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Showing posts from April, 2014

Torn Leaves: The letters of the young Tagore reveal a poet in full possession of his voice

1875–76, when Rabindranath was only 14 or 15 years old, the older brother he was closest to, Jyotirindranath Tagore, took him along to the Tagore estates in East Bengal, which he was then managing on behalf of the family. This was Rabindranath’s first glimpse of Shilaidaha, the place by the Gorai river to which he would return repeatedly during what he called “the most productive period of my literary life … when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.” It was here, in 1912, that Rabindranath first put his hand to the translations that turned into the Gitanjali and won him the Nobel Prize; it was also here—alongside all the other small towns and villages bordering the myriad rivers of this part of Bengal—that he returned when he became manager of the estates himself in the 1890s.

Rabindranath must have expressed some interest in leaving the family home in Jorasanko and taking up this job in Shilaidaha, as a letter from Debendranath Tagore…

A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard

ON MARCH 17, 1855, the 33-year-old Regine Olsen was due to leave Copenhagen for the Danish West Indies, where her husband of eight years, Johan Frederik Schlegel, had been appointed governor. The appointment would keep the couple abroad for more than five years, making the toll of saying goodbye to family and friends especially great. After all, one did not embark on a journey of almost 4,500 miles in the middle of the 19th century without courting very real dangers — shipwreck, weather, disease, to mention a few. Regine was well aware of the risks: her oldest brother Oluf Christian, employed as a toll inspector on Saint Croix from 1845 to 1857, lost both his wife, Laura, and his younger sister Olivia, during his difficult time on the island. Whether in spite or because of the ominous journey ahead of her, Regine made an important decision, it seems, on the day of her departure: she sought out a strange man to whom she had once been engaged; a man who had left her, and to whom she had …

Akhil Sharma: 'I feel as if I've shattered my youth on this book'

'It took 12-and-a-half years and I can't believe how bad that time was," says Akhil Sharma. "I was such a different person when I began writing it that I feel as if I've shattered my youth on this book. I still find it hard to believe that it's over, and I have this constant fear that I need to go and sit at my computer." Sharma is talking about his second novel,Family Life, which is published in the UK next week. It tells the autobiographical story of a family's emigration from India to the US in the late 1970s, and how an accident that left the elder son severely brain-damaged brought them close to collapse. The book has already been published to much acclaim in the US – "Deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core" said the New York Times – matching the praise Sharma received when he emerged in the late 90s with prize-winning short stories and then a 2001 debut novel, An Obedient Father, which won the PEN/Hemingway award. But the …

His Exile Was Intolerable - Stefan Zweig

On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, “he belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate. And he was one of those noble Jewish types who, thinskinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm.”1 The suicide set off a surge of emotion and a variety of reactions. Thomas Mann, the unquestioned leader of German-language writers in exile, made no secret of his indignation at what he considered an act of cowardice. In a telegram to th…

How Kafka Actually Lived

How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume? Franz Kafka, named for the fallen crown of a defunct empire, has himself metamorphosed into an empire of boundless discourse, an empire stretched out across a firmament of interpretation: myth, parable, allegory, clairvoyance, divination; theory upon thesis upon theophany; every conceivable incarnation of the sexual, the political, the psychological, the metaphysical. Another biography? Another particle in the deep void of a proliferating cosmos. How, then, does one dare to add so much as a single syllable, even in the secondary exhalation of a book review? One dares because of the culprits. The culprits are two. One is “Kafkaesque,” which buries the work. The other is “transcend,” which buries the life. A scrupulous and capacious biography may own the power to drive away these belittlements, and Reiner Stach’s mammoth three volumes (only the second and third have appeared in English so far) are superbly tempered for exorcism. With it…

Jane Austen and Satire

Ang Lee’s (1995) film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was greeted with critical acclaim, and is still considered to be one of the most successful adaptions of a Jane Austen novel. “I want to break people’s hearts so badly that they’ll still be recovering from it two months later”, he told the producer and screenwriter when they approached him about directing the film (i). They were delighted with this response. Jane Austen, one suspects, would be turning in her grave. As a supreme social satirist, whose first two novels, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, deliberately set out to undermine the popular novels of her day, Austen would have been horrified to discover that the film celebrates the very sentiment that she was trying so hard to ironize (ii). Lee missed the most crucial point of the novel: that Sense and Sensibility is a satire of sensibility, not an endorsement of it. Austen set out to deflate the conventions of the 18th century novel: she is defiantly anti-rom…

Eduardo Galeano: 'My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia'

Most mornings it's the same. At the breakfast table Uruguayan-born author, Eduardo Galeano, 72, and his wife, Helena Villagra, discuss their dreams from the night before. "Mine are always stupid," says Galeano. "Usually I don't remember them and when I do, they are about silly things like missing planes and bureaucratic troubles. But my wife has these beautiful dreams." One night she dreamt they were at an airport where all the passengers were carrying the pillows they had slept on the night before. Before they could board officials would run their pillows into a machine that would extract the dreams from the night before and make sure there was nothing subversive in them. When she told him he was embarrassed about the banality of his own. "It's shaming, really." There is not much magical about Galeano's realism. But there is nothing shaming in it either. This septuagenarian journalist turned author has become the poet laureate of the anti-g…

