Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading with Naseer

Few experiences in my life have given me a greater thrill than that of reading with Naseeruddin Shah at the launch of Arzee the Dwarf last week. My own reading skills - reading-aloud skills, I should say - are modest, and therefore I was more than happy to let Naseer take up the gauntlet of interpreting Arzee sonically. Here we are in this photograph reading, leaning in different directions like neighbour trees riven by a stiff wind. And here is some footage (1, 2) of Naseer reading from the book. Besides Naseer, the other protagonists of this video are Arzee and my knobbly knee at bottom left.

I will be back with new essays on books on Wednesday, when I get home from my travels. I am also going to be reading in Delhi (on July 10) and Kolkata (July 17) next month.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Arzee the Dwarf readings: Bombay, Pune, Chennai and Bangalore

I'm very pleased to share with you the news that Arzee the Dwarf is now out. I received my own copy on Saturday, and was delighted with how it looks and, for all that I was prepared, also a bit surprised by how different a story seems when it happens on a page in a book rather than on a sheet of manuscript.

Some of you have written to say you can't find it in the shops yet: it may take another three or four days to arrive. This Friday (the 19th) I'm going to be reading from it along with the actor Naseeruddin Shah in Bombay at Crossword, Kemp's Corner, so if you live in Bombay, please try and come. But perhaps I am repeating myself here I may already have accosted you at the big mango bazaar near the Varad Shankar temple in Borivali West, or on the bridge above Marine Lines station, or at the traffic jam that's always there at Pump House in Andheri, and made you accept an invite.

Here the details of all the readings planned for June:

Mumbai: Crossword Bookstore, Friday June 19, 7pm.
Kemp's Corner, Mumbai-400026.
Facebook page here.

Pune: Crossword Bookstore, Saturday June 20, 6.30 pm.
ICC Trade Towers, Senapati Bapat Road, Pune 411016. Tel: 66033050.
Facebook page here.

Chennai: Odyssey Bookstore, Thursday June 25, 6.30 pm.
45-46, 1st Main Road, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, Chennai-600020. Tel: 044-24402264.
Facebook page here.

Bangalore: Odyssey Bookstore, Friday June 26, 6.30 pm.
757, 100 Feet Road, Indira Nagar, Bangalore-560038. Tel: 080-42115341.
Facebook page here.

I will be reading in Delhi and Kolkata in July.

Also, you will forgive me if much of what is posted here over the next month has to do with my own book, and not all the books by other writers and from across time and across genres that you're used to seeing here. Normal service will resume very soon.

An excerpt from Arzee the Dwarf is here. I hope to see you somewhere in the country over the next month.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kafka vs Kafka

The correspondence of writers and artists is often a neglected part of their oeuvre, thought to be of interest only to scholars and specialists. But in truth the letters of a writer or thinker can often supply a more lucid illustration of his or her life and work, and the relationship between the two, than most biographies can. Sometimes the letters themselves can approach the depth, complexity, and tension of great art. Dearest Father – the text of a letter written by Franz Kafka to his father Hermann in 1919, a few years before Franz’s death – is one such work.
It is already known that Kafka is one of the most complicated, inscrutable, and tortured spirits of world literature. In Dearest Father we find Franz himself attempting to provide a full account of how he came to be so. In Franz’s view, from his childhood onwards it was his father’s arrogance, abrasiveness, and contempt that stymied his progress at every turn. His long letter might be imagined as a set of concentric circles, evoking the particularities of Kafka’s relationship with his father, then the general nature of childhood and parenthood, and finally human nature itself.
One of the letter’s attractions is the way in which the son’s sufferings are not only described in great detail, but actually become manifest through the very style of Kafka’s prose, through the contortions of his sentences. “Dearest Father,” the letter begins, “You asked me recently why I claim to be afraid of you. I did not know, as usual, how to answer, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you...” We learn that Kafka always stutters and fumbles when trying to hold his own against his father, which is why he has chosen to express his thoughts in writing.
Moving from one incident to another, one feeling to another, the 36-year-old son – sickly, self-conscious, indecisive, in stark contrast to his vigorous, self-assured, and authoritarian father – explains how the older man’s behaviour “damaged me on the inside.” Although Hermann rarely ever beat his children, his constant threats of corporal punishment reduced the child Franz to a state of submission and abjectness. Later, the older man sought to fashion the younger after his own image by force, not realising that he was cut from totally different cloth. Whenever Franz took some initiative, his father’s contempt was absolute; when Franz made friends, his father made disparaging comments about them (“He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas”). Finally, and most disastrously of all, when the son sought his independence and escape by deciding to marry, Hermann reduced him to a wreck by implying that he had foolishly succumbed to the wiles of a low woman. The father's actions had the effect of driving the son into a sort of psychological cave. In a memorable metaphor expressing how family, which is what prepares the self for the world, can also come between the self and the world, Kafka writes:

