Tuesday, 29 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 to his son seems to show. Received two days before his wedding in December 1883, the letter advises Rabindranath that “simply living in the mofussil would be of no use without knowing the nature of the work,” and that he should therefore begin to prepare by spending some time in the estate office scrutinising the accounts, making a summary each week and showing it to his father. Once satisfied that the work had been learnt, he would then allow his youngest son to proceed to the mofussil. Nothing came of this idea for the next seven years, however, and it was only in 1889 that Rabindranath finally took over as manager of the estates.
The letters Rabindranath wrote his niece Indira from these mofussil locations of the Tagore estates will be available now in English for the first time in their entirety as Letters from a Young Poet, shortly to appear from Penguin Books. Beloved of Bengalis, who consider the text a classic, all the letters were copied out by Indira into two hardbound exercise books. A selection of these was published in 1912 as Chinnapatra (an English translation of which appeared under the title Glimpses of Bengal in 1920), revised and edited by Rabindranath himself based on the version that existed in the exercise books, giving them a literary shape, and arguably turning them into a distinct fictional narrative of his own.

Approaching the Tagore birth centenary year in 1961, the full Bengali text of the letters was published in a volume called the Chinnapatrabali in 1960, almost 20 years after his death; as the editor put it: “In the present day, there can be no conceivable reason for us to discard any part of Rabindranath’s own writings at all.” The English title, Glimpses of Bengal, was an apt one for Chinnapatra: the subject matter of these edited letters was Bengal—riverine, beautiful, green and vast—and the trope of seeing, or “glimpsing,” some of the wonder that was Rabindranath’s Bengal came through exactly in that choice of title. It had, as it happens, no relation at all to the Bengali title, Chinnapatra, which is a neologism made up of two words—chinna, or “torn,” and patra, meaning “letters” or “leaves.” To this compound word, the editor of the 1960 edition added a suffix, “abali,” which denotes collectivity—so patrabali would mean collected letters.

The woman who receives these letters is a silent but considerable presence in this book, an equal as an interlocutor, and not one to be written out of the narrative of its history. This is corroborated by Rabindranath himself repeatedly. As he said to Indira on 7 October 1894, he feels his letters achieve completion because they are addressed to her, and are expressive not only of his own inner essence but also of hers: “I have written letters to so many others, but nobody else has attracted my entire self to themselves in writing.” But this ability to be responsive was only one small part of the accomplishments of Rabindranath’s young, talented and beautiful niece, daughter of the distinguished Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to enter the Indian Civil Service, and Jnanadanandini Debi, an influential, educated and independent woman, a pioneering symbol of women’s emancipation and the creator of the modern Indian sari. Indira Debi Chaudhurani, as she was known after her marriage to the distinguished writer and literary critic Pramatha Chaudhuri, made a tangible contribution to the culture of her time. This lay not only in the elusive arena of her influence and presence but also substantially in the fields of music (she notated a great many of Rabindranath’s songs) and music theory, autobiography and memoir and, notably, in the domain of the essay form, at which she excelled, and in translations from English and French into Bengali.

When these letters are being written to her, Indira is between 14 and 22 years old, an eminently marriageable age at the time, but one she spent waiting for Pramatha Chaudhuri, whom she eventually married in 1899, unusually late for a woman of her times. In a letter-poem Rabindranath wrote to her brother Suren from Nasik published in the magazine Bharati, we have a riotous depiction of the relationship between uncle and niece, written in a comic and deliberately inelegant mix of Hindi and Bengali, where, addressing Suren, he says of her: “This woman, your sister, is torturing me so/ I can’t think of what to do or where to go!” Uncle and niece and nephew had many names for each other; among these, the most consistent nickname for Indira at home was Bibi, and he was their Robika, a diminutive of Rabi-kaka. Here, in these letters, however, he frequently addresses her as “Bob.” It could be speculated that this was an affectionate reference to the anglicised lifestyle of his brother’s household, and the strange Englishness of the endearing nickname seems typically paradoxical of him, the committed Bengali man of letters. He left it out of the version of the letters he edited himself, the Chinnapatra, yet the use of it is so affectionate, so engaging and particular in tone, that its presence in the letters adds an incalculable element that exactly captures the relation between these two as nothing else could have done.

Although written between September 1887 and December 1895, from when he was 26 to the age of 34, only two of the letters collected in Chinnapatra are written in 1887, after which we skip a year and find a couple more from 1889, to be followed by four more from 1890. The flow of letters begins at a more consistent speed from 1891 onward up to 1895, when Rabindranath properly began work as manager of the Tagore estates, work that he toiled at with some success, but to which there is surprisingly little reference in the letters themselves. “All this work to do with land records and land holdings and litigation and clerks”; “the arrangements for the transfer of property to another name on the rent-roll … and the Birahimpur estate records”; “when the head rent-collector, the office clerks and the people arrive, I will have to concentrate on the collection of taxes”: these are some of the few words in these letters on the subject of the work Rabindranath was doing in the districts. Mostly, instead, the days and nights of work and leisure in the mofussil come together in one shimmering stream of existence, as he ruminates: “My estates exist exactly at the spot where the moonlight falls; yet the moonlight says, ‘your estates are a fiction’, and the estates say that the moonlight is all a sham! I, as an individual, am right in the middle.”

