Monday, 29 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 timetables).
The Habsburg empire, on the other hand, has none of these consolations. Most of the places involved are now called something else, and the empire was cobbled together out of any number of rebellious, feuding or indifferent duchies, grand-duchies, principalities, margravates, palatinates and what have you. Most of the principal actors had weird German names and extraordinarily complicated titles (even at the tail end of the silliness, Franz Joseph I boasted 16 titles including ‘King of Jerusalem etc.’, ‘Margrave of Upper & Lower Lusatia, in Istria’ and ‘Grand Voivode of the Voivodship of Serbia, etc. etc.’), not to mention extreme difficulty in numbering: ‘Philip the Handsome’ was Philip I of Castile, Philip II of Luxemburg, Philip III of Brabant, Philip IV of Burgundy, Philip V of Namur and Philip VI of Artois. And — Simon Winder tells us — he was ugly.
It wasn’t even one empire, quite. For 364 years any given Habsburg-in-chief combined the complicatedly overlapping roles of running the Habsburg family patrimony and the Holy Roman Empire. As for the joys of cause and effect — which at least in a naive reading is what historians labour to discern — the greatest of optimists will retire with a migrainous flickering in the corner of the eye and a Herbert Lom-style twitch. Inconclusive wars, footling territorial swaps, contradictory edicts, aborted negotiations and humiliating U-turns, cock-ups and misunderstandings are the stuff of its decade-by-decade life. As is the case with so many useful conservative institutions, the Habsburg empire worked in practice rather than in theory.
One of the main things the empire did was to prevent the Ottomans from overrunning Europe. Its ups and downs often have to do with whether the Ottomans were busy gnawing at its bum or had their attention distracted for a few decades elsewhere. Like most of the things the Habsburgs did — Winder gently but seriously emphasises that to think of the empire as a rational, centralising authority is completely to miss the point — these distractions were often subcontracted. In the 16th century, for instance, the Uskoks of Senj, who were Christian irregulars, harassed Ottoman shipping on the Dalmatian coast. Their habit of using their victims’ blood to flavour their bread, Winder writes, was ‘another talking point’. The bags full of Turkish noses dispatched from Senj by the Uskoks to Charles V in 1532 may have been one of those presents more fun to send than to receive.
It didn’t help that the Habsburgs were hopelessly inbred, of course. Remember that jaw? Charles V couldn’t eat in public because of it, Leopold I’s jaw was ‘so distended that his mouth would fill with water if it rained’, and — as Winder puts it — ‘the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces’. Some Habsburgs were, almost literally, blithering imbeciles — and Carlos II of Spain (‘could hardly speak, could not eat solid food, was generally carried around [...] unable even to start procreating’) shaped history simply by — to the astonishment of those already carving up his territories in their minds — staying not only alive but on the throne for 35 years.
As Winder says in his introduction, even more than most empires, this one was accidental: ‘often the “great events” of the continent’s history were generated as much by the Habsburgs’ uselessness or apparent prostration as by any actual family initiative’. Frequent among the terms with which turns of events are described are ‘fluky’, ‘hopeless’, ‘idiotic’, or ‘disastrous’. Here we see an outbreak of ‘imbecilic mayhem’; there — in the shape of the Pragmatic Sanction, intended to allow Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa to inherit — we meet ‘the most useless document ever dreamed up’. Of the Habsburg navy, doomed to rot at anchor unused, we’re told, ‘the only role of small navies is to be sunk by bigger ones’.
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Sunday, 28 September 2014

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.