Hence there were for me three worlds, one where I lived, a slave under laws that had been invented solely for me and, moreover, with which I could never fully comply (I did not know why), then another world, infinitely distant from mine, in which you dwelt, busy with ruling, issuing orders and being angry when they were not obeyed, and finally, a third realm where everybody else lived happily, free from orders and obligation. I was forever in disgrace, either I obeyed your orders, which was a disgrace for they applied, after all, only to me; or I was defiant, that was also a disgrace, for how dare I presume to defy you, or my reason for failing to obey was that I lacked, for example, your strength, your appetite, your aptitude, although you expected it of me as a matter of course; that was, in fact, the greatest disgrace of all.
“I was no real match for you, you soon disposed of me; all that then remained was escape, bitterness, grief, inner struggle,” writes Kafka. The general tone of Dearest Father is one of a helpless flailing in the face of a remote and unshakable power that recalls the exact existential condition of the protagonists of Kafka’s novels, such as Josef K. in The Castle. Indeed, at one point Kafka confesses: “My writing was about you, all I did there was to lament what I could not lament on your shoulder.” But if we are left convinced about the atrocities half-consciously perpetrated by Hermann, we see no less clearly the extreme fragility and anxiety of Franz, a condition that turns all the colours of the world into grey. The letter becomes all the more tragic and moving for the few moments of happiness that it records:

Fortunately there were some exceptions to this, mostly when you suffered in silence, and your love and goodness joined forces to succeed in moving me, in spite of all the obstacles. This was admittedly rare, but it was wonderful. For instance whenever I saw you exhausted and nodding off in the shop on hot summer afternoons, elbows on the desk, or on Sundays when you came running to us breathless in the fresh summery weather; or once when Mother was seriously ill and I witnessed you shaking with tears, steadying yourself by the bookcase; or the last time I was ill and you came silently to me in Ottla's room, standing in the doorway and merely peering round to see me in bed, acknowledging me with a single considerate gesture of your hand. At times like this I lay back and cried with happiness, and I am crying again now as I write these lines.
In closing, Kafka suggests to his father that although the problems between them are too many and too basic to be eradicated, his attempt to make a record of their relationship for their mutual perusal “might comfort us both a little and make it easier for us to live and to die.” So we naturally want to know how the letter was received by Hermann. But the most striking fact about the letter was that it was never sent. Perhaps the same fear and guilt exhibited by Kafka in the letter prevented him from delivering it to his father. He left the typewritten letter behind in a bundle of manuscripts at the time of his death, asking his friend Max Brod to burn them all. So it is the reader today who has become the letter’s real recipient, and it is upto us to imagine a rapprochement, and a new understanding between father and son that might have been but never was.

An excerpt from Dearest Father can be found here on the website of the publishers, Oneworld Classics, who are devoted exclusively to publishing new editions and translations of classics from European and world literature (two other recent publications of theirs that I'd like to read very much are Dante's Rime and Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Last year the novelist Justin Cartwright composed an imaginary reply to his son's letter by Hermann Kafka, which can be found here (Franz himself imagines his father's response in Dearest Father).