“I, as an individual” is a phrase that exactly captures the substance of much of these letters, as their unedited and full version presents us the man himself in the middle of the moonlight and the estates, and, even more particularly, the young man at a formative age, in mature adulthood as a man and a writer, a poet in full possession of his voice. The letter writer here is youthful husband, younger brother, father of infant children, maturing poet, and growing literary sensation. The tone in the early letters is somewhat hesitant, slightly diffident, often embarrassed and, equally, hugely amused and often quite wicked. This is the young man he was before he won the biggest literary prize in the world, before he was knighted, before he had established himself in the social and literary world; in short, this was, figuratively speaking, Rabindranath before he became “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 not spoken in 14 years. But if they had not spoken, Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard had not exactly remained strangers either. For years they had passed each other on their walks throughout the city, often in an openly calculated fashion. On Kierkegaard’s 39th birthday, for instance, Regine suddenly appeared on the street in front of his home on Østerbro. “As often happens to me of late, I can’t help but smile when I see her,” the melancholy Dane wrote in his journal. His smile was returned, whereupon the birthday boy removed his hat in greeting. Then, as if by agreement, the old lovers again went their separate ways.
The silence between them remained unbroken until the day of Regine’s departure. Suddenly, in the midst of her travel arrangements, she rushed from her apartment in Nybrogade out into the Saturday morning crowds. After a frantic search she eventually came across the familiarly stooping figure on a random Copenhagen street. Quietly she approached him and exclaimed, in a delicate voice, “God bless you — may good things come your way!” Then she departed again, leaving her ex-fiancé standing there with his hat in his hand, speechless, stupefied.
It was the last they ever saw of each other. Regine left for the Caribbean later that day, while Kierkegaard, after a final paroxysm of intense literary production, departed this world permanently just eight months later, on November 11, 1855.
This, more or less, is the story that opens Joakim Garff’s biography, Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru (Regine’s Mystery: The Story of Kierkegaard’s Fiancée and Schlegel’s Wife), published in Denmark just last year. The book is a moving, penetrating insight into one of the greatest and most perplexing love stories in literary history, written with the same scholarly vigilance and imaginative affection that made Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, published in 2000 and translated into English in 2005) such a monumental achievement. Garff’s new book is the first to render its particular kind of attention to Regine, and it goes further than any previous attempt to explore and understand the relationship between Regine and Kierkegaard. Scholars as well as gossips have been fascinated by the relationship since it first became public, over 150 years ago — conventionally, Regine is imagined as a more or less brokenhearted victim of Kierkegaard’s philosophical disregard. Garff challenges this account, describing a surprisingly intimate bond between them, behind and alongside the dissolution of their relationship. And yet Garff’s is also a radical attempt to free Regine from Kierkegaard’s embrace, to allow her to step a little further into the light so that we may attempt to see her on her own terms, as an individual human being and not merely a recurring, if invisible, central character in Kierkegaard’s literary-theological oeuvre.
Garff would surely be the first to admit that any such attempt is bound to fail. To begin with, no single book could undo the mythologizing of Regine that Kierkegaard’s massive output commenced 170 years ago. Secondly, and more practically, Regine is fated to remain a mystery because she left so little of herself behind — no confessions, no diaries, no howling indiscretions. Even the discovery, in 1996, of several hundred letters Regine wrote to her sister Cornelia from Saint Croix offers precious little insight into her innermost being. From these letters, Graff explains, we learn about the public Regine — Regine’s husband would often read or add his greeting to the letters — rather than the private. There are hints, allusions, intimations, but nothing more. What the two sisters spoke about in private, we can only imagine or guess at; Regine remains hidden, her relationship to Kierkegaard a secret between lovers. But perhaps this quiet itself is a small key to the romance; as Kierkegaard’s Aesthete A says of Antigone in Either/Or, “Perhaps nothing ennobles a human being so much as keeping a secret.”
A strength of Garff’s book is that it simultaneously acknowledges the lack of decisive knowledge about Regine and Kierkegaard’s romance and renders it movingly, almost viscerally. As Garff recounts, the couple first met in 1837, though it would be another three years before Kierkegaard, as he later wrote in his journal, “left home with the firm intention of deciding the matter.” On a September day in 1840 he showed up in front of the house in Børsgade where Regine lived with her parents. They met on the street outside and went upstairs. Standing uneasily in the parlor room, Kierkegaard asked Regine to play him some music on the piano. She obliged, but Kierkegaard quickly seized the music book and exclaimed, “Oh, what do I care about music? It’s you I’m looking for, you I’ve been seeking for two years.” This event marked the beginning, as Garff writes in his biography of Kierkegaard, of “one of the great love stories of world literature.” Drawing comparisons to, among others, Dante and Beatrice, Abelard and Héloïse, he says of the couple that they are “together in eternity because they never could be together in earthy life.” Indeed, Kierkegaard and Regine’s story often reads like the stuff of folk tales and verse epics (cryptic notes and secret gestures abound). For instance, the 31 letters Kierkegaard sent Regine between their engagement and its dissolution a year later, Garff says, are “not ordinary communication; they are art” (the passage in Regines gåde appears word-for-word in Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography):
[…] by virtue of their indisputably aesthetic qualities, the letters make it clear that their author was to become not a husband but a writer. So they were actually farewell letters, grandiose exercises in the art of indirect communication: With enormous discretion and employing the entire panoply of the most nuanced shades of language, they try to make Regine realize that the person who sings her praises in letter after letter has long since disappeared from her life because he has lost himself in recollection of her and is thus utterly unsuited for married life. Indeed, recollection, from which fantasy draws its life, is also the source of the death that divides the lovers. In looking back upon events, Kierkegaard claimed that the very next day after Regine had said “Yes,” he had already realized that he had “made a mistake.”
Reading Kierkegaard’s work, it’s hard not to see an ongoing scrutiny of this mistake. Repetition (1843), for instance, is haunted throughout by the specter of Regine Olsen. In that book the narrator, Constantin Constantinius, befriends a Young Man who has fallen in love and become engaged only to regret it almost immediately: “He was deeply and passionately in love, this was clear, and yet he was already, in the earliest days, in a position to recollect his love. He was basically finished with the whole relationship.” His love had already become a memory, the young woman a muse of the past: “She had permeated every aspect of his being. The thought of her was always fresh. She had been important for him. She had made him into a poet, and with this signed her own death-sentence.”

