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Showing posts from September, 2014

Simon Winder: Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe

Why do we know so little about the Habsburg empire, given that it is the prime formative influence on modern Europe? Its pomp gave us the art, music, literature and pageantry of our high culture; its relationship with the Ottoman East and burgeoning European protestantism drew our religious and our political maps; its collapse fomented the nationalisms that shaped the 20th century across Europe.A popular abbreviation on the internet is ‘tl; dr’. It stands for ‘too long; didn’t read.’ There’s space for another one that would come in especially helpful for the Habsburg empire: ‘tc; du’ — ‘too complicated; didn’t understand’. It’s much easier to teach schoolchildren about Our Island Story, or the first world war, or the nastiness of Nazis, because at least superficially these are containable subjects. There are baddies (Nazis), there are decisive battles (Waterloo), there are comprehensible treaties (Versailles) and there are what look like reasons for things to happen (railway timetable…

In conversation with Neel Mukherjee

44-year-old Neel Mukherjee, author of the Lives of Others seems oddly relaxed for someone who is in the reckoning for the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2014. What if he wins, you ask. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” says the writer who grew up in Kolkata and now lives in London, when you meet him at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi.But don’t be fooled by his self-deprecatory manner. His book, that follows the lives of the members of an upper middle class Bengali joint family in the Calcutta of the late Sixties, a time of political ferment, is an accomplished piece of writing. A realistic novel that, at different points, recalls Ian McEwan, Tolstoy and Mahasweta Devi, it rather miraculously lets the reader into the minds of its huge cast of characters, each with his or her own distinct voice.

The Lives of Others explores both, the private and the public, the personal and the political, the power struggles within the family, its festering secrets, and the larger class struggle…

Paul Scott:Staying On

Sadly, Paul Scott was unable to attend the ceremony at which he was to be awarded the 1977 Booker prize. He was too ill. Aged just 57 and at the height of his powers as a writer, he was suffering from the cancer that would kill him within six months.Scott probably didn't know he was dying when he wrote Staying On, and it does little good to speculate on whether intimations of mortality influenced him. All the same, the fact of his demise does take on an eerie resonance in the context of the novel. It's one of the most final books I have read. Final in the practical sense that it marks a definite end to all the stories he started telling in the Raj quartet, but also as a depiction of the last days of the last generation of British colonials to have served in the Raj, and as a prolonged and profound reflection on death.The loss of life that gives the book its shape is that of Tusker Smalley, whose "massive coronary" we learn about in the book's first sentence. Asid…

You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor

IN THE INTRODUCTION to her 1998 Selected Stories, Alice Munro described the short story as a house the reader explores at will: “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows,” she wrote. “You can go back again and again and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”I’ve always loved this metaphor of Munro’s for evoking how the best stories feel at once spacious and enclosed, loosely structured yet perfectly controlled. I thought of it when reading another volume of selected stories, this one by Elizabeth Taylor, a British writer who is, as Benjamin Schwarz once put it in TheAtlantic, “best known for not being better known.” Taylor’s stories, like Munro’s, are beautifully architected homes; elegant and funny, they are miracles of compression, with sharply turned endings that ri…

Khaled Hosseini: How I Write

How and why did you start the Khaled Hosseini Foundation?Our family foundation was inspired by a 2007 trip I made to Afghanistan as a Goodwill Envoy for the UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). While I was there, I met repatriated refugee families who lived on less than $1 per day, spent winters in tents or holes dug underground, and whose villages routinely lost children to the elements every winter. As a father myself, I was overwhelmed. I decided that, when I returned to the U.S., to make an effort to advocate for these people and do what I could to help improve their conditions.

Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and a Case of Anxiety of Influence

In August, 1925, Virginia Woolf published an essay titled “American Fiction” in the London Saturday Review, where she serenely ruled out the importance of a number of leading U.S. novelists, including Henry James, the well-respected (but now forgotten) Joseph Hergesheimer, and, perhaps most eyebrow-raisingly, Edith Wharton. Wharton’s masterpiece “The Age of Innocence” had been published just four years earlier, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction—the first for a female author. Woolf was careful to say that it was impossible to “dismiss” such “distinguished names,” but she added that their praises were qualified because they were “not Americans,” by which she seemed to mean that, although these authors were born and raised in America and often wrote books set in their country of origin, they had become foreigners after years of living abroad, and had, osmotically or chameleonically, taken on the artistic traditions of their adoptive cultures. Instead of the invigorating innov…

