Friday, November 27, 2009

Some Things I've Been Reading: Shattuck, Garton Ash, Sharma, and Davis

Some things I've been reading recently:

"Nineteen Theses On Literature" by the literary scholar Roger Shattuck, the author of two fine books on Proust and Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography ("Literature ranges from simple songs and sayings to elaborate and extended tales of human deeds. The most compelling literature concerns persons whose feelings and thoughts and actions engage us in the lived time of mortality. Ideas and abstractions, which systematically separate themselves from persons and from time, do not form the essence of literature and do not surpass it.") The idea that literature allows us to feel more powerfully on our pulse than in real life "the lived time of mortality" seems to me exactly right; this is what we turn to literature and to narrative art for. See also Shattuck's essay "When Evil Is Cool", and a chapter from Proust's Way.

"1989!", an essay by Timothy Garton Ash on one of the most momentous years of the twentieth century, and one that offers a number of sage arguments against the temptations of reductivist approaches to history ("Every writer on 1989 wrestles with an almost unavoidable human proclivity that psychologists have christened 'hindsight bias'—the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time [for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe].What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen. Henri Bergson talked of "the illusions of retrospective determinism." Explanations are then offered for what happened. As one scholar commented a few years after 1989: no one foresaw this, but everyone could explain it afterward. Reading these books, I was again reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek KoĊ‚akowski's 'law of the infinite cornucopia,' which states that an infinite number of explanations can be found for any given event.") Garton Ash has written some excellent books of reportage, and is also the editor, most recently, of Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, a massive collection of essays by different hands about different lands that I am hoping will be on my desk to reading soon.

"How Sanskrit Should be Taught" by the scholar of religion, in particular Hinduism, Arvind Sharma ("It is an axiom in some schools of Indian philosophy that a question can be fully addressed only if it is approached negatively as well as positively. This means then that a consideration of how Sanskrit should not be taught is integral to a discussion of how it should be.") On this theme, you may also want to read Sheldon Pollock's essay "The Real Classical Languages Debate". Pollock recently set up an endowment to fund three fellowships in Sanskrit at Columbia University each year exclusively for Dalit students. I am not entirely persuaded by the logic of this reservation, but perhaps we will hear more about the reasons for Pollock's thinking, and the expectation should be that the recipients should in time rebut any skeptics with the quality of their work. On the question of a revival of decaying traditions of classical scholarship, see also "A New Loss" by Sugata Srinivasaraju. Arvind Sharma's excellent blog Indological Provocations is here.

An interview with Dick Davis, the translator of the poet Ferdowsi's great Iranian epic Shahnameh ("[Ferdowsi has] become more mysterious to me, further away. I used to think I 'knew' him, or something of him anyway; I don't feel that now. The more one knows of the poem the more complex and fascinating one sees it is [...] He has the discomfort-producing quality that all truly great narrative artists have; he makes you question what you know and what you assume, especially perhaps what you know and assume about himself.")

"A Translational Friendship", an essay by the renowned translator of Arabic fiction Denys Johnson-Davies on Naguib Mahfouz, an excerpt from Johnson-Davies's book Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature. Not only is this essay a charming work of reminiscence and homage, it also reveals the number of fortuitous connections, word-of-mouth circulations, and serendipities by which even work which retrospectively appears self-evidently great is published or translated.

"Dostoevsky's Dowager"
, a profile by Martin Ebel of Dostoevsky's German translator Svetlana Geier ("But the 'main thing,' the summit of a life dedicated to Russian literature has been first and foremost translation. 'Hold your nose high,' a teacher once advised her, and she followed his counsel to great advantage. He meant that she should avoid getting caught up with individual words, instead focusing on the whole, should hold within her gaze at least an entire sentence – and in principle the work as a unity. And even more importantly: in her ear. Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, 'its melody.' Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations.") Speaking of Dostoevsky, Princton University Press has just issued, in a handy abridged single volume, Joseph Frank's biography of the writer, originally in five volumes written over more than four decades, and one of the greatest achievements ever in literary biography. Chapter One is here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Indian poetry special in The Literary Review

The new issue of The Literary Review, an American literary journal that has been published quarterly by Fairleigh Dickinson University for more than fifty years, is a special on Indian poetry. Edited by Sudeep Sen, it has about 200 pages of verse by 44 Indian poets.

