Monday, 25 August 2014

Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance

Those who continue to harp on the inevitable decline of the novel ought to hold off for a while. The unique task of the genre, after all, is truthfulness to human experience in all its variety, and thanks to the great migrations of population in our time, human variety is to be found in replenished abundance all around us. The displacements, comminglings and clashings of peoples and cultures have released new energies, strange pollens; indeed, the harvest has barely begun.
Consider Rohinton Mistry, a Parsi, born in Bombay in 1952, who has lived in Canada since 1975. His first book was a widely praised collection of stories, "Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag." It was followed by the novel "Such a Long Journey," which received the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book of 1991. His third book, "A Fine Balance," defies easy categorization. Calling it a domestic novel would not be altogether amiss, provided one added: a domestic novel that refuses to remain within walls.
Set in 1975 in an unidentified Indian city, it opens quietly and builds slowly, starting with a simple, centripetal narrative premise. Mrs. Dina Dalal, a financially pressed Parsi widow in her early 40's, is determined to keep her independence, resisting the options of remarriage or a return to the bullying charity of her brother's household. To make ends meet, Dina takes in a paying boarder, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a Parsi school chum, and hires two Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, to sew dresses for an export company. At first she sets the tailors to work under sweatshop conditions. The author charts the transformation of an empty apartment into a home full to bursting, and the binding of mismatched strangers into a communion as close as family.
Each of the four main characters is a refugee from one thing or another. Dina seeks to escape from the suffocating strictures imposed upon respectable, single, aging women. Maneck, the paying boarder, has been sent down from the hill country to attend college. His beloved mountain village in its majestic natural setting has been scarred by road construction and electrification projects, its forests depopulated. Seeking an education in step with the times, Maneck is studying for a diploma in refrigeration and air conditioning, for entry into "an industry that would grow with the nation's prosperity."
The tailors, Ishvar and Om, have been fleeing all their lives; they are refugees from caste and communal violence and, finally, from the institutional violence of Indira Gandhi's emergency rule. Om, just 17, is the son of Ishvar's murdered brother, and Ishvar, in his 40's, who has never married, has dedicated his life to being father-protector to his nephew. Their histories are joined in unending misfortune. Living from hand to mouth (even their sewing machines are rented), entirely at the mercy of the social upheavals of the hour, they are subject to periodic sweeps of the city to provide crowds for political rallies and conscripted manual labor for civic beautification schemes. Each time they are beaten down, they have to pick themselves up and start over. This happens again and again.
Under these circumstances, Dina's apartment becomes a haven for the tailors. The four strangers start sharing their stories, then meals, then living space, until, over the divides of caste, class and religion, the ties of human kinship prevail. In this one shabby little apartment, at least, the human family becomes more than a phrase, a metaphor, a piety. The author takes his own sweet time here, as well he should. I balked at the slowness at first, but just when I'd started to mutter "This really is much too sweet!" and "What are the odds of such harmony coming to be under such conditions?" and "I only wish. . . ." the downslope began, a veritable avalanche of catastrophe ensued, and I keenly regretted my reluctance to bask in the brief patch of sunshine Mr. Mistry had provided.
What follows is a double misfortune of catastrophic event and narrative stance, because from here on it feels as if some invisible but essential substance -- like air or love -- that has hitherto flowed unstintingly from author to character has been siphoned off, leaving the dry machinations of plot design in its stead. This withdrawal is especially disconcerting where Dina and Ishvar are concerned.
Since decency is often drab, dogged and undramatic (or at least not obviously dramatic), Dina and Ishvar are people of a kind rarely found in fiction today. And here they are, moving, breathing, fully dimensional figures -- placed at the very center of the novel. All the more disappointing, then, to find myself losing touch with them, except for a few external landmarks passed during the final eight-year stretch of the narrative, which encompasses only a few chapters. I for one wanted news of their interior journeys as well.
