Sunday, 29 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 had my wine.
The fact is, I don't write stories; stories write me. I’m a man of modest education. And although I have written more than twenty books, there are times when I wonder about this one who has written such fine stories – stories that frequently land me in the courts of law.
Minus my pen, I'm merely Saadat Hasan, who knows neither Urdu, nor Persian, English or French.
Stories don’t reside in my mind; they reside in my pocket, totally unbeknownst to me. Try as hard as I might to strain my mind hoping for some story to pop out, trying equally hard to be a short story writer, smoke cigarette after cigarette, but my mind fails to produce a story. Exhausted, I lie down like a woman who cannot conceive a baby.
As I’ve already collected the remuneration in advance for a promised but still unwritten story, I feel quite vexed. I keep turning over restlessly in bed, get up to feed my birds, push my daughters on their swing, collect trash from the house, pick up little shoes scattered throughout the house and put them neatly in one place – but the blasted short story taking it easy in my pocket refuses to travel to my mind, which makes me feel very edgy and agitated.
When my agitation peaks, I dash to the toilet. That doesn't help either. It is said that every great man does all his thinking in the toilet. Experience has convinced me that I'm no great man, because I can’t think even inside a toilet. Still, I'm a great short story writer of Pakistan and Hindustan – amazing, isn’t it?
Well, all I can say is that either my critics have a grossly inflated opinion of me, or else I'm blinding them in the clear light of day, or casting a spell over them.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

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 Benjamin comeback tale looked to Arendt in 1968, it pales in comparison to the renown attached to his name today.
We get several glimpses of Arendt in the new Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, just published by Harvard University Press, an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity, written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Most poignantly, Eiland and Jennings—two veterans of Benjamin studies—recount Benjamin’s beginning to take English lessons with Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (and working their way through Bacon’s "Antitheta" as an English-language primer) in preparation for what seemed their likeliest safe haven, the United States. Of course, Arendt and Blücher would establish themselves in a new land; Benjamin would never probe the experience of being what he called the "last European" in a new world. (The day after he committed suicide, after being threatened with deportation back to France by Spanish customs officials, Benjamin’s traveling companions were permitted to continue their journey.)
Yet the story of his afterlife runs through the United States—and more specifically through Cambridge, Mass., and the offices of Harvard University Press. While it was the Institute for Social Research—relocated to New York from Germany (via Geneva) before its eventual repatriation to Frankfurt after World War II—that was responsible for the stipend that kept Benjamin alive in exile in Paris after Hitler’s ascent to power, his posthumous story can’t be recounted without consideration of Harvard’s positively European approach to bringing to print the critic’s writing, and sustaining it over time. Any writer should be so lucky to have such a long commitment—and it’s one that younger readers, who may find it impossible to recall how obscure Benjamin’s reputation was not so long ago, may not appreciate in its scope.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The son also rises: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

For 13 years, Akhil Sharma failed to tell his life story. Born in Delhi in 1971, he moved with his family to New York when he was eight years old, was accepted into Princeton University at 18 and later became an investment banker. Soon he was earning an annual bonus of over half a million dollars. He was, to use an expression clipped from Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, “set up like the July fourth rocket”, powered by raw intelligence and the immigrant’s determination to succeed.
The same is true of Ajay Mishra, Sharma’s fictional counterpart in his new “autobiographical novel”, Family Life. For both Ajay and Sharma, tragedy powers achievement. When Sharma was ten, his older brother Anup (named Birju in the book) suffered a horrific accident. It changed Sharma’s family irrevocably and became the emotional source of his honest, steel-eyed fiction.
The author’s debut, An Obedient Father, was published to great acclaim in 2001. It told the story of a corrupt education official, Ram Karan, who raped his daughter when she was 12 and lives cooped up with her and her daughter Asha in a Delhi slum. Its genius was to render such monstrosity intelligible, keeping the reader within range of forgiveness and compassion as Ram awaits his overdue punishment.
“I remember Gary Shteyngart saying to me that there was a sense that I was going to be the one,” Sharma recently told the Guardian, “but then I just vanished.” In the 13 years that followed, Sharma wrote and rewrote his second book, struggling to find a language with which to tell an equally upsetting story, much closer to his own experience. “I’m not sure it was the right investment of my time,” he wrote earlier this year, on the day the book was finally published in the US.
Ajay is constantly overshadowed by Bir­ju, who is doted on by their mother, Shuba, and has been accepted to study at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. The dynamic within this tenement-dwelling Indian-American family shifts, however, when Birju jumps into a swimming pool and cracks his head on its concrete floor. He dwells at the bottom, stunned, for three minutes, only to emerge catastrophically brain-damaged and confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his life.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

