Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Kiran Desai - Interview

Kiran Desai: I grew up in India, so you have to learn a whole new way of doing clothes when you move to the west. Fashions don't carry over, so if you fly between places you will inevitably look wrong in the country you're going to. Definitely going to India you look bad if you go in your western clothes. Everyone comments on how awful you look right away. The sky is different, the street is different, the dust is different – only Indian clothes work.

Heidi Julavits: So do you have both of those wardrobes?
KD: No, I don't. I always look wrong when I go back to India. I feel ashamed of myself when I feel right in New York, because there's something wrong with this place. I'm always stunned when I walk into a party and I find all these women are really wearing little high heels, and girls are dressed in tiny clothes that look really horrible, in fact, and they're so miserable in the cold of winter, wearing tiny little high heels in the snow. These women have no pride.
HJ: Many people see saris as being more uniform, if they don't have an eye for where the differences lie, where personal flair comes in.
KD: That's right. It's in the way you tie them. But also, every tiny community and all the weaving families, they have a code of symbols, and the patterns can be handed down six, seven generations. They're so complex. The wedding sari will have its own special symbols – it's this huge code. They're beautiful. The plants and shells and creatures and birds … I miss that, because in America, you don't have animals all over your clothes. Well, you do sometimes, but I'm not a fan of leopard print.
HJ: Just actual leopards.
KD: I lament having to give up Indian clothing now that I'm here. It's one of the most fun things about being an Indian woman. But it's really time-consuming. All these people manage to have clothes like that because they have servants. With the saris, you wash these great lengths of fabric, then you hang them on huge lines or down your balcony. Then you starch them and then someone stands on one end and you stand on the other end and you pull it to make it tight and starchy. Then it's ironed. So it's a lot of work.
HJ: I never think of saris as being starched. I think of them as being more flowing.
KD: Well, the cotton ones are starched. Traditionally they're dipped in rice water and then starched, so you walk around so stiffly. Then gradually the humidity and sun get to them and they become really crumply.
HJ: They wilt.
KD: Starched clothes also sound so different. I once interviewed weavers in different parts of India, and they were telling me how important the sound of silk is. If two women are going through a door together, and they rub saris, they should make a kssshh. They complained that cheap Chinese silks are flooding the market. They don't have the right sound. It should be rustling.
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Monday, 29 September 2014

Simon Winder: Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

Why do we know so little about the Habsburg empire, given that it is the prime formative influence on modern Europe? Its pomp gave us the art, music, literature and pageantry of our high culture; its relationship with the Ottoman East and burgeoning European protestantism drew our religious and our political maps; its collapse fomented the nationalisms that shaped the 20th century across Europe.
A popular abbreviation on the internet is ‘tl; dr’. It stands for ‘too long; didn’t read.’ There’s space for another one that would come in especially helpful for the Habsburg empire: ‘tc; du’ — ‘too complicated; didn’t understand’. It’s much easier to teach schoolchildren about Our Island Story, or the first world war, or the nastiness of Nazis, because at least superficially these are containable subjects. There are baddies (Nazis), there are decisive battles (Waterloo), there are comprehensible treaties (Versailles) and there are what look like reasons for things to happen (railway timetables).
The Habsburg empire, on the other hand, has none of these consolations. Most of the places involved are now called something else, and the empire was cobbled together out of any number of rebellious, feuding or indifferent duchies, grand-duchies, principalities, margravates, palatinates and what have you. Most of the principal actors had weird German names and extraordinarily complicated titles (even at the tail end of the silliness, Franz Joseph I boasted 16 titles including ‘King of Jerusalem etc.’, ‘Margrave of Upper & Lower Lusatia, in Istria’ and ‘Grand Voivode of the Voivodship of Serbia, etc. etc.’), not to mention extreme difficulty in numbering: ‘Philip the Handsome’ was Philip I of Castile, Philip II of Luxemburg, Philip III of Brabant, Philip IV of Burgundy, Philip V of Namur and Philip VI of Artois. And — Simon Winder tells us — he was ugly.
It wasn’t even one empire, quite. For 364 years any given Habsburg-in-chief combined the complicatedly overlapping roles of running the Habsburg family patrimony and the Holy Roman Empire. As for the joys of cause and effect — which at least in a naive reading is what historians labour to discern — the greatest of optimists will retire with a migrainous flickering in the corner of the eye and a Herbert Lom-style twitch. Inconclusive wars, footling territorial swaps, contradictory edicts, aborted negotiations and humiliating U-turns, cock-ups and misunderstandings are the stuff of its decade-by-decade life. As is the case with so many useful conservative institutions, the Habsburg empire worked in practice rather than in theory.
One of the main things the empire did was to prevent the Ottomans from overrunning Europe. Its ups and downs often have to do with whether the Ottomans were busy gnawing at its bum or had their attention distracted for a few decades elsewhere. Like most of the things the Habsburgs did — Winder gently but seriously emphasises that to think of the empire as a rational, centralising authority is completely to miss the point — these distractions were often subcontracted. In the 16th century, for instance, the Uskoks of Senj, who were Christian irregulars, harassed Ottoman shipping on the Dalmatian coast. Their habit of using their victims’ blood to flavour their bread, Winder writes, was ‘another talking point’. The bags full of Turkish noses dispatched from Senj by the Uskoks to Charles V in 1532 may have been one of those presents more fun to send than to receive.
It didn’t help that the Habsburgs were hopelessly inbred, of course. Remember that jaw? Charles V couldn’t eat in public because of it, Leopold I’s jaw was ‘so distended that his mouth would fill with water if it rained’, and — as Winder puts it — ‘the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces’. Some Habsburgs were, almost literally, blithering imbeciles — and Carlos II of Spain (‘could hardly speak, could not eat solid food, was generally carried around [...] unable even to start procreating’) shaped history simply by — to the astonishment of those already carving up his territories in their minds — staying not only alive but on the throne for 35 years.
As Winder says in his introduction, even more than most empires, this one was accidental: ‘often the “great events” of the continent’s history were generated as much by the Habsburgs’ uselessness or apparent prostration as by any actual family initiative’. Frequent among the terms with which turns of events are described are ‘fluky’, ‘hopeless’, ‘idiotic’, or ‘disastrous’. Here we see an outbreak of ‘imbecilic mayhem’; there — in the shape of the Pragmatic Sanction, intended to allow Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa to inherit — we meet ‘the most useless document ever dreamed up’. Of the Habsburg navy, doomed to rot at anchor unused, we’re told, ‘the only role of small navies is to be sunk by bigger ones’.
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Sunday, 28 September 2014

In conversation with Neel Mukherjee

44-year-old Neel Mukherjee, author of the Lives of Others seems oddly relaxed for someone who is in the reckoning for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014. What if he wins, you ask. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” says the writer who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in London, when you meet him at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi.