Monday, 28 April 2014

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 positive response toFamily Life still feels "almost as unreal as the book being done," he says. The intervening period of silence – although he was named on Granta's 2007 list of best young American writers – has not been easy.

"I remember Gary Shteyngart saying to me that there was a sense that I was going to be the one, but then I just vanished. I was basically forgotten and would apply for all these jobs or small fellowships and nobody knew who I was. I know careers are based on books, not on getting attention all the time, but to get some attention is also nice."
Just as Sharma moved to New York with his parents and elder brother, Anup, so the eight-year-old Ajay Mishra makes the same journey in Family Life. While Ajay finds the transition difficult, his elder brother Birju thrives in America, and even wins a place at a prestigious high school. But shortly before term starts Birju hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and lays unconscious underwater for three minutes, resulting in catastrophic brain damage that leaves him blind and unable to communicate or move. After two years in hospital and nursing homes the family take Birju home, and the rest of Ajay's childhood is played out against a backdrop of 24-hour care, a stream of crackpot faith healers and a family increasingly defined by alcoholism, destructive tensions and lies.
But while the broad facts of that story match those of Sharma and his brother Anup's own lives, finding a way to most effectively tell it proved almost insuperable. From the beginning he was aware that it was "a coming-of-age story, an illness story and the story of a child's love for his parents and his brother". It is also an immigrant story. And although Sharma objects to an "often racist category that places white people in a separate category from brown and black people, Family Life is definitely an immigrant novel, and one of its subjects is the Indian community in America of which I am tremendously grateful to be a part," he says. "But while it is a very loving community, if you are perceived as being shameful then you are rejected almost immediately. That is seen with alcoholism and other addictions, but also mental illness. My mother would always say my brother was in a coma, a more acceptable phrase than brain-damaged. I think these are things we should acknowledge and deal with as a community and was an aspect I felt was worth representing."
Although Sharma admits his novel could belong in several literary traditions, "I don't think it belongs in any one tradition. And it is also technically interesting because it is without much of a plot. Something occurs, and then the weight of that causes a bunch of other things. But each thing is not pushing into the next thing, so I read a lot of really great books in trying to find a way to tell my story, a life story, in a way that would hold people's interest."

Saturday, 26 April 2014

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 the New York daily PM, he certainly paid tribute to his fellow writer’s talent, but he underscored the “painful breach torn in the ranks of European literary emigrants by so regrettable a weakness.” He made his point even clearer in a letter to a writer friend: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.” Why had Zweig been unable to rebuild his life? It wasn’t for lack of means, as Mann pointed out to his daughter Erika.
This is the subject of Georges Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile, a gripping, unusually subtle, poignant, and honest study. Prochnik attempts, on the basis of an uncompromising investigation, to clarify the motives that might have driven to suicide an author who still enjoyed a rare popularity, an author who had just completed two major works, his memoir, The World of Yesterday, and Brazil: Land of the Future. He had also finished one of his most startling novellas, Chess Story, in which he finally addressed the horrors of his own time, proving that his creative verve hadn’t been in the least undermined by his ordeals. Recently he had married a loving woman, nearly thirty years his junior. And he had chosen of his own free will to leave the United States and take refuge in Brazil, a hospitable nation that had fired his imagination.
Why had exile proved so intolerable to Stefan Zweig when other artists drew a new vigor and inspiration from it? Prochnik notes that Claude Levi-Strauss,
walking New York’s streets for the first time in 1941, described the city as a place where anything seemed possible…. What made [its charm], he wrote, was the way the city was at once “charged with the stale odors of Central Europe”—the residue of a world that was already finished—and injected with the new American dynamism.
Zweig never experienced moments of terror or the life-and-death decisions to be made in the course of a few hours, nor was he forced to slog through the long and challenging reconstruction of a professional career. He always seemed to get out well before the wave broke, with plenty of time to pack his bags, sort through his possessions, and, most important of all, pick his destination. He left Austria and his beautiful home in Salzburg as early as 1933. A police search on the false pretext of unearthing a cache of illegal weapons led him to depart for Great Britain, leaving his wife, Friderike, and his two stepdaughters behind. Unlike his German colleagues, including Thomas Mann, who had left Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 with no hope of returning home until there was a change of regime, Zweig was able to travel freely between London, Vienna, and Salzburg for another five years. An Austrian passport, valid until theAnschluss in March 1938, allowed him to make trips to the United States and South America.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

