Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Assistant by Robert Walser

“I contemplated pride and love. All this contemplativeness. When will I be free of it?”
—Robert Walser, 1926
Robert Walser is admired today mostly for his short prose pieces, which originally appeared as entertaining feuilleton in Swiss and German newspapers in the early decades of the 20th century. It is said that Kafka would search the paper for Walser’s stories and read them aloud to friends. But Walser also wrote novels. Only four have survived, and until now just two, Jakob von Gunten and The Robber, have been available in English. So it is with considerable delight that Walser’s small but passionate readership will greet the arrival in English of The Assistant (Der Gehülfe).
Written in 1907 and based closely on Walser’s own experiences, The Assistant tells the story of a young man’s six-month stint as assistant to a fledgling inventor. Joseph Marti, 24 years of age, has spent an unhappy time living hand-to-mouth in the capital (unnamed, but presumably Zurich). When the employment bureau suggests a position in the technical offices of Carl Tobler, Joseph accepts.
Previously a factory worker, Tobler has used an inheritance to set himself up as an entrepreneurial inventor. Tobler is a mercurial, generous boss and welcomes Joseph into his little family circle; Joseph revels in his new position and in the comforts of the Tobler family home, located less than an hour outside of the capital.
But all is not well with the Tobler enterprise. Joseph isn’t being paid. Nor, soon enough, are the inventor’s suppliers, nor his gardener, nor his wife’s dressmaker, nor the power company, nor the town merchants. As beautiful summer turns to fall and then winter, Joseph’s responsibilities shift exclusively to responding to duns and fending off unwelcome visitors. The novel tracks Tobler’s decline from self-respecting citizen to desperate debtor and the impact of that decline on all the members of the Tobler household.
The Assistant is nearly twice as long as Jakob or Robber and in fact bears a surprising resemblance to the larger, fashionable tomes written by Walser’s more successful contemporaries such as Mann or Hamsun. (Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which also deals with the decline of a family business, appeared just seven years before The Assistant, and is probably a work Walser knew well.) The Assistant displays a distinctly Mannian eye for human weakness; take, for example, the case of Joseph’s predecessor, Wirsich, who was sacked for drunkenness. One afternoon after Joseph is installed at the villa, Wirsich returns, accompanied by his mother, to meet with Tobler and determine whether he might be reinstated. The awkwardness of the meeting, Wirsich’s attempts to save face, and the sadness of Wirsich and his mother as they depart for home are affectingly rendered. A few months later, Joseph encounters a reformed Wirsich, who proudly announces that he has found a new position. Together they repair together to an inn to celebrate with a glass of beer. A month later, Joseph learns that Wirsich has lost this new job, too.
Also worthy of Mann is Tobler’s daughter Silvi, an awkward creature who has never earned the love of her family. To Joseph’s horror, Silvi is routinely beaten and confined by the housekeeper, Pauline, while the family looks on unconcerned. “Wherever there are children,” Walser writes, “there will always be injustice.”
But while Walser’s second novel is more conventional than his later books, it also bears his unique stamp. The Assistant is enlivened with Walser’s characteristically florid descriptions of the natural and urban landscape:
What days these were, wet and stormy, and yet there was still something magical about them. All at once the living room became so melancholy and cozy. The damp and cold out of doors made the rooms more hospitable. They had already begun lighting the heating stoves. The yellow and red leaves burned and gleamed feverishly through the foggy gray of the landscape. The red of the cherry tree’s leaves had something incandescent and aching and raw about it, but at the same time it was beautiful and brought peace and cheer to those who saw it. Often the entire countryside of meadows and trees appeared to be wrapped in veils and damp cloths, above and below and in the distance and close at hand everything was gray and wet. You strode through all of this as if through a gloomy dream. And yet even this weather and this particular sort of world expressed a secret gaiety. You could smell the trees you were walking beneath, and hear ripe fruit dropping in the meadows and on the path. Everything seemed to have become doubly and triply quiet. All the sounds seemed to be sleeping, or afraid to ring out. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the slow exhalations of foghorns could be heard across the lake, exchanging warning signals off in the distance and announcing the presence of boats. They sounded like the plaintive cries of helpless animals.
Walser’s playfulness is also present, albeit in shadow. Tobler’s inventions, for example, range from the practical (a chair for invalids) to the preposterous (a vending machine that dispenses bullets). Tobler’s own favorite is called the “Advertising Clock,” a timepiece affixed with eagle wings on which paid advertisements can be displayed.1 The doomed contraption becomes a symbol of Tobler’s ill-fated venture, and, in Joseph’s mind, almost a living thing:
The Advertising Clock is sprawled on the ground in defeat, wailing for a bit of solvent capital. Go to it and give it your support so that it may gradually, one limb at a time, rise up again and successfully imprint itself on people’s opinions and judgments once and for all—a task that is worthy, if you will, of your mental abilities, and useful to boot.
Here also, although less evident than in his mature fictions, is the familiar self-undercutting narrator:
But why had Tobler moved here in the first place? What was it that had inspired him to choose this region as his domicile? The following somewhat unclear account seeks to address these questions.
In theme as well, the book reflects Walser’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between masters and workers. It would reemerge the following year in Jakob, his best-known and arguably most perfect novel, and again nearly twenty years later in his essay “Masters and Workers” (1926). As Walser knew, the master’s position depended paradoxically on the consent of the worker, for what is a master without a subordinate? What appears as social fact is in reality a delicate equilibrium only maintained by avoiding injury to the pride of either the ruler or the ruled. Pride also fuels Tobler’s ill-fated efforts, but it is a fragile quantity that wife and worker must labor to preserve. No doubt Walser enjoyed the irony in the fact that Joseph, working without a salary, serves as Tobler’s de facto benefactor.
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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Conversations with John le Carré