At book's end, I returned to ponder the title, "A Fine Balance," because my sense of imbalance -- of despair over hope, of sustained moral injury beyond reach of remedy -- was keen. Perhaps this residual imbalance is due in part to a conflict between Mr. Mistry's political and literary aims. Certainly the indictment of Mrs. Gandhi's regime served up in these pages could not be more trenchantly clear. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Who Was Ernest Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway wrote the first letter in this collection when he was twenty-three, the last when he was twenty-six. In these three years, living mostly in Paris, he fathered his first child, grew disenchanted with his first wife and took up with his second, quit his first job as a reporter, published his first three collections of stories and poems, wrote his first two novels, saw his first bullfight, and began transforming himself from a writer who conveyed inward experience in all its anxious detachment “so that…you actually experience the thing” into an aficionado who praised strength and bravery in “people that by their actual physical conduct gave you a real feeling of admiration.” He also began inviting that kind of admiration for himself. By the end of the book, the avant-garde disciple of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, collecting rejection slips from little magazines, was already remaking himself as Papa Hemingway, celebrated everywhere for plain-style toughness.
This volume, the second of a planned seventeen in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, includes almost 250 letters, three times the number from the same period printed in Hemingway’s Selected Letters 1917–1961, edited by Carlos Baker (1981). The newly published letters are bracingly energetic and readable, and they add depth and detail to the already vast biographical record of Hemingway’s early years. The editors’ extensive annotations explain historical and personal allusions, record the minutiae of Hemingway’s finances, and tell more than anyone needs to know about the many boxers and bullfighters he admired.
What makes the book revelatory is not its biographical detail but the spacious view it gives of Hemingway’s mind at work in his long, eager, and unguarded letters to boyhood friends. For the past fifty years, ever since his embittered older sister Marcelline reported that their mother had dressed the young Hemingway as a girl and had tried to raise the two of them as twins, and ever since his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden (1986) revealed his androgynous fantasies, the conventional reading of Hemingway explained him away as the product of sexual confusion and category-crossing. This turns out to be as simplifying and crude as the he-man image it supplanted. These letters make clear that both the he-man and the androgynous fantasist were surface expressions of a deeper wish that shaped Hemingway’s life and work, a driving impulse that ultimately had nothing to do with sex.
Hemingway’s letters are copious with gossip and boasting that he often enlivens by invention. He assures a friend at one point, “Quite a lot of the above paragraph is true.” Except in a few authentic-sounding outbursts against his parents, almost everything he says about his emotional life seems false. His reports of perfect marital happiness with Hadley Richardson grow more insistent as he becomes increasingly disenchanted with her.
He constructs a different style for each of his correspondents. To publishers and editors he is formal and calculating. To Gertrude Stein he is flattering and deferential:
I made it all up [“Big Two-Hearted River”], so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to, it is swell about the fish, but isn’t writing a hard job though? It used to be easy before I met you. I certainly was bad, Gosh, I’m awfully bad now but it’s a different kind of bad.
To Ezra Pound he is bigoted and obscene:
You heard of course of [Lincoln] Steffens marriage to a 19 year old Bloomsbury kike intellectual.
Low-ebb the exjewish magazine publisher [Harold Loeb, ex-editor of Broom] and I play tennis occasionally.
Uneasy shits the ass that wears the crown etc.
To his sanctimonious parents he alternates between dull formality and furious self-justification:
I have no time or inclination to defend my writing[;] all my thoughts and energies go to make it better and truer and a work of art that is really good never lacks for defenders, nor for people who hate it and want to destroy it. Well it doesn’t make any difference. They can’t destroy it and in the end it just frightens them and they back away from it.
None of the different styles deployed in the letters resemble the narrative voice of his fiction. At the same time that he was perfecting the tension and tautness of “Big Two-Hearted River” and The Sun Also Rises (1926), he was writing to boyhood friends and to colleagues from his wartime ambulance unit in a mixture of private slang (“yencing” is the sexual act) and polysyllabic buffoonery. Reporting someone’s mishap on the way to an outdoor privy at night, he adds:
Needless to say the enditer [i.e., Hemingway] never would peristalsis except in broad daylight wit the solar system doing its best to warm the function.
Three months after submitting to The Dial his story about an aging matador, “The Undefeated,” he reports: “The Dials had my long Stier Kampf story now for almost a trio of the monats so they may produce kickage in [i.e., payment] also.”
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Tuesday, 19 August 2014