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 its echo of “grotesque,” the ubiquitous term “Kafkaesque” has long been frozen into permanence, both in the dictionary and in the most commonplace vernacular. Comparative and allusive, it has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke. To say that such-and-such a circumstance is “Kafkaesque” is to admit to the denigration of an imagination that has burned a hole in what we take to be modernism—even in what we take to be the ordinary fabric and intent of language. Nothing is like “The Hunger Artist.” Nothing is like “The Metamorphosis.”
Whoever utters “Kafkaesque” has neither fathomed nor intuited nor felt the impress of Kafka’s devisings. If there is one imperative that ought to accompany any biographical or critical approach, it is that Kafka is not to be mistaken for the Kafkaesque. The Kafkaesque is what Kafka presumably “stands for”—an unearned, even a usurping, explication. And from the very start, serious criticism has been overrun by the Kafkaesque, the lock that portends the key: homoeroticism for one maven, the father-son entanglement for another, the theological uncanny for yet another. Or else it is the slippery commotion of time; or of messianism; or of Thanatos as deliverance. The Kafkaesque, finally, is reductiveness posing as revelation.
The persistence of “transcend” is still more troublesome. What is it that Kafka is said to “transcend”? Every actual and factual aspect of the life he lived, everything that formed and informed him, that drew or repelled him, the time and the place, the family and the apartment and the office—and Prague itself, with its two languages and three populations fixed at the margins of a ruling sovereignty sprawled across disparate and conflicting nationalities. Kafka’s fictions, free grains of being, seem to float, untethered and self-contained, above the heavy explicitness of a recognizable society and culture. And so a new and risen Kafka is born, cleansed of origins, unchained from the tensions, many of them nasty, of Prague’s roiling German-Czech-Jewish brew, its ambient anti-Semitism and its utopian Zionism, its Jewish clubs and its literary stewpot of Max Brod, Oskar Baum, Franz Werfel, Otto Pick, Felix Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Weiss. In this understanding, Kafka is detached not from the claims of specificity—what is more strikingly particularized than a Kafka tale?—but of a certain designated specificity.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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-romantic, realistic, and clear-eyed, parodying the absurd excesses of the popular sentimental fiction of the day.
Though Austen was a great advocate of the novel as a literary form, she was well aware of its limitations. Sentimentalism is a slippery concept, not least because what was first a term of approbation became increasingly pejorative. The cult of sensibility or sentimentalism was acted out in a code of conduct which placed emphasis on the feelings rather than on reason. A heightened sensitivity to emotional experience and an acute responsiveness to nature were perceived as the marks of the person of sensibility. Medical writers of the era connected sensibility to madness, over-taxed nerves, and hysteria.
Sensibility had its origins in philosophy, but it became a literary movement, particularly in the emerging genre of the novel. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield were exemplars of the genre, which emphasized ‘feeling’ and aimed to elicit an emotional response from the reader. The most notorious of all sentimental novels was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which depicted a highly sensitive hero who kills himself because of unrequited love. The flip-side of this popular sentimental craze was the contention that such extreme behavior was mere narcissism and self-indulgent histrionics. Jane Austen belonged firmly to the camp of anti-sensibility.
Jane Austen’s roots were in literary parody. From her juvenilia, to her first full-length satire of the sentimental and Gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, to her final uncompleted novel, ‘Sanditon’, she continued to use satire as a literary tool.
Her juvenilia, written not for publication but chiefly to amuse her family, show her exposure to 18th-century satire both in the drama and the novel. From a very early age, she was an avid reader of those masters of satire, Henry Fielding and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She was particularly familiar with Fielding’s political plays, which repeatedly satirized the Whig government, plays such as The Author’s Farce,Tom ThumbPasquin and The Historical Register. The success of the latter play finally provoked the government into passing the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, whose long-term repercussions were to include the growth of closet drama and the transfer of creative energy from the theatre to the novel (iii).
One of Austen’s favourite novelists was Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela,Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison. But she also knew and admired Fielding’s pitch-perfect satire of PamelaShamela, which ruthlessly lampooned Richardson’s heroine. Pamela is a lowly maidservant who refused the sexual advances of her master, Mr B, and tames him by her virtue and religious principles into making her an offer of marriage. Fielding loathed the hypocrisy of the idea that the reward for virtue should be so patently material: marriage to a wealthy man with a large house. In Shamela, the heroine is playing a long and sly game of sexual conquest:
