Thursday, June 28, 2012

On JMG Le Clezio's Desert

A glimpse at the list of winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature in the last decade shows that the Swedish committee that adjudicates the prize is often willing to honour highly feted, widely read, and hotly tipped writers who for years have had “Nobel Prize” tagged to their names. VS Naipaul is one such case, and so are JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk and Mario Vargas Llosa.

But just as often the committee throws up a name that the vast majority of readers have never heard of, and to my mind this is the more interesting, exploratory side of its work. Who had heard of the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz or the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek before they won the award in 2002 and 2004 respectively? Who indeed, at least in the Anglophone world, could claim at the time of announcement to have read anything by the 2008 winner, the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
What the committee is saying, in effect, is that great literature, always being the work of an individual mind, can come from all kinds of unlikely places. Prizes like the Nobel can be a way of equalizing the iniquities of the literary market and the entrenched power of certain languages and cultures in the world today.

Le Clézio (many of whose works are now available once again in English translation after being out of print for some three decades), is an especially difficult writer to slot because, in addition to the difficulty and often wilful obscurity of his work, there is the difficulty and obscurity of his biography. Although he was born in France, and writes in French, he also claims allegiance to Mauritius, where one side of his family comes from, and where he still lives part of the year. 

A restless wanderer from the days of his youth, he seems not to have needed a “home” for his work, not to have cultivated a relationship with a single place or culture as most novelists do. Indeed, his itinerancy – he has spent time in and written books set in Mauritius, France, Mexico, Panama, and Africa, a world writer if there ever was one – might seem to resemble that of Naipaul, except that he mostly writes fiction, and his work is much more sympathetic to the marginalised people and cultures who are his subjects than Naipaul, with his glowering eye, is.

Among the distinctive emphases of Le Clézio’s writing is his engagement with what he has called cultures “broken by the modern world” – all the tribes and peoples thrown out of joint by the encounter with colonialism, Western rationalism, and the power of the nation-state (a good parallel in an Indian context might be someone like Mahasweta Devi or Gopinath Mohanty, both of whom have written extensively about the problems of Indian tribals). This willingness to move across a boundary, to invert a dominant power relationship, and to imagine the life of the “other” sympathetically from within is best seen in Le Clézio’s work in his novel Desert (1980), one the central novels in his oeuvre and now translated into English for the first time by C. Dickson.

Set in Morocco and in France, and spanning a century in time, Desert is the story of a warrior tribe of the desert, called “the blue men”, and their flight from French occupying forces in the early part of the twentieth century. Le Clézio depicts a group of people ceaselessly making their way forward like ants in the vast, arid and spirit-breaking desert, seeking a place of refuge where they can consolidate their resources and turn once again towards the lost homeland. In counterpoint, Le Clézio also tells the story, set in the present day, of a girl from the same tribe, Lalla, who flees the desert to escape a marriage she does not want and arrives in France, a vulnerable immigrant.

A great traveller himself, Le Clézio here produces a very close and painstaking description of human beings on the move across a landscape. His attention to the constantly shifting and turning shapes of the universe – no other novelist spends as much time detailing the changing colours of the sky, or the particularities of the light – turns his story into a cosmic drama. Le Clézio is also one of those writers who work absolutely on their own terms. His book is slow-moving and often difficult going, but the writing is frequently beautiful and alert, as when he speaks of the wind that “draws the yellow grasses aside like a hand passing over them”, or hears “the faint swish of sand running down the grooves in the rocks” on a cliff. If you consider yourself an ambitious reader, there’s no reason to deny yourself an encounter with this very independent-minded and distinctive sensibility.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Susan Sontag and the stresses of reading

Books, the great American essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “are a way of being fully human”. This is a point of view that this site is of course very sympathetic to. Without books, we are more likely to be without history, without memory, without imagination, without good language, without that kind of skepticism or doubt that stimulates reflection and an appreciation of complexity. Books expand inwardness: the experience of them, in a hyperkinetic age full of carefully plotted and speeded-up stimuli, is tantamount to a kind of meditation. Before there is a book, there must be a reader – a mind that has the space in it for the experience of extended connection with a book. 