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Poetic License - Vikram Seth

Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth talks fast, thinks fast and moves fast. His conversation is a machine-gun spray of energy and velocity: one moment he's interrupting his own sentences; the next he's contradicting himself or going back to something he said earlier. It's an infinite play of distraction and digression and diversion .
His third novel is about to go to press, and Seth is in the harried, final push to make last-minute corrections and revisions. That amplifies the pressure in his high-rise, light-filled London flat, which, in the current rush, has the curious feel of an encampment. The occasional mess spills over on a table or chair, but the rooms appear oddly unoccupied. The phone rings incessantly.
On the floor, stargazer lilies, red and pink mums, small white blossoms and purple poppylike blooms overflow the edges of a vase. An elegant handwritten note is attached: "Sorry for the misunderstanding -- Stella."
"I don't know any Stellas, and I don't even have time for a misunderstanding," says Seth (pronounced sate). He runs his hand through his hair in baffled amusement.
I sit down, and the show begins: would I like my chair moved, Seth suggests. Or perhaps another chair altogether? Is the lighting all right? Perhaps I would care for a cup of Chinese tea? No, no, perhaps the chair is best here after all -- meanwhile, did I notice the late-afternoon northern sun, slanting over the London rooftops? (The light is indeed heavy and low, pouring like pale honey over the buildings -- I can see Battersea, the Albert Memorial, and a horizon punctured by church spires and factory smokestacks.) By the time Seth has said all this, he has moved around the room several times -- to the window, to the kitchen -- before I have a chance to ponder fully the first question.
Watching him -- and there is little else I can do -- I begin to grasp how he could write 600 lines of verse a month for The Golden Gate (1986), his astonishing first novel written entirely in sonnets; then move to A Suitable Boy (1993), his 1,349-page Tolstovian prose epic about Indian life in the wake of independence; and now pen a third novel, An Equal Music, about the passions, peregrinations and problems of a London string quartet. Along the way -- amid periodic travel between London and Delhi -- Seth has put out four collections of poetry (Mappings, 1980; The Humble Administrator's Garden, 1985; All You Who Sleep Tonight, 1990; Beastly Tales, 1991), a volume of translations (Three Chinese Poets, 1992), an opera libretto (published as a children's book, Arion and the Dolphin, 1994) and a Tibetan travel book (From Heaven Lake, 1983).
He agreed to this interview before he realized how busy he was going to be. He also consented because of his fond memories of Stanford, the place where, as he puts it, he spent 11 years not getting an economics PhD -- the place where he became a top-selling, highly acclaimed international author instead.
"Vikram has a talent for so many things -- music, poetry, economics. Three or four muses were jealously tugging at him," says poet Timothy Steele, '70, one of Seth's mentors from his Stanford days. As a boy in Calcutta, Seth was trained in the classical Indian musical repertoire, specializing in singing. (He has a deep affinity for Western music as well; he admits he can "belt out" Schubert lieder when the occasion demands.) After taking an undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, Seth went to Stanford aiming for a PhD in economics. But just when you expect him to move forward in one direction, he moves sideways, like a crab. 
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Friday, 15 August 2014

The poetry and music of the Alexandria Quartet

It is these novelists’ pressing need to set their narratives down in some palpable place, almost as aliens colonizing a territory, rather than a compulsion to celebrate their country or fictionalize an already famous vicinity that leads to their iconic inventions.

This is especially the case with the four novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea – published in quick succession from 1957 to 1960. It had not been Durrell’s original intention to carry the story over so long a span, but once begun, he found he had an irresistible impulse to complete the full trajectory of a long-fostered obsession. Alexandria became the mise en scène of his masterpiece, if not by accident, at least fortuitously. To state this is not to question the powerful presence of the city throughout the novels. But Durrell’s creative instinct appears to have hit on Alexandria as the right domain for his long-anticipated magnum opus because it had become highly familiar to him during his wartime exile and, more importantly, because an Alexandrian woman had entered his life at a critical point. 

London had been the metropolis he had first hoped to anatomize through the lives of a chosen group of people. Ever since settling in London in the early 1930s, Durrell had envisioned a major work of fiction to embody his critique of urban existence in the modern world. He filed this notion under the heading “A Book of the Dead”: England seemed to him a moribund society. Durrell was the son of an Empire family, a child of colonial officials in India. While a true inheritor of the English literary tradition, he was never at ease in his English homeland. He was sent home to receive an English public school education, but he and his brother Gerald called England “Pudding Island”, a stodgy place unattractive to anybody used to the freedoms enjoyed by children of the Raj. 

Durrell’s years after school were spent in bohemian circles in London, but seemed to get him nowhere. In frustration he left London in the mid-1930s with an art student, Nancy Myers, to live on Corfu, beginning a lifetime’s devotion to all things Hellenistic and to the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean. He was joined on Corfu by his mother and the rest of his family, including Gerald. Their life there is recorded by Lawrence in Prospero’s Cell and by Gerald in several books. This celebration of their Corfu existence was written in the tower of a villa in Alexandria at the time of Lawrence’s most acute involvement with Egypt – though nothing can be imagined that is more unlike the pleasures of a Greek island than the dusty, noisy, claustrophobic Alexandrian suburb of Moharrem Bey. 

In Alexandria Durrell would sometimes speak harshly of Egypt and the British and be scornful of most other nations, but never of Greece and its civilization. Though only ostensibly a Greek city, Alexandria harboured many Greek-speakers among its diverse inhabitants. There were also Italians, French and Jews, some endangered by their nationality in wartime, but Egyptian sovereignty and British suzerainty did not compromise the cosmopolitanism of the city. 