Here are three poems from the journal that caught my eye for their quality of thought, delicacy of language and beauty of sound. The first one is by Robin S Ngangom:
After Cavafy

We believe we own them but
In the evening of a street not a soul will be found.
Only a few stars shuffling in the oily sky and
Orange trees for neighbours.
Here, they've lain huddled in December waiting
For Christmas to rock them on its pinewood floors
And in blue afternoons
You can see them drowsing in the barber sun.

Relentlessly, a dream has hemmed me in these hills
While the future has cast me as a bleak interpreter of signs.
And so many things to finish
That I did not pay attention to their birth,
There were no labor pains,
And they have shut me off from their hearths.
Some more poems by Ngangom ("Body", "Flight", "The Last Word") are here, and his book Time's Crossroads is available here.

And here is Karthika Nair's splendid villanelle, "Tempus Fugit":
Tempus Fugit

I think I would like to die watching you dance,
feet staying quicksilver skies, arms a swift crease
of light across longitudes. Stars rise from trance

at your touch, drape the stage with night while stagehands
mix music (bass from springtides, then soughing trees,
I think). I would like to die watching you dance

the tango with Mistress Time—trellised, by chance
or choice, in memory's arms—,transform a frieze
to light. Across longitudes, she twists in trance

till lips landlocked by your will blaze morning, lance
the inky continents, where—like yestreen breeze—
I think I would like to die. Watching you dance,

scissor land and sea, curve orbits with bare hands,
Time learns to whirl on lone, hennaed feet: release
of light on longitudes. Stars fall into trance

as you plummet out of life: no backward glance
of farewell, no thunder, no tears. With such ease
would I like to die, I think, watching your dance
—like lightning on longitudes—strike and entrance.
Often, when copying out poems or passages from books, one is able to better appreciate their qualities because the hand is so much slower than the eye, and so the mind stays with the words longer than it did the first time (this is one very good reason for keeping a notebook). I liked this poem by Nair even better while I was tracing it on my keyboard than when I read it the first time. Nair is the author of a recently published book of poems, Bearings. Some poems from this book are here.

Last, here is Anjum Hasan's "This Biography":
This Biography

My heart beat fast or did not beat at all;
I could not say all that I thought and thought
till words deserted me. I loved too abstractly.
I dreaded how all there was to give me was me—
like water, this biography. I unravelled far too easily
then fled to selfish deserts and slept on the hardest rocks.
I couldn't make what others made and broke and broke
and made, that sweet choreography. I went alone
and missed the world continually. I misread smiles;
I stuttered before open arms, but time passed too fast
for disappointment's imprint on the glass of memory.
I sought the future even when the blood swirled now,
I let the past decide too greedily. I kept searching out
the window, I tried to stay half hidden by the light.
Hasan is the author of the collection Street In The Hill. Here are some of her poems ("Mawlai", "Small Town", "To The Chinese Restaurant"), and some more can be read here.

Meanwhile, almost every Saturday in Mint Lounge you will find on the books page a new poem by an Indian poet, and here are three recent ones: "Ghost Sounds" by Aruni Kashyap, "Identification Marks" by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and "New Delhi Love Song" by Michael Creighton.

And lastly, an old post about a great seventeenth-century Indian poet, Salabega: "Tigers in the poetry of Salabega and William Blake". This link gives a certain feline symmetry to this post, making it begin with a panther (the animal on the cover of The Literary Review is a fibreglass work by Bharti Kher) and end with a couple of tigers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Aseem Kaul's Etudes

Two moments involving the clothes of departed people might serve to give a sense of the distinctive mood and method of Aseem Kaul’s book of very short stories, Etudes. In “The Shirt”, we see a woman who has recently been widowed. Every day she continues to wash one of her late husband’s shirts and then hangs it out to dry, watching – the image is both macabre and touching – “the empty shape of him billow in the back yard.”