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. Aside from his wife, Lucy, he was the last English person still living in the small hill town of Pankot. All their compatriots left after India became independent in 1947, but these two (who had small roles in the Raj quartet, where they were described as "slight bores, but very useful people") chose to remain.
Scott traces the days leading up to Tusker's death, showing the Smalleys leading lives of quiet desperation in their confined world, cut off from the English – who had treated them with snobbish contempt – and bullied by the Indian capitalists who have replaced them. Their lonely, precarious existence ("hanging on rather than staying on" as Tusker puts it) is wonderfully described, and Scott builds up such a strong sense of doom that Tusker's coronary starts to seem like the easy option. When Lucy asks Tusker, "What is to happen to me if you die first?" her sense of desolation is overpowering.
Contradictory as it may sound, this melancholy is only deepened by Scott's talent for comedy. Tusker is a selfish old curmudgeon – a foolish, petty man who treats his loyal wife appallingly – but he's so amusing it's impossible not to warm to him. There's something almost heroic about his habit of getting drunk at inappropriate times, his dignity after a pratfall and his near-total refusal to engage with the world around him. He is someone who can watch his wife struggling over the knitting of a jumper for months, and only complain about the pattern and colours when he gets it for Christmas.
Their relationship may be founded on a platform of almost constant bickering, but we come to understand why Lucy loves Tusker: why she reaches for his hand in the night when she wants to laugh, why she can't bear to be without him, and why she treasures the one "love letter" he gives her, even though its only admission of affection is, "You've been a decent wife to me."
As a portrait of a marriage, the book is a triumph. Less effective is the investigation of the new capitalists in India. The Indian woman who represents them, Mrs Bhoolabhoy – the landlady who has the Smalleys under her control – is a caricature. Enormously fat, greedy and interested "only in the here and now and how this might be arranged to her advantage", she is often amusing but never entirely believable. She's no more unpleasant than her English predecessors, but is too absurd and shallow to resonate.
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Friday, 26 September 2014

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 The Atlantic, “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 rise up suddenly and then linger at length in the mind. She specializes in witty descriptions (a character sits on a jump seat with his arms folded “like a collapsible model of a man, especially designed for carrying in taxis”) and slyly deadpan dialogue (“a grave is no place for self-expression,” remarks an elderly drunk woman laying a bland bouquet on a cemetery marker).
Taylor wrote 12 novels and five collections of stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. Her work is exquisite; so why isn’t she more famous? A list of possible reasons given by critics over the years includes the following: Because her life was not sensational. Because she abhorred publicity. Because she competed for name recognition with a screen goddess. Because her books were too funny and too accessible. Because her characters’ lives were too privileged. Because she excelled at the short story. Because she wrote no single book that could be called her “masterpiece.” Because she was a woman. Many of these seem to me like dumb reasons for a writer to be under-recognized; but just because something is dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
A contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, both of whom were her friends, Taylor was born in 1912 in Reading. Her books sold reasonably well during her life, though she never won any major prizes and the reviews ranged from ecstatic to mixed. After her death in 1975, her reputation, lacking champions, faded. But in the past ten years, this has changed. Her work has been been reissued, she is the subject of a chatty, appreciative biography by Nicola Beauman, and two film adaptations of her novels have been made. The forthcoming publication of her selected stories is the latest event in this sequence, and I hope people will pay attention to it. The book reaffirms her rank, as the Times Literary Supplement wrote in 1972, “among the four or five most distinguished living practitioners of the art of the short story in the English-speaking world.”
The child of a family without great means, Taylor lost her mother young and her indifferent grades prevented her from pursuing higher education. She wasn’t left with many options; she worked as a librarian and governess and briefly joined the Communist Party. Eventually she married a successful businessman from a prosperous family and settled into a quiet life as a wife, mother, and writer. In the few interviews she gave, she spoke mainly of the blessings of routine, emphasizing her stolidly uneventful life. She seems to have wanted to present her life as boringly as possible.  
Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, uses letters that Taylor herself wanted burned to inform us that this outwardly uneventful life contained its share of inward drama. Taylor had a decade-long, off-and-on extramarital affair with a man of few prospects but with whom she shared political leanings and artistic drive. He was an artist, she a writer; they understood each other. But Taylor had made a decision to live a less bohemian life. After discovering the affair, Taylor’s husband asked her to break it off — although he had also been unfaithful — and she complied. Her letters to her lover show her as passionately romantic, and also passionately ambitious, to the point of self-involvement. When he was a prisoner of war in Austria, she wrote him long letters about how her writing was going. Whatever degree of security and calm she craved in her domestic arrangement, she was intensely, even explosively devoted to her writing from the time she was a teenager.
Had she known that her lover would save the letters and even share them with a biographer, Taylor would have been mortified. If she can have been said to have a religion, it was privacy. She resisted at every turn the cult of personality that conflates a writer’s life with her work; she was the anti-Knausgaard of her time. And she succeeded — perhaps too well — in projecting a level of personal dullness that may have allowed people to see her work as quieter and less subversive than it actually is. After she died, Kingsley Amis wrote that “her 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.”
Even now, some critical re-appraisals of Taylor’s newly republished work seem to diminish it. They place undue emphasis on her work as domestic miniatures; she has been described as “the thinking person’s dangerous housewife” writing about “the quiet horror of domestic life” (Valerie Martin). This language is both highly gendered and reductive. It’s true that Taylor is a domestic writer, in the sense that Fitzgerald or Forster are domestic writers: she presents the lives of individuals, seen close up, mostly in relationship to their personal lives. Home life is the context for her stories, not the heart of them. Perhaps she so needed and believed in privacy because she understood how fragile are our interior lives, how dearly they must be protected. Her true subject is our painstaking attempt to maintain the crumbling edifice of the self.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