He took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, My Dear, and then he kissed me, ’till he took my away my Breath and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away.
Jane Austen loved to make her family laugh out loud when reading her lampoons, but she also approved of satire and burlesque as a literary medium for exposing moral and social hypocrisy. And also, like Fielding, she had a sharp eye for the absurdities and limitations of much of the fiction of her age. She shared Fielding’s irreverence for literary and artistic convention. Her characters are far from heroic, they are flawed and make mistakes. She is the pioneer of the imperfect heroine: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked,” she said when writing about her own art of fiction (iv).
The young Jane Austen was a comic writer first and foremost. But she also was aware that satire acts as a form of criticism, a way of elucidating the absurdities and limitations of a particular art form. In one of her early works, ‘A Beautiful description of the different effects of Sensibility on different minds’, the heroine, Melissa, is suffering a self-induced fit of excessive sensibility, which makes her bed-ridden and close to death (shades of Marianne Dashwood). A doctor asks her whether she is thinking of dying, to which the reply is that “She has not strength to think at all”. “Nay, then”, replies the witty doctor, “She cannot think to have Strength”.
An early version of Sense and Sensibility called ‘Love and Freindship’ [sic] is a brilliant, fast-moving sustained satire on the novel of sensibility. Emotional excess—the indulgence of luxuriance in feeling for its own sake—was the particular target of her satire. Many sentimental novels contained clichés such as lost orphans, swooning heroines, emotional reunions, improbable chance meetings. ‘Love and Freindship’ mocks all of these clichés with a ruthless brilliance.
Above all, Austen shows how bad moral conduct, selfishness, and hypocrisy can be disguised behind the façade of sensibility. Her immoral, though highly amusing, heroine, Sophia, is caught stealing money, but responds in the injured tones of a virtuous heroine: “The dignity of Sophia was wounded; ‘Wretch (exclaimed she, hastily replacing the Bank-note in the drawer) how darest thou accuse me of an Act, of which the bare idea makes me blush?’” Her heroines in ‘Love and Freindship’ cheat, lie, and steal, all in the name of sensibility.
In Sense and Sensibility, the satire is more refined, but more stinging and acute. Austen satirizes the bullying egotism that is implicit in Marianne Dashwood’s excessive sensibility: “She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself”. Marianne’s romantic notions are frequently punctured by Austen. So, for example, one of her impassioned outbursts about autumnal leaves elicits the dry response: “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves”.
Marianne Dashwood’s romantic ideas are derived from the books she reads. Austen gains much comic mileage from her heroine’s faith in her own originality, although, ironically, her conduct places her as a rather conventional type.
Jane Austen was a supreme social satirist. Wit was valued highly in her family. The focus of her satire in Pride and Prejudice is social class and social standing. The later novels, EmmaPersuasion, and ‘Sanditon’, all register social and economic change and enact social mobility. But in Pride and Prejudice, Austen presents her most upwardly mobile heroine in Elizabeth Bennet and mocks the anachronistic social pride of Mr Darcy.
Elizabeth’s most damming condemnation of Mr Darcy is that he has failed to behave like a gentleman. Her stout refusal to equate high social status with intrinsic gentility sweeps away rigid class boundaries, and her marriage with Darcy heralds a more inclusive society. The final words of the novel reveal Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s fear that old money will mingle with new, that gentility will mix with trade: “she condescended to wait on them in Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city”.
Darcy learns to abandon the social pride that is manifested in his superciliousness towards trade. His reformation forces a re-evaluation of his social prejudices: “When she saw him thus seeking the acquaintance, and courting the good opinion of people, with whom any intercourse a few months ago would have been a disgrace; when she saw him thus civil, not only to herself, but to the very relations whom he had so openly disdained…the difference, the change was so great”. He later confesses that Elizabeth alone has effected the change: “By you, I was properly humbled”.
Elizabeth’s stand off with Lady Catherine at Longbourn is one of the great ‘set-pieces’ in fiction, the triumph of the new order over the old. Elizabeth’s moral defeat of Lady Catherine reveals the shallowness and ignorance of the social distinctions to which the high-born woman is so desperate to cling. Lady Catherine’s insistence that the union between Elizabeth and Darcy would “ruin him in the opinion of all his friends and make him the contempt of the world” is crushed by Elizabeth’s cool and rational response: “With regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn”.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