Paul Scott:Staying On

Sadly, Paul Scott was unable to attend the ceremony at which he was to be awarded the 1977 Booker prize. He was too ill. Aged just 57 and at the height of his powers as a writer, he was suffering from the cancer that would kill him within six months.
Scott probably didn't know he was dying when he wrote Staying On, and it does little good to speculate on whether intimations of mortality influenced him. All the same, the fact of his demise does take on an eerie resonance in the context of the novel. It's one of the most final books I have read. Final in the practical sense that it marks a definite end to all the stories he started telling in the Raj quartet, but also as a depiction of the last days of the last generation of British colonials to have served in the Raj, and as a prolonged and profound reflection on death.
The loss of life that gives the book its shape is that of Tusker Smalley, whose "massive coronary" we learn about in the book's first sentence. Aside from his wife, Lucy, he was the last English person still living in the small hill town of Pankot. All their compatriots left after India became independent in 1947, but these two (who had small roles in the Raj quartet, where they were described as "slight bores, but very useful people") chose to remain.
Scott traces the days leading up to Tusker's death, showing the Smalleys leading lives of quiet desperation in their confined world, cut off from the English – who had treated them with snobbish contempt – and bullied by the Indian capitalists who have replaced them. Their lonely, precarious existence ("hanging on rather than staying on" as Tusker puts it) is wonderfully described, and Scott builds up such a strong sense of doom that Tusker's coronary starts to seem like the easy option. When Lucy asks Tusker, "What is to happen to me if you die first?" her sense of desolation is overpowering.
Contradictory as it may sound, this melancholy is only deepened by Scott's talent for comedy. Tusker is a selfish old curmudgeon – a foolish, petty man who treats his loyal wife appallingly – but he's so amusing it's impossible not to warm to him. There's something almost heroic about his habit of getting drunk at inappropriate times, his dignity after a pratfall and his near-total refusal to engage with the world around him. He is someone who can watch his wife struggling over the knitting of a jumper for months, and only complain about the pattern and colours when he gets it for Christmas.
Their relationship may be founded on a platform of almost constant bickering, but we come to understand why Lucy loves Tusker: why she reaches for his hand in the night when she wants to laugh, why she can't bear to be without him, and why she treasures the one "love letter" he gives her, even though its only admission of affection is, "You've been a decent wife to me."
As a portrait of a marriage, the book is a triumph. Less effective is the investigation of the new capitalists in India. The Indian woman who represents them, Mrs Bhoolabhoy – the landlady who has the Smalleys under her control – is a caricature. Enormously fat, greedy and interested "only in the here and now and how this might be arranged to her advantage", she is often amusing but never entirely believable. She's no more unpleasant than her English predecessors, but is too absurd and shallow to resonate.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor

IN THE INTRODUCTION to her 1998 Selected Stories, Alice Munro described the short story as a house the reader explores at will: “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows,” she wrote. “You can go back again and again and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”
I’ve always loved this metaphor of Munro’s for evoking how the best stories feel at once spacious and enclosed, loosely structured yet perfectly controlled. I thought of it when reading another volume of selected stories, this one by Elizabeth Taylor, a British writer who is, as Benjamin Schwarz once put it in The Atlantic, “best known for not being better known.” Taylor’s stories, like Munro’s, are beautifully architected homes; elegant and funny, they are miracles of compression, with sharply turned endings that rise up suddenly and then linger at length in the mind. She specializes in witty descriptions (a character sits on a jump seat with his arms folded “like a collapsible model of a man, especially designed for carrying in taxis”) and slyly deadpan dialogue (“a grave is no place for self-expression,” remarks an elderly drunk woman laying a bland bouquet on a cemetery marker).
Taylor wrote 12 novels and five collections of stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. Her work is exquisite; so why isn’t she more famous? A list of possible reasons given by critics over the years includes the following: Because her life was not sensational. Because she abhorred publicity. Because she competed for name recognition with a screen goddess. Because her books were too funny and too accessible. Because her characters’ lives were too privileged. Because she excelled at the short story. Because she wrote no single book that could be called her “masterpiece.” Because she was a woman. Many of these seem to me like dumb reasons for a writer to be under-recognized; but just because something is dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
A contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, both of whom were her friends, Taylor was born in 1912 in Reading. Her books sold reasonably well during her life, though she never won any major prizes and the reviews ranged from ecstatic to mixed. After her death in 1975, her reputation, lacking champions, faded. But in the past ten years, this has changed. Her work has been been reissued, she is the subject of a chatty, appreciative biography by Nicola Beauman, and two film adaptations of her novels have been made. The forthcoming publication of her selected stories is the latest event in this sequence, and I hope people will pay attention to it. The book reaffirms her rank, as the Times Literary Supplement wrote in 1972, “among the four or five most distinguished living practitioners of the art of the short story in the English-speaking world.”
The child of a family without great means, Taylor lost her mother young and her indifferent grades prevented her from pursuing higher education. She wasn’t left with many options; she worked as a librarian and governess and briefly joined the Communist Party. Eventually she married a successful businessman from a prosperous family and settled into a quiet life as a wife, mother, and writer. In the few interviews she gave, she spoke mainly of the blessings of routine, emphasizing her stolidly uneventful life. She seems to have wanted to present her life as boringly as possible.  
Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, uses letters that Taylor herself wanted burned to inform us that this outwardly uneventful life contained its share of inward drama. Taylor had a decade-long, off-and-on extramarital affair with a man of few prospects but with whom she shared political leanings and artistic drive. He was an artist, she a writer; they understood each other. But Taylor had made a decision to live a less bohemian life. After discovering the affair, Taylor’s husband asked her to break it off — although he had also been unfaithful — and she complied. Her letters to her lover show her as passionately romantic, and also passionately ambitious, to the point of self-involvement. When he was a prisoner of war in Austria, she wrote him long letters about how her writing was going. Whatever degree of security and calm she craved in her domestic arrangement, she was intensely, even explosively devoted to her writing from the time she was a teenager.
Had she known that her lover would save the letters and even share them with a biographer, Taylor would have been mortified. If she can have been said to have a religion, it was privacy. She resisted at every turn the cult of personality that conflates a writer’s life with her work; she was the anti-Knausgaard of her time. And she succeeded — perhaps too well — in projecting a level of personal dullness that may have allowed people to see her work as quieter and less subversive than it actually is. After she died, Kingsley Amis wrote that “her deeply unsensational style and subject matter saw to it that, in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century.”
Even now, some critical re-appraisals of Taylor’s newly republished work seem to diminish it. They place undue emphasis on her work as domestic miniatures; she has been described as “the thinking person’s dangerous housewife” writing about “the quiet horror of domestic life” (Valerie Martin). This language is both highly gendered and reductive. It’s true that Taylor is a domestic writer, in the sense that Fitzgerald or Forster are domestic writers: she presents the lives of individuals, seen close up, mostly in relationship to their personal lives. Home life is the context for her stories, not the heart of them. Perhaps she so needed and believed in privacy because she understood how fragile are our interior lives, how dearly they must be protected. Her true subject is our painstaking attempt to maintain the crumbling edifice of the self.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Khaled Hosseini: How I Write

How and why did you start the Khaled Hosseini Foundation?
Our family foundation was inspired by a 2007 trip I made to Afghanistan as a Goodwill Envoy for the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). While I was there, I met repatriated refugee families who lived on less than $1 per day, spent winters in tents or holes dug underground, and whose villages routinely lost children to the elements every winter. As a father myself, I was overwhelmed. I decided that, when I returned to the U.S., to make an effort to advocate for these people and do what I could to help improve their conditions.
Who are some great Afghani writers that your readers should know about, but who are not so well known abroad?
Fariba Nawa, author of Opium Nation. Atiq Rahimi, winner of Gaincourt Prize in France, author of The Patience Stone. Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story.
How does literature in your native language differ from English? Is one easier to write in than the other? Does one express certain things better than the other?
I write exclusively in English now. I could likely feign my way through a short story—a very short story—in Farsi. But generally, I lack a narrative voice in Farsi, and a sense of rhythm and cadence in my head, because it has been decades since I wrote fiction in Farsi. English has become very comfortable for me.
Describe your morning routine.
I get up and work out. Get home in time to get the kids off to school (on my days—my wife and I trade off), eat, read the paper, front page first, check all news on Afghanistan. Flip to sports page, check for any San Francisco 49ers news. Then I write, typically from about 8:30 to 2 p.m., at which time I go to pick up my kids from school.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I can’t watch TV without eating peanuts. Can’t be done.
How do you conceive of a book?
I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.
Do you have any unusual rituals in your writing process?
I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.
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Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and a Case of Anxiety of Influence