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.
Who are some great Afghani writers that your readers should know about, but who are not so well known abroad?
Fariba Nawa, author of Opium Nation. Atiq Rahimi, winner of Gaincourt Prize in France, author of The Patience Stone. Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story.
How does literature in your native language differ from English? Is one easier to write in than the other? Does one express certain things better than the other?
I write exclusively in English now. I could likely feign my way through a short story—a very short story—in Farsi. But generally, I lack a narrative voice in Farsi, and a sense of rhythm and cadence in my head, because it has been decades since I wrote fiction in Farsi. English has become very comfortable for me.
Describe your morning routine.
I get up and work out. Get home in time to get the kids off to school (on my days—my wife and I trade off), eat, read the paper, front page first, check all news on Afghanistan. Flip to sports page, check for any San Francisco 49ers news. Then I write, typically from about 8:30 to 2 p.m., at which time I go to pick up my kids from school.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I can’t watch TV without eating peanuts. Can’t be done.
How do you conceive of a book?
I don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.
Do you have any unusual rituals in your writing process?
I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.
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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 innovation of a Walt Whitman, who had the sense to stay home (and whom Woolf extolled as “the real American undisguised”), these transplanted authors wrote what sounded like classic British fiction; or, as Woolf put it, “They do not give us anything we have not got already.”

Wharton, for one, was less than pleased, and she wrote to a friend, “Mrs. Virginia Woolf writes a long article … to say that no interesting American fiction is, or should be, written in English; and that Henry, Hergesheimer and I are negligible because we have nothing new to give—not even a language!” She added, sarcastically, “Well—such discipline is salutary.”

Wharton was then sixty-three. What aging author would be happy to see herself dismissed by a writer twenty years younger—especially one then being celebrated for advancing a modernism that was threatening to make Wharton’s own accomplishments obsolete? Just three months before writing her essay on American fiction, Woolf published “Mrs. Dalloway,” a work in the mold of Joyce’s revolutionary “Ulysses,” which first appeared in book form in 1922. Having initially rejected “Ulysses” as indecent and boring—and having declined to publish it at the Hogarth Press, the tiny publishing operation she ran with her husband—Woolf had a change of heart, partly under the influence of another displaced American writer, T. S. Eliot, who convinced her that “Ulysses” was a masterpiece. Woolf, despite a lingering ambivalence, was sufficiently swayed as to attempt “Mrs. Dalloway,” a novel written in the stream-of-consciousness style pioneered in “Ulysses” and also, like Joyce’s novel, set on a single June day and quenched of almost all conventional plot or character development.