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 done deals. And the meaning of the word illusion gave us pause. In French as in English it suggests error or misperception, but more strongly and immediately the word evokes hopes and dreams—aspirations whose loss we cannot welcome. We might think that the phrase great expectations, tinted with a slightly tired irony, is the perfect translation of lost illusions. We lost them, what did we expect? Perhaps we lost them because our expectations were so high.
Almost all of these great novels address the question of how and when we grow up. When we become wise, or when we are defeated. When we get married. When we stop making our favorite mistakes. The interest of the titles is that they suggest that readers have already come of age yet are longing to go back in time to watch another person go through the process. Any novel of disenchantment and maturity must conjure up the very magic and youth that will, happily or with regret, be left behind. The reader tracks the full story with sympathy and surprise but enjoys a kind of prudential advantage over the characters.
Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education possesses all of the above qualities and more: loaded title, financial expectations, a host of illusions to be lost, a knowledge of human folly that allows no appeal. Oh, and a major revolution, staged between February and June of 1848, when many people grew old before they had finished being young. Flaubert implied on many occasions that France itself came of age in the worst sense, if not in 1848, then with the arrival of the Second Empire, which the upheaval helped to precipitate, four years later. The possibilities for what a coming of age might mean are not obvious inSentimental Education, in large part because the novel offers such a perfect picture of the confusion, wrong turns, and bad directions that seem inseparable from growing up. It’s still going on till very late in the day, and only at the very end of the book do we learn what has happened; even then, it may only be what the characters think they have discovered.

The novel tells the story of Frédéric Moreau, as well as that of his friends and acquaintances. In the first chapter he meets Mme Arnoux, who becomes the love of his life, on a river steamer, and devotes the whole book to dreaming of her. She is the wife of the novel’s most charming and rascally speculator, an art dealer, among many other things. Frédéric aspires to be a writer, moves from his provincial town to Paris, drops out of law school, conducts several affairs, dabbles in politics, and witnesses the revolution. He is horrified when he sees a former radical turned policeman kill the one entirely decent person in the novel, and he leaves France for several years, his departure and reentry announced in famous one-sentence paragraphs: “He traveled the world” (literally, “He traveled”); “He returned home” (literally, “He returned”)

Monday, 23 June 2014

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

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Ghosts Of Khushwant Singh's Delhi

“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 city by the river through the generations. It is an old man’s admonition to the young, a free spirit’s “up yours” to blinkered puritans, and a writer’s querulous and occasionally exuberant attempt to speak truth not just to the powers of the time when the book was written, but to power across time.

An out-and-out bestseller in India when it was first published, Delhi has rarely been acknowledged as an ambitious and powerful literary work. Despite being one of perhaps only two Indian English novels, along with Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, to grapple with the 1984 riots directly, Khushwant Singh’s magnum opus has received little serious critical attention. Even Amitav Ghosh, while explicitly bemoaning the absence of literary responses to the 1984 riots, omitted to mention Khushwant Singh's novel. This regrettable omission occurs in Ghosh’s essay “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi”  where the writer describes his personal encounter with the happenings in Delhi in November 1984. He also explains that the primary literary concern that underlay his own response to the 1984 riots, The Shadow Lines, comes from his reading of the essay “Literature and War” by the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan who says: “The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon—completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth—is an artistic decision.” The reference here is to the depiction of violence and Karahasan is particularly critical of “people who observe and experience the most horrendous suffering of their neighbors as a mere aesthetic excitement.” The concerns engendered by his reading of this essay pushed Ghosh to move descriptions of violence offstage and focus on the lives of people affected by it instead. But Khushwant Singh had already shown, in the novel Delhi that was published around the same time as The Shadow Lines, and some years before Ghosh’s essay, that it is possible to depict violence in a way that forces us to confront questions of goodness and truth.

