Saturday, August 22, 2009

"The Reading Life and The Writing Life" – a lecture in Delhi

Next week, on the afternoon of Thursday the 27th of August, I'll be giving a lecture at the British Council in Delhi. Here is the flyer for the event. If you would like to attend, please email Vijay Shankar at or add your name to the Facebook page for the event. Hope to be seeing you!

"The Reading Life and The Writing Life"

Thursday, August 27 2009
4:00pm - 5:30pm
British Council Auditorium

Kasturba Gandhi Marg,
New Delhi 110001

In this interactive session on the pleasures of reading and writing, Chandrahas Choudhury, author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf and the weekly book critic of Mint Lounge, will speak (with some affection) about his days as a student of English Literature at Delhi University and at Cambridge between 1998 and 2003, and about a range of issues connecting reading and writing.

What can prose writers gain from the reading of poetry? What is the value of keeping a notebook? Is there a relationship between empathy, which is an attribute of character, and point of view, which is an attribute of fiction? Do writers need to go to creative-writing school? What is to be gained from thinking closely about questions of form? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the talk.

Choudhury will also speak (but not for very long) about the composition of Arzee the Dwarf, and about some of the things he had to learn or unlearn while writing the book.

The lecture is meant to be no more than a set of suggestions, from the perspective of a working writer and literary critic, about how we may read better and write better. There will be a question-and-answer session afterwards.


RK said...

(This comment is rather long and if it feels a little self-indulgent, I apologize. Please feel free to delete it as well. )

It'd be great if you could put up notes or a transcript of your speech up on the blog, for the benefit of those who cannot be in Delhi :)

To bring up our conversation of two blog-posts ago: I agree with most of what you said about free-indirect (FI, from here on) style. It is sophisticated, there are ways to work it in to one's prose, there are situations in which it could be left out. But I'd like to quote a few examples to counter your contention that it might seem "mannered" and "programmatic" to adopt it throughout one's narrative.

Wood's sentence "Ted blinked through stupid tears" is a good one to introduce someone to FI, but as an example it is hardly the best. All great FI introduces adjectives/adverbs (and the occasional verb) that cause the alert reader to question ownership. Usually the question takes the form "To whom?", and so in the sentence above the reader might ask "To whom were the tears stupid?" At the same time -- and this is a crucial distinction -- the unconscious reader must be able to skim through the sentence, taking in its meaning while feeling a tangible tug of kinship towards the character in question. Wood's example fails the latter test -- perhaps intentionally, as it needs also to be instructive -- because of the somewhat gaudy adjective "stupid", which while engendering the question "to whom?" also dissolves any unconsciousness on the reader's behalf; he becomes immediately aware of the fact of the "writtenness" of the prose, and is -- if only for the tiniest moment -- alienated from its subject as a consequence. All good FI manages to ask the "to whom" questions without appearing to, and keeps the reader skimming through, sinking deeper into the character's consciousness.

Here's the first sentence of Atonement as an example:

"The play -- for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper -- was written by her in a two day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch."

This sentence is in the spirit -- if not the Woodsian letter -- of free-indirect style. Its indirectness is hidden, as it should be, and can be only coaxed from it after multiple readings: eventually the question of ownership is asked of not the adjectives but of the definite articles: Who would think of a play as "the play", posters as "the posters", collection-boxes as "the collection-boxes"? Why, Briony, of course, who is familiar with them to the extent that we are not, strangers as we are to her world. By choosing to position these objects with the "the"s rather than something descriptive ("Briony was writing a play,"etc), the author allows us to unconsciously inhabit Briony's consciousness, much as we do our own, and in so doing empathize with her to the extent that we never could have if she was presented from an angle. When, a few sentences later, the author speaks of her play in this fashion, "At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad", "The reckless passion of the heroine", "the wicked foreign count", we are already lulled into accepting the rhythms of Briony's private world.

Further down, McEwan quietly assembles the outrage he knows we'll hold for Lola at the end:

(Pg 42)

"Lola had come to the nursery in the morning in the guise of the adult she considered herself at heart to be."

(Pg 43)

"Lola had crossed her arms and paid decorous, grown-up compliments through a half-smile too opaque for the detection of irony. "

(Pg 84)

"But how to protect her against failure, against that Lola, the incarnation of Emily's younger sister who had been just as precocious and scheming at that age[...]"

(Pg 188)

"How like Hermione Lola was, to remain guiltless while destroying others at her prompting."

RK said...