Critics exalted “Mrs. Dalloway” as an important advance in literature. In the Saturday Review, the critic Gerald Bullett unfavorably compared Wharton’s latest, “A Mother’s Recompense,” with “Mrs. Dalloway,” calling Woolf “a brilliant experimentalist,” while Wharton was “content to practice the craft of fiction without attempting to enlarge its technical scope.” This injury also did not escape Wharton’s notice, and she defended herself to a friend in a letter, unapologetically calling her novel “old-fashioned” and saying, “I was not trying to follow the new methods.” That she disapproved of those methods was clear when she added, “My heroine belongs to the day when scruples existed.” (Elsewhere, she rejected the modernism of Joyce and Woolf, calling the former’s work “pornographic,” the latter’s “exhibitionism.”)

All things considered, Wharton is an old-fashioned writer. Even “The Age of Innocence,” with its narrative of a young man bowing to societal strictures in his choice of a wife, more closely resembles that of Jane Austen than the work of an avante-gardist like Joyce. And, while the novel does hint at the advent of the modern consciousness—contrasting the New York mores of the eighteen-seventies (when the main action is set) with the postwar New York of 1920, when Wharton was writing—it nevertheless hews to the understood rules that a novel must be a dramatically arranged series of events that unfold in the course of weeks, months, or years (not a single day), involve a set of characters within a defined social setting (not an entire city, like Dublin), and culminate in a moral or emotional crisis that lends meaning to the fate of the hero or heroine (not one character rescuing another from a drunken collapse in a red-light district, followed by the unmediated erotic musings of an unfaithful wife). “The Age of Innocence,” for all its brilliance—and there is an argument for its being one of the best American novels ever written—does not “enlarge fiction’s technical scope,” except in one startling respect.