Founded by Alexander the Great, and the second most important city of the Roman Empire, it later became the controversial centre of Christian theological disputation (Origen and Athanasius, among the Church Fathers, were Alexandrians). To this day the Coptic Church is a pervasive influence. After the Arab conquest, its Hellenism faded, as did its importance as a place of trade and culture. The fort on the mole separating the western and eastern harbours, Quitbey, approached by Tatwig Street, a slum area where Durrell lived when he first arrived, was built by a Mameluke sultan in the fifteenth century, and testifies to the city’s continued power in medieval times. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, when Egypt was opened up to European influence by Napoleon’s invasion, “Alex” had shrunk to a small port clutching only memories of its ancient fame. 

In the 1830s the creator of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali, invited Europeans to live in Alexandria and accelerate its prosperity. Ali’s equestrian statue still lopes in a friendly fashion in the square named after him in the heart of the commercial district, seeming to preside over the stately Corniche and the restored opulence of the Cecil Hotel, through whose doors Darley, Durrell’s alter ego and the narrator of the novels, and his lover, the mysterious Justine, pass on some of their clandestine appointments. By the first decades of the twentieth century Alexandria had regained its reputation as a fabulous site, though one notorious for the separation of rich and poor. Muslim Egyptians outnumbered foreigners but did not control public life. Today Alexandria has again fallen into dilapidation, and the visitor must search to find relics of its Victorian prime. 

Sunday, 10 August 2014

EM Forster: 'But for Masood, I might never have gone to India'

Most writers battle with periods of being blocked; it's almost an occupational hazard. But in the writing of his last and greatest novel, A Passage to India, EM Forster got stuck for nine years. Now that is unusual. The book took him 11 years in total to complete, which means the actual physical work – setting the words down on the page – lasted two years. All the rest was hesitation.

What tripped him up so badly? We may never know. There were two areas of his life, physical intimacy and writing, which Forster kept highly private. For the rest, his diaries and letters are full of self-examination, giving the impression of somebody free with his emotions. But he shared his sexual secrets with very few people, and in his journals he usually recorded such matters in a very oblique way. His writing he hardly mentions at all.
At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1905 and 1910. He had published some short stories too, but there are strong indications that his novelistic impulses were running dry. He had started a new one, which he called "Arctic Summer", in 1911, but it had already stalled before he set out on his first visit to India and it would never be completed.
His motive for going to India was to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he'd befriended in 1906 and with whom he was deeply in love. The affection was lopsided: Forster had twice declared his feelings, but Masood was straight and couldn't reciprocate. Nevertheless, the two men were close, and when Masood completed his legal studies and returned to India, Forster followed a few months later.
By then, the country had already started to exercise his imagination. Masood had talked about it with Forster and had put the idea into his head of writing an Indian novel. It was enough of a possibility for Forster to have mentioned it to his publisher before he left. From the outset, the notion of an Indian novel was inseparable from Masood. "But for him," Forster reflected years later, "I might never have gone to his country, or written about it … I didn't go there to govern it or to make money or to improve people. I went there to see a friend."
He was in India for six months, from October 1912 to April 1913. He travelled a huge amount in that time, covering a lot of ground and meeting a great many people. It's easy to pick up, in his letters and diaries, how stirred he was by his experiences. And, unsurprisingly, a great deal of what he saw and heard went straight into his book. In Simla he attended an "advanced" Muslim wedding where men prayed at one end of a veranda while a gramophone played a silly English song at the other. In Lahore he was introduced to a Mr Godbole, who talked to him about ragas and sang to him as they walked through the public gardens. In Hyderabad, a friend of Masood's lost his temper and had an outburst against the English: "It may be 50 or 500 years, but we shall turn you out." Anybody familiar with A Passage to India will recognise these and many other moments.
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Monday, 4 August 2014

Robert Graves: Peace

When that glad day shall break to match
“Before-the-War” with “Since-the-Peace”,
And up I climb to twist new thatch
Across my cottage roof, while geese
Stand stiffly there below and vex
The yard with hissing from long necks,
In that immense release,
That shining day, shall we hear said:
“New wars to-morrow, more men dead”?
When peace time comes and horror’s over,
Despair and darkness like a dream,
When fields are ripe with corn and clover,
The cool white dairy full of cream,
Shall we work happily in the sun,
And think “It’s over now and done”,
Or suddenly shall we seem
To watch a second bristling shadow
Of armed men move across the meadow?
Will it be over once for all,
With no more killed and no more maimed;
Shall we be safe from terror’s thrall,
The eagle caged, the lion tamed;
Or will the young of that vile brood,
The young ones also, suck up blood
Unconquered, unashamed,
Rising again with lust and thirst?
Better we all had died at first,
Better that killed before our prime
 We rotted deep in earthy slime.
This poem first appeared in the New Statesman of 21 September 1918. Graves, who survived the First World War despite serious injury in the Battle of the Somme, contributed to the NS from 1918 to 1975.