Sunday, December 23, 2007
Other Books of the Year lists
And my own piece below is marginally new and improved, and longer as well with the haddition of new luminaries in Hasan, Haigh, and Hitchens.
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all the readers of The Middle Stage!
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Books of the Year 2007
I have read several biographies of Gandhi, but the range, depth, narrative poise, and density of detail of Rajmohan Gandhi's Gandhi: The Man, His People and The Empire (Penguin Viking in India, Haus in the UK) made for one of the most intense reading experiences I have ever had. Every page of this massive work is radiant with the intelligence of not one Gandhi but two; reading it was like receiving a moral education in 600 pages. This work also lead me to some of Rajmohan Gandhi's other books, including the many striking ideas of his survey of South Asian history Revenge and Reconciliation.
An even more ambitious project, which might be seen as taking off from where Rajmohan Gandhi's book finishes, was Ramchandra Guha's massive history of India since 1947, India After Gandhi (Picador in India, Macmillan in the UK, Ecco in the USA). Speaking at the launch of the book in Bombay, the distinguished journalist and editor of Loksatta Kumar Ketkar perceptively observed that India After Gandhi was in a way "your, mine and our autobiography". Given the extent to which our sense of our own lives depends on our understanding of our past, there could hardly be a more important book this year for Indian readers, particularly those of my generation, than Guha's. I particularly enjoyed the superb chapters on the Partition, the Indian constitution, and the contributions of our own Founding Fathers: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel and others, and the copious notes and citations at the back of Guha's book were a treasure trove of information and signposts. My only problem with India After Gandhi is that, even at 900 pages, it is far too short. When a biography of Picasso can run to three volumes, why not the history of six decades in the life of a nation?
The central idea of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (Picador in the UK, Norton in the USA) - that France as an overarching entity was a conception foreign to the very people who lived within it till the arrival of modernity - was perhaps not as so striking as the way in which Robb brought the many worlds of eighteenth- and nineteeth-century France vividly to life: reading this book was like a journey in a time-travel machine. It was not just my historical knowledge that was deepened by Robb's refulgent book, but also my vocabulary. Robb writes sentences of great beauty and density, and I don't believe there can be many writers of English who work so hard at using all the resources of our language.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel (Free Press in the UK) was without a doubt the most forceful autobiography I read this year. Hirsi Ali grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, but in midlife, fleeing an arranged marriage, she became a refugee in the Netherlands and found herself in a world in which "human relations could be different", even for a rank outsider like her. The pleasure of her book is in how she sifts through personal experience to fashion larger arguments about institutions and structures, and in her willingness to voice controversial conclusions about Islam and about the limits of multiculturalism. The form of the autobiography has become too shallow; in Hirsi Ali's case we can see and hear again the urgency and fascination of the self thinking about its relationship with the world and with its own past. "The soul cannot be coerced" - that phrase from Infidel still rings in my mind.
Kang Zhengguo's Confessions (Norton) tells a story similar to Hirsi Ali's, that of an individual in conflict with his or her environment. In this case the adversary is the paranoid Chinese state, which reproaches or incarcerates him for all manner of crimes against it, such as reading banned books or keeping a diary. The difference is that in Zhengguo's case, the soul can be coerced - there is nothing he can do in his position but obey, repent, in some cases by writing long confessions ("Lenience for confessors - severity for resistors!" is a favourite catchphrase of his captors). But the beauty of Zhengguo's book is that it is not just a simple document of official persecution. Rather, it throbs with the vitality of unlikely friendships made in prison and labour re-education camps, of the exact sensory texture of days spent working in a brick kiln and in a plantation, of the opportunities for furtive romances, of dreams of food and leisure, listening to banned stations on radio, and reading proscibed texts. In Zhengguo's narration the simplest activities take on a vivid, burnished quality. A sublime autobiography.
Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of the 2006 Nobel laureate for Economics Muhammad Yunus, was published several years ago but only appeared in India this year (Penguin). Yunus's enormously humane and patient book makes the case that the poor are poor not because they are untrained or illiterate, "but because they cannot retain the return of their labour." Hence, to emerge from the shackles of poverty, they need access not so much to development aid, social welfare or skills training as capital. Yunus's inspiring story of how he set up the Grameen Bank from scratch in the seventies and built it up over three decades is interspersed with trenchant observations on contentious issues in economics. Banker to the Poor offers a searching critique of some tendencies of contemporary capitalism - by an avowed capitalist.
Politicians usually write dreadful prose and make highly expedient arguments, so it was a great pleasure to read the lucid and principled opinions of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope (Crown in the USA, Canongate in the UK), an autobiography and campaign manifesto rolled into one. I admired not only Obama's thinking but also his refusal to demonise or in any way misrepresent his opponents, an essential requirement for honest debate that is almost always honoured only in the breach. Although it looks unlikely that Obama will win the Democratic nomination for President against Hillary Clinton, no reader can come away from his book without a sense of his intelligence and integrity.
A century after Constance Garnett, the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have been revolutionizing our understanding of the greats of nineteenth-century Russian literature with their brilliant translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Gogol. Although I am still only a third of the way through their new translation, six years in the making, of Tolstoy's massive War And Peace (Alfred A. Knopf), there is no doubt in my mind that my newfound enjoyment of Tolstoy - I left off reading Garnett's translation of Anna Karenina halfway - has something to do with their rigorous attention to his language and syntax. I will write a longer essay about this once I finish the book - which may be February.
Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Black Kite), one of two essay collections he published this year (the other was Men In White), had at its core a set of dazzling essays on the distinct nature of Indian nationalism and secularism, while also dabbling productively in such areas as the influence of the Urdu language and worldview on Hindi cinema, the place of the South in the Indian imagination, and the contradictions of American foreign policy. Kesavan is not only one of our worthiest public intellectuals but also one of our best prose stylists.
In a year replete with books about India, whether on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of independence or in deference to India's growing stature in the world, few works approached the quality of the Australian foreign correspondent Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling the Mahatma (HarperCollins in India and Australia). The depth of Kremmer's engagement with his adopted country, his curiosity about not just the crisis ushered in by Hindutva but also the larger tradition of Hinduism (his book returns often to the question of the impact of 6, December 1992 - when he was present at Ayodhya - on India), and the beauty of his language (there are many superb descriptions of landscape which a lesser writer would simply pass over) make this one of the best books I've ever read on India.
Sumantra Bose's Contested Lands (HarperCollins in India, Harvard University Press in the USA) was remarkable for the skill and patience with which it navigated the murky histories and numerous charges and counter-charges of the long-running struggles over territory and sovereignty in Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Bosnia. After absorbing Bose's long-historical view of these disputes I realised how superficial, even distorting, most journalistic coverage of fresh eruptions in these contested lands really is. And unlike most scholars, Bose does not have a one-size-fits-all solution for what are apparently similar problems; I was very impressed by the way he meticulously laid out the specifics of each case. Indeed, Kesavan's volume and that of Bose could usefully be read as a pair, because of their cogent warning, from different perspectives, against the dangers of majoritarian thinking in India and nations around the world.
The superb compendium Polish Writers On Writing (Trinity University Press) brought between two covers all the great names of twentieth century Polish literature - Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Gustaw Herling - thinking about the writer's relation to his or her time, his craft, his language, his tradition. I spent many thrilling nights hearing these powerful voices speak out in the silence of my room.
And finally, the reports and columns on the 2006 Ashes series collected in Gideon Haigh's All Out (Black Inc. Books) made for some of the most sumptuous cricket reportage you could ever hope to read. Despite Australia's 5-0 rout, the series was historic because it marked the swansong of two of cricket's greatest bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Haigh's descriptions of Warne in action are superb: when later generations want to find out what the special atmosphere of Warne in control of the game's pace and flow was really like, they will turn to Haigh.
And among the many books I wanted to read - hopefully I'll do so next year - but could not were Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, Julian Bell's Mirror of the World: A New History of Art, Mario Vargas Llosa's Touchstones: Essays in Art, Literature and Politics, Bohumil Hrabal's In-House Weddings, Sandor Marai's The Rebels, Simon Armitage's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night, and Ambarish Satwik's Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire.
And my best-of-the-year selection from last year is here.
Monday, December 10, 2007
The tumbfalling prose of EE Cummings
In Michael Schmidt's enthralling survey of the length and breadth of English poetry Lives of the Poets, the writer of such famous poems as "Buffalo Bill's/defunct", "since feeling is first" and "somewhere i have never travelled" is given this amusing introduction: "Edward Estlin Cummings was born with capital letters in 1984, in Cambridge, Masschusetts." But even if he was born with capital letters and had to stay that way all his life, in his own poems Cummings (this was the most prominent of all his rejections of typographic convention) always used the first-person pronoun in the lower case. As he joked in a letter to his mother in his thirties, "I am a small eye poet".