“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai

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As a child in India, the only thing Anita Desai wanted was to see her books on the family bookshelf, sitting next to those by Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Wolf. Seventy years later, and living in New York, Desai is now a long way from her childhood home. But with a career that has spanned sixteen novels, and most recently, a collection of novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance (2011), one could make the claim that, in a way, Anita Desai has fulfilled her childhood dream. This past October Desai came to Pittsburgh as a featured writer with the Prague Writers’ Festival‘s first appearance in the United States. On October 16 she also read selections from her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay at a salon-style reading hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. On the day of the Prague Writers’ Festival kick-off, Desai spoke with Sampsonia Way in the lobby of Pittsburgh’s William Penn Omni Hotel. In this interview she discusses her childhood of writing and reading, her creative process …

Aravind Adiga - Interview

In both your Booker-winning debut, The White Tiger, and new book,Last Man in Tower, you analyse the depredations of India's dash for growth. Is that how you see it?
I don't see myself as criticising what is happening in India. India and China, both ancient civilisations, are becoming new kinds of nation state. This is happening through processes that a columnist might write about - global trade, civil society, law and order. And it's also happening through the release of tremendous amounts of amoral energy, that of new kinds of entrepreneurial figure. My position is chronicling this as a writer, and it's perhaps different from the kinds of fiction in English we've had from India before. I find some of that a bit sentimental. Does it frustrate you when your novels are treated as artefacts of social criticism rather than as fiction?
To some extent, yes. I didn't intend with this new book for there to be an obvious message, or any obvious resolution to the problems. …

What Muriel Spark Saw

She loved lightning. It wasn’t her favorite weapon—fire was, or knives. But lightning has a brutal, beautiful efficiency, and she used it to good effect, once frying alive a pair of lovers. Lightning seemed to seek her out, too. It struck her houses repeatedly, and on one occasion caused a nearby bell tower to come crashing down into her bathroom. The lightning entered her bedroom, she said, and danced across her upper lip. To her readers, Dame Muriel Spark arrived aptly named and like a bolt from the blue in 1957, with her first novel, “The Comforters,” published when she was thirty-nine. She went on to produce at least a book a year with a facility that even she found bemusing. Writing novels was so easy, she said, “I was in some doubt about its value.” Rumor has it her drafts were pristine—no strike-throughs, scant revisions. It was as if she were taking dictation, faithfully transcribing those rawboned stories of blackmail and betrayal in her schoolgirl script. When she died, in 20…

Amrita Pritam: A Letter

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Me—a book in the attic. Maybe some covenant or hymnal. Or a chapter from the Kama Sutra, or a spell for intimate afflictions. But then it seems I am none of these. (If I were, someone would have read me.)
Apparently at an assembly of revolutionaries they passed a resolution, and I am a longhand copy of it. It has the police’s stamp on it and was never successfully enforced. It is preserved only for the sake of procedure.
And now only some sparrows come, straw in their beaks, and sit on my body and worry about the next generation. (How wonderful to worry about the next generation!) Sparrows have wings on them, but resolutions have no wings (or resolutions have no second generation).
Sometimes I think to catch the scent— what lies in my future? Worry makes my binding come off. Whenever I try to smell, just some fumes of bird shit. O my earth, your future! Me—your current state.
TRANSLATED FROM THE PUNJABI BY D.H. TRACY & MOHAN TRACY
Amrita Pritam was a Punjabi poet and novelist who recorded the trauma of Parti…

The Origins of Paul Scott's Vast Masterpiece The Raj Quartet, The epic of colonial India

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I first met Paul Scott at Firpo’s bar on Chowringhee in Calcutta in 1944. I was an NCO in what was euphemistically described as “Special Duties,” that is, intelligence, but more often meant taking on any odd job for which no one else could be found; Paul was an air supply captain who had been commissioned into the Service Corps, unkindly known to the Rifle Brigade or the Gurkhas as, in the words of his biographer Hilary Spurling, “the Rice Corps, Flying Grocers, or Jam Stealers and generally considered to be about as low as it was possible to get in the Indian Army.” We eyed each other’s shoulder-chips with sympathy over drinks, and got on extremely well. I did wonder at the time whether he might not have been trying to pick me up, a suspicion that Spurling’s biography and the new collection of Scott’s letters have done nothing to dispel.

A decade later, with Cambridge behind me, I was trying to break into the London literary world, and decided I needed an agent. Summoned for an interv…

Out of India - Rabindranath Tagore

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For a long time, the word kavi, Sanskrit for “poet,” was synonymous for me with a man named Kuvempu. He was the Rashtra Kavi, the national poet, of people who spoke Kannada, the language of the part of South India where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kuvempu’s verse—lucid, patriotic, nature loving—was taught in primary schools and sung on the radio; when you drove into the countryside, you found his poems painted near waterfalls and framed in the midst of rose gardens. Even as a boy, I knew that where Kannada-speaking territory ended, so did Kuvempu’s fame. Our neighbors spoke Tamil—a very different language—and they had their own national poet, a man named Subramania Bharathi. As far as I could tell, each of India’s many languages had such a Rashtra Kavi, around whose verse a powerful subnational identity had coalesced. Overarching all these Rashtra Kavis, however, was a man called the Vishwa Kavi, the universal poet, who spoke to all Indians. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) began hi…