The question that Ghosh asked in 1995 is still pertinent as we approach the 30th anniversary of the anti-Sikh violence. Why has it been so difficult for Indian English novelists to face up to the 1984 riots? Ghosh's own The Shadow Lines, started a few months after the riots veers into the past and away from Delhi to Kolkata, Dhaka and London. But, to the best of this writer’s knowledge, there is no work that speaks as directly and fearlessly to the horror that was visited on Delhi that year as Khushwant Singh’s novel. And this despite the fact that those few fateful days of November 1984 appear in just 15 out of almost 400 pages of the book; 15 pages that, coming, as they do, at the very end of the book, at the very end of a long and poignant telling of Delhi’s history, transform the moment of violence into pure pathos and prevent it from ever being reduced to mere spectacle.

The framing narrative of Delhi is a desultory first-person account of the day-to-day life of a Sikh man whose first name we are never told. He is in his fifties when we first meet him, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and lives by himself with a “cook-bearer” who waits on him, and a mentally unstable Sikh chowkidar called Budh Singh. Mr Singh, the narrator, makes a living as a freelance writer and occasional tourist guide, and thrives on the unending supply of free Scotch and bored sexual partners made available by Delhi's two hundred diplomatic missions. He is a member of a presumably informal group called the “old cock network” which appears to act as a clearinghouse of fornicatory opportunities. Immensely knowledgeable about the monuments of Delhi and clearly in love with the city he calls home, Singh is a sensitive sort whose sensitivity does not prevent him from taking his pleasure where he might find it: When we first meet him he has just returned from a trip overseas and is showing Lady Jane Hoity-Toity, a very minor English royal, around archaeological sites in the vicinity of Delhi in the hope that he will eventually get to sleep with her. It is an easy life in the postcolonial capital in the early years of the republic for a professional scrounger like Singh. Opening the picnic basket packed for her by her host, the President of India, Lady Jane tells Singh: “Help yourself to anything you like—Scotch, champagne, beer, gin—all on your old President.”  


Friday, 20 June 2014

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 his own calling, without avarice ... None was indigent or dwelt in a mean habitation ... In that city ... none was a miser or a swindler, none was mean-spirited, proud, rash, worthless or an atheist. Men and women were of righteous conduct, fully self-controlled, and in their pure and chaste behaviour they equalled the great sages ... They bathed daily ... there was none who had not learnt to subdue his mind.

These are descriptions of the city of Ayodhya from the early cantos of Valmiki’s Ramayana in Hari Prasad Shastri’s translation. We know that the real cities of ancient India had their share of misers and swindlers, liars and atheists, adulterers and lechers, even some who didn’t bathe daily. We know this because any conception of an ideal city implies the grubbier reality of actual cities, a fall from the ideal. In a word, it implies loss.
It was almost inevitable that there would come to be a literature of the Indian city in English, which has inherited, or rather expropriated, the non-provincial status that once belonged to Sanskrit, and then to Urdu. However, it is only in the last decade or so that the characteristics of this literature have become discernible. The path was paved in a series of anthologies published by Penguin: Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes’s Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (2003), CS Lakshmi’s The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai (2004), and so forth. These volumes, being anthologies, suffered from a certain unevenness born of the valiant, if hopeless, editorial aspiration to be representative. But they do something that English-language volumes, particularly those with a bias in favour of translations, are well placed to do: to bring together in one place a range of experiences of the multilingual Indian city long isolated from each other.

This year sees the publication of the one anthology to rule them all. Vinay Lal’s two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City presents a splendid set of extracts from a vast corpus of urban literature, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, with a healthy balance between texts originally in English and translations. As a bonus, it comes with an extensive annotated bibliography. It is tempting to say about it that where the Indian city is concerned, what is not here is nowhere. But this is the anthologist’s fallacy. For if no single writer can say everything, nor can a thousand.