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Monday, 22 September 2014

The Queen of the Quagmire - Gertrude Bell

Desert Queen, The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

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 colleagues to “Gertrude Bell.” It was generally casual flattery and yet the example of Bell and her colleagues was unsettling. More than ten biographies have portrayed her as the ideal Arabist, political analyst, and administrator. Does she deserve this attention? Was she typical of her colleagues? What are the terms by which we can assess a policymaker eighty years after her death?
The British Mandate of Iraq had problems from its beginnings. A revolt in 1920 cost the British several hundred lives and an estimated £40 million and convinced them of the impossibility of direct colonial control. The monarchy, which they established under the Hashemite King Faisal—a foreigner and a Sunni with close links to the British—was unpopular with many Kurds, Shia, and nationalists. And even after Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932, having developed some of the institutions of a modern state, it continued to be threatened by ethnic and sectarian divisions and religious and nationalist opposition. In 1958 the monarchy was brutally overthrown, in favor of military rule and then Baathist dictatorship.
ll’s letters, now all available on-line in an archive prepared by the Newcastle University library, suggest that Bell’s strength lay not in her political success—she did not succeed in forming a sustainable, stable, unified Iraqi state—but in the clarity and imagination with which she explored failure. She wrote almost as soon as she arrived in Basra in 1916:
…We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. We treated Mesop[otamia] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia…. When people talk of our muddling through it throws me into a passion. Muddle through! why yes, so we do—wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.
She places some blame on the pre-existing chaos, as did the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. In her “Review of the Civil Administration in Mesopotamia” in 1920, she notes that
if it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and equipment of the schools and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.
Eighty-five years later, when I was working in Amara, a city on the Tigris north of Basra, we had to replace the doors, windows, and furniture in 240 of the four hundred schools that had been looted in the province. Bell complains of the former Ottoman rulers as we did of the former Baathist leaders: the senior officials had all left, taking or destroying the most important administrative data. But she recognizes that much of this complexity and uncertainty is an inevitable element in any occupation.
By 1920, Bell had added to fluent Arabic and a decade of travels in the Middle East four uninterrupted years of experience in the British administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretends in her letters in that year to be able to predict, explain, or control events. She emphasizes the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. She writes about the new state’s vulnerability to troublemakers from Syria and to new forms of nationalism and radical Islam such as the vision of a Sharia religious government, promoted by Shia clerics in their 1920 revolt.
Bell shows how RAF aerial bombardments and the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred. She portrays Iraqis who loathe foreign occupation yet worry about the alternative. She knows that the occupation is unsustainable and ineffective but she cannot contemplate total withdrawal. She recognizes that British colonial control is unworkable and that there must be an Arab government, but she finds the sacrifices and uncertainties hard to stomach. The situation, she concludes, is “strange and bewildering.”
All these themes are common paradoxes and compromises of foreign occupation, hauntingly familiar in Iraq today but rarely so crisply expressed. Instead, in 2003, we steeped ourselves in “lessons learned” and absorbed the abstract doctrines taught by Western governments for dealing with “post-conflict” situations: management, counterinsurgency, and economics. Our reports referred to “capacity-building,” “hearts and minds,” “civil society,” “truth and reconciliation,” “governance,” and “micro-credit.” Our mission statements postulated dizzying relationships between free markets and peace, terrorism and human rights, elections and growth. These opaque words obscured the gap between our aspirations and our power, concealed the necessity for compromises with lesser evils, conflated problems with solutions, and disguised our failure.
Bell’s writing is both more lively and more honest. She is open in her use of paradox and irony, her expression of unpleasant truths. She acknowledges impotence and comedy, without denying her moral responsibility. She admits the uncertainty and difficulty of trying to make policy in such an environment. This is almost never dressed up in jargon or platitude. To take a few examples from her letters in 1920:
…There’s no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anything that I or anyone else suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed and what that may mean exactly I don’t know.
No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.
[The politician] Saiyid Talib…is the ablest man in the country. He is also, it must be remembered, entirely unscrupulous, but his interests and ours are the same….
…We are largely suffering from circumstances over which we couldn’t have had any control. The wild drive of discontented nationalism…and of discontented Islam…might have proved too much for us however far-seeing we had been; but that doesn’t excuse us for having been blind.
[In talking to an Arab nationalist leader] I said complete independence was what we ultimately wished to give. “My lady” he answered—we were speaking Arabic—“complete independence is never given; it is always taken.”
Such comments—which may seem simple to an outsider—are difficult to articulate within an active mission and under the orders of a strong bureaucracy. Bell’s political reports avoid economic or legal or political theory and instead focus on identifying and describing the most powerful, effective, and representative Iraqi figure in specific districts, from the sheikhs on the Tigris to the ayatollahs in Najaf. Although Bell was prejudiced in favor of aristocratic tribal warriors, she was conscious that Arab notions of leadership did not correspond with her own. Thus Bell acknowledges Ibn Saud—the founder of Saudi Arabia—as the greatest leader in contemporary Arabia while conceding that
his deliberate movements, his slow sweet smile and the contemplative glance of his heavy-lidded eyes… do not accord with Western conception of a vigorous personality….
Her views had been refined by her travels as a lone European in remote areas, dining and sleeping in tents, during which she had observed sheikhs in their majlis, or “meeting-place,” receiving beggars, petitioners, and sycophants, judging recalcitrant tribesmen, commanding in battle, and settling vendettas.
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Saturday, 20 September 2014

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 purpose behind his peregrinations, however, is not to buy flowers for a party he is throwing—on the contrary, he seems to be least interested in merry-making of any sort, intolerant of the din created by his raucous housemates. Rather, Ananda is on his way to visit his maternal uncle, Radhesh, who has retired early, on a handsome pension, into a life of indolence, though, alarmingly, also of reckless eating, spending, and the lack of basic hygiene (while he cleans himself every day, Radhesh takes a proper bath only every few months. He also prefers to use a bottle instead of stepping out of the warmth of his bed and walking up to the bathroom on chilly nights). A substantial part of Chaudhuri’s novel traces one day in Ananda’s life—as Joyce does with Leopold Bloom and Woolf does with Mrs Dalloway. In Ananda’s case, the day is spent in the company of his uncle and his “grumbling ennui”. By intimately documenting the dynamic between uncle and nephew—their weekly ritual of walks, meals, arguments, and affections—Chaudhuri explores the politics of race, friendship, identity, and (male) sexuality, through their amusingly conflicting perspectives.