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-globalisation movement by adding a laconic, poetic voice to non-fiction. When the late Hugo Chávez pressed a copy of Galeano's 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent into the hands of Barack Obama before the world's press in 2009, it leapt from 54,295th on Amazon's rankings to second in just a day. When Galeano's impending journey to Chicago was announced at a reading in March by Arundhati Roy, the crowd cheered. When Galeano came in May it was sold out, as was most of his tour.
"There is a tradition that sees journalism as the dark side of literature, with book writing at its zenith," he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais recently. "I don't agree. I think that all written work constitutes literature, even graffiti. I have been writing books for many years now, but I trained as a journalist, and the stamp is still on me. I am grateful to journalism for waking me up to the realities of the world."
Those realities appear bleak. "This world is not democratic at all," he says. "The most powerful institutions, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank, belong to three or four countries. The others are watching. The world is organised by the war economy and the war culture."
And yet there is nothing in either Galeano's work or his demeanour that smacks of despair or even melancholy. While in Spain during the youth uprisings of the indignados two years ago, he met some young protesters at Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Galeano took heart from the demonstrations. "These were young people who believed in what they were doing," he said. "It's not easy to find that in political fields. I'm really grateful for them."

Saturday, 12 April 2014

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

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 over the years, her state of hereditary exile, and the complicated perspective on India and the West that it has afforded her.
How did you discover you were a writer?
From a very young age I knew that this was I what I wanted to do. Before I could even spell I was putting letters together to make words. We also had lots of books in our home and everyone read a lot. My family would see me sitting in a corner, scribbling all the time, so they used to address me as “The Writer.” I just wanted my books to be on the bookshelf too.
What was the first thing that you wrote?
A little piece that was published in a children’s magazine when I was nine. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky to have such a closed vision so early on in life. I see others trying many things before they set out on their life’s work, and I never had that. While I wish I could do more, I’ve been incredibly happy just being able to read. For me, as a child, the greatest joy was getting my pocket money for the month and racing off to the bookshop to see what I could buy.
What were you reading at that time?
In my early years I was influenced by the British classics of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. Those are the ones we read, but as I progressed I also discovered Russian authors. It was a great revelation to learn that as a writer you could delve so deeply into the human mind and experience. People like [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Leo] Tolstoy write with such a range of human experience, but the one I particularly love is [Nikolai] Gogol. He wrote some of greatest short stories that have ever been written. There’s an abstract element to his work that seems somehow mysterious, and a little vague, so I keep returning to try and discover those secrets.
Your most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas that was published two years ago. Are you working on anything right now?
I’ve been absorbed in [Kiran Desai] my daughter’s work, seeing her through the difficult stages of the novel she’s writing. But in the process I’ve been remembering that it’s hard to keep up my stamina through a long piece. I was very happy while working on The Artist of Disappearance because I restricted myself to the limited form of the novella and could do it with ease. In the future I’ll try to write more novellas. The novel takes a lot out of me.
Do you have a routine when you write?
I spend at least three hours at my desk every morning, whether I’m working on a book or not. I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need. I like to have a window and a view too, but I mostly need to be alone when writing. I also write by hand and don’t use the computer until the end of the process. It’s fine for editing, but not for writing.

Friday, 11 April 2014

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. I'm in two minds about what's happening.
I grew up in a very different India. My life then was very much structured around shame and guilt; it was a very conservative society. But that India has gone.
You said there's no obvious hero in this book. Doesn't Masterji count as one?
This figure of the man who says "no" - I never meant for him to be the hero. I hope I've written it well enough for the reader to wonder if he's saying no out of idealism, or even a kind of nihilism. The hero, if there is one, is the city of Mumbai.
How long have you lived in Mumbai now?
I came here in late 2006. But I've spent some time away, in Bangalore. I've never had a job in this city, so I'm free all day. If you have a job, you tend to see less and less of the city.
You say it has changed even in the relatively short period you've been there.
The interesting thing is that Mumbai is growing more slowly than many other cities in India. There's a very palpable anxiety that Mumbai has been misgoverned for many, many years. It takes for ever here to build roads and bridges. The city is not the centre of India's technology industry - that's Bangalore. And New Delhi has much better infrastructure and people see it as the great Indian city of the future. So while Mumbai has changed, it perhaps hasn't changed fast enough. And that's the kind of anxiety that's present in the book - that it will take people like Mr Shah to get things done.
Another anxiety concerns China.
It's a dangerous comparison, because you can't go about crushing individual rights in a quest to grow faster than China. I would like things to get done faster, but I worry what price some people in this country will have to pay. There's a danger that the process of industrialisation and growth can ignore the rights of many weaker sections of society.
Have English writers like Martin Amis had any influence on you?
I wish I could write like Amis. He strikes me as the most Dickensian writer around, in terms of style. He's astonishingly good [in his] native command of sentence structure. On the other hand, he often forgets that he has to tell a story.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