I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead, Britain, his books and films, my legal cases), reflecting on the state of the world and his appearance at the Hay Festival earlier this summer, where I had interviewed him. “I do think we live in most extraordinary period of history,” he says now. “The fact that we feel becalmed is the element that is most terrifying, the second-rate quality of leadership, the third-rate quality of parliamentary behaviour.”

The exceedingly rare public appearance at Hay (“my swansong”, he told a delighted audience, although I didn’t really believe it) had been preceded by two lengthy lunches, as he is meticulous in preparation. It coincided with the publication of his latest novel, A Delicate Truth , as well as the 50th anniversary of his third, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which brought fame and liberation from a life in the British intelligence services. In the course of a relaxed performance – what Peter Florence, the festival’s director, described as “an extraordinary combination of gracious wit and political savagery” – the audience obtained an insight into the complexities and depth of the man described by The New York Times as one of “the finest writers alive”.

I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago, at my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. Our first conversation was coloured by the unfolding disaster in Iraq and allegations of detainee abuse. We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives. The relationship is forged on the anvil of those post-9/11 issues, events that reset the national debate on the relationship between the individual and the state. They are matters on which we share a strong interest. A central spine of le Carré’s work – reflected in 23 novels written over five decades – is the responsibility of the individual who faces a fork in the road, required to take a decision that will have morally dubious consequences. My own work, in which he shows considerable interest despite certain reservations (“I have a great distrust of lawyers,” he has repeatedly and pointedly told me), largely focuses on the flip side of his concerns, the rights of the individual.

Over the years, we have not lacked in matters to engage. This is the age of national security and liberty, a constant debate about balance that often turns around the role of the intelligence services. Our interest is mutually self-serving: he might ask me to review a draft that raises a legal point, I might seek his opinion on a matter that draws on his former life in “the secret world”, as he calls it, or on his life’s experience. He is wise and his life, I have come to appreciate, has been informed by a very particular past.

Le Carré believes that the credit balance of the writer is his childhood, citing Graham Greene. By this standard, le Carré was an early millionaire. He was born in 1931, in Dorset, to a family that he celebrates despite (or perhaps because of) its manifest dysfunctionality. With a largely absent mother, his father became the central figure in his early life. Ronnie Cornwell was “seriously bent”, volatile, a convicted fraudster, yet also “exotic, amusing” and lovable. He avoided military service during the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, an Independent Progressive. The postwar period offered Ronnie a goldmine of shady activity, allowing his son to enter maturity in an unpredictable environment populated by racehorses and Bentleys, passing from St Moritz to the Savoy Grill in the company his father kept, which included the Kray twins (“lovely boys”, his aunt called them).

For an observant son, Ronnie offered a rich seam from which to tap on matters of human weakness and moral complexity, or deceit and counter-play. You only need to read A Perfect Spy, published in 1986 and hailed by Philip Roth as “the best English novel since the war”, to understand the full extent of the interplay between life and art; a great number of the anecdotes he shared with the Hay audience as tales from his life feature in the novel.