While Ananda recognizably belongs to the upper-middle class Bengali milieu that Chaudhuri invokes in his fiction, Radhesh is unprecedented in the author’s oeuvre. A stark contrast to the genteel, mild-mannered characters of Chaudhuri’s previous novels, Radhesh is an anachronism. He pours almost a dozen spoons of sugar into his morning coffee, subsists on meals of chicken liver cooked in its blood, and claims to have remained a lifelong bachelor and virgin due to an inscrutable fear of contracting syphilis (though he confesses to have a glad eye for “maidservants”). In spite of having lived in London for the better part of his adult life since emigrating from Sylhet (now in Bangladesh), Radhesh has not outgrown certain provincial eccentricities, atrocious as these may be. So, although he dons a three-piece suit over his pyjamas before stepping out of the house, he does not hesitate to pull his sister Khuku, Ananda’s mother, by the hair in the heat of an argument in the middle of a London street. If Ananda pushes his uncle away in fury, he also forgives his transgressions quickly. He does this partly because he depends on Radhesh’s largesse to make his thrifty, student’s existence in London bearable; but mostly, because he, like the rest of his family, has come to accept his uncle for what he is—a genius, albeit a forlorn one, with a streak of perverse, if incurable, cruelty lodged at the heart of his expansive generosity. Compared to Ananda’s delicate Bengali constitution—he is afflicted with a vicious cycle of insomnia causing acidity leading to migraine—Radhesh is robust, full of a hedonistic, Falstaff-like appetite for decadence. He may be pinched when it comes to carnal pleasures, but a full-throated advocate of drinking 10 glasses of water to ensure that his bowels are vigorously cleared every morning. Unexpected as it may seem, Chaudhuri employs a Swiftian vocabulary to bring alive Radhesh’s quirks. It is not often that one encounters adjectives like “urinous” in his writing.

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Friday, 19 September 2014

Robert Burns: A Winter Night

Robert Burns

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 roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd
         My heart forgets,
While pityless the tempest wild
         Sore on you beats.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

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 and the Indians alike, he thinks, misunder standings between them could only have ended in tragedy. With hindsight, it can be suggested that the British had no need to dig a pit for themselves, but at the time they could not have behaved except as they did. Yet the role of chance in his own literary evolution obliges Chaudhuri to take responsibility for himself and his achieve ment with a pride which is entirely justified. These books illuminate the mysterious area between literature and politics and individ ual character.
A large part of Chaudhuri’s development rested initially on an adoption of heroic models. It seems marvelous that he could have found them in Kishorganj, where he was born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This small town on a river in Bengal was divided into Hindu and Muslim communities immemorially settled in their ways, contented, yet about to be shaken and destroyed by a violence that nobody could have imagined.
There never was a time, Chaudhuri recalls, when he did not know who were the leading personalities of the day, from the Queen and Empress herself to her ministers and generals. The likes of Napoleon, Raphael, Milton, and Burke were household names. His father, part lawyer and part merchant, read him a passage from Shakespeare and made him recite it by heart. Bengalis by the thousand took for granted such familiarity with the world’s high culture, it seems, and the Chaudhuri family was by no means ex ceptional. The youthful Nirad found models of enlightenment in Lytton Strachey, Middleton Murry, Percy Lubbock, and others. In order to read Sorel or Aulard, as well as Rémy de Gourmont and above all Julien Benda, a freethinker like himself, he learned French. Next came German, for the sake of Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode (“Textbook on the Historical Method”).
This formidable autodidact writes a splendid rhetorical prose, adorned with quotations and allusions caught on the wing from his eminent peers. Among the multi farious subjects to have fired his imagination was artillery, especially the design of breech blocks, and naval history, French wines, the origins of man, the Latin names of trees and plants, the growth of Calcutta and Delhi, and Western music. Here was someone ab sorbing equally The Times Literary SupplementThe Aeroplane, and The Gramophone. When he found himself alone with the wife who had been married to him according to customary arrangements between families, he asked her to spell Beethoven.
Such a dynamo for acquiring knowledge had an inappropriate frame. Chaudhuri pokes fun at himself as someone just above five feet, weak in physique. At various times he was ill and hungry, with only his father and brothers between him and destitution. Even in the tightest of squeezes, however, he continued to buy books on credit, or a box of educational bricks for his son. It is typical of his combative humor that he describes with delight how he once kicked downstairs a man who offered him a bribe, and also how he beat another, who had insulted him for being a “servant,” until this fellow wept. “Gandhi suggested the primitive primate tarsier to me,” is a good example of how Chaudhuri combines style and outlook. This passage continues, “But a beatific unworldly look suffused what was basically mere animal innocence,” concluding with the sweep, “There was not a trace on his face of the repulsive arrogance which disfigures the face of every Hindu holy man.” He likes play fulness, too, as in a chapter entitled “Mount Batten piled on Mount Attlee.”
It was all very well to be a strong-minded individualist and libertarian with marked literary tastes, Chaudhuri realized early, but he had to find a proper outlet, too. Moving to Calcutta, he was first a clerk in a department of military accounts, and then a journalist. His first published articles were in English in 1925 and in his native Bengali two years later. So hard was it to advance in literary circles that he is perhaps over anxious in his memoirs to fight again some battles of long ago and far away, reprinting articles which prove him to have been right.
If Chaudhuri was unpopular or marginal, did the fault lie in him or in circumstances? Gradually he sensed that the political climate between the wars was thwarting and de pressing not just him but everyone else as well. A complete reappraisal was needed of the relationship between India and Great Britain.
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Sunday, 14 September 2014