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 2006, she left twenty-two novels, poems, plays, biographies, essays, and a memoir—a body of work singular in its violence, formal inventiveness, and scorching opening lines. “He looked as if he would murder me and he did,” one story begins.
But her reputation has never been secure. Once considered a peer to Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, Spark is now regarded as a bit of a curiosity, the chronicler of kinky nuns and schoolgirl intrigue, exemplar of the “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish” women’s writing that Norman Mailer derided. But lightning, in this case, strikes twice. Several of her books are being rereleased in America. We have a chance to reconsider the prime of Ms. Muriel Spark.
The bad news first. The nonfiction, it seems, has gone off. “The Informed Air,” a collection of book reviews, “pensées,” and various exhalations, feels lumpy and slightly stale. And save for a weirdly mesmerizing section on watching a dairymaid cutting up a slab of butter, her memoir, “Curriculum Vitae,” is a work of almost sinister dullness—a shame, since her life was anything but, what with a stint in military intelligence, amphetamine-induced madness in her thirties, public betrayal by her lovers, public quarrels with her son. But the novels astonish, even now. All thanks, as it happens, to their “dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish,” morally dubious glory; their kinky nuns and schoolgirls; their meddlers and murderers; a grandmother who smuggles diamonds in loaves of bread; a young woman on holiday who meticulously plans her own murder, down to picking out the tie she intends to be strangled with.
What hash Spark’s characters make of those eternal debates over unlikable characters or unlikable women. These women aren’t unlikable, these women are monstrous, and what’s more, Spark behaves monstrously with them. There’s a nasty little scene in her novella “The Girls of Slender Means,” in which a group of women struggle to escape a burning building through a small window. The window can accommodate hips that are at most thirty-six and a quarter inches, “but as the exit had to be effected sideways with a maneuvering of shoulders, much depended on the size of bones, and on the texture of the individual flesh and muscles, whether flexible enough to compress easily or whether too firm.” (Flexible enough to compress easily: Spark looks at her women like a wolf.) The skinny women have slithered through to safety; only the larger or pregnant ones remain. A tape measure is produced. As the room fills with smoke, the women present their hips for measurement. It’s a sweaty, agonizing scene. Once you’ve read it, you’ll remember it like some awful moment from your own life, with odd details taking on a terrible vividness—the way, for example, one trapped woman’s freckles seem to darken as the blood drains from her face. It’s also a deeply silly scene, if that can be believed, with women popping out of the window like corks and randomly disrobing. This is Spark’s particular genius: the cruelty mixed with camp, the lightness of touch, the flick of the wrist that lands the lash.
Spark was fond of pointing out that as a child she never mothered her dolls. They were puppets, at her command; so too are her characters. They are broad types, complete with catchphrases: “I was Mrs. Hawkins,” “I’m in my prime.” We cannot “enter” them, as the dreadful phrase goes. They don’t excite empathy. They don’t, in fact, differ much from one another. With a few variations, your Sparkian heroine will be a large, intensely clever woman, an editor or a writer, a bit lonely, a bit criminally inclined. Above all, she’s a superb “sighter,” as Spark would say. A watchful woman talented at teasing out secrets. Put simply: imagine the young Muriel Spark.
These characters, these editors and writers, frequently call attention to their implausibility—that is, if they don’t discover that they’re characters in a novel and stage a mutiny, as in “The Comforters,” in which a young writer realizes that Muriel Spark intends to make a fictional character out of her and tries to leap from the frame by changing her travel plans at the last minute or missing appointments she thinks are important to the narrative. To read Spark is always to read about reading. By populating her novels with memoirists and poets, cranky publishers, well-connected hacks, all of them arguing about what makes a character, what propels a sentence, and did you hear about so-and-so’s advance, she draws our attention repeatedly to the artifice of the novel. She loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure. That’s the point of all those catchphrases. Every time Jean Brodie tells us that she’s in her prime, it’s Spark’s voice we hear, and we’re reminded of who wields the puppet strings.
But why torture these poor puppets so voluptuously? Spark loves to make us watch, and we feel that she wants to make us better at watching, so completely must we surrender when we read her. She makes sighters of us, too, Sparkian solitary sighters stuck at the margins, growing gravid with everyone else’s secrets. We learn how powerlessness can make you an expert in the art of appraisal—in assessing someone’s market price down to the penny. Think of how the women in the boarding house in “The Girls of Slender Means” memorize each other’s measurements: they literally have each other’s numbers. In this world, everything is transactional, and everything is currency. The girls of slender means keep a careful accounting of their assets, from their faces to the last nub of rationed soap.
Spark set these imbroglios in female-only spaces: boarding houses, girls’ schools, abbeys, the ladies’ wing of a nursing home. “The strongest men on all fronts were dead before I was born,” she told her biographer, Martin Stannard. (Not that she was ever at ease with her own sex—or, for that matter, her species. “She went through people like pieces of Kleenex,” the writer Ved Mehta said. Like Patricia Highsmith, with whom she shared a healthy interest in sadism, and, briefly, a little black cat named Spider, she was a creature apart, not of us but living among us with lively disdain and mistrust—rather like, well, a cat.) Women were just where the action was, but to be “womanly” was another matter. “There’s something a bit harsh about you, Fleur,” a character says to our heroine in “Loitering with Intent.” “You’re not really womanly.” This irritates Fleur, who tells us, “To show her I was a woman I tore up the pages of my novel and stuffed them into the wastepaper basket, burst out crying and threw her out, roughly and noisily. After that I went to bed. Flooded with peace, I fell asleep.”

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Amrita Pritam: A Letter

File:Amrita Pritam (1919 – 2005) , in 1948.jpg

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.


Amrita Pritam was a Punjabi poet and novelist who recorded the trauma of Partition in her best-know poem, “I Call upon Varis Shah Today.” Denis Matringe’s French translation of her novel, The Skeleton, was awarded the La Route des Indes Literary Prize (2005). Among her other honors were the Jnanpith award (1981) and the Padma Vibushan (2005).

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

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 interview at the firm then known as Pearn, Pollinger and Higham, I found myself facing, across a desk, an elegantly suited gentleman who—I suddenly realized at about the same moment as the penny dropped for him—was none other than my Rice Corps bar companion. We both exploded with laughter, and I became his client on the spot.