“By books, I mean the conditions of reading that made possible literature and its soul effects,” Sontag writes in an essay, wondering if books will survive the assault of our “advertising-driven televisual reality”. Here, undoubtedly, is a combative and adversarial thinker with a very high-minded view of reading. But as the pieces in Sontag’s final collection of essays, WhereThe Stress Falls, demonstrate, the truly remarkable thing about Sontag (1933-2004) was not so much the gravity of her pronouncements as the range and catholicity of her interests. 

Where The Stress Falls contains essays on books, films, music, dance, art, photography, each one of them a felicitous combination of close interpretation of particular works and larger arguments about the history of the medium itself. This high view of multiple art-forms informs all of Sontag’s work, generating rapid cross-connections (“As the statue is entombed in he block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it.”) Like all the great critics, Sontag brought to her work a combination of perspicacity and personality: the erudition of a trained and subtle mind applying itself to a careful observation of its own highly individual reactions to art, and able to reproduce its journeys in lithe, allusive prose.

Among the forty or so essays collected here, surely the most widely circulated and discussed was Sontag’s essay from 1996, “A Century of Cinema”. For Sontag cinema was the greatest contribution of the twentieth century to the corpus of human art-forms, a form rooted first and foremost in a wonder “that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy”. There was something total about the cinematic experience. “Lovers of poetry or opera or dance  don’t think there is only poetry or opera or dance,” she writes. “But lovers of cinema could think there was only cinema.”

But much as Sontag’s essay was a reprisal and a stock-taking of where the movies had gone over a hundred years, there was also something deeply elegiac and pessimistic about it. For Sontag, the nineteen-sixties and seventies represented the peak of what she termed “cinephilia” – a highly informed, highly personal love of the movies held by a substantial number of aficionados committed not just to films but to film-watching in a darkened theatre, so that they might be overwhelmed “by the physical presence of the image”.

But over time this cine-system had been broken down, on the supply side, by the cynical formulae and simplifications of capitalist production, which had eliminated the tension between cinema as industry and cinema as art, and on the reception side, by the sheer proliferation of images in the modern world and the expansion of private home viewing. “The reduction of cinema to assaultive images,” Sontag writes, “and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention.”  These observations could profitably be applied to the story of Indian own popular cinema.

Perhaps the first skill of the good literary critic is knowing how to quote – that is, knowing how to supply the part that will rouse in the reader a need for the whole. Attention, in words, to a work of verbal art involves stepping back at times and letting the work speak for itself. This becomes especially important if the essay is an argument for the beauty of a novel or poem or play few have ever heard of, for then it is the excerpt that persuades as much as the analysis. Sontag was an especially adept practitioner of quoting, and there are wonderful passages here from the work of such masters as WG Sebald, Witold Gombrowicz, and Adam Zagajewski. Where The Stress Falls is not just eloquent invitation to the pleasures of reading, of watching, of inwardness, but itself an incarnation of some of these pleasures.

And here is a wonderful essay on Sontag – both admiring and mocking – by the writer Terry Castle: "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Sunday, June 03, 2012

On the poems of Joseph Furtado

One of the earliest, but least well-known, great Indian poets in English, Joseph Furtado (1872-1945) is now all but forgotten even in his native Goa. No edition of his poems is currently in print. This is a shame, because this self-professed “Goan fiddler”, who added cashew trees and tamarinds to the cornfields of English verse, could produce a beautifully weighted verbal music both melancholy and effervescent by turns. Furtado’s poetic subjects include landscape (“Land of palm and mango-tree/ Dear as life art thou to me.” he writes in one poem) and love, in which matter his speakers reveal a warmingly ecumenical taste (in one poem, the speaker professes a love for a mullah’s daughter; in another, he dreams of a lady who sits by his feet “And reads out stories/ Of Vedic glories”). 
But as poems like ‘The Secret’ reveal, the natural world was for Furtado heavy with human mysteries and silences; and his verse can be feminist, too, as when he sees women not just as objects of male desire but desiring subjects, in ‘The Neglected Wife’. Is the refrain of Furtado’s ‘Only Shy’ a pun on shayri, as Furtado suggests by his subtitle ‘An Urdu Song’? We shall never know for sure, but the best-known photograph of Furtado shows him late in life with a white beard even longer than Tagore’s—and as a creator of limpid verse effects he was in the same class. 
This month The Caravan publishes five poems by Furtado.