He’s not starry-eyed about Ronnie, well aware of the dark side of a “brutalised” and violent man who did time under tough conditions (a thought that remains painful to le Carré), and whose behaviour caused his mother to leave the household and her five-year-old son and his older brother for good. This is a matter of lifelong regret (“a motherless household doesn’t seem like a childhood at all,” he says, “just immersion in life”). He recognises, too, that the circumstances of his childhood informed his view of women, often portrayed in his early works as “angels or whores, people who came and went, couldn’t be trusted”. The views about women have changed, he says, largely because of his “amazingly loyal wives”. First Ann, who he met on a jaunt to St Moritz with his father when he was 17. They married in 1954 and had three sons. The partnership, which didn’t thrill Ronnie, who’d have preferred a more subordinate woman (“although he would have had a dab at her himself if he could”), lasted until 1971. A year later he married Jane, intelligent, engaging and protective, and they have one son. He and Jane are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble.

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Friday, 24 October 2014

William Butler Yeats: The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Chetan Bhagat: Not the best but the bestselling writer

He admits he may not be in the same league as the literary greats of India when it comes to fiction, but he has revamped the concept of 'bestsellers'. This, says novelist Chetan Bhagat, is because his stories are written for Indians.

The 40-year-old was interacting with the alumni and students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi in the first 'Distinguished Alumni Lecture' series here Saturday evening.

During the hour-long lecture on 'From Institute to Bollywood', the author of the bestseller "Five Point Someone" that was adapted into the blockbuster movie "Three Idiots", spoke about how by listening to his inner self he embarked on a journey that changed the course of his life.

"When my first novel came in 2004, there was a different literary landscape in India. It was the time when many young people were learning to speak in English for better job prospects," said Bhagat.

"I know that I am not the best writer in India, but I am the bestselling writer because I write for the people of my country. I write in the language they understand and converse with them through this," he added.

The entire conversation turned out to be a light-hearted evening for the audience, which applauded, giggled and laughed at Bhagat's impeccable sense of humour. The audience could associate with Bhagat's nostalgic references to the culture, the girls' attitude towards IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) boys and the daring things he did during his stint at the institute.

He advised them to be more adaptive in life because "brilliance is not just enough to survive in this world".

"You have to realise that adapting is winning. Being smarter or intelligent is not enough in this world. How many times do we see a brilliant man heading a company? Then we look at them and wonder: 'Our fundas (basics) were better than his, but why aren't we there?' So, be more than what you are," said the author.

Bhagat, in his many interviews, has maintained that he isn't writing to win literary prizes but is using writing as a tool to teach English and make people read books written in simple English.

Even his latest novel "Half Girlfriend" is the love story of a non-English speaking Bihari boy and a Delhi girl. Through this 'language divide', he is not just narrating a tale, but reaching out to mofussil India that aspires to "speak flawless English" to find societal acceptance.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

How Stoical Was Seneca?

