Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.

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Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.

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Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.

*

“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

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Of Poignant Writing and Ethical Dilemmas

Book Review: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Some books reach you entirely unexpectedly. Typically, I remember who recommended me books. Typically I don’t casually put a book on my reading list. But for life of me, I cannot remember where I picked up this recommendation. My best guess is, it was someone on twitter, with generic recommendation. Anyways, long story short, I picked it up a few months back, and have been moving through it leisurely, intentionally, savoring the not-so-short stories one or two at a time, to avoid saturation, which is a real risk with this collection. And it’s easily the best book of stories I’ve ever read.

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A disclaimer here. I’m not that much into short stories (or not-so-short one’s for that matter). So one will have to take this contextually. But at the same time, I must add that I don’t read a lot of short stories because they don’t engage me much. However, only couple of stories into Binocular Vision, I was craving for more. And I was wondering why I had never heard of Edith Pearlman. Or to borrow words from Ann Patchett’s glowing introduction to the volume:

“To that great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material let me add this one: why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”

Or as famous as she should be, given the quality of the writing. Maybe I’m just trying to cover up my inadequacies by asking why I hadn’t heard of her. And I’ve no pretensions of being a great reader who knows every good writer that is there. Still someone so good …

Binocular Vision has a lot of recurring themes. Many of the characters are displaced Jews. Many children are precocious, on the spectrum, geniuses with language. Many women characters are emphatic, strong, independent. There are themes of love (or “ordinary loves”), loss, loneliness, displacement/re-settlement, and understanding, and remembering. The stories are set in different times, sometimes covering different generations. There are stories of old people, of young people who cannot fit in, of children’s eye view of the world around them. But the most striking thing about the collection is how ordinary the people with these extraordinary stories are. There are no hero figures to look up to with awe. There are no easy answers. There are not too many resolutions even, just as there really never are in life — too many I mean. And maybe that’s why, the stories are as much a slice of life as you could ever hope to get from a piece of fiction.

Another thing that one can’t miss about the collection is how precise her language is, and how rich and yet not ostentatious her vocabulary is. It’s just that there is the right word used when it needs to be used. Not to impress. Just because it is there. It has to be there. I can’t remember another book that I read recently where I had to lookup the dictionary so much, and yet didn’t get a feeling of it being anything other than strictly necessary. The language is both precise and poetic at the same time:

There were black-bellied hibachis on some of the porches. It was the era of hibachis. It was the era of consciousness-raising. The previous year our third grade had been told that women could be anything they wanted to be. We were puzzled by this triumphant disclosure; nobody at home had hinted otherwise. It was the year of war protests and assassinations. Hubert Humphrey kissed his own face on a hotel TV screen. There were breakthroughs in cancer therapy.

It’s writing like this that makes me aware of my inadequacies, because, even to tell you about her writing,  I need to borrow her words.

One of her characters, Val, is a governess, and there is a dialog when in a new family the kids ask her to tell them a story:

“You do tell stories; your résumé said so.”

“Well … mine aren’t exactly stories.”

“What, then?”

“Interactive dilemmas. Together we invent situations that require resolution. Then we invent some resolutions. Then we choose among them, or don’t.”

Or earlier in the same story, has this expression : “Case Histories of Ethical Dilemmas”.

What better description of Edith Pearlman can I give? One has to borrow from masters where it suits us.

Finally, among these case histories of ethical dilemmas, how does one pick up favorites? There are just too many to talk about. The very first story, Inbound, sets the tone for what’s to come — a story of a precocious child who gets lost on the streets during a vacation. Then there are three stories, starting with “If Love Were All”, featuring the same central character, in different places during the world war II. They could have become a novella on their own. But Ms. Pearlman is not interested in any of that, and the third of the series, The Coat, leaves you flummoxed. Then there is “Home Schooling”, a poignant tale that the poignant quote above is taken from. And there is playful but touching “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag”, and finally Vallies, about Val and her stories of ethical dilemmas, that comes a complete circle.

This is a rich, engaging, beautifully written, book of stories. Why it should not be read is one question I have no answer for.


