Showing posts from 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 b…

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 libe…

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?

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, bu…

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 t…

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 doppel…

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 priva…

Theodor Fontane:Effi Briest

Effi Briest (1895) is the greatest work of Prussian realism and certainly one of the best tragic novels of the 19th century. The story is simple enough and hardly unique: Geert von Innstetten, an ambitious nobleman and civil servant on the brink of middle age, makes an uncontroversial marriage to Effi von Briest, the 17-year-old daughter of a former flame. Innstetten takes her back to the town in Pomerania from which he runs the local administration. A daughter, Annie, is born, but Innstetten is keen to get on, and leaves his young wife on her own where she falls prey to a womaniser, Major von Crampas. Effi never loves Crampas, and Innstetten is none the wiser. He is transferred to Berlin and the affair is forgotten until he discovers a packet of Crampas's letters to his wife. He challenges Crampas to a duel and kills him. Innstetten takes charge of his daughter and banishes his wife. Effi's health declines in her despair. Reconciled to her parents, she dies. Theodor Fontane bas…

The vertiginous life and art of Tenessee Williams

Though she may have been a solipsistic spinster who confined herself to the Puritan isolation of Amherst, Massachusetts, the poet Emily Dickinson clearly understood the vagaries of her nation’s obsession with celebrity. Consider: Fame is a bee.
It has a song —
It has a sting —
Ah, too, it has a wing. American literary history is full of dark narratives about the writerlyTotentanz with “the bitch-goddess success” (to borrow a phrase from the philosopher William James). Gaze upon F Scott Fitzgerald, celebrated as the voice of his generation at the age of 23, who, less than a decade later, considered himself a washed-up dipsomaniac when his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, failed to gain commercial traction. Then there were Ernest Hemingway’s final years, when the pressure of living up to his über-macho public image – and a sense of encroaching creative sterility – fuelled the prodigious boozing and depression that ended in his suicide. Add to this honour roll of great American alcoholic writers…

Edna O'Brien: 'I had to grow old before they'd give me credit'

Where are the leaders who can inspire us? That's what Edna O'Brien would like to know. "The over-riding self-importance! I despair!" says the great Irish writer and social commentator, railing against modern politicians. "If you compare how they speak now with how Churchill and Disraeli spoke … language was used more carefully, more pertinently. Now everything is so …." She ponders what to say, a literary grande dame about to receive a lifetime achievement award at the age of 83 for the power and precision of her words. Having found the right one, she speaks slowly, in a low voice that shudders with disgust. "So … ordinary!"

That is the last word anyone would use to describe this remarkable novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright and force of nature, whose books were banned and burnt in Ireland in the Sixties but became hits everywhere else. She swung through London having dalliances with Richard Burton, Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum, and…

Heidegger in Black

In the autumn of 1931, the philosopher Martin Heidegger began to record his thoughts in small diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “black notebooks.” By the early 1970s he had filled no fewer than thirty-four volumes with his handwritten reflections. Several of these notebooks, composed over a ten-year span from 1931 to 1941, have now appeared in three successive volumes of the official German-language series of Heidegger’s collected works. Their name describes their black oilcloth covering, but one could be forgiven for thinking it described their content. They will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy. Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi. During his brief term as rector at the University of Freiburg (1933–1934) he worked to advance the process of Gleichschaltung, or coordination, that brought the university into alignment with the official policies of the Third Reich. Apologists for Heidegger have occasiona…

Seamus Heaney’s last poem published in Irish gallery’s anthology

A poem Seamus Heaney finished 10 days before he died sees the Nobel laureate exploring the quiet beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte, where time is slowed “to a walking pace”, and “world stands still”. Banks of a Canal will be published as part of a collection of essays, stories and poems by Irish writers inspired by paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland to celebrate the gallery’s 150th anniversary. The poem is, typically for Heaney, rooted in the landscape. “Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel/ Towing silence with it, slowing time/ To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam/ Of dwellings at the skyline./ World stands still,” writes Heaney, who died in August 2013, aged 74. “I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,” the author of Digging writes, “the grassy zest/ Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight/ Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.” His poem sits alongside pieces by more than 50 Irish novelists, playwrights an…

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.