And here are some essays on Kafka, including several by contemporary novelists: "F. Kafka, Everyman" by Zadie Smith; "Before The Law" by Louis Begley; "The Human Stain" by John Banville ("The question has been asked: Was Franz Kafka human? He seems to have had doubts himself."); "Double Thought" by Michael Wood; "The Figure in the Castle" by Jonathan Lethem ("Kafka's the greatest writer, by a long shot, whom you can polish off in two or three weeks' reading"); "On The Castle and its translations" by Eric Ormsby; and lastly, "At Home With the Kafkas", an excerpt from Reiner Stach's 2005 biography.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Some things I've been reading: Gilead, Kulkarni, Nemser, Kirsch, Merrill, and Neuhaus

Some things I've been reading recently (Warning: to follow me to all these places will require plenty of spare or work time on your part):

Amihud Gilead's essay "How Few Words Can the Shortest Story Have?", which persuasively makes the case that Ernest Hemingway's untitled six-word story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." beats all the competition for the most complex and satisfying short short story ever written.

Two essays about the dismal performance of the BJP in the recent national elections, one by a perceptive outsider, Vir Sanghvi, called "What Is The BJP all about today?", the other a very detailed piece by an insider, Sudheendra Kulkarni, called "Hindu Divided Family".

Two excellent essays on poetry in translation (1, 2): one by Alexander Nemser on Vladimir Nabokov's stilted translations of the major Russian poets Verses and Versions ("Nabokov's versions have the paradoxical consequence of revealing how subjective even a literal translation is. [H]is baffling diction and his commitment to warped syntax produce an effect more of singularity than of accuracy. Literal translation, like any other kind, is asymptotic: it is always approaching the solution but never reaching it. And the gap between the original and the new version can be filled in only subjectively, depending on one's aesthetic sense of what to keep and what to give up. Beyond a certain level of rudimentary meaning, there is no proof in translation, there is only persuasion...")

and the other by Adam Kirsch on David Hinton's Classical Chinese Poetry ("No translator of Chinese verse attempts to follow the original in meter or rhyme, for the simple reason that, if such fidelity is difficult even in translating a kindred language such as French or German, it is utterly impossible when dealing with a language like Chinese. That is why it is so appropriate that Pound, who knew no Chinese, should be the inventor of Chinese poetry in English. When reading English versions of Chinese poems, we are getting as close as the conditions of our knowledge will allow, but no closer--we are reading the phenomenon, while the noumenon, the lyrical thing-in-itself, remains always out of reach.")

"What Is A Translator's True Calling", an essay by Christi Merrill on the stories of the Rajasthani writer Vijay Dan Detha ("At the beginning of his writing career, Detha told me, he unabashedly thought of himself as a folklorist, and made it his life mission to put into print the exceedingly varied and vibrant oral tales he grew up hearing in his native rural Rajasthan. And while he didn't state this directly, he made me understand that he began to feel frustrated with the unspoken mandate to copy down the tales exactly as he heard them. So he began to make changes — as would any storyteller in the oral tradition, I would argue — to bring out the full effect of each story. When I met him in 1988, he had already published fourteen fat volumes of tales written in Rajasthani as part of a series called Batan ri Phulwari (A Garden of Tales), and counted as his influences Russian fabulist and playwright Anton Chekhov (in Hindi translation), Hindi Progressive realist short story writer and novelist Premchand, and the German folklorist brothers Grimm (in English translation)...His work, like mine, was a different kind of translation, more in the spirit of the Hindi word anuvad, which conveys instead a 'telling in turn.' ") Merrill's translation of Detha's "translations" are forthcoming from Katha Books, and she is also the author of the recent study Riddles of Belonging: India in Translation and Other Tales of Possession.

Geoffrey O'Brien on Douglas Sirk's 1954 film Magnificent Obsessions, which cites this brilliant observation from Sirk: “The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy.” This is one of hundreds of essays film scholars on the Criterion website; just search for your own favourite movies and then settle down with a nice drink to read what you've collected.

And lastly, "A Curious Encounter with a Philosopher from Nowhere", an account by the Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus of a debate he had with the philosopher Peter Singer. Neuhaus, who passed away in January this year, was the editor of the journal First Things, which I came to during a particularly fruitful period in my reading seven or so years ago. The declared purpose of First Things was "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society", and from it I, then a student with a typically dismissive view of religious faith, learnt many good things about what religion is and the place that religious belief has in a serious consideration of the world. This essay is part of one of Neuhaus's celebrated monthly columns, "The Public Square", and even if you were not to agree with Neuhaus's worldview, I'd say there is much to think about in his declaration that "I hope always to be religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic."