Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

Science and the fiction

March 1, 2009

A profile of Ian McEwan (who I haven’t read till now) by Daniel Zawelski:

All novelists are scholars of human behavior, but Ian McEwan pursues the matter with more scientific rigor than the job strictly requires. On a recent hike through the woods surrounding his new country house—a renovated seventeenth-century brick-and-flint cottage, in Buckinghamshire—he regularly punctuated his observations about Homo sapiens with the citation of a peer-reviewed experiment. After discussing his many duplicitous characters—such as Briony Tallis, the precocious adolescent of his 2001 novel, “Atonement,” who ruins two lives when she makes a false accusation of rape—McEwan pointed to a “study in cognitive psychology” suggesting that “the best way to deceive someone is first to deceive yourself,” because you’re more convincing when you’re sincere. (“She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction,” McEwan writes of Briony. “Her doubts could be neutralized only by plunging in deeper.”) Speaking of the way that the brain surgeon Henry Perowne, of his 2005 novel, “Saturday,” struggles with the impulse to take revenge on a man who invades his home, McEwan made reference to brain scanners: “When people take revenge, the same reward centers of the brain are activated that are associated with satisfying hunger, thirst, sexual appetite. It was rather bleak, the perception.”

Writers have long been content to generate such insights on their own—somebody without the aid of a brain scanner came up with “revenge is sweet”—but McEwan is wary of relying too much on intuition. He has what he calls an “Augustan spirit,” one nourished equally by the poems of Philip Larkin and by the papers in Nature. Indeed, he told me that his 1997 novel, “Enduring Love,” in which a relentlessly rational man defeats a relentlessly irrational stalker, was conceived as a reply to the “unexamined Romantic assumption that still lingers in the contemporary novel, which is that intuition is good and reason bad.”

McEwan’s interest in science isn’t antiseptic; it sets his mind at play. He is surely the only novelist who owns a tie patterned with images of a craniotome—a tool for drilling holes in the skull. When he spots an opportunity, he will conduct an amateur experiment. After he wrote the Nabokovian coda to “Enduring Love”—a pastiche of an academic case study of Jed Parry, the stalker—he mailed it to one of his best friends, Ray Dolan, who directs the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, in London. “The package appeared to be from a psychiatrist in Dublin,” Dolan recalls. “It said, ‘I just had this article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.’ It was formatted just like pieces in the journal, with two columns and a header. I sat down that evening to read it. I was halfway through before the penny dropped.” Three years ago, McEwan culled the fiction library of his London town house, in Fitzroy Square. He and his younger son, Greg, handed out thirty novels in a nearby park. In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan reported that “every young woman we approached . . . was eager and grateful to take a book,” whereas the men “could not be persuaded. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks, mate, but no.’ ” The researcher’s conclusion: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

McEwan’s empirical temperament distinguishes him from his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes.

A good read!

PS:Is this a reference to Sandor Marai?

… McEwan believes that something stirring should happen in a novel. Though he is animated by ideas, he would never plop two characters on a sofa and have them expound rival philosophies.

Inequalities, irresponsible behaviour and power games in Carnatic music circles, breaking the rules in art and science, and the materialisation of the mythology of Shiva: Links from the Hindu — Sunday magazine

December 14, 2008

[1] Degradation on and off the stage?

T M Krishna, a performing artist, writes about some of the unsavoury things that he notices (in a piece that is sure going to generate some heat) on and off the Carnatic music stage:

Yes, a concert is team play and the main singer or main performer is like the captain of a ship but does the captain exploit his position? Yes, he does. Right through the years, the main artist (this is an expression many accompanists don’t like) have used their position as the central figure in a concert to undermine the accompanists.

We, as the main performers, can easily prepare what we want to sing and throw it as a surprise to the violinist just to make him/her look incompetent.

This has happened before and is happening even today. We sing a complicated pallavi, a rare raga or extensive mathematical calculations (which can be easily prepared in advance) and sometimes the accompanist does find it difficult to cope, not because they are incapable, but the thought process in the mind takes a while for the transfer to the hand. Some of us make sure a mistake is committed, keep on singing complicated ideas until the point that the accompanist makes the mistake and then, of course, a smile of victory. Most accompanists actually need to be much more equipped than the singers. They must have such a strong grounding that they can respond to various styles, attitudes and requirements, yet we play mind games with them. Sometimes we make mistakes and give the accompanist an angry look as if to infer that the mistake came from them. This is disgraceful. So is this really team play? Are we really partners? I don’t know, but when we display such attitudes I find this whole team play concept a little utopian.

What about external attitudes? Many of us main artists do not pay our accompanists well. We expect the organisers to pay us handsomely but care very little about our accompanists. Why? Is it the arrogance that we are the main attraction in the concert? That people buy tickets to hear us, not the accompanists? May be. How right is this? There must be some balance between what we make and what we give the accompanists. We cannot accept Rs. 50,000 and pay our accompanist Rs. 500! This is nothing but exploitation.

From what we hear from many senior musicians, this was not the case before. The accompanists of yesteryears were paid in reasonable parity to the main performers. So why has it changed today? I think it has because carnatic music today is “main performer centric”.

Many times the hotels that are provided for the main performer are of a higher class than that of the accompanists. Cars of a better class are given to the main performer. This is as discriminatory as it can get and we don’t complain. We are as much party to this as anyone else. Therefore, the main performer is all who matters . This has to change. We cannot produce music alone, it is enhanced and embellished tremendously by our accompanists and we need the humility to accept it. There is also an urgent need for the audience and organisers to educate themselves so that they can understand the dynamics better.

Krishna also has some complaints about the behaviour of accompanying artists and how they undermine the performances with their callous attitude (like the accompanying artists who send sms messages during the concert while the musician is singing alapana!); a must-read (though, not a very pleasant read) for all Carnatic music afficianados!

[2] A book about S Chandrasekhar and the idea of creativity in Science

V R Devika writes about the novel Empire of the stars by the historian of science Arthur Miller:

Empire of the Stars traces the idea of black holes from early notions of “dark stars” to wormholes, quantum foam, and baby universes. In the process it follows the rise of the two great theories — relativity and quantum mechanics — that meet head on in black holes.

The novel provides a unique window into the remarkable quest to understand how stars are born, how they live, and, most portentously, how they die. It is also the moving tale of one man’s struggle against the establishment and exposes the deep-seated prejudices that plague even the most rational minds. Indeed, it took the nuclear arms race to persuade scientists to revisit Chandrashekar’s work from the 1930s. Only then did physicists realise the relevance, truth, and importance of Chandra’s work, which was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Set against the waning days of the British Empire in India and taking us right up to the present, this sweeping history examines the quest to understand one of the most forbidding phenomena in the universe, as well as the passions that fuelled the quest over the course of a century.

Sounds like fun!

[3] Materialisation of the mythology of Shiva

We had spent quite a lot of time, while we were in Chicago at the Cloud Gate — marvelling at its flawless shape, structure and finish; the photo of the cloud gate on my blog (Thanks Ram!) is also one of the most visited pages; but, I never suspected the “Shaivite iconography” that underlies the sculpture till I read this piece by Meenakshi Thirukode:

However, the definitive embodiment of traditional iconography and philosophy based on the mythology of Shiva materialised into “Cloud Gate” (2004), popularly known as the “Bean” because of its elliptical shape. The 110-ton of stainless steel that has been welded together seamlessly, sits at the AT & T plaza in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A 12-foot high arch encourages the viewer to walk under the sculpture and see their kaleidoscopic reflections on its pristine surface. “Cloud Gate” encompasses a space that is both material and spiritual at a level beyond the immediate comprehension of the viewer. Kapoor talks of this experience as being “a direct attribute of the sublime”, a description he made of another massive work, “Marsyas”, which was constructed at the Tate a year earlier. While it is impossible for the viewer to grasp the entirety of “Marsyas”, he experiences the “modern sublime” as a comprehensive whole when he stands in front of “Cloud Gate”. On its surface the viewer sees the reflection of the phallic skyline, the clouds above and himself; as if the sky, earth and the human soul have been conjoined in a transcendent communion. This experience takes place due to the placement of the sculpture in front of the towering buildings that run across Chicago’s skyline. These attributes associated with “Cloud Gate” make it the most profound manifestation of a highly evolved contemporary icon that Kapoor has created by constantly questioning and discovering the symbolism of traditional Shaivaite iconography throughout his career.

The curved organic form of “Cloud Gate” marks a departure from the rigid stone pieces, giving it the aura of a living breathing creature recalling the forms in his early works from the early eighties such as “1000 Names”. This quality, coupled with an emphasis on its horizontality, makes it a strong reference to the couchant bull, Nandi. Furthermore, its alignment to the skyline evokes the placement of Nandi in relation to the sanctum sanctorum in Shaivaite temples. This is because the skyline is dotted with a number of high rise buildings, which simultaneously recalls the phallic form of the Shiva Lingam, and the myth of the Lord’s ability to manifest multiple times. What makes this work profound is that Kapoor successfully creates a contemporary icon that projects an implicit simplicity, within which lies a complex assimilation of conventional mythology.

Paul Graham’s heroes

April 5, 2008

I liked the list because, among other things, P G Wodehouse and Jane Austen appear on it:

P. G. Wodehouse

People are finally starting to admit that Wodehouse was a great writer. If you want to be thought a great novelist in your own time, you have to sound intellectual. If what you write is popular, or entertaining, or funny, you’re ipso facto suspect. That makes Wodehouse doubly impressive, because it meant that to write as he wanted to, he had to commit to being despised in his own lifetime. Evelyn Waugh called him a great writer, but to most people at the time that would have read as a chivalrous or deliberately perverse gesture. At the time any random autobiographical novel by a recent college grad could count on more respectful treatment from the literary establishment. Wodehouse may have begun with simple atoms, but the way he composed them into molecules was near faultless. His rhythm in particular. It makes me self-conscious to write about it. I can think of only two other writers who came near him for style: Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Those three used the English language like they owned it. But Wodehouse has something neither of them did. He’s at ease. Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford cared what other people thought of them: he wanted to seem aristocratic; she was afraid she wasn’t smart enough. But Wodehouse didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of him. He wrote exactly what he wanted.


Jane Austen

Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time. I’m interested in how things work. When I read most novels, I pay as much attention to the author’s choices as to the story. But in her novels I can’t see the gears at work. Though I’d really like to know how she does what she does, I can’t figure it out, because she’s so good that her stories don’t seem made up. I feel like I’m reading a description of something that actually happened. I used to read a lot of novels when I was younger. I can’t read most anymore, because they don’t have enough information in them. Novels seem so impoverished compared to history and biography. But reading Austen is like reading nonfiction. She writes so well you don’t even notice her.

Graham’s analysis of the patterns in his list is interesting too:

After I made the list, I looked to see if there was a pattern, and there was, a very clear one. Everyone on the list had two qualities: they cared almost excessively about their work, and they were absolutely honest. By honest I don’t mean trustworthy so much as that they never pander: they never say or do something because that’s what the audience wants. They are all fundamentally subversive for this reason, though they conceal it to varying degrees.

And, then there are gems of this sort:

One of the things I’ve learned about making things that I didn’t realize when I was a kid is that much of the best stuff isn’t made for audiences, but for oneself. You see paintings and drawings in museums and imagine they were made for you to look at. Actually a lot of the best ones were made as a way of exploring the world, not as a way to please other people. The best of these explorations are sometimes more pleasing than stuff made explicitly to please.

Take a look!

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s union

July 27, 2007

I finished reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s union; it is great.

Though I finished reading the book in five days (Most wanted: 1 week loan; no holds; no renewals; Evanston residents only), and, though it is not meant for such fast reading, I do not think I could have read it any slower. It is one of those books which you read fast once, and then get back to it for a slower reading later–and, several slower readings if you are interested in honing your writing skills–Chabon’s writing is wonderful.

I picked the book on Jenny Davidson‘s and Book Slut‘s recommendation, and, I have no hesitations in recommending it.

Lots of other people too have said lots of nice things about the book. Here are some:

Sam Sacks in Open Letters Monthly:

Fortunately, by about the second page of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, any fears that Chabon’s gifts had been exaggerated are eradicated, and the particular joy that results from proximity to radioactive talent comes upon the reader. This is Chabon’s best novel since his debut and shares with that book its spry, continuous action, its endlessly pithy dialogue, and its sweetly mordant sense of humor.

Terrence Rafferty in NY Times:

A simple message about the power of everyday love might seem a dismayingly small payoff for this whirling, intricate story, but the book is also about how the grandest fictions raise expectations unreasonably high, paralyze us with anticipation, doom us to the perpetual check of chronic dissatisfaction, unshakable as an Alaska chill. Nice novel.

Michiko Kakutani in International Herald Tribune:

Mr. Chabon has so thoroughly conjured the fictional world of Sitka — its history, culture, geography, its incestuous and byzantine political and sectarian divisions — that the reader comes to take its existence for granted. By the end of the book, we feel we know this chilly piece of northern real estate, where Yiddish is the language of choice, the same way we feel we have come to know Meyer Landsman — this “secular policeman” who has learned to sail “double-hulled against tragedy,” ever wary of “the hairline fissures, the little freaks of torque” that can topple a boat in the shallows.

Sam Anderson in NY Magazine:

… Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—an excellent, hyperliterate, genre-pantsing detective novel that deserves every inch of its impending blockbuster superfame …

Ruth Franklin in Slate:

With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should: Rather than forcing his own extraordinarily capacious imagination into its stuffy confines, he makes the genre—more precisely, genres—expand to take him in. This novel bursts with so many forms and styles, it’s hard to know where to start: It’s a noir thriller, a Jewish family saga, a counterhistorical fantasy that manages at once to be utopian and dystopian. Mostly, though, it is a “what if?” story for adults. What if the Jews had lost the Arab-Israeli war, and with it the state of Israel, in 1948, and instead had to settle on a (literally) Godforsaken collection of islands the U.S. government had set aside for them in the Alaskan Panhandle? What would that state look like, sound like, feel like? And what if, 60 years after its settlement, the Jews had to give it back?

All this is not to say that there are no criticisms about the novel. But, even when there is, his writing skill is still given its due: for example, here is Jenny Diski in the Guardian:

Chabon is a spectacular writer. He does a witty turn reinventing Yiddish for the modern Alaskan Jews – of course the lingua franca of Jews without an Israel – just a little of which I, with only faintly remembered childhood Yiddish, could grasp. A mobile phone is a shoyfer (perhaps because, like the ram’s horn, it calls you), a gun is a sholem (a Yiddish version of a Peacemaker?). Chabon is a language magician, turning everything into something else just for the delight of playing tricks with words. He takes the wry, underbelly vision of the ordinary that the best of noir fiction offers and ratchets it up to the limit. Nothing is allowed to be itself; all people and events are observed as an echo of something else. Voices are like “an onion rolling in a bucket”, or rusty forks falling. An approaching motorcycle is “a heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp.” Chabon’s ornate prose makes Chandler’s fruity observations of the world look quite plain. Nothing is described as just the way it is. Nothing is let be. He writes like a dream and has you laughing out loud, applauding the fun he has with language and the way he takes the task of a writer and runs delighted rings around it.

For the most part, Chabon’s writing serves the knotted mystery that is being unravelled, but there is eventually a point where it begins to weary the mind, where the elaborations of things get in the way of the things themselves and the narrative gets sucked under by style. The compulsory paragraph of Byzantine physical description whenever another character arrives on the scene starts to seem an irritating interlude; another over-reaching cadenza. Though it seems churlish to complain about such a vivid talent, a little less would have been enough already.

and, Confessions of an idiosyncratic mind (via):

Which meant that even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t quite shake the inborn expectations I had in hoping somehow that there would be a more living, breathing personification of a Yiddish-speaking homeland instead of the more ersatz, mainstream-friendly result that is winning Chabon a lot of praise from my critical peers. There’s no trace of anti-Semitism (a very silly argument put forward by a gossip section, anyway) but there is, to my mind, a rather cavalier attitude about Yiddish as a closed-in, precious culture that falls away upon closer examination of the culture in question.
It’s not that I think the Mendele listmembers and other like-minded critics are absolutely correct – occasionally the consensus defense borders on knee-jerk – but Chabon’s original essay did prove to be a harbinger of the fiction to come; one need only go back to that tsalooches-like comment he made in the New York Times piece. And had there been just a bit more respect and understanding instead of irritation and spite, I suspect THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION could well have been the magnificent opus as declared by so many to date.

Finally, before I end this post, here is an interview with Chabon at Salon.

Happy reading!

Five things that are wrong with Catch-22

June 28, 2007

A professor of philosophy tells five things that are wrong, in his opinion, about Catch-22; he also calls it the most overrated novel of the twentieth century; via.

Some reading recommendations

June 18, 2007

Happy reading!

The monstrous of all fames

March 3, 2007

… a man becomes famous when the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number he knows. The recognition enjoyed by a great surgeon is not fame: he is admired not by a public but by his patients, by his colleagues. He lives in equilibrium. Fame is a disequilibrium. There are professions that drag it along behind them necessarily, unavoidably: politicians, supermodels, athletes, artists.

Artists’ fame is the most monstrous of all, for it implies the idea of immortality. And that is a diabolical snare, because the grotesquely megalomaniac ambition to survive one’s death is inseparably bound to the artist’s probity.

Milan Kundera musing on novels; via Maud Newton. The immortality stuff reminded me of Atwood’s thesis that writing is a reaction to the fear of death. A must-read piece, by the way!

On novel (writing and reading)

January 12, 2007

Anything by Zadie Smith is a must read. Can you then afford to miss this piece, especially since it is (mostly) about writing novels and reading them? (Hat tip!)

On Adam Smith, partying and Mumbai’s underworld

January 11, 2007

Here are some excerpts from the following books via NPR:

Author and journalist P.J. O’Rourke delves into the content and influence of Adam Smith’s classic, The Wealth of Nations. He talks about digesting the massive tome on economics, so you don’t have to.

    Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich talks about her new book Dancing in the Streets, in which she gives a history lesson on collective joy and explains why humanity engages in large, ceremonial celebrations and why the upper classes have tried — and often still try — to suppress it.

    To enter the world of author Vikram Chandra’s new book, Sacred Games, is to be immersed in the crime and corruption of India’s financial and movie capital, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

      Happy reading!

      An excerpt from “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

      December 7, 2006

      Here is an excerpt (at NPR) from Mohja Kahf‘s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. Apparently, in the novel,

      Kahf delves into the cultural clashes of Muslim life in America, including racism between Muslims and bigotry by non-Muslim Americans.

      “You don’t realize when you’re in a minority culture that people look at you as if you’re this alien thing, you really don’t,” Khaf tells Deborah Amos.

      The author recalls being in a store with her best friend when a group of Amish women came in. “I wonder how they live, I wonder what they do?” the friends asked each other.

      “After we got out of the store, we looked at each other and we said, ‘Do you suppose people look at us like the way we just looked at the Amish?’ And we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s how people look at Muslims, especially [because] we were both women who both wore hijab (the Islamic headscarf), and that was sort of a revelation.”

      Take a look!