There are tons of quote-worthy quotes, that one could fill up a book, but here are a few, just for you to get the flavor:

  • Whenever she was bent over her work, her shoulder-length hair, abundant but limp, separated of its own accord and fell on either side of her neck. We settled down on our chairs with sandwiches and books, our presence unacknowledged. We understood that absorption, not indifference, made her ignore us, just as we understood that our father’s sudden explosions were disease, not rage.
  • She meant to slip away as she often did at parties, fearful that she was restraining people ambitious to be elsewhere.
  • Every death foretold your own—there would be something to learn.
  • Those mothers of ours, full of understanding for their patients, were helpless when their own offspring gave them trouble. Then they became frantic kid sisters, reaching for the phone.
  • “Hypocrisy is the first step toward sincerity,” Milo had written

Minting Words

I am reading Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (a fascinating book, at least what I’ve read so far — I’m about half done). Actually I’m not reading reading it, but rather listening to the audio-book, but these days I call it reading, without any loss of generalization, as we say in mathematical proofs. Anyways, the point is, I came across this interesting bit:

So furious and so unrelenting, in fact, was La Inca’s pace that more than a few women suffered shetaat (spiritual burnout) and collapsed, never again to feel the divine breath of the Todopoderoso on their neck.

I was struck by this concept of spiritual burnout, and was impressed that there is a word in some language for such a concept. And so I searched a bit. Only to find that most links are throwing me back to Junot Díaz’s use. So very likely he just made it up. Not that I’m complaining.

Thing is, if there can be physical burnout, why can’t there be a spiritual one? Yes, spirit is supposed to be indestructible, and all that, but it’s only in the context of a living being, with physical body, and brain, that spiritual really means anything. Right?

As for the word itself, maybe that is a not made up by the author. And language scholars may actually dig it up, and I could see it’s etymology. Freshly minted or not, some words are worth a rendezvous.

 

The Importance of Zadie Smith

I fell in love with Zadie Smith, the writer, with her very first book that I read. It was On Beauty. A book which in all fairness wasn’t an original story, as it was loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I didn’t know it back then. And when I finally read that one, I still loved On Beauty more. Since then she’s one of the few writers I have been stalking [1], literally, I mean. I mean, not literally. Literarily. But there is no such word. Long story short, I was eagerly waiting to lay my hands on Smith’s latest book, as soon as it was announced, having already consumed all her previous novels, and an excellent essay collection “Changing My Mind”.

The novel Swing Time takes its title from an eponymous 1936 musical. At the heart of the novel though, are, like any Zadie Smith novel, relationships. This time, between two girls growing up in the London’s housing project, the unnamed narrator, and her friend Tracey; and then as their paths diverge, between the narrator and Aimee, an older singer/celebrity.

The two girls, who have come together thanks to their love for dancing, aren’t really rivals in that department because while Tracey has natural talent for dancing, and looks like is destined for big things, the narrator has doesn’t have any gift, rather is born with a flat foot, and at the very start, the dance teacher has gently but unequivocally made it clear what she cannot achieve with it. But while the friendship flourishes based on this common love, it’s not a relationship between equals, and the narrator is under the spell of a confident and willful Tracey.

In fact this power equation doesn’t change even with Aimee, for whom the narrator starts working for as an assistant, after  a rather disastrous first  meeting. Ironically she is chosen to work for Aimee for speaking her own mind, not caring for her celebrity status.

The story moves from London, to US, to Africa and is structurally Smith’s most complex plot till date, as we move between different timelines, and different geographies, having to hop on and off different trains, rather suddenly, yet smoothly. In terms of characterization, Aimee comes up as a bit of caricature, or a collage of different contemporary artists, and their eccentricities. And the novel suffers in terms of Smith’s primary competency of sketching the characters through their interactions with each other, one on one, mostly, in those parts with Aimee in the picture. But then again, large part of this timeline is with Aimee only as a ghost figure, as the narrator explores life in a small African village while setting up and monitoring a school for young girls, a pet project of Aimee for a brief time.

Arguably, Smith has achieved so much with two of her first three novels — a brilliant debut in White Teeth, and a rich and complex On Beauty — that she is always going to be judged for what she didn’t write. And somewhere, she seems conscious of it in both NW, and Swing Time, trying to do more than the kind of storytelling that her first three books do so well. But I for one am not complaining. Because to an extent this started at On Beauty itself. Only it does the tightrope walking between story telling and philosophizing/cultural-dissection so well that it seems easy enough to repeat, especially for some like her. But of course, it’s enormously difficult. Especially with weight of expectations on a relatively young shoulders. And yet Zadie Smith does it well, again and again.

On the backdrop of the not-so-linear stories of Swing Time, are nuanced explorations into various tricky human subjects – racism, identity, privilege, ambition, friendship, philanthropy and cultural appropriation, dysfunctional homes and virtual homelessness, hurt and shame … To even conceive of an edifice that could hold all this together is a itself a challenge beyond many. That Zadie Smith does take that challenge, again and again, is why she is such an important writer to have among us.


[1] The term “stalking” in this context is not mine, but a friend on twitter used it to denote my excessive obsession with David Foster Wallace. When I complimented him for that term, he said it was used by his friend who happened to be a self-confessed DFW stalker. Incidentally the other writers (apart from Zadie Smith and DFW) I’ve been stalking are: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Alexander McCall Smith, Hermann Hesse, and Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

Review: Litanies of Dutch Battery

The first thing you notice about the book is this weird title. What does it even mean? And as you start with the book, trying to get a grip on random set of things happening, you realize that Dutch Battery is actually a place (also known as Lantham Bathery). And as Madhavan takes us on a whirlwind tour, anchored at this (imaginary: wikipedia entry tell me) island — which is a, and I understand it’s a cliche but, microcosm of India, in one sense, and yet very very individual/eccentric place with a personality of its own — it’s like a Jigsaw puzzle taking shape, with colors and contours forming abruptly, shapes materializing out of nowhere, and you start to have some bearing on the place — just as it happens in real life, as you spend time with a place, with its people.

img_20151218_220411But the anchor point, imaginary as it may be, is vividly painted, and soon, you’re there, in the middle of it all — the tiny little dreams, the puny little political battles, the local Church and the communists trying to establish themselves, the grand political figures from distant lands, the crazy fears, the biryani feasts, and hundred little stories. While “Dutch Battery” tends to stay local, its aims are much grander, as Madhavan tries to weave in the history of Kerala, from the time of Vasco da Gama, to the battles fought on the shores of Kochi, to the post-independent scene, when Communism started to take a hold there. In many ways, the book reminds of Marquez’ classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, as it goes about telling intimate histories of a region, while creating quirky characters, with difficult names.

The narrator herself, named Edwina Theresa Irene Maria Anne Margarita Jessica, and it could have been longer, if not for the Priest being impatient about his need to wash his hands (off? a not-so-subtle allusion to …), an OCD of sorts, is the keeper of all these stories — some she witnessed, right from the time in her mother’s womb, to before and after. Jessica is herself a quirky character, and so is everyone around her, it seems like, including her grandfather who (spoiler!) materializes suddenly, after being assumed dead, lost at sea with a capsized boat, blinded and old, but sharp of mind and memories.

Mixed with a dose of history, is a delightful telling of the lives of common people, their cinema obsessions, their longings for an operatic drama form called chavittunatakam, their love for Kundan Saigal’s songs, their fear of smallpox vaccine …

Few writings are so evocative, so enthralling, and completely satisfying. This is an English translation of the Malyalam book Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal. A disclosure: I know the translator, Rajesh Rajamohan, as he and I were a part of a group of bloggers who shared a few “blog-homes”, so as to say. Although, to be fair, I don’t believe that would have had any impact on this review, the only thing it counts for is that I picked up the book to read, in the first place. The rest, I’d say, is my objective assessment, as objective as such things could be.

Highly recommended, to anyone who loves good writing.


PS: Oh yes, how could I forget: humor! There is an undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the narration that is so difficult to get right — but done absolutely right here.

 

 

 

Rosshalde: Portrait of the Artist as not-so-young Man

July 2016 was a rare month when I read two (great) German authors side-by-side. One was Mann, who’s Magic Mountain (his first for me) I read (or rather heard) in parallel with one of my all time favorite authors, Hesse. There is a temptation to compare them which I’m going to entirely forgo, because it’s a futile exercise.

9782253013570-us-300I picked up Rosshalde five years back when I was in San Jose, California, on a work trip. I had managed to steal some time to visit a lovely bookshop: Recycle Bookstore. Now, any amount of time is less in this den, with its cute black cats, and its bookshelves stacked all the way to top with all sort of used and new books, and its super friendly staff/owners. But there on one of the shelves, this one peeked at me, and I bagged it without a second thought.

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For five years, then, it sat on my bookshelf. Unbelievable, given it’s a Hesse, but then I guess the time was not right. Or ripe. In fact, in this time I  read two more of Hesse. Then suddenly, few weeks back, I picked it up. These days, I consume books mostly in the audiobook format as that goes very well with compulsions of life — commute, walks, chores. So the time for reading paper books is really hard to find, and that’s so unjust when books like these that need to be read, and digested, and returned to.

Rosshalde is probably not as celebrated as some of Hesse’s other works. No one had recommended it to me. I picked it up without any prior “ideas” about it. Maybe that’s why it worked. But really, if you ask me, it worked for me because this one reminded me of his another not-so-celebrated book: Peter Camenzind (which I reviewed quite some time back), which, like James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man, deals with the “making” of the artist, really, not the craft, but the “mind” behind the craft, as it takes shape. Rosshalde, is like a sequel to that — the mid-life crisis of an artist, who struggles to come to terms with the mundane existence beyond the successful career.

 

Deriving from his life, to what extent I am not sure, Hesse paints for us the canvas of the bleak emotional life of a great artist trapped in unhappy relationships, trying to break free, but held back by his only emotional bond — with his younger child. This simple story is deceptively deep, and warrants a great deal of rumination. Johann Veraguth, the protagonist, is a painter who has achieved success, and fame, but is estranged from his wife, and his elder son, and resigned to a loveless, dry life, with only his work to escape to. When his friend Otto visits, he seems suddenly alive, again. We’re reminded that he is capable of human relationships, and simple pleasures of life. But even that lightness of being is temporary, and as the surface is scratched, oozes out the pus, baring for his friend the empty inner life of the great artist. And it’s this exploration that makes Rosshalde so poignant, as he tries to take control of his life again, but not everything goes according to plan. Rosshalde is filled with pathos, of pain, longing, tragedy, but, also of acceptance, and redemption.

This one does strike a deep melancholic chord.

 

 

 

 

A Strangeness In His Istanbul

A Review of Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind”

It’s no secret that Pamuk’s infatuated by his city, Istanbul. To be fair, infatuation is a wrong word — It doesn’t last decades, even years —  love bordering on obsession probably is more apt. What else could explain his ode to the city, Istanbul: Memories and the City, intertwining personal history, with the streets and shops, the sights and sounds, of the city, loving tribute to a city he grew up in? And yet, being the story-teller that he is, his non-fiction work about the city doesn’t do justice to the city, as it’s preoccupied with how it affected him, growing up.

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It’s been over a decade since he wrote that one, though, and a perfect time for a sequel of sorts. And so we have :  A Strangeness in My Mind, a love-story on the surface, but really a tale of the city, which just refuses to become a backdrop to an engrossing story of Mevlut — from his small-town beginnings, to a drop-in-the-ocean existence in a metropolis bursting at the seams; underlined by his strange love that lasts a lifetime, and his travails, his naivety, and the tragedies that punctuate his life with a deadpan regularity. Through all of it, the city keeps on raisesing its head, both figuratively, and formatively (through mosques, and houses, and skyscrapers) every now and then, as Pamuk moves Mavlut’s story along with the story of his beloved city.

While Istanbul (the non-fiction), is more interested in the spaces, and the temperament, and the overwhelming feel of the city, and that too, for someone living on the more Europeanized side of the Turkey’s cultural fault-lines; in Strangeness, Pamuk takes more interest in the evolution of the city from the point of view of those on the other side of those fault-lines: the peasants, who flocked to the city in search of opportunity, the daily-wage earners, the communists and the Islamists, the housewives, and the uncles, and the mothers, and the customers, and the religious gurus … It’s a vibrant picture of a city that Pamuk painted gray in his earlier work. Not that gray is used sparingly here either.

Mevlut comes to Istambul, already a dauntingly big city for someone coming from a village, and watches it grow to a megapolis, transforming people around him, in more ways than he could have imagined; while he tries to hold on to a trade that’s already on the decline (a boza [a fermented drink, possible etymological origins of the English “booze”]  seller), even in his father’s time. Mevlut, who finds his love-of-life, thanks (!) to a cruel trick played by a cousin, never really comes out the trumps in life, which isn’t that unexpected knowing Pamuk’s fatalistic view of existence (at least what comes out as one, from his books), where happiness is always fleeting, and melancholy (or huzun, as his other Istambul book educates us about) enduring; with his quintessentially un-heroic (but also un-villainous) characters. But as he struggles with, and then begins to accept the whole existential strangeness, inside his mind, as exemplified by his tortured love/life story, and outside — in the streets, and back-allies of the ever changing city. In Istambul (the  non-fiction), Pamuk tries to capture “hüzün” of the city in words, and images. He almost succeeds. But here, he paints with it, and it’s hard to miss. If one goes back to the “Memoir” now, one would get it right-away.

In terms of the narration, Pamuk resorts to a mix of third person narration, with the multi-narrator technique that he so well employed in his best book to date: My Name is Red. That technique, in its measured application, works very well for this one too, as it gives a glimpse into more lives, more point-of-views, and builds a context to assess Mevlut’s struggles, and tiny triumphs. And Pamuk is in fine form here, with a countenance  of a test match specialist batsman who is reassured that time is on his side. Which means, for many, it is too slow for their comfort. Not me. I like books that water the plant, and wait patiently, for the bloom to come. And if you have time too, then Pamuk is enormously rewarding. The hüzün and the grays not withstanding.

 

 

 

Numero Zero: End of Conspiracies

“Everything always fits with everything else,” says Braggadocio, an outlandish conspiracy theorist, and a fellow journalist of the novel’s narrator and central character, a self-declared loser, ghost writer of third-rate novels, Colonna, “you just have to know how to read the coffee grounds”

Eco, the wicked story teller with seemingly inexhaustible source of conspiracy theories, I seem to recall, had declared the Prague Cemetery as his final fictional work. I guess, the temptation of conspiracies is too much even for someone so well versed with them.

“There are many small conspiracies, and most of them are exposed,” Prof. Eco says in an interview after writing The Prague Cemetery. “But the paranoia of the universal conspiracy is more powerful because it is everlasting. You can never discover it because you don’t know who is there. It is a psychological temptation of our species”

In Numero Uno, while still continuing his long lasting love affair with conspiracies, Eco also goes a step further. He creates a conspiracy that’s sounds like the most outlandish conspiracy, when it’s probably not even a conspiracy.

As Braggadocio again — while defending a charge of looking for conspiracies where none exists — says:

Look at the court cases, it is all there, provided you’re able to find your way around the archives. The trouble is, facts get lost between one piece of news and another.

But a little bit of context first. Numero Uno is about a private newspaper that Colona, Braggadocio, and Colona’s love interest Maia, are working for, for one Mr. Simei. The newspaper, named Domani (Tomorrow), is not meant to be widely circulated, and will have “zero” editions (0/1, 0/2 …) to be published over a year, with news that’s based on facts, but with a handsome spin doctoring. Domani, then, is a newspaper that could have been: a conspiracy of a newspaper (again, as Braggadocio says somewhere else in the novel: “The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up.”), meant to scare someone in power to get an entry for someone into some elite circle of power. Colona has been trusted with this information, and asked to be the editor, while Braggadocio, with a keen eye for conspiracy has half guessed it, with Maia and others completely unaware of it.

numero_zeroWhile working for stories for the paper, Braggadocio approaches Colona with the story of an elaborate conspiracy, folding piecemeal, involving a right-wing secret terror group/army, and an alternate end for Mussolini, among other things.

Much of Eco’s fictional work centers around losers being obsessed with crackpot/conspiracy theories of one kind or another, and losing track of reality. What rare female characters are there in his novels, typically see through this muddle, but the men are not ready to let go their obsession, even when sensible alternative explanations are put forward, sometimes at terrible cost to themselves, and others. In that sense, Numero Uno is no different, either.

But while Belbo of Foucalt’s Pendulum finally sees the truth when it’s too late, here, there is a sweet twist at the end. Maybe because, Prof. Eco really is tired of writing novels, and wants stop with an end to all controversies (Indeed, the Novel, short in length, does seem hurried and abrupt in the end, and could have been much more riveting, and substantive, had Eco been Eco of few years back. Still, it has its moments, and a typical Eco charm in parts. Also given that it’s his shortest novel, it’s not anywhere near as taxing as his earlier works, so ROI is probably not bad, for the effort. That said, give me Foucalt’s Pendulum any day over this). In the words of Maia, then:

“This truth will make every other revelation seem like a lie. […] As of tomorrow, you can go around saying that the pope slits the throats of babies and eats them, or that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the one who put the bomb on the Munich train, and people will say, ‘Oh, really? Interesting,’ and they’ll turn around and get on with what they were doing”

When a conspiracy turns out to be true, the truth can become a conspiracy. And people stop caring about either, if they ever did care. In that, somewhat carelessly tossed, stratagem lies the redemption of Numero Uno, despite being less than impressive by Eco’s standard.

 

Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head

I don’t read non-fiction works that well. No, I’m not saying I’ve something against them; just that, as a rule, I tend to enjoy fiction more. But once in a while, I do seem to pick up non-fiction books, and I’ve not been disappointed by them, not recently, that is. From Zadie Smith (Changing My Mind), to V. S. Naipaul (A Writer’s People), to David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays). But you see, I loved them already, before reading their non-fiction (except for Naipaul, whose India trilogy I had already read before reading his fiction), as these are all heavyweights as fiction writers, too.

IMG_20150819_193601Then again Pico Iyer had me in very first few words of a piece I had read long back, in Time Magazine (August, 2015). That lyrical piece, Experiment In Exile [1], about Tibetans in exile finding a home away from home, in Dharmashala (Himachal Pradesh) made me take notice of Pico Iyer, and I bookmarked him for a later time. The time didn’t come for almost a decade!

When I chanced upon his book, The Man Within My Head, browsing the shelves in British Council Library, I picked it up right away — mainly because writers writing about writers can be very interesting. And when you already have read a bit of that writer (Graham Greene in this case), it could be so much more interesting.

Turned out, I was not wrong.

In The Man Within My Head, Pico Iyer attempts something very difficult, and almost manages it! That too, with amazing style and substance. On one hand it’s just a book about Graham Greene, the author (as his chosen father). But like all good non-fiction, it is about a lot more than that. What you get, for the price of one, is a potpourri of thoughts on sons, fathers, inheritances (not the mundane kinds), spirituality, belief (or the lack of it) in God, plus a good dose of travel writing (as if the rest was not plenty enough)!

And while he tries to connect the dots — experiences, characters, events, thought patterns — between Greene and himself, and punctuates it with stories of his father, and growing up/living in two diametrically opposite words (actually two sets of them, first England and California, and then Japan and California), somewhere the magic happens, and it is Pico Iyer who is in your head, with Greene, and characters from Greene’s novels, and Iyer’s parents, and his friend. Iyer writes with such fluidity, such total mastery of the form, that he had me enthralled, just like before, reading that essay in Time.

Not the least of the reasons, for that enthrallment, are the insights into Graham Greene, an author that I have always wanted to read more of, but always found heartbreaking to read — the impending (very personal) doom in his books is all too pervading to be proved wrong. Still, reading Iyer talk about Greene made me want to pick him up again. And I finished reading The Quiet American, taking a break from Iyer’s book. And it was as if I was reading an author I knew a lot about, when in reality I had read only two of his books, that too a few years back.

This is a book worth reading for so many reasons. The lyricism of the prose is just one of them.

This for instance (bold emphasis mine):

All those Marcus Aurelius sentences we’d had to read and memorize, all the lines from Hecuba we’d had to recite in Greek were telling us that it wasn’t the world and its trials and sufferings that made us, but our response to them. The fault was never in our stars, or even our fathers.

My recommendation: if you’re anything like me (and I understand that’s not something you’d want to publicize), please read …

Footnote:

[1]: Experiment in Exile is no longer freely available on Time (needs Log In as subscriber), however, you can read it here. Not sure if that’s a full version, though.

 

 

 

 

Review of Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

There is something instantly likable about Kamila Shamsie’s characters. Hell, it’s even easy to fall in love with the central characters, like Raheen in Kartography, or Aasmani in Broken Verses (or for that matter Samina). But it’s one thing coming up with such characters, and another to actually weave a story around them that does justice to them, and to paint the canvas of their thoughts and emotions with intricate colors. With Shamsie, though, even that seems to come naturally.

It’s her third book that I have now read, and while the first two were rooted mostly in Pakistan, or more specifically, in the urban Pakistan, Burnt Shadows starts during second world war in Japan, and takes us around the globe, to India, Pakistan, America, and Afghanistan, with the story spanning three generations, and many nationalities.

Undoubtedly, this is her most challenging book, because of the scope of the canvas, and in parts it does seem to be weighed by those challenges. The story moves a little jerkily, unlike the ever smooth Cartography, and slow but sure Broken Verses — especially when the story moves away from India/Pakistan. But plot wise it still works overall. And after seeming like it’s going to drag and disappoint, it picks up again, and even as you’re anticipating this ending or that, Shamsie delivers. And in the hindsight, the most logical ending to this fascinating saga.

At the heart of it, though, is not the story, but relationships, and thoughts. The ideas of nationality, of belonging, of race, and prejudices. Of capacity to forgive, to understand the other, across borders, religions, races.

Going by the body count, it’s saddest of Shamsie’s books I’ve read so far, with death lurking around to take away the characters you’ve finally got to know, and love, but Shamsie does not let the reader or the characters to linger on in those losses, and keeps on moving, although, truly neither gets over them. It’s to the credit of the book, that despite all the sorrow, it’s not melancholic. Well not entirely, anyways.

Looks like, I can never have enough of Shamsie.

Verdict: Loved it. 4/5 stars.