Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Life is shadow and art is substance

June 21, 2008

Here is Colm Toibin describing Henry James’ attitude towards novels and their writing:

As he imagined his books, he saw life as shadow and the art he produced as substance. He believed that language and form, the tapestry of the novel, could produce something much richer and more substantial than mere life, something that offered what was chaotic and fascinating a sort of complex and golden completion.

It is often more useful to look at a drama already in the making as the seed for James’s work rather than an individual character. He was interested, as his initial inspiration, in scenes rather than souls; he made his characters out of the dramatic moments he created for them, treating moral conflicts and matters of secrecy, infidelity and power with infinite subtlety. In his work, a single look, a single moment of recognition, a single ambiguous resolution took on enormous force, became the fuel that powers the great engine of his novels. He dramatised the intensity in the relations between people, playing freedom against pattern, restriction against openness and chaos against harmony.

The piece also gives several instances of a few lines plot summaries and notes that James wrote down in his notebooks, and what novels they became later. That part is very fascinating for me because it gives a glimpse of how novels are born in the minds of the writer.

Three years later, he listed six possibilities for new books, four of which became novels. One was to deal with “the girl who is dying, the young man and the girl he is engaged to”; this became The Wings of the Dove (1902). Another became The Other House (1896). A further novel he listed by its actual subsequent title, The Awkward Age (1899). And one more he summarised as: “The father and daughter, with the husband of one and the wife of the other entangled in a mutual passion, an intrigue.” This became The Golden Bowl (1904).

Take a look!

Hat tip: To Jenny at Light Reading for the link and recommendation.

Bible, titles of some classics and Oscar Wao

May 3, 2008

Here are a few links from the latest Hindu literary review edition:

Have fun!

Beckett on Flaubert, Balzac and others

April 13, 2008

An excerpt (I guess) from Brigitte Le Juez’ Beckett Before Beckett: Samuel Beckett’s Lectures on French Literature at the Guardian (via Maud):

Beckett favoured the absence of a controlling authorial personality and any sense of finality in a text, and was opposed to the control, embellishment or glorification of reality. In these respects, Flaubert was an exemplary modern author for him. Citing Madame Bovary and Salammbô he explained that Flaubert was neither photographer nor image monger, but a writer who displayed an honest apprehension of reality.

Beckett denied any modernity in Balzac, whose flawed duality he denounced – on the one hand he was a realist, and on the other a romantic psychologist. But, for Beckett, these two aspects did not fit together, resulting in a profound lack of cohesion in Balzac’s work. According to Beckett a modern writer must seek “homogeneity”. Thus, Flaubert was at once coherent and complex, in the manner in which the extreme precision of his texts revealed the contradiction of so-called 19th-century realism: exactitude was inevitably bound to be frustrated because confusion cannot be reduced to a neat narrative à la Balzac.

Monday morning literary links!

April 7, 2008

[1] Jennifer Schuessler at Paper Cuts on some questions that should be at the ends of paperbacks, but aren’t:

Ever wonder who writes those “Questions for Readers” at the back of book-club-friendly paperbacks these days? And ever wonder whether anyone actually attempts to answer them?

In an essay in this Sunday’s Book Review, the estimable Joe Queenan doesn’t answer these burning questions, but he does try his hand at a few provocative queries of his own. For example: “If it took Odysseus 10 years to make a short trip across a microscopic body of water” — that’s the Aegean, to you and me — “why does everyone in ‘The Odyssey’ keep insisting he’s so smart?”

One colleague raises the question of whether Lady Macbeth really has any children (she soliloquizes about having “given suck,” but we never see the little darlings or hear much about them again), while another points out the absurdity of the speaker in Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” blowing on a “slug-horn.” (Look it up.)

By the way, I have some sort of revulsion for the Questions for readers, and never understood how and why a perceptive writer like Margaret Atwood would allow such a blemish at the end of her The handmaid’s tale; on the other hand, questions of the type described above seem to be fun.

By the way, the continuity story reminded me of an apocryphal story I heard about P A M Dirac (though I am not able to find a reference to it online): having been given a Russian author’s novel (Tolstoy? Dostoevsky?), and having read it, when he was asked for his opinion, apparently, all he would say was that the author described two sun rises on a single day, or something to that effect.

[2] Steve Almond at Salon on the birth of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five:

His earliest draft takes a conventional approach. His second version begins with a salvo that resembles both the voice of the 22-year-old private who wrote his family from France and the outraged moralist he would become:

I used to pretend, even to myself, that I was deeply sorry about Dresden, tinkered with the idea of writing a book about the massacre with neatly underplayed indignation. But these things happen and there is no stopping them, so the hell with them.

But elsewhere in this draft — perhaps to compensate for such glib nihilism — his prose strays into the deep corn. We get lots of zowies and whiz-bangs. By the third draft, he has hit upon the formula that will allow him to write about Dresden without evasion: an exuberant amalgam of science fiction and personal confession.

“I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time,” he writes on Page 2. “When I got home from the Second World War 23 years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.” This is what makes “Armageddon in Retrospect” such a gripping read: The volume demonstrates Vonnegut’s mind-boggling evolution as a writer, the manner in which he learned how to cloak his rage in hilarity, to cop to his immense despair without surrendering to it.

The most assured piece in the new collection is a brief, undated essay called “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets.” Vonnegut is writing about Dresden, naturally. One need only replace the noun “Germany” with “Iraq,” however, to discern the unique prophetic role Vonnegut continues to play in our literary culture:

But the “Get Tough America” policy, the spirit of revenge, the approbation of all destruction and killing, has earned us a name for obscene brutality, and cost the World the possibility of Germany becoming a peaceful and intellectually fruitful nation in anything but the most remote future.

The essay’s closing paragraph is also a forceful reminder that while Vonnegut has died, his essential mission as an artist — to arouse the mercy of his readers — remains unfinished. He describes the warm reception he received from Russian soldiers as America’s last “good war” drew to a close. “We accepted their congratulations with good grace and proper modesty,” he notes, “but I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.”

[3] Robert Gottlieb on Steinbeck (via Maud):

The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad. There are talented writers who grow into their full maturity and then decline, slowly or precipitously. But that isn’t Steinbeck. You can divide his work up into coherent periods, but there’s no coherent trajectory of quality.

Happy reading!

Tributes: a polymath, a Buddhist scholar, a filmmaker and a SF writer

March 29, 2008

The magazine edition of the Hindu today contains (quite unplanned I suppose), tributes to several interesting people.

  • Ramachandra Guha pays his tributes to the polymath Damodar D Kosambi, and his father and Buddhist scholar Dharmanand Kosambi:

    A friend who lives in Goa writes to say that he is greatly enjoying the series of lectures being organised there to commemorate the centenary of the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi. The historian Romilla Thapar had spoken in the series, as had the jo urnalist P. Sainath; two Indians one thinks the notoriously judgmental Kosambi would have approved of, both for the depth of their research and the commitment to their craft.

    Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian. His day job was as a Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. On the train up and down from Poona (where he lived), and during the evenings, nights, and weekends, he gathered the materials to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.

    Among the community of Indian historians there is almost a “Kosambi cult” in operation. It is good that the civil society of Goa is joining academics elsewhere in India in paying tribute to his memory. But mostly forgotten in the meantime is a Kosambi who was perhaps an even more remarkable man. This was the historian’s own father, Dharmanand.

    I first heard of Dharmanand Kosambi from a friend who taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley and is arguably the greatest living scholar of Jainism. His name is Padmanabha Jaini. It was in Berkeley on a cold January afternoon, years ago, that Professor Jaini acquainted me with the elements of Kosambi pére’s life. As a young man he felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding the urge irresistible, he left his wife and baby boy to go to Poona and study with the great Sanskrit scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies inculcated further desires and ambitions; among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Baudh Gaya, in Sarnath, and in Kausambhi, near Allahabad, where the Buddha lived after attaining enlightenment. It was from this last place that he took the name by which he and his son came to be known. So far as I know, this remains the only “Kosambi” family in Goa, India, or the world.

    Dharmanand Kosambi spent a decade in the United States, in which time his son studied mathematics at Boston University (to add to the Sanskrit and Pali that he learnt at home). Reading about Gandhi’s movement made the senior Kosambi turn his back on America (and the scholarly study of Buddhism) to return to India and court arrest during the Salt Satyagraha. He was deeply attached to Gandhi; when the Mahatma moved to Wardha in 1934, Dharmanand Kosambi moved with him too. When I visited the ashram in Sewagram some years ago, an elderly (and knowledgeable) guide showed me the hut Gandhi lived in, as well as the huts occupied by his closest associates, such as Mahadev Desai and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Then he pointed to a structure, as modest as the others, which he called “Professor Sahib Ki Kutir”. This was where the one-time Goan, Buddhist scholar, and Harvard academic had spent his last years.

    Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable man concerns the manner of his death. In the summer of 1947, with the country on the eve of independence, Dharmanand Kosambi decided he did not need to live any more. So, in the hallowed Buddhist tradition, he simply fasted to death.

  • Pradeep Sebastian’s interview with Pico Iyer is a tribute to Anthony Minghella, a filmmaker who passed away recently:

    When a long-time editor at Time Magazine asked Pico Iyer recently to name all the people in the world he would be interested in interviewing, he named only two: Orhan Pamuk and Anthony Minghella. For Iyer, Minghella had been a hero, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. The one director Iyer wanted adapting his novel, Abandon, for the screen. I knew all this, so when I first heard about Minghella’s death, I thought at once of Pico. In the past, we had often spoken of how much both of us loved Minghella’s first film (with its lovely title) “Truly, Madly, Deeply”.

    He had told me once that after seeing “The English Patient”, he had been inspired to write the kind of fiction Minghella would have delighted in. I have no way of knowing if the filmmaker did read Iyer’s beautiful and radiant novel, but I have often fantasised about bringing it to Minghella’s attention. I would say, handing Abandon over to him, “Here is the book you have been looking for, stop looking elsewhere.”

    Minghella’s most underrated film is “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. It is a film I have come to admire more and more, though Pico himself thinks it an interesting failure. (While telling me once, “Minghella’s failures are more interesting than most people’s successes.”) The week before he died, Anthony Minghella had just completed making a television film of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency for HBO and BBC.

  • Nalaka Gunawardane pays his tributes to Arthur C Clarke:

    “Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C. Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.

    Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19 aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.

    In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently, he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant fireball was 12 miles away — and turned light into heat.

    “The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t you know smoking is bad for your health?’” Clarke added with a chuckle.

    In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.

    Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan “Guns are the crutches of the impotent”. In later years, he added a corollary: “High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating.”

Happy reading!

A modern rendition of Ramayana

March 16, 2008

In the Journal of Asian studies, Paula Richman writes about a short story of Pudumaippiththan titled Narada Ramayanam in an essay titled A Tamil Modernist’s Account of India’s Past: Ram Raj, Merchant Raj, and British Raj:

The Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s two preeminent epics, has been retold in diverse ways over the centuries, but one modern rendition is unique: Narata-Ramayanam(?). Its author, C. Virudhachalam (1906–48), wrote in Tamil under the pen name Pudumaippittan, meaning “one who is mad about newness.” Narata-Ramayanam(?) presents colonialism as a continuation of the Ramayana narrative, showing how an ancient South Asian narrative can serve as an imaginative framework for modern Indian writers. The text mounts an astute critique of the notion of perfect rule, Ram Raj, and suggests that such a utopian ideal fosters the veneration of a glorified past that never existed. The text’s modernist literary ploys encourage scrutiny of culturally constructed concepts such as nationalism, consumerism, and narrative coherence. This unusual Ramayana reveals how narrative resources can be used to question both ancient and modern ideologies.