In August, 1925, Virginia Woolf published an essay titled “American Fiction” in the London Saturday Review, where she serenely ruled out the importance of a number of leading U.S. novelists, including Henry James, the well-respected (but now forgotten) Joseph Hergesheimer, and, perhaps most eyebrow-raisingly, Edith Wharton. Wharton’s masterpiece “The Age of Innocence” had been published just four years earlier, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction—the first for a female author. Woolf was careful to say that it was impossible to “dismiss” such “distinguished names,” but she added that their praises were qualified because they were “not Americans,” by which she seemed to mean that, although these authors were born and raised in America and often wrote books set in their country of origin, they had become foreigners after years of living abroad, and had, osmotically or chameleonically, taken on the artistic traditions of their adoptive cultures. Instead of the invigorating innovation of a Walt Whitman, who had the sense to stay home (and whom Woolf extolled as “the real American undisguised”), these transplanted authors wrote what sounded like classic British fiction; or, as Woolf put it, “They do not give us anything we have not got already.”

Wharton, for one, was less than pleased, and she wrote to a friend, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes a long article … to say that no interesting American fiction is, or should be, written in English; and that Henry, Hergesheimer and I are negligible because we have nothing new to give—not even a language!” She added, sarcastically, “Well—such discipline is salutary.”

Wharton was then sixty-three. What aging author would be happy to see herself dismissed by a writer twenty years younger—especially one then being celebrated for advancing a modernism that was threatening to make Wharton’s own accomplishments obsolete? Just three months before writing her essay on American fiction, Woolf published “Mrs. Dalloway,” a work in the mold of Joyce’s revolutionary “Ulysses,” which first appeared in book form in 1922. Having initially rejected “Ulysses” as indecent and boring—and having declined to publish it at the Hogarth Press, the tiny publishing operation she ran with her husband—Woolf had a change of heart, partly under the influence of another displaced American writer, T. S. Eliot, who convinced her that “Ulysses” was a masterpiece. Woolf, despite a lingering ambivalence, was sufficiently swayed as to attempt “Mrs. Dalloway,” a novel written in the stream-of-consciousness style pioneered in “Ulysses” and also, like Joyce’s novel, set on a single June day and quenched of almost all conventional plot or character development.

Critics exalted “Mrs. Dalloway” as an important advance in literature. In the Saturday Review, the critic Gerald Bullett unfavorably compared Wharton’s latest, “A Mother’s Recompense,” with “Mrs. Dalloway,” calling Woolf “a brilliant experimentalist,” while Wharton was “content to practice the craft of fiction without attempting to enlarge its technical scope.” This injury also did not escape Wharton’s notice, and she defended herself to a friend in a letter, unapologetically calling her novel “old-fashioned” and saying, “I was not trying to follow the new methods.” That she disapproved of those methods was clear when she added, “My heroine belongs to the day when scruples existed.” (Elsewhere, she rejected the modernism of Joyce and Woolf, calling the former’s work “pornographic,” the latter’s “exhibitionism.”)

All things considered, Wharton is an old-fashioned writer. Even “The Age of Innocence,” with its narrative of a young man bowing to societal strictures in his choice of a wife, more closely resembles that of Jane Austen than the work of an avante-gardist like Joyce. And, while the novel does hint at the advent of the modern consciousness—contrasting the New York mores of the eighteen-seventies (when the main action is set) with the postwar New York of 1920, when Wharton was writing—it nevertheless hews to the understood rules that a novel must be a dramatically arranged series of events that unfold in the course of weeks, months, or years (not a single day), involve a set of characters within a defined social setting (not an entire city, like Dublin), and culminate in a moral or emotional crisis that lends meaning to the fate of the hero or heroine (not one character rescuing another from a drunken collapse in a red-light district, followed by the unmediated erotic musings of an unfaithful wife). “The Age of Innocence,” for all its brilliance—and there is an argument for its being one of the best American novels ever written—does not “enlarge fiction’s technical scope,” except in one startling respect.

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