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Showing posts from June, 2014

Saadat Hasan Manto: How I Write Stories

Honorable ladies and gentlemen!
I've been asked to explain how I write stories.
This “how” is problematic. What can I tell you about how I write stories?
It is a very convoluted matter. With this “how” before me I could say I sit on the sofa in my room, take out paper and pen, utter bismillah, and start writing, while all three of my daughters keep making a lot of noise around me. I talk to them as I write, settle their quarrels, make salad for myself, and, if someone drops by for a visit, I show him hospitality. During all this, I don’t stop writing my story.
If I must answer how I write, I would say my manner of writing is no different from my manner of eating, taking a bath, smoking cigarettes, or wasting time.
Now, if one asked why I write short stories, well, I have an answer for that. Here it goes:
I write because I’m addicted to writing, just as I’m addicted to wine. For if I don't write a story, I feel as if I'm not wearing any clothes, I haven't bathed, or I haven’t…

Walter Benjamin’s Afterlife

Fame comes in many sorts and sizes, from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name." When Hannah Arendt wrote this sentence 46 years ago in the pages of The New Yorker, she was reflecting on the newfound halo of attention atop one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known, Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin’s case, fame had proved an odd and unpredictable phenomenon—the writer had, by Arendt’s reckoning, been all but forgotten in the years leading up to his death, spent largely in France in flight from the Nazi war machine. And following his suicide in 1940 at age 48, in Portbou, Spain, his name had been kept alive by a small number of friends and colleagues, the kind of trickle of a readership that hardly suggested he would one day be counted among the most significant and far-ranging critics, essayists, and thinkers of the past 100 years—and one whose reach may still not be completely fathomed. As impressive as the Walter Be…

The son also rises: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

The Long Goodbye - Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

For a long time French and English novels were content to borrow their titles from the names of their chief characters, and this is how readers first learned of Robinson, Moll, Pamela, Jacques, Tom, Humphry, Tristram, Émile, Evelina, Emma, Oliver, David, and many others. Starting in the late eighteenth century, titles took a descriptive or even predictive turn. There were dangerous liaisons, prides and prejudices, lost illusions, great expectations, crimes and punishments, and other moral or legal considerations. These titles didn’t tell us much, but they hinted at risk and comeuppance, seemed to profess a large wisdom readers might share with the author at the expense of the characters. The novels themselves were not half as moralizing as their titles suggested—most of them were not moralizing at all—but they did seek collusion, appealing to what we thought we knew. We knew, for example, that expectations are great but rarely met. That’s what expectations are; otherwise they would be…

Wisława Szymborska: A Poem

Nothingness unseamed itself for me too.
It turned itself wrong side out.
How on earth did I end up here—
head to toe among the planets,
without a clue how I used not to be.

O you, encountered here and loved here,
I can only guess, my arm on yours,
how much vacancy on that side went to make us,
how much silence there for one lone cricket here,
how much nonmeadow for a single sprig of sorrel,
and sun after darknesses in a drop of dew
as repayment—for what boundless droughts?

Starry willy-nilly! Local in reverse!
Stretched out in curvatures, weights, roughnesses, and motions!
Time out from infinity for endless sky!
Relief from nonspace in a shivering birch tree’s shape!

Now or never wind will stir a cloud,
since wind is exactly what won’t blow there.
And a beetle hits the trail in a witness’s dark suit,
testifying to the long wait for a short life.

And it so happened that I’m here with you.
And I really see nothing
usual in that. —Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

The Ghosts Of Khushwant Singh's Delhi

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“All my life I have been tormented by ghosts. Since Delhi has more ghosts than any other city in the world, life in Delhi can be one long nightmare. I have never seen a ghost nor do I believe they exist. Nevertheless for me they are real.”
Khushwant Singh, Delhi: A novel (p 164)Khushwant Singh's monumental work, Delhi: A novel, is, in the sense of the passage above, a novel about ghosts: of those who lie buried in beautiful stone mausoleums, of those who were thrown into unmarked graves, of those who were burnt on the ghats of the Yamuna and of those who became carrion for the city's vultures. It is a novel about all the blood that has been shed in the triangular region of the North Indian plain demarcated by the ridge in the West and the South and the river in the East. It is a lament for an endless sequence of murders of brother by brother and for betrayals of lovers and fathers. It is a celebration of the seasons and the trees and the flowers, and of the life led in this cit…