The Queen of the Quagmire - Gertrude Bell

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When the British needed a senior political officer in Basra during World War I, they appointed a forty-six-year-old woman who, apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, had never been employed. She was a wealthy Oxford-educated amateur with no academic training in international affairs and no experience of government, policy, or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, developed a deep knowledge of personalities and politics in the Middle East, and helped to design the constitution, select the leadership, and draw the borders of a new state. This country, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I, was given the status of a British mandate and called Iraq.When I served as a British official in southern Iraq in 2003, I often heard Iraqis compare my female coll…

Amit Chaudhuri: Odysseus Abroad

In spite of its archly allusive title, referring to two grim literary classics—Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses—Amit Chaudhuri’s sixth novel, Odysseus Abroad, is a nimble-footed creature. It unfolds in short episodes, through bursts of elegant but edgily comic prose—a good deal of which is devoted to ruminations on canonical English poetry and descriptions of the joys of Sylheti cuisine, gently mocking the epic conventions of the poem and the novel it draws on. Breathtaking Proustian sentences flow languorously, coming to rest against breathlessly pithy interjections. But the pastiche seems more intensely haunted by another unspoken, if persistent, literary influence—that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Chaudhuri’s protagonist, 22-year-old Ananda Sen, may be a far cry from Clarissa Dalloway, but, like his possible fictional counterpart, he enjoys walking around the posh neighbourhoods of central and north London, where he is studying for a degree in English literature. The …

Robert Burns: A Winter Night

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When biting Boreas, fell and doure,Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r;When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r,         Far south the lift,Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r,         Or whirling drift:
Ae night the storm the steeples rocked,Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,While burns, wi' snawy wreeths upchoked,         Wild-eddying swirl,Or thro' the mining outlet bocked,         Down headlong hurl.
List'ning, the doors an' winnocks rattle,I thought me on the ourie cattle,Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle         O' winter war,And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,         Beneath a scar.
Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!That, in the merry months o' spring,Delighted me to hear thee sing,         What comes o' thee?Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing         An' close thy e'e?
Ev'n you on murd'ring errands toil'd,Lone from your savage homes exil'd,The blood-stain'd ro…

Remembering India

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and now its successor, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, give a portrait of the slow but triumphant self-discovery of a powerful writer. During this process, Nirad Chaudhuri was in the grip of dramatic public events in India. Independence and the partition of the con tinent in 1948 were widely hailed as states manship and the reparation of imperial wrongdoing, but Chaudhuri drew quite another conclusion—that his country had no future.The British and their counterparts, the Indian nationalists, in his view, had con trived a ruin for which ordinary people had to pay. Slogans about progress and mo dernity concealed corruption and decadence. Having escaped, Chaudhuri now lives in England, in a mood befitting a wise man of “stern, almost exultant despair.”One of the numerous books to have influenced Chaudhuri was The Decline of the West, and he may be seen as an Indian Spengler with a belief in the predestination of history. Granted the nature of the British a…

Jung Chang interview: why I'm still banned in China

It is 35 years since Jung Chang arrived in Britain from Communist China and 22 years since the publication of Wild Swans, her bestselling memoir. She is 61 now. And yet the figure picking her away across the hotel restaurant looks, from a distance, like a young girl.She is wearing a short white dress, cinched at the waist with a wide belt, and high, strappy beige boots cut out at the toe. Her hair is long and black, youthfully half-bunched, and her face seems unlined.The venue – the five-star Royal Garden Hotel in London – was chosen by her. It is an imposing establishment. A single orchid floats in a glass bowl on the table, the waiting staff give small bows. I am expecting Chang to be as grand, or at least to wear a certain pre-eminence on her sleeve. She has earned the right.Wild Swans, in which 100 years of Chinese history is told through the eyes of three women (her grandmother, her mother and her), became the highest-selling non-fiction paperbackbook ever published.Translated in…

Haruki Murakami: 'I'm an outcast of the Japanese literary world. Critics, writers, many of them don't like me'

'Strange things happen in this world," Haruki Murakami says. "You don't know why, but they happen." It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people's auras.

 "Why that pianist can see the colours of people, I don't know," Murakami muses. "It just happens." Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. "If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it's a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it."

The world's most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which – perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns – …