Monday, January 26, 2009

Some things I've been reading

Here are links to some things I've been reading recently. First, three essays on literary biographies that can be usefully read against each other, and which cumulatively give a sense of the rewards and the pitfalls of the form:

Robert Alter on Nili Scharf Gold's biography of Yehuda Amichai ("Gold's study illustrates what a bad idea it is to reduce a great writer to one or two explanatory formulas"); Lewis Jones on two new biographies of Samuel Johnson, which have as their competition one of the earliest and greatest literary biographies ever written, Boswell's Life of Johnson ("Bernard Malamud maintained that all biography is fiction, which may well be true. It is certainly true that no two biographers agree completely, and every biography is stamped with the character of its author); and, most fulfilling of all, Alan Hollinghurst's review of Sheldon Novick's Henry James: The Mature Master (In the end -- by which I really mean soon after the beginning -- you are faced with a problem that can affect literary biography more sharply than other kinds: a writer is writing about a writer. One sensibility is at the mercy of another in a shared medium. No one would want a life of James written in Jamesian. But something sharp-eared, responsive, and self-aware should ideally show itself in the biographer's style and approach").

And here is an essay to do with Indian literature: "The Real Classical Languages Debate" by the scholar and translator Sheldon Pollock, whose lecture two days ago at the Jaipur Literary Festival on the beauty of Sanskrit literature and on the "Sanskrit cosmopolis" of a thousand years ago was among the most rousing talks I have ever heard. I can't wait to read Pollock's book The Language of the Gods: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Pollock is also the General Editor of the marvellous Clay Sanskrit Library series, about which I've written earlier here and here.

Lastly, some links to old essays on literary biographies: Patrick French's book on VS Naipaul, Alberto Manguel on Borges, Giovanni Boccaccio on Dante (this was my first-ever blog post, back when my hair was all black and my weight 65), and Javier Marias on Eliot, Rilke, Lampedusa, and many others.


aalochana said...

Thanks a lot for sharing the article by Sheldon Pollock. I had read earlier about the deciphering of Ashoka's inscriptions by James Princep in "The Code Book", oddly enough a book on cryptography, by Simon Singh. I think we have this really bad habit of losing our way and having an outsider point out our mistakes. Hope we manage to set things right this time.

Uncertain said...

How ironical that pleas to revive scholarship and interest in and practice of historical and modern Indian languages are voiced in English. Of course one must recognize the meta-irony and the meta-meta-..-meta-irony inherent in this comment.

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - Differently from you, I don't see the slightest bit of irony in this. Is there any other way in which Pollock could have gone forward with his case? His very idea is that people like you and me, instead of being versed in at least one local tradition, find it easier to inhabit the comfort and enjoy the prestige of English. He could not persuade us in any other way than by addressing us in the language that we do know, else he would please himself, but matters would remain as they are.

Save your "metas" and spend them more appropriately!

Hari said...

Agree with you fully, Hash. Pollock could have addressed us in one of the Apabrahmsa languages, but who would have understood? Indeed, I was unaware of the term Apabrahmsa before I read Pollock's essay. What a great essay, by the way!

Nicholas Ostler is another scholar of Sanskrit I really admire. His book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World charts the trajectory of all the successful languages of the world - languages that transcended their cultural boundaries. His self-contained 75-page chapter on Sanskrit, Charming Like a Creeper: The Cultured Career of Sanskrit, is a magical read. It tells much about structure of Sanskrit, how scholars like Panini - pardon the lack of proper accents, and hope none you is thinking of sandwiches - relentlessly analyzed its grammar. Indeed, as Ostler says, “the Sanskrit word for grammar, vyakarana, instead of being based, like the Greek grammatike, on some word for word or writing, just means analysis: so language is the subject for analysis par excellence.” Panini's ideas of grammar are so well formulated and abstract, they are similar to transactional format of the Turing machine in modern computing.

On a different note, I noticed you did not mention the Outlook Traveller essay in what was coming in the next weeks. In fact, the post where you promised it seems to have disappeared. Would love to see the essay.

Uncertain said...

Not Sheldon Pollock. I am very glad and grateful he wrote the article.

I was merely remarking at the ironic predicament of a section of Indians lamenting the loss of Indian languages in a European language in a similar vein to what you wrote in response.

I agree though the metas were unnecessary .. I happened to be feeling a surge of fondness for infinite series when I was writing the comment and was just looking for an excuse to employ them. :D

Chandrahas said...

Hari - Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and your very well-chosen quote, which I promptly took down in my notebook. You have mentioned the book by Ostler before; I must find it and read it now. The Outlook Traveller essay will be up for very soon. For a change I have too much material to be posted here!

gaddeswarup said...

There is a sort of preview of Sheldon Pollock's book in his article "Literary History, Indian History, World History":