So began a literary friendship that lasted, in person or by correspondence, until Paul’s tragically early death in 1978. For six years, until he gave up his job to become a full-time novelist in 1960, Paul was my literary agent. We exchanged innumerable critical letters1 (quite a few of which have found their way into Janis Haswell’s collection) about work in progress, together with a kind of running commentary on the rare splendors and all-too-frequent miseries, mostly financial, of the writer’s life. We lunched with each other regularly at Paul’s favorite Soho tavern, the Dog and Duck. He was pleasant, competent, sardonic: nice to know, but nothing out of the ordinary. When I moved to the country and came up to town on weekly flying visits, I occasionally stayed with him and his wife, Penny, and their two school-age daughters in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

But from 1963 until 1971, my family and I were living in Greece, and after that I took up an academic post in the United States, so that during this highly important late period of his career my friendship with Paul was in essence restricted to letters. It was then, in the early 1960s, that Paul finally discovered his great theme—the twilight and eclipse of the British Raj in India—and retreated further and further, during the decade that it took him to sweat out the four long volumes that emerged as The Raj Quartet, into a kind of creative solitude where the fictional world of British India that he conjured up became, more and more as time went on, virtually his sole reality.

The physical and emotional cost was appalling. It was, essentially, as his daughter Carol saw, the prime cause of his alienation from Penny, the break-up of his long marriage. By the end he was (as he told a doctor) eating little, sleeping less, and drinking a quart of vodka a day. When I finally saw him again, after the completion of the Quartet—we had invited him to lecture at the University of Texas—I was shocked by the change in his appearance. In 1975, though still only in his mid-fifties, he was a dying man, and knew it. The completion of that vast and complex project had exacted a horrendous price, of which perhaps the saddest aspect was that Paul never lived to enjoy the fame and success that it brought him.

Paul himself had put it on record, very early, “that I mean & intend to become a great artist if I possibly can be.” Yet there is nothing about his early suburban life—or, indeed, much of his pre-Quartet fiction—that presages the power and the scope of the Indian tetralogy. The son of a commercial artist (the family claimed descent from the engraver Thomas Bewick) who fell on hard times, he was removed from his private school—a far from classy one—at the age of fourteen and set to train as an accountant. He began writing poems and plays that were, as he agreed later in life, better forgotten. The turning point was his army career, which took him to Bengal, Imphal, and Malaya; but the seed then sown took years to come to fruition, and not before several not-quite-right attempts, such as Six Days in Marapore and The Chinese Love Pavilion, had been painstakingly hammered out. After the war, having qualified as an accountant, he got a job keeping the books for a new publishing firm, and from there moved on to the literary agency where I met him again. All the time he was writing, and fiction by now was slowly beginning to oust poems and plays.


Monday, 7 April 2014

Out of India - Rabindranath Tagore

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 his career as the poet of an Indian province—fertile, densely populated Bengal (divided today between India and Bangladesh); then, through a combination of exceptional talent and good fortune, he grew into something that no other twentieth-century poet could have hoped to be. Modern India’s first international literary celebrity, Tagore, in 1913, became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many in the West and in India, his great silver beard and dreamy gaze made him a present-day incarnation of an ancient Hindu mystic; many Indians still call himGurudev, divine teacher. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem, photographs of him hang in public libraries, and he is a key element in the liberal, progressive pan-Indian culture that is even more important than democracy or the army in keeping the country united. Tagore helped make modern India, but he also transcends it. When the part of Bengal awarded to Pakistan broke away to form its own nation, Bangladesh, in 1971, it chose a song by Tagore as its national anthem, thus making him the only man to have composed the defining patriotic verse of two nations.
Yet, as the writer Amit Chaudhuri notes in his fine foreword to The Essential Tagore, the poet has become a “static emblem” in India: worshipped everywhere, but not widely read outside Bengal. Like most Indians, I cannot read Bengali; Tagore’s verse came to my school in South India in an archaic and sometimes Orientalist English that left me with no desire to read more of his work. Young readers in other countries must have felt the same. One of the world’s most famous writers in the 1920s and ’30s, Tagore traveled from Argentina to Java to meet admirers; today, his international reputation has all but vanished. How surprising, then, in my mid-twenties, to watch Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) andCharulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), two films by the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray that were based on Tagore’s stories; to feel that the man who wrote those stories was not a silver-bearded bore but a restless young writer, someone I could have spoken to about my own worries about politics or love; and to wonder if, beneath the Tagore whom I had had to learn in school, there was another one, waiting to break out and speak to me. That is why this new anthology, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, is so welcome, because it starts the process of freeing Tagore for a contemporary audience.
The first thing that strikes you about The Essential Tagore is the diversity of its subject’s talents: In a career that stretched over seventy-three years (he finished his first poem when he was seven, and was composing a story on his deathbed), Tagore wrote novels, plays, literary criticism, political essays on the iniquities of the British Raj, and descriptions of his travels in Persia and Japan. Yet it is to the poems that one turns immediately. The range is dizzying—Tagore composed devotional, patriotic, erotic, and nature verse—and is tackled here by a phalanx of gifted translators, including Chaudhuri. Most of the translations are lucid and lively, although it is only rarely we feel that we are eavesdropping in on the original Bengali:
Chaitra nights, I sit alone, once again, it becomes visible—
among trees and branches, the illusion of your curved hand
in new-sprouted leaves by some error they return your
old letters.
To heighten the standard problems of translation, many of Tagore’s most famous compositions are lyrics; they have as much power in English as Ira Gershwin must have in Bengali. If the core of the poetry might never be retrievable for the non-Bengali reader, a wild, celebratory power keeps breaking through in the English translation, as when Tagore promises us, “Again and Again you’ll regain your right to be in the world.”