy, Annie Zaidi, and Smriti Nevatia. The English version of the book – I should say the English originals – will appear in India soon in an edition published by Westland Books. "Clouds" is set in Bombay, and is about a man who is losing his grip on life, and who knows it. He spends his days wandering around the city, waiting for something to happen. Here is a bit from the story in (my own) English:
It rained today! I was asleep in the stifling gloom, and never noticed when the breeze picked up outside and the air grew cold. But then the sound of raindrops coming to blows with the earth reached my ears, and I stumbled to the door and threw it open. Rain in March – what a surprise! Everybody else in the building was out in the corridor looking up at the skies, laughing and shouting. Even as dozens on the street were sprinting for cover, the children had already run out and were prancing in the slush outside. A fine spray zipped about and settled on our faces. The trees were greener, the dirty walls of buildings darker and more soulful, and the sky full of low clouds jostling like hasty commuters.

Everything was different. In that luminous grey light, almost available to the touch like fog, I felt like all my circumstances had changed, I felt free of my debts, the penalties I would shortly render. The palm tree at the corner of the compound was swaying, and I too was shivering. It was like being in the presence of something all-embracing, the brahman our ancestors used to speak of, or receiving some great benediction. I washed my face, combed my hair, put on a clean shirt, and went out.

Puddles were everywhere in the holes and slopes of our little city. My porous slippers squelched as I walked, and my feet were soon muddy. The rain had gone and a chastened sun had emerged again, but the air was cool and the sky full of iridescent colours. But the people milling into the bus and pushing for seats had already lost sight of the sky. In the company of such citizens I felt silly admiring from more than the corner of my eye the flaming dome of our little world. There was a hole the size of a coin in the floor of the bus. Through it I could see the grey of the road beneath spinning by very fast. The man next to me got up and left, his jute bag bulging with vegetables. I took my place by the window and watched the world go by.
The rest is in the story, which is in the book, which will be out soon. A set of links to several good essays on different aspects of translation can be found in this old post.