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 paperback book ever published.
Translated into 37 languages, and selling more than 10 million copies, it established Chang as the spokesperson of 20th-century China, a woman who experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand – including her parents’ torture, her own brainwashing as a member of the Red Guard, periods of forced labour, and subsequent disillusionment – but who recorded it with a calm if moving dispassion.
Mao: The Unknown Story, a 900-page biography she published in 2005 with her husband, further established her academic credentials.
But Chang, when she sits down, only wants a glass of tap water, and her manner is more nervous than imperious. She talks as if she expects me not to know who she is. (“Wild Swans, my book in which…”)
Her manicured nails are as shiny as oyster-shells, but she fidgets a lot, folding the skirt of the dress over and over, and smoothing the buttons. She has just got back, she tells me, from a friend’s birthday party.
I mishear the location and when we establish that the celebration took place on the Greek island of Hydra, she blames herself for my misunderstanding, shaking her head and repeating, “Sorry, sorry… Yes… My mistake, the pronunciation.” She has a small habit of speech, too, a noise she uses to punctuate her thoughts, half smack of the lips, half hum.
Her third book, which she is here to discuss, is a biography of Empress Dowager Cixi . Cixi was a semi-literate concubine who, through her own determination and wiles, ruled China behind the scenes from 1861 to 1908.
It is a serious work, based on eight years of research, but as well as being a political portrait it is as full of fascinating detail about eunuchs, Pekinese “sleeve dogs” (so small emperors would carry them in their robes’ sleeves) and Chinese habits of mind (the tendency to appease a deadly force by exalting it – so smallpox was known as “heavenly flowers”).
Cixi, Chang argues, was not the brutal despot of conventional opinion, but a free thinker who opened the doors to the West, revolutionised the education system, abolished such cruel practices as foot-binding and “death by a thousand cuts” (in which the victim was sliced up alive), and embarked upon a system of modernisation, including industry, railways, the freedom of the press, women’s liberation and plans for parliamentary elections.
Cixi’s last act was to poison her own stepson, to prevent his rule. “Isn’t it unbelievable?” Chang says, with glee. “He was no good… He was obsessed with clocks… He was content never to travel from the Forbidden City, or to meet outsiders. He would have been a catastrophe. She has been universally maligned for 100 years, mainly because she was a woman. But how can you not feel..?”
Chang emits a small hum. “He is the one regarded as the hero, but it’s the Empress Dowager who deserves our sympathy!”
Would she agree, I venture, that she had fallen in love with her subject? She smiles broadly. “Yes. Yes. I did. I’m afraid I did. I felt, I very felt… um. I try to keep a detached tone, but I never wanted to erase the passion in my writing. This is my interpretation of her, my take on the facts.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Fall in love with her? Yes. I did.”
Both Chang’s previous books are banned in China, and she is only allowed to return there, to visit her sister and mother (her three brothers live in Canada, France and Britain), on condition she visits no other friends and avoids all travel and political activities. Much of the research for this biography took place in the Chinese archives.
“Cixi is OK because she is history, and actually the Ching period is a big period to study in China because it was the height of the Chinese empire.” She gives a wry smile. “I think the authorities might have been rather relieved that I was going into a history rather than a Communist leader.”
Does she think this might be her first book to be published there? She picks her words carefully. “I think if someone else had written it, it would be fine. But they won’t want to raise my profile.”
You can tell she is careful what she says – she doesn’t want to bring attention to her friends and family. But her scholarship is, of course, itself a criticism.
In conversation, Chang repeatedly contrasts the policies of the Empress Dowager with those of the Communist regime. The speed of modernisation, she says, did untold damage to the Chinese landscape and culture – both of which Cixi was careful to safeguard. “In the mad rush of high-speed growth people did the most devastating thing – they destroyed nature.”
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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 – is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. "I'm not mysterious!" he says, laughing.

Tsukuru Tazaki, as the author calls his own novel for short, sold a million copies in two weeks when it came out last summer in Japan. (Murakami was born in Kyoto to two literature teachers, and grew up in the port city of Kobe. These days he lives near Tokyo, having spent periods in Greece, at Princeton and Tufts universities – where he wrote his masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – and recently in Hawaii.) It contains passing mysteries like the pianist who sees auras, but it is also a mystery novel in a larger sense. Tsukuru, its 36-year-old protagonist, is still in mourning for the years before he went to university, when he was part of an inseparable group of five friends – until one day they told him, without explanation, that they never wanted to see him again.

"In the first place I had the intention to write a short story," Murakami says. "I just wanted to describe that guy, 36 years old, very solitary … I wanted to describe his life. So his secret was not to be dissolved; the mystery was going to stay a mystery."

But he hadn't reckoned on the inciting power of a woman to move the story forward, as Murakami's female characters so often do. "When I wrote that short-story part," he continues, "Sara, [Tsukuru's] girlfriend, came to him and she said, 'You should find out what happened then', so he went to Nagoya to see his old friends. And the same thing happened to me. Sara came to me and said, 'You should go back to Nagoya and find out what happened.' When I was writing the book, my own character came to me and told me what to do … The fiction and my experience happened at the same time, in parallel. So it became a novel."

Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm, which may be accessed by sitting at the bottom of a well (as does the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), or by taking the wrong emergency staircase off a city expressway (as in 1Q84). Sometimes dreams act as portals between these realities. In Tsukuru Tazaki there is a striking sex dream, at the climax of which the reader is not sure whether Tsukuru is still asleep or awake. Yet Murakami hardly ever remembers his own dreams.

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