I guess A K Ramanujan would not have been averse to add the Pudumaippiththan version to the three hundreds he talks about in his essay.

The piece also reminds me of the pleasures of reading Pudumaippiththan’s short stories: Aatrangaraip-pillayar, which is actually a short story rendition of Indian history, and Paalvannampillai which is about an authoritarian father at home but a very mild mannered man at the office are a couple that comes to my mind immediately. We read those stories so many times that we knew them almost by heart, and had great pleasure in reciting our favourite sections and sentences to one another!

Fecundity of Freud’s writing on literature and critical theory

March 2, 2008

Jacob Russell rereads Freud’s Interpretation of dreams (one of my father’s favourite books too), and writes about the multi-facetedness of the work and his surprise at the frequency with which Freud takes recourse to literature to support his theories:

The Interpretation of Dreams is a multi-faceted work: a record of the early development of psychoanalytic theory, a fascinating glimpse of late 19th Century Viennese middle class culture and intellectual life, a study in the transformation of traditions from their diverse contexts of origin: mythological, aesthetic, classical–recasting them within a new, over-arching ideological framework.


I am struck on this reading of how often Freud turns to literature, how profoundly important these literary sources are for the formation of his ideas, how–unlike his treatment of scholarly and scientific predecessors–literature stands for Freud as ready confirmation of his theories, as examples (properly interpreted, of course), of latent meanings made manifest. Even when he strikingly over-determines his analysis, say, of Lear in the Three Caskets, there is something of his treatment that releases it from claims of ownership, that, paradoxically–in the very act of making the Lear of his essay so entirely his own, he leaves us the Lear that remained beyond him, the Lear that came from the mind of its mysterious and unknowable creator. What more could you ask from a critic? Through the concentrated power of a strictly limited interpretation, reveal the unlimited depths that remain beyond those limits. No wonder, then, the fecundity of Freud’s writing on literature and critical theory.

Link via MetaxuCafe.

A recommendation for Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Etienne Gerard series

January 31, 2008

I knew of Conan Doyle’s Holmes novels and stories; I also liked his Lost world, which I read it in tamil translation ages ago. However, I did not know about his Brigadier Etienne Gerard series; over at NPR, Michael Chabon strongly recommends these stories:

But did you know that in between gleefully killing off Holmes and somewhat reluctantly reviving him, Arthur Conan Doyle created another great fictional character, one who easily rivals Holmes — if not for intelligence, then for heroism, bravery and dash? A character who exceeds Holmes in the one trait in which the great detective, by his own admission, was always deficient: a rich and lovable humanity. This hero, a handsome, charming and resourceful cavalry officer serving in the Grand Army of Napoleon, has only one tragic flaw, though in his own eyes, of course, it is his glory and his single greatest advantage in life: He is a Frenchman.

His name is Brigadier Etienne Gerard, and he starred in 17 short stories that Conan Doyle wrote, with a palpable sense of liberation, after pushing Holmes off that Alpine ledge. In their day they were almost as popular as the Holmes stories, but I have to confess that even though I’m a lifelong Sherlockian, I had never heard of the good brigadier until his exploits and adventures were recently collected in a single volume.

In its pages you will find adventure, action, romance, love and self-sacrifice, hair’s-breadth escape and reckless courage, gallantry, panache and a droll, backhand humor that rivals that of P.G. Wodehouse. You will also find yourself, even more than with the celebrated stories of Holmes and Watson, in the hands of an indisputable artist. For more than any other adventure stories I know, these stories have a power to move the reader.

There is a very long excerpt too from the recent collection of this series; have fun!