And an old post about a far more difficult encounter between a poet and Stalinism: "The sweet voice and harsh words of Osip Mandelstam".
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
In Democratiya and Pragati
And my recent essay on Shashi Tharoor's recent book about Indian elephants, tigers and cellphones reappears in the December issue of Pragati.
And my apologies - my regrets, rather - for not having been able to post any new essays for so long. But over December there should be new essays here on EE Cummings and Mukul Kesavan, and a selection of the best books of the year.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India
Sadly none of these qualities are visible in Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone, a ragbag of columns and op-eds in which ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms are aimed at the reader with a quite breathtaking conviction. Tharoor has never been a very good columnist anyway, so his unwise (but in some ways perfectly characteristic) decision to gather up his jottings only serves to expose more clearly his considerable shortcomings in the realm of both thought and expression.
Let us begin with the thought. India, pronounces Tharoor, is an ancient civilization of great diversity and richness, "a conglomeration of languages, cultures, ethnicities", "a land of contrasts". Our pluralist ethos is our greatest strength, yet because we have so many differences we often lapse into anarchy and division. Our economy is booming and our middle-class expanding; the cellphone is the symbol of this economic revolution. But a large chunk of our population still languishes in poverty, and if we don’t attend to this problem then, in Tharoor's heavyhanded metaphor, the elephant which is turning into a tiger may turn back into an elephant.
Tharoor asks us to mark also that elected leaders are often corrupt and unprincipled, and a blot on the name of democracy. Corruption is so endemic that the size of the black economy is probably as large as that of the white economy. To turn now to cricket: cricket emerged in a foreign land, but its spiritual home now is India. Cinema: movies are the great Indian national pastime, and Bollywood dominates popular discourse in India. Health: Indians are somehow acutely conscious of personal hygiene but unmindful of public sanitation. The mango: the mango is the king of fruits, but it sells at prices that make it the fruit of kings. Although Tharoor is an Indian writer writing about India for Indian readers, his writing is somehow pitched at the level of, say, a Norwegian writing about India for Norwegian readers.
Tharoor's interpretation of particulars is as dismaying as his stultifying generalities. Nowhere is he more wearisome than when composing elaborations on his favourite theme: the Nehruvian idea of India's unity in diversity. Take his reflections on the rise of the cricketer Irfan Pathan. That Pathan, a Gujarati Muslim and the son of a muezzin, could play for India and attain the popularity he did in the wake of Gujarat 2002 is for Tharoor "a testament to the indestructible pluralism of our country". This is dubious in itself, but a further advertisement of pluralism, Tharoor avers, was the Indian team itself,a champion side "including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a wife named Donna". Tharoor here carelessly seems to confer an honorary Christianity upon Sourav Ganguly's wife Dona – one can't see any other reason why her name merits a mention – to fill up a blank in his pluralist headcount.
Elsewhere Tharoor recounts an incident, which he knows only through the testimony of "two American scholars", of a Muslim girl whose father refused to let her play one of Krishna's dancing gopis in a play, but had no objection to her playing a stationary Krishna holding a flute. Anybody can see that this story is marked by doubt and confusion (and distaste for low activities like dancing) as much as assent, but for Tharoor it is "a lovely story that illustrates the cultural synthesis of Hinduism and Islam in northern India". Tharoor sees himself as a proud carrier of the Nehruvian torch, but is happily oblivious to how complacent and patronising a Nehruvian he is.
Nor is Tharoor much more edifying when talking about another of his pet subjects, "the new India". Watching the excitable cricketer S. Sreesanth slog a bullying South African fast bowler over his head for six and follow it up with a frenzied war dance, Tharoor is convinced that this incident epitomizes "all that is different about the new India" – bold, fearless, confident. As the flagbearers of the bold new India and the secular and pluralist India respectively, Sreesanth and Irfan Pathan may, to go by Tharoor's reading, be the most meaningful pair of new-ball bowlers in the history of cricket. Tharoor continues: "Sreesanth's India is the land that throws out the intruders of Kargil…that wins Booker Prizes and Miss Universe contests." I felt embarrassed even