And in “The Smell of Smoke”, a woman is abruptly left by her partner, and decides instantly to give away all his clothes. The narrator proffers this observation: “There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty.” Although the parentheses insist that the woman is not considering the possibility of the man’s return, we know, of course, from the very vehemence of her insistence that she is. The sentence is simultaneously a description of both determination and desolation.

Almost uniquely among Indian short-story writers in English, Kaul is determinedly a writer of short shorts (for similarly compressed and elliptical work by contemporary Indian writers in English, I can think only of Kuzhali Manickavel's Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings). Kaul’s characters are rarely named, their backgrounds barely sketched in, and the places they live in almost never described—all the pillars and plinths on which realist storytelling is based are rigorously cleared away. But for all the austerity of the writer’s method, his creations seem no less real than those of realist writers. What we see his characters do, primarily, is think. In his best stories, we feel as if mind has insidiously established contact with mind, in the same way as we might in a conversation with someone we have just met.

Indeed, many of Kaul’s stories are built upon a model of conversation, either real or imagined. One of them, “Where Shall We Go For Dinner?”, is written entirely in dialogue, without a single word of narratorial explanation. It shows us a couple quarreling over where to eat dinner, and then making up. It is hard to work from such a simplified palette, so the success of this story is no small achievement.

In another story, “Conversation”, a man begins to track the voice of the woman who lives next door, because he can hear her on the telephone through the wall they share. Although they never actually speak, he becomes more and more involved with her life, . When he realises she is sad, he takes “to playing soft music at night – works for solo piano” to soothe her (as the title of his book indicates, this is clearly the kind of music Kaul loves best). But, churlishly, the woman complains about the disturbance, and makes the narrator gloomy. One day he finally takes the plunge, and calls her. She picks up the phone. “He doesn’t say anything, just sits there, hearing her voice coming through the receiver on the one hand, through the wall on the other. Like a conversation.” Kaul’s arresting ending beautifully fulfils the spirit and strangeness of the story.

Like the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who is clearly one of the moving spirits behind Etudes, Kaul loves to write a certain type of mind-bending fiction. In one story, “Googled”, the protagonist Bihag Sharma (one of the few characters in the book who are named) googles his own name, and is astonished to find, among the search results, a few links dated 2014, describing things that are going to happen in his future. Google's reach and power are now so immense, the story suggests, that is knows not just every bit about our past but also the future. A story called “Juliet” puts a wicked modern spin on the love story of Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that Juliet was really a malevolent schemer who cozened Romeo into sacrificing himself so that she could marry someone else. Kaul’s mischief extends all the way to the back cover, with its list of quotes by fictional reviewers, including one Orhan Gutan.

Here, in full, is the story with which the book opens, called "Note Autobiographical":

Note Autobiographical

Every time he speaks to himself you sense something missing, something not quite true. It's not that you doubt his sincerity—on the contrary, you know he's making every effort to be honest. It's just that by putting himself in the spotlight he has blinded himself to his own shadow, to the audience of alternate selves who watch him from the wings. He tells you what he sees, but all the while the real self remains invisible, like light seen from the inside of a bulb.

It's like the difference between the way you picture yourself and your face in a photograph. The way you hold your breath at immigration, waiting to see if the man examining your passport will accept you for who you are.

In six sentences, many truths and intimations about the self are captured, and the three metaphors—the two light-related ones of the spotlight and the inside of a bulb, and the one about the difference between the face's conception of itself and its look in a photograph—are all rich with suggestion, with lights and shadows. Even such a short piece attests to the writer's control over prose rhythm, and indeed, while the 75 stories in Etudes might prove wearying if read at one go, there is not a page here that does not reveal in some way the writer's ferocious intelligence and alertness to metaphysical complexity.

These winning pieces might be seen not only an assertion of a new kind of method, but also be seen as a tacit criticism of the lazy gestures and banalities of much realist storytelling, particularly from the subcontinent. Such a fresh and strange sensibility is very welcome in the house of Indian fiction.

And an older post on another writer of very short stories: "The zany fictions of Etgar Keret", which features Keret's strange and beautiful story "Pipes".