Tribute to Sultan of story

January 27, 2008

In the latest issue of Frontline, K Satchidanandan pays his (birth centenary) tributes to Vaikom Mohammed Basheer; the photos that accompany the piece (Punaloor Rajan) are a feast too. Here is a sample from the piece:

Of the many stories Basheer told, his own, as told in his autobiography, Ormayude Arakal (The Chambers of Memory), is perhaps the most exciting. Trained in Arabic at home by a musaliyar, he learnt his Koran by the age of eight. Then he studied Malayalam and English, and read his first storybooks from a friend, one Potti, which might have stirred in him the desire to tell stories. The names of Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders of the freedom struggle excited the young boy. Basheer has given an account of him literally touching Gandhiji during the Mahatma’s visit to his land for the historic Vaikom Satyagraha in March 1924 demanding, for the so-called lower castes, the right of entry into the temple.

The call of freedom took Basheer to Malabar, the centre of the nationalist activities in Kerala. He joined the Al-Amin newspaper run by the patriot, Muhammad Abdu Rahman. Basheer participated in the Salt Satyagraha on the Kozhikode beach that landed him in jail. Now he began to feel that Gandhi’s peaceful ways would not earn freedom for India; he was fascinated by Bhagat Singh and his comrades and moved over to Ujjeevanam (Rejuvenation), which had now turned from a Congress journal into the mouthpiece of the armed struggle against the colonisers. Basheer had to go underground to evade arrest. That was the beginning of seven years of wanderings in a variety of disguises: as a Hindu mendicant, a palmist, a magician’s assistant, an astrologer, a private tutor, a tea shop owner.

He also went to meet the film-maker V. Shantaram in an outlandish outfit hoping to join the film industry. Shantaram asked him to learn Marathi and come back. Before he could learn Marathi, a certain Gajanan, impressed by his language skills, employed him as a tutor. He was asked to teach mathematics, and Basheer had no choice but to leave the job and move to Bombay (Mumbai) where he became a physician’s assistant in Kamatipura, the haunt of sex workers, transgender persons and thieves. Next he ran a night school in Bhindi Bazaar, teaching basic English. It was then the sea called him and he found himself sailing as a khalasi on SS Rizvani carrying Haj pilgrims to Jeddah via the Red Sea. On the way back he landed in what are now parts of Pakistan. He served in a hotel in Karachi and then as a proofreader’s copyholder in the Civil and Military Gazette.

That is just the beginning of Basheer’s fascinating journey of life, and there is more where it came from. Take a look!

Writers and editors!

January 21, 2008

One of Dostoevsky’s sentences I like a lot goes something like this:

Even if it were proved to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really so that the truth were outside of Christ, then I would still prefer to stay with Christ rather than with truth.

An admirable sentiment; by the way, strangely, I found one of the religious teachers I admire a lot made a similar point in one of his discourses; while discussing how people decide to follow one religious leader or other, he said that people decide based not on how intellectual the leader is but how impeccable his conduct is.

But, I am digressing. What brought the Dostoevsky quote to my mind is Daniel Green’s stand, namely, that published Carver, irrespective of whether his editor Gordon Lish was a co-author or not:

As an erstwhile scholar of postmodernism, I am perfectly comfortable with indeterminacy and dislocation. I understand that texts can be elusive, unstable, self-contradictory. But a literal instability between different versions of the “same” text is a bit too pomo even for me. My introduction to Carver came through the Lish-edited stories that to me signalled a break from the formal experiments and self-reflexivity of postmodern American fiction but did not merely return to old-fashioned storytelling. The severely pared-back minimalism of these stories seemed to accept the postmodern critique of representation if not its alternative strategies. Character and plot are stripped to the bone, the former presented to us entirely through mundane actions, with no attempt at “psychological realism” (thus we never really get to “know” Carver’s characters, we just watch them wandering through their lives), the latter flattening out Freytag’s triangle to an unemphatic succession of events. It’s these stories that offered a Raymond Carver engaged in his own kind of experimentation (how bare and uninflected can realism become while still maintaing our interest?), which as far as I can tell is mostly absent in the more elaborated but conventional Lish-less originals. Even if Gordon Lish did essentially co-author the published stories, that’s still the Raymond Carver I’d rather have.

Take a look!