In AD 65, the elderly philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was forced to commit suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero. He had once been the emperor’s tutor and adviser, though he had withdrawn into retirement when the true character of Nero’s reign became clear, and he had recently become rather too closely involved with an unsuccessful coup (quite how closely, we shall never know). He must have been expecting the knock on the door.
The knock came from the captain of a troop of praetorian guardsmen who had stationed themselves around Seneca’s house, just outside Rome. Ironically, the captain himself was also involved in the planned coup, but had decided to follow the emperor’s orders in order to save his own skin (“he was now adding to the crimes he had conspired to avenge,” as the Roman historian Tacitus tersely put it). After a brief interrogation, Seneca was told to end his own life, which he did only with great difficulty. He severed his arteries, but he was so old and emaciated that the blood hardly escaped; so he asked for the hemlock that he had stashed away for just that purpose, but that had little effect either. He died only when his slaves carried him into a hot bath and he suffocated in the steam.
While all this was going on, he had been offering words of encouragement to the friends who happened to be dining with him when the praetorians arrived (he was bequeathing to them, he claimed, the only thing he had left, and the best: “the image of his own life,”imago vitae suae); and he had been dictating to his secretaries, for future circulation, some last philosophical thoughts. His final words were to offer a libation to “Jupiter the Liberator.”
So Tacitus—probably the most acute analyst ever of the autocratic rule of the Roman emperors—described the scene in his Annales, half a century or so later; he was no doubt relying on some hard evidence (a few modern critics have even suggested an eyewitness account), but inevitably recasting it in his own terms. One of Tacitus’s favorite themes in the Annales is death and its corruption; he repeatedly stresses the idea that autocracy disrupted not only the natural rhythms of life but the processes of dying too. People died for the wrong reasons, in the wrong places, and in the wrong order. Children killed their parents. Funeral pyres were prepared before the victim had even breathed his last. In fact, Tacitus opens his narrative of Nero’s reign with the bleak, and significant, phrase: “The first death under the new Emperor….” The suicide of Seneca, as Tacitus tells it, can be seen as a prime example of how even dying had been corrupted.
That is partly because, try as he might, applying all the usually reliable methods, death almost defeated Seneca. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death—as the title of James Romm’s new biography, Dying Every Day, hints—he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. It is also because he made such a histrionic display out of the act of dying. Seneca publicly embraced Stoic philosophy, which took an uncompromising view of the importance of “virtue” in both living and dying (it was, in fact, much more uncompromising than the popular modern term “stoical”—in the attenuated sense of “stiff upper lip”—would ever suggest).
But Seneca’s death was a frankly hubristic imitation of the death of Socrates: with his last thoughts being dictated (as in Plato’s Phaedo), the attempted resort to hemlock, and a final offering to the gods (though in this case it was a libation to Jupiter, not, as in Socrates’ last words, a sacrifice to Asklepios). Even so, his death ends up no more than a very poor imitation of its model. As Emily Wilson nicely summed it up in The Death of Socrates (2007):
It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.
To be fair, over the years, not all judgments on Tacitus’s account of Seneca’s suicide have been so negative. Some admirers of the philosopher have chosen to see the death as an example of fortitude, and of tremendous philosophical courage amid the corruption of Roman imperial society. Seneca, it is argued, was a man whom Tacitus saw as one of the few potentially good influences on Nero, and who might have prevented his reign from developing as catastrophically as it did.
In his suicide, fighting against the recalcitrant frailty of his own body, he met unwaveringly the death to which he has been cruelly sentenced; and he turned it into the ultimate lesson in how to die (not for mere show was he dictating his last philosophical thoughts on his long-drawn-out deathbed, but for the true edification and education of future generations). This is presumably the message of Rubens’s famous painting, which shows Seneca standing almost naked in his small bath, in a pose strikingly reminiscent of the suffering Jesus in many Ecce homo scenes from medieval and later art: so suggesting triumph over death, not defeat by it.
Yet as both Romm and Wilson in The Greatest Empire insist, it is impossible not to see some ambivalence, at the very least, in Tacitus’s version of Seneca’s last hours, and in his evaluation of the man more generally. Romm focuses in particular on that phraseimago vitae suae (“the image of his own life”), which was to be, as Tacitus put it, Seneca’s bequest to his followers. Roland Mayer has argued that we should detect here a reference to the kind of imago that was displayed in elite Roman houses: one of those series of ancestor portraits intended to spur on future generations to imitate the achievements of their great predecessors. That is very likely one resonance of the phrase: Seneca was offering a positive example to be followed in the future. But, as Romm rightly observes, “Imago is a multilayered word,” and like “image” in English, it also suggests “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming.”
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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro is widely recognized as being among the greatest living authors writing in English, and her latest volume of stories, just now being released in paperback, inspires, as the title suggests, almost Too Much Happiness—her thirteenth book in a nearly sixty-year career. The collection reads with the headlong rush of both a thriller and a romance. In ten stories, told with equal power and precision from male and female perspectives, Munro explores how people do and don’t move on with their lives after losing what they thought they couldn’t live without.

A master of psychological fiction, Munro champions the value and complexity of the lives of outwardly ordinary people. She examines the conflicts protagonists experience as they strive to reconcile their need for self-realization—which will differentiate them from those around them—with their desire for approval from peers. Her stories reveal that paradoxically, even community insiders are outsiders, and she frequently uses doppelgängers and “multigängers” to depict the psychological multiplicity characters may feel within themselves, or the connections that exist between different characters in a story.

Above all, Munro’s contribution to literature is her visceral sensibility. She translates the sensation of being alive onto the page. Having lived all her life in Canada, she writes compassionately but unsentimentally about characters who sometimes live in Vancouver or elsewhere, but are most often culturally grounded in small towns in Southwestern Ontario, or “Sowesto.” Yet they are so authentic and universally similar to her readers—regardless of where we hail from—that they seem to live and breathe through us, and we through them. We stand revealed as Munro unmasks ambivalent feelings between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, siblings, best friends and neighbors. And when these perfectly nice characters behave in ways that shock us, we shudder with self-recognition that leads to insight—and then relief. Munro’s stories show that we are all connected—even through our experiences of moral failure and isolation, which can lead to revelation and growth.

Psychological and physical violence, often enacted in domestic settings, are recurring features of Munro’s canon. The author examines both the pathology of patriarchal society, and the unpredictable ways that people, nature, and our best-made plans can cataclysmically erupt; reconfiguring the landscape of our lives before we can comprehend what has happened. In one story, “Wenlock Edge,” Munro intimately introduces readers to a sexual predator; and in another, “Child’s Play,” the memory of an incident of murderous bullying, among nice girls, torments and shapes the bullies for the rest of their lives.

In “Dimensions,” the opening story, when Munro pushes a character’s obsession with control over the edge, readers encounter major themes and techniques of this collection and in the author’s work as a whole. A father, Lloyd, murders his daughter and two sons in a vengeful rage against his wife, Doree. In Munro’s stories, constant tension exists between those who hold power—whether material or psychological—and those who need or want more of it; and when a less powerful character gains strength, she often pays a brutal price. Such is the fate of Doree, the protagonist.

Frequently in Munro’s stories, as in life, signs of trouble-to-come show up early, but protagonists deny them, or don’t act soon enough to avert disaster. Like Doree, they participate in bringing upon themselves the calamities that lead to their journeys toward self-discovery.

Doree, a 16-year-old high school student, is first befriended by Lloyd, a hospital “orderly”—Munro loves wordplay—during her visits to her ailing mother, whose condition is said to be “serious but not dangerous.” Lloyd is admired by patients for his jokiness and “authoritative” demeanor.

Although he is only slightly younger than Doree’s mother, he flatters the girl in the elevator, telling her that she is a “flower in the desert,” and steals a kiss. When Doree’s mother dies suddenly, she chooses to move in with Lloyd, rather than stay with any of her mother’s friends. No mention is made of her having friends her own age.

After she becomes pregnant at seventeen, they marry, and Lloyd moves her cross-country, isolating her in a rural location “they have picked from a name on the map: Mildmay.” By nineteen, Doree has three young children.

Doree’s circumstances recall the young Munro’s. When the author was entering adolescence and developing as a writer in the 1940’s, her mother developed Parkinson’s disease, and Munro became her caretaker. Her route out of her life in rural Wingham, Ontario, was a two-year scholarship to the University of Western Ontario, where she published her first story at nineteen in 1950. As her scholarship was expiring, in 1951, she married fellow student Jim Munro, and by twenty-six, she was the mother of two daughters, with another to follow. One of her babies died soon after birth, and a theme that runs through Munro’s stories is that of children in danger or getting lost or dying.

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Friday, 10 October 2014

Form follows function - Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee was born in 1970 in Kolkata (then Calcutta), West Bengal, three years after the State witnessed a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, which attracted many urban youth in its wake. The intervening years form the setting of Neel’s second novel, “The Lives of Others”, which has been shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014 (to be announced on October 14).
While the wait between the announcements of the longlist and the shortlist was a tense one, Neel is now at ease (even though bookies have him down as one of the favourites). With a number of events lined up, Neel doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker, “but it’s good that one doesn’t have the luxury to think Booker”, the London-based writer contends. “I think it’s just great to be on the shortlist because I’m only two books old. I am thrilled, delighted and I am shell-shocked. It’s like I’ve been hit in the back of my head and I’m still seeing the stars.”
“The Lives of Others” is, at a very simple level, the story of the private torment of the once-prosperous Ghoshes, written against the social ferment of the years between 1967-70.
The novel unfolds in episodes that take the point of view of each of these characters, as well as a series of letters from Supratik, the eldest grandson of the family, who has left unannounced to join the Naxal movement. The effect of this narrative movement is one of an edifice being built and chipped away at simultaneously.
“I start with theory rather than people,” he says of his craft. “I don’t like novels which have no theoretical or philosophical underpinning. I hate the contemporary novel where people just sit and talk to each other about their relationships. I feel it’s a free-floating form that will get swept away very soon.”
Neel sought to explode from within the form of the realist novel which, at its inception and for much of its evolution, has held up a mirror to the bourgeoisie, “to make the world either comprehensible or palatable to them.”
The theoretical core of this novel came from thinking about the writings of Georg Lukacs and Hayden White on the function of forms, as also the words of the writer M John Harrison – “start with a form, then ask what it's afraid of”. “I thought it could become the core of a writer’s project – asking of a genre what it is hiding, what it is colluding in, what it is not doing,” Neel explains. “I thought if one has to write a novel to lay bare the ideological foundations of the bourgeois realist novel, one has to do it dialectically. So therefore I thought it wouldn’t do just to write the story of a family, I would have to have an antithetical ideology.” The Naxal movement fell firmly into this design.
Although the writer grew up in close proximity to the period he describes, Naxalism was no more than a distant murmur, “a background noise” for him. It was something he grew to be interested in for the purpose of this novel.
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