These sentences present Lola in FI from either Briony or her mother's perspective. In particular, the case for Lola -- who is also young, also brittle -- is, in a long and otherwise empathetic novel, never made, and precisely because the author is bending us towards a time in the future when s/he will require us to despise her. Whereas McEwan knows Lola is human, Briony does not, and this distinction is crucial to the manipulative functions of the novel, functions conducted not only by the arc of the narrative, but also on the level of the individual sentence, by free-indirect style.

There is also nothing "consciously literary" about free-indirect style; unlike postmodernism (for example), there is nothing affected about it, nothing intentionally "intellectual". To me it seems like the language of empathy, a language that everyone uses; if authors use it too, it is only incidental, only because they're also talking about the human being. Here is a snippet of an email I received recently (the person who wrote it is about to get married; names and places have been changed, as has all other relevant information): "Her name is Aishwarya. She is from Kurnool in Andhra. [...] Since I'm coming back from Canada in August and the girl is still studying for her CAT exams, the engagement can only be next year sometime." To me what is beautiful is the "the girl" there, inserted unconsciously by the writer; the phrase is free-indirect in the sense that it belongs not to him but the culture ("Who is the girl?" "The girl is doing MBA in Bangalore it seems."), whose members are the only conceivable ones that could refer to her in such a distant manner. His use of it allows us to inhabit, if for a moment, the consciousness of a people whose concern rests so much with the fact of the marriage's happening that they see its participants through the useful anonymity of the common noun.

Saikat said...

RK: Interesting debate, so couldn't help gate-crashing. I've been wanting to read Wood's new book from which you quote but haven't been able to for the same reason you've not been able to read Arzee. Wood's book isn't available in India.

Anyway, I guess I agree with Chandrahas that FI feels "programmatic" and sometimes "mannered". One of the joys of writing fiction is to be able to switch from the consciousness of one character to another or just use omniscient narration whenever one's game for it . It'd be very claustrophobic if you can't manage to change the POV of your narration within a chapter just because it violates the formula of fiction. (I remember how one of Manil Suri's mathematician friends told him that he's discovered the formula for fiction, which he said is something like a Fourier series of sines and cosines.) I agree that McEwan is a master of FI. Why just Atonement? Think of Amsterdam or Saturday, where he does it equally well, especially in Amsterdam where he uses 3 or 4 different POVs - but one in each chapter just as Cunningham does in The Hours.

But then there are so many good writers who don't. Think of Pynchon (who often changes POVs a couple of times within the length of a paragraph), Delillo, Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy. The last three mix up FI and omniscient narration effortlessly and perhaps even carelessly in White Noise and Underworld, White Teeth and On Beauty, The God of Small Things, respectively.

As a writer(?), you'd appreciate how boring writing a 400 (or even 200) page novel would be if one would have to always play by the rules of the algebra of fiction. I guess the reason one writes a novel is the alluring freedom from structure and the sexy possibility of malleability that this form offers (and I'm not even alluding to Joyce and Wallace and Foer and Diaz here). I guess the reason the novel's such a popular form is that every novel provides its writer with a space to create counter-reality. And that space itself is counter-real. Imagine how scary it would be to walk in to that space and find the woods and the forests of the Anglophonic Whiteland waiting there to make you write in FI at gunpoint.

Bland Spice said...

Attended your talk today. Liked it though I expected a lot more depth - but I think you read the audience well. Absolutely no in-depth discussion on Arzee, which was disappointing.
Blogged about it.

I am not able to read a lot due to work but I'll probably give Arzee a second reading after I complete the first.

Chandrahas said...

RK - There are some first-rate observations in here. Forgive me for my tardiness in replying; all these travels of mine, and the mountain of work that lies waiting for me when I return, have led to this sorry situation. I particularly enjoyed your little reading of the email sent to you by your friend, and indeed I pretty much agree with you in all that you say. The only point I would add is that while free indirect style is certainly a novelistic gesture of empathy that is also aesthetically satisfying and "defamiliarizing" of the world (which we all see from a particular point of view), it is not the only narratorial means of establishing empathy, and much depends on how well one's choices are executed.

There are all the signs in you of a first-rate literary critic; if you actually write for a living (or for a reading), then please email me some of your work. This discussion was a pleasure. I won't put up notes or a transcript of the lecture because both the pleasure and the pith of it lies in its spontaneous (and sometimes less than logical) flow, which would only look ugly when tracked or recorded. In any case, there's plenty of work up by me on this site!

Chandrahas said...

Bland Spice - Thanks for coming to the lecture, and also for writing about it. I thought your one suggestion for a phrase I might have written differently in the book was a very good one.

But nowhere did I promise that Arzee the Dwarf would be discussed in detail in the lecture; for that you should have come to the book launch in Delhi in June. For the lecture it was my intention to speak not so much about my book, but about literature in general.