New literature on India’s cities is a variation on the old literature of lament

Count on Urdu to have a word for it: shahr-i-ashob, lament for a city. Here is Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda, a poet from the eighteenth century:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal’s cry cannot be heard. ... In the once-beautiful gardens where the nightingale sang his love songs to the rose, the grass grows waist-high around the fallen pillars and ruined arches. ... Jahanabad, you never deserved this terrible fate, you who were once vibrant with life and hope, like the heart of a young lover.
Some centuries before, it was Sanskrit, like Urdu a language of many cities but identified with no one province, that had the most extensive literature of the Indian urban. As human beings are irresistibly drawn to visions of a bygone golden age, this literature too has its share of lament. An early example depicts decay by describing perfection:
The people in that city were happy, virtuous, learned, experienced, each satisfied with his state, practicing …

“Ulysses” And The Moral Right To Pleasure

Today is Bloomsday, the hundred and tenth anniversary of the events in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The weather in Dublin looks good; the sun won’t set tonight until just before ten. If you are a young tryster who happens to be in Dublin, why not take a walk through Ringsend Park, the way Joyce and his girl did that evening? Everybody else can commemorate the day by buying and reading Kevin Birmingham’s terrific new “biography” of Ulysses, “The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.” The hero—the Ulysses—of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is Leopold Bloom: a man, like Homer’s hero, skilled in all manner of contending, a wanderer, a strategist, a man of polytrypos—“many twists and turns.” For Joyce, Homer’s hero was the only complete person in literature. Hamlet was a human being, Joyce said, but he was “son only”: Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithac…

How James Joyce’s Dubliners heralded the urban era

Joyce: “You will retard the course of civilisation by preventing the Irish from having a good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass” So out of the castle – filled as it was with hectoring Victorians – walked James Joyce and, with the flames of colonialism still licking his toes, he left it behind. Down into the city and a city where none had been, or at least no one who meant much to him. “When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the ‘second’ city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world,” he wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1905. That it was really only a thousand years hardly makes him less big than his boots, though it does reveal the brag’s tang of Dublin romance – something Joyce never lost, though he hid it beneath scorn. Aged 23 and scratching by teaching English in Trieste to support his writing, son and companion in purposeful sin,…

On Her Own Two Feet

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ELIZABETH TAYLOR—the English novelist, not the American actress, which is part of the problem—is one of those writers who gets periodically picked up and dusted off. “Look at this,” people say, wondering why such a lovely, delicate thing should be left to molder. But there are a few obvious reasons why: the bad luck of the name; Taylor’s own reluctance to proclaim herself a writer (she rarely gave interviews or associated with the literati); the “lending-library aura that hangs around her work,” as her biographer, Nicola Beauman, gently put it; Taylor’s interest in the foibles of the Thames Valley bourgeoisie at a time when England was getting plain fed up with that class; the clean sporting elegance of her language, which perhaps began to feel antiquated around about 1964. It may be unfair to add to this list the protective, almost cloying warmth of her supporters, but it is certainly tempting. If after fifty years of articles exclaiming that we must, must read Elizabeth Taylor, we ar…

The other Mahler

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Merely to list her legal names is to provide a choice glimpse of Germanic culture during the last century. Alma Maria Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel was the daughter of Emil Schindler, a highly respected Viennese landscape painter and perhaps the most important Austrian visual artist of the nineteenth century. She was the wife of composer Gustav Mahler (1902-1911), architect Walter Gropius (1915-192?), and writer Franz Werfel (1929-1945). But the story doesn't stop there. Her three husbands, famous though they were, hardly constitute all her romantic attachments. Before she married Mahler she was involved with painter Gustav Klimt and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, the friend and only teacher of Arnold Schoenberg. During her marriage to Mahler, she underwent what were at least flirtations with composer Hans Pfitzner and pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. After Mahler's death, she took up with painter Oskar Kokoschka. In the 1930s, during her marriage to Werfel, she was a constant…

Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor – the brilliant novelist

"No one bought her books, and only the middle aged or elderly had ever read them: she did not know she was now a legend of which the young had vaguely heard..." So wrote Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one, although the fact that you thought so is indicative of the problem) in 1957, about the eccentric hero of her novel Angel. But the words now seem all to relevant to her own case. Have you heard of the other Elizabeth Taylor? Have you read any of her books? If you haven't, you aren't alone. She is, as Philip Hensher describes her, "one of the hidden treasures of the English novel" – or as this excellent article in the Atlantic puts it, "best known for not being better known". It was an exquisite cruelty of fate that in the very year that Elizabeth Taylor was starting to make a name for herself with the release of her first novel At Mrs Lippincote's, the film National Velvet blasted a certain other someone into the Hollywood stratosphere. The nov…