In any case, anthologies, far from being impersonal volumes, say much about the anthologist. “There is no other way of putting it except to say that the selections are entirely mine, indeed exceedingly personal,” Lal writes. Lal is an academic historian specialising in colonial and postcolonial India who is interested in “the city ... as a nodal point for contestations over modernity,” but his selections are not academic. “What are the lures of the city,” he asks, “the anxieties it provokes, and the satisfactions it alone offers? Whom does the city possess, disown, and embrace, and why are some drawn to it while others are repulsed by its hurried pace, indifference, and monstrous appetite?”
These are excellent questions, and there are answers to them in the urtext of the most recent efflorescence in this genre, a book Lal admires: Suketu Mehta’s 2004 chronicle of gang wars, dance bars, film stars and Jain monks, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Mehta’s is an insistent voice, opinionated and splendidly selective. He puts the frenzied moral ambiguity of Mumbai life into exhilarating prose whose big theme, whence its appeal for non-Indian readers, is the grisly excitement of the third-world megacity in the age of what optimistic leftists call late capitalism.

Maximum City is not centrally a book about loss; it finds the present exciting enough. Or, we might say, its present, for the early twenty-first-century moment it chronicles is in some respects already a lost epoch: the film industry is changing, an increasingly globalised underworld is less tied to the city, and today’s land mafia can make the property prices of fifteen years ago seem almost reasonable. But for all his love of that historical moment, even Mehta, like his precursors in eighteenth-century Delhi, is haunted by visions of a golden age of sorts, when Mumbai was still Bombay and embodied a complex “cosmopolitan”—to use the word that Indians love to apply to that city—ideal.

Mehta inaugurated a new way of writing about place. He was no fly-by-night visitor and his prose was consequently free of the usual travel writing clichés. Identified with his city even while detached from it—Mehta spent his adolescence in the United States—Mehta’s Bombay was the backdrop to a large chunk of his life lived in real time, as opposed to the accelerated travel time of someone with a return ticket booked. He saw the passage of the seasons, watched his rent rise, filed income tax returns. He was there long enough to know loss.
Other writers took notice—here was a mode in which Indians could write about place without going abroad, without even travelling. After all, it has never been easy for Indians to travel abroad, particularly to the West. No Indian traveller in Europe, not even the relatively well-heeled kind, can affect the nonchalance of the Western traveller in India, cushioned by his country’s power, a favourable exchange rate, and a confidence that a couple of phone calls to the embassy and the insurance company will suffice to deal with the worst disasters. The onus is always on the Indian to prove himself worthy of that stamp in the passport, to be ready to produce yet another document to show that he has no designs on the skyscrapers or welfare states of the first world. And this is not to mention the uncommon reserves of fortitude it takes to endure the queues and bureaucracy at Western embassies while trying not to look like a terrorist.

Better stay put, or if you’ve left already, to return. The Indian city is exotic enough, grotesque enough, even for those who live in it, the rich as well as the poor. Perhaps it has always been that way if you have known where, when and how to look. If long habit has dulled the senses, a spell away will restore you to vigilance, re-sensitise you to the city’s extremes. And for those not drawn to exoticism or extremity, there is the Indian city’s endlessly diverting ordinariness.

There is no more devoted curator of the Indian ordinary than Amit Chaudhuri who, last year, gave us Calcutta: Two Years in the City, a book that wisely makes no attempt to replicate Mehta’s rambunctious ethnographies and opts instead for a quietly cerebral impressionism of street corners and colonial architecture. Chaudhuri disclaims any predilection for nostalgia. His theme is “modernity,” which he skilfully translates from abstraction into image, for example that of a French window from “one of the genteel bourgeois houses of south Calcutta”—an instance of a European style assimilated into the modern Indian architectural sensibility. His material is memory, capaciously interpreted to include everything from his fragmentary recollections of childhood trips to the city to a shared historical memory of the nineteenth-century “Bengal Renaissance.”


“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 Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness. He might never have taken up arms and gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him and, while he was ploughing the sands, placed young Telemachus in front of his plough. But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.
But Bloom was inadequate in at least one regard: he didn’t write “Ulysses.” Joyce did, and in doing so he rendered a picture of Dublin “so complete,” he wrote, that “if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth” the reader could reconstruct it from the pages of “Ulysses.” Dublin friends and contemporaries of Joyce who were left out of the book wondered if their very existence had somehow been redacted.
As anybody who has grappled with “Ulysses” knows, the ultimate contender, conniver, and man for every occasion is Joyce himself. He is its hero, and our sense of him is deepened immeasurably by Birmingham’s book. Joyce’s contrivance, the novel in our hands, ranks among the great human accomplishments, partly because its design protrudes beyond its covers into a social and political space unready for it, whose only word for it was “obscene.”
By setting the novel on the day his first inklings of it formed, Joyce ensured that the book would always be, whatever else it would be, a book about its own conception and growth. He had dreamed of writing “Ulysses” since at least 1904, the year two things happened: a Dublin Jew named Alfred Hunter dusted him off after a brawl and walked him all the way home; and a beautiful barmaid, Nora Barnacle, on their first date—the first Bloomsday—slid her hand “down down inside my trousers,” as Joyce reminded her, later, in a letter, “and pulled my shirt softly aside … and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and frigged me slowly till I came off through your fingers.”
Each of these courtesies was performed by a stranger for a stranger, though Nora would become Joyce’s lifelong companion and eventual wife. Neither one was an act of specific personal connection or love. Kindness, sexual willingness, patience, forbearance, and especially “equanimity”—that beautiful word that so comforts Bloom in the end, and perhaps the most important word in the novel—all exist quite independent of personal bonds and the private economies of friendship, family, and marriage. That these lovely traits exist outside of the exchange market of human frailties—that they exist at all, in fact—would have been news to Henry James or, for that matter, to Jane Austen; it is almost hard to conceive of the novel as a genre without the idea that human virtues are always tactical, and spent with the expectation of handsome returns. It may sound sappy, but for me “Ulysses” is chiefly valuable as the most moving tribute in literature to kindness.
The book is dirtier than people imagine or remember. If you know it only by reputation, you know, probably, that a guy jerks off on the beach, while, at home, his wife entertains her lover (the hilariously, humiliatingly named Blazes Boylan) in a bed whose brass quoits have been “loosed” by her infinite trysts. But sex, a pleasure more intense than others but not fundamentally distinct from them, is everything in “Ulysses.” There has never been a novel more sympathetic to every weird thing people do to make themselves happy, from preparing a mutton kidney to eating a gorgonzola sandwich, to singing aloud “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” to “worshiping at that altar where the back changes name,” one of many, many descriptions of backsides and things people do to other people while on all fours. You could watch porn for weeks and see the same repertoire of actions, the identical durations, the same outcomes, over and over; once in a while somebody mixes in a gourd or dresses as a nun, but the basic template is fixed. In Joyce, cheering on your wife as she fucks her boyfriend is a fantasy, a source of pleasure. (Joyce wanted Nora to cheat on him, so that he could feel for himself what a cuckold feels.) The pleasure Bloom takes in Molly’s backside, especially in its messes and smells, finds, in Joyce (like so many pleasures of its kind) an exact linguistic embodiment: “I do indeed explore the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump.” Language is, of course, the real pleasure, the fundamental bawdiness.

Monday, 16 June 2014

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, Nora Barnacle, Joyce could not know he was barely at the beginning of his now-infamous battle to be published. With the financial turmoil of his childhood to harry him, and his Jesuitical genius to buoy him, he spent the next nine years submitting and resubmitting the manuscript – 18 times to 15 different publishers in all, only to have it repeatedly fail to get off the other end of the press in one piece.
The publication history of Dubliners reeks of the familiar odour of editorial ineptitude: loss of the manuscript, moral outrage at the use of the word “bloody”, printers offering their own edits and ordering copies to be burned in protest at the stories’ unpatriotic bent. It was only Joyce’s tenacity and immodest adherence to the logic of his work that allowed him to prevail. By 1906 he was already replying to a potential publisher: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs around my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having a good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”
As the years passed, however, and his initial pique-ridden rejection of Ireland hardened into irrevocable, philosophically driven fact, Joyce’s bitterness and desperation increased. One attempt to bypass the byzantine legal requirements of a publisher led him to write directly to George V about “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” to enquire whether His Majesty may or may not find certain passages “offensive to the memory of his father”. A letter to Stanislaus in 1911, referring to yet another rejection, concluded: “I know the name and tradition of my country too well to be surprised at receiving three scrawled lines in return for five years of constant service to my art . . .”
When the book was eventually published, in June 1914, the fears of the liability-shy publishers proved unfounded. In the Egoist Ezra Pound, after several unsurprisingly snobbish remarks about Joyce’s Irishness, welcomed him to the fold, declaring, “Mr Joyce’s more rigorous selection of the presented detail marks him, I think, as belonging to my own generation . . .” And Gerald Gould’s review in the New Statesman (27 June 1914) opened: “It is easy to say of Gorky that he is a man of genius. To say the same of Mr James Joyce requires more courage, since his name is little known; but a man of genius is precisely what he is.” By this time Joyce was far into the serialisation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the seeds of his combatively physical style were sown and nothing after could be the same.
The might and muscle of Dubliners is in the lives of its characters and Joyce’s carefully noted motes on its streets. It courses across the blackened handkerchief of the snuff-snorting priest in “The Sisters”, the wary grief of the child who mourns his passing and the freewheeling criticism of those who feel entitled to their say once he’s gone. It runs livid through the masturbating moraliser in “An Encounter”, coaxing chat of sweethearts from little boys then working himself up to a foamy-mouthed frenzy describing the whipping he’d give lads who’d dare talk to girls. And it aggravates most poignantly in the self-paralysing timidity of Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud”, who longs for his friend Gallaher’s life of bawdy cosmopolitanism but comes to understand that the chief cause of its impossibility is himself.
It is through Joyce’s intimate rummagings through the city’s yens and wardrobes that we come closest to identifying its inhabitants. The anxious spectacle-polishing of Mr Doran in “The Boarding House” as he awaits his landlady’s declaration that he must marry her daughter, the pushed-back yachting cap of one of the chancers in “Two Gallants” hoping to lift drink money from a “slavey” (servant girl) or the affectation of galoshes for the snow in “The Dead”: these all, subtly, designate his Dubliners as a fussy, middle-class lot, less preoccupied with the getting of bread than the satiation of more finickity wants.
Throughout, Joyce lambastes the sanctimonious complacency of those craven enough to martyr themselves, or those around them, on the altar of appearances and moral rectitude. Witness his flaying in “A Painful Case” of the prissy Mr Duffy, who congratulates himself on denying a lonely – and now-deceased – woman affection but comes to realise how meaningless his sacrifice has been. Accidentally intruding on young lovers at play, “. . . he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast. One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness.” And later: “He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.”

Saturday, 7 June 2014

On Her Own Two Feet

ELIZABETH TAYLORthe English novelist, not the American actress, which is part of the problemis 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 are a bit less inclined to, who can blame us? Kingsley Amis, who did more than anyone to undo her wallpapered-parlor image through a series of powerfully worded, almost angry reviews during her lifetime, still wrote defensively after her death in 1975 that Taylor’s “deeply unsensational style and subject-matter saw to it that, in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century. I hope she will in the future.” By 1986, Anita Brookner was noting: “it is time that justice was done to Elizabeth Taylor, the Jane Austen of the 1950s and 1960s, a writer so beautifully modest that few have taken up the cudgels on her behalf.” The frequent comparison to Austen, as well as to other underappreciated, “lending-library”-type female writers like Elizabeth Bowen or Barbara Pym, seems particularly counterproductive.
Under these circumstances, the New York Review Books Classics re-issue of two Taylor novels, A Game of Hide and Seek and Angel, and the planned release of a third novel and a collection of short stories in 2013, is truly exciting. For years, Taylor’s short storiespainfully smart, hilarious, darkhave been entirely out of print in the United States, and available only through the Virago Press in Britain. These editions came with thoughtful introductions, but off-putting Easter-egg-colored covers showing what look like dramatic stills from black-and-white movies, entirely distinct from the book’s contents. The aim was evidently to gussy Taylor up as an a la mode woman’s writer (Valerie Martin in her introduction to At Mrs. Lippincote’s: “Taylor is the thinking person’s dangerous housewife”), a pigeonhole that, however necessary marketing-wise, still does her some damage.

The new editions, blessedly, sell themselves with broader ambition. The covers are not pastel. The jacket copy compares Taylor to Graham Greene, Richard Yates, and Michelangelo Antonioni, without a single mention of Jane Austen. Angel includes an astute introduction from the Virago edition by Hilary Mantel; Caleb Crain does a subtle job placing A Game of Hide and Seek in the context of Taylor’s own life and work. We are thus free to enjoy the novels without feeling that we are participating in some awkward posthumous dress-up party.
A Game of Hide and Seek, first published in 1951, tells an inconvenient and painful love story. Harriet’s mother and Vesey’s aunt are best friends, bonded by their years in the suffragette movement. But Harriet and Vesey are both disappointments: Harriet is unambitious, showing “no inclination to become a doctor or a lawyer, still less to storm some still masculine stronghold, the Stock-Exchange or holy orders”; Vesey is dramatic and manipulative, an overcompensation for the haphazard affections of his self-centered mother. In their teens, playing complicated games with the younger cousins Harriet is meant to be babysitting, the two fall in love; on Harriet’s end, swooningly and awkwardly, with lots of jotting in her diaries and squirreling away of keepsakes; on Vesey’s end, no less sincerely, but with a great deal of teenage cruelty mingled with “its other side of appalled tenderness.” The two are splintered both by their own flawsVesey’s insensitivity, Harriet’s inability to openly stake a claimand by the ungenerous interventions of their elders. Vesey is packed off to university, while Harriet starts a new job in a gown shop and falls into a relationship with Charles Jephcott, “an elderly man of about thirty-five,” out of passivity and loneliness. After Vesey stands her up at a danceand after her mother dies, and Charles tends her through her griefHarriet submits to marrying Charles.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The other Mahler

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 companion, both public and private, of Father Johannes Hollnsteiner, a priest widely rumored to be Viennas's next cardinal. And after Werfel's death, the press (at least that part of the press represented by Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) was full of her close relationship—purely Platonic, she told the world—with conductor Bruno Walter.
All this tasty material is summed up in an anecdote from Karen Monson's new biography of the woman who is now simply known as Alma Mahler[1]:
[Playwright Gehart] Hauptmann had also been smitten by Alma, and in the presence of his wife he jovially commented that he would be her lover in their next life. To this, Mrs. Hauptmann answered caustically that, even then, he would have to wait his turn.
It must be added that Alma Mahler had male friends with whom no sexual tie was ever suggested, and they were no less famous than her lovers. They included Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Gustave Charpentier, as well as Thomas Mann, his son Golo, Erich Maria Remarque, and Thorton Wilder.
In the eyes of her many admiring friends, and in her own eyes as well, Alma Mahler was a talented woman. Before she met Mahler—already music director of the Vienna Opera—she was a composition student of Zemlinsky's, and under her tutelage she wrote many songs, of which at least nine survive today in various states of availability. According to Bruno Walter's testimony, she was a sculptor, too, although nothing of her work in the plastic arts seems to have remained. She had literary gifts also. In 1924, she edited a collection of Mahler's letters. In the late 1930s she wrote a book of memoirs of the composer, and in the 1950s she composed her own recollections.[2]
There were, of course, difficulties aplenty in Alma Mahler's encounter with the world of ideologies and nations. She was, after all, driven from her birthplace by Hitler in the 1930s and her final relocation in America from 1940 on was in some doubt for several years. But there were darker shadows in her personal life. She was pregnant a total of six times by four men: three times by Mahler, and once each by Kokoschka, Gropius, and Werfel. Only one conception progressed to adulthood. Her first child by Mahler died at the age of rwo. Her final pregnancy by him resulted in a miscarriage. Kokoschka's child she aborted. Her daughter with Gropius, the beautiful, charming, and talented Manon, died of polio in 1935 at the age of eighteen (Berg dedicated his violin concerto to her). And the child of her last pregnancy, in fact Werfel's although she was married to Gropius at the time, did not survive his first year. She was left with one daughter, Anna, with whom, after some difficulties, she eventually made peace. It was Anna, like her mother a sculptor, who made the death mask of Schoenberg in Los Angeles in 1951—yet another expression of the symbolic character of Alma Mahler's life.
In its other aspects, Alma Mahler's life was scarcely more happy. She was a woman prone to a kind of constant deracinatory self-examination. She was almost obsessively concerned with who she was, what she was doing, and what it all meant. The focus of her concerns was, not surprisingly, her lovers and her own creativity.
She covered all this at great length in her memoirs. Of her doubts regarding Mahler, even before their marriage, she wrote:
. . . we had our first major conflict. I once wrote more briefly than usual, explaining that I still had to work on a composition, and Mahler was outraged. Nothing in the world was to mean more to me than writing to him; he considered the marriage [on more or less equal terms] of Robert and Clara Schumann "ridiculous," for instance. He sent me a long letter with the demand that I instantly give up my music and live for his alone . . .
I cried all night . . . [but he then] moderated his demands. In the afternoon he came himself, happy, confident, and so sweet that for the moment our skies were cloudless.
They did not stay cloudless. I buried my dream, and perhaps it was better so; I have been privileged to see the realization of my creative talent, what there was of it, in greater brains than mine. And yet, somewhere in me a wound kept smarting . . .
She had a certain pitiless knowledge about what she was after in her relations with men. Thus, just after Anna was bom, she told Mahler that what she "really loved in a man was his achievement":
"The greater the achievement, the more I must love him."
"Sounds dangerous," said Mahler. "What if one should come along who tops me?"
"I'd have to love him," I said.
He smiled. "Well, so far I'm not worrying. I don't know of anyone who tops me . . ."
But then, just a few lines below in her memoirs, the old wound aches again. Quoting from her diaries, she writes:
I told Gustav how hurt I am by his utter disinterest in what goes on inside me. My knowledge of music, for instance, suits him only as long as I use it for him. He answered: "Is it my fault that your budding dreams have not come true? . . . Oh, to be so pitilessly stripped of everything! He lives his own life—and I must live it, too! I can't occupy myself exclusively with my children . . .
Even while Mahler was alive, Alma was making preparations for a new life. After a trip to Paris in 1910, during which her already sickly husband conducted a performance of his Second Symphony (in the second movement of which the French composers Debussy, Dukas, and Pierné walked out), she went to a sanitarium to "do something for myself." She was characteristically frank about what that something amounted to:
In the sanitarium I lived completely withdrawn, as always when I was alone somewhere . . . The German doctor in charge of the place prescribed dancing! Well, it made more sense than the boiling baths. Feeling responsibility for me and worried about my despondency and loneliness, he introduced young men to me; one was an extraordinarily handsome German who would have been well cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. We danced. Gliding slowly around the room with the youth, I heard chat he was an architect and had studied with one of my father's well-known friends. We stopped dancing and talked, talked all the rest of the night, until the sun shone through the window . . .
Soon, there remained no doubt that young Walter Gropius was in love with me and expected me to love him in return . . .
After Mahler's death, she quickly received and rejected a marriage offer from a famous physician who had been a friend both to her and to her husband at the end. She writes a farewell to him with her usual directness:
When it comes to living you're a miserable failure. At best, men like you are put between book covers, closed, pressed, and devoured in unrecognizable form by future generations. But such men never live.
Today I know the eternal source of all strength. It is in nature, in the earth, in people who don't hesitate to cast away their existence for the sake of an idea. They are the ones who can love.
I go on living with my face lifted high, with my feet on the ground—where they belong.
And she goes on immediately to describe her situation: "I had moved on by then, for roaming in souls had now become my delight. Unwittingly, while looking for greatness in men, I was facing life—tempting, seductive life."

Monday, 2 June 2014

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 novelist, with her understated and apparently old-fashioned stories about servants and madams, housewives and marital complications, couldn't hope to compete. She was doomed to be the other Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor the writer, no, not that Elizabeth Taylor.
But if you're one of the few for whom her name does mean more than an unlucky coincidence, you're in exalted company. Kingsley Amis named her "one of the best English novelists born in this century"; Antonia Fraser called her "one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century". Hilary Mantel says that she is "deft, accomplished and somewhat underrated"; Rosamund Lehmann that she is "sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit". Jilly Cooper hails her as "a wonderful novelist." Both Paul Bailey and Elizabeth Jane Howard, meanwhile, declare that they "envy any reader coming to her for the first time".
I belong to that latter group. I can't claim any special knowledge; until a few weeks ago, I'd barely heard of Elizabeth-Taylor-the-writer either. My interest was piqued when Colm Toibin mentioned her on the New Yorker fiction podcast (even though he wasn't particularly flattering), and by chance a publicist from Virago got in touch a few days later to inform me that the 100th anniversary of Taylor's birth was on the way. I took the bait and read the aforementioned Angel. It is marvellous.
As my opening quote suggests, the book describes a novelist who finds great fame – and then finds herself losing it. "Lightening laced and veined the sky" is about the only sample of her novelist Angel's writing that Taylor gives us, but that quote, combined with the astonished mocking reactions of all who read her, tell us everything we need to know. Angel is jawdroppingly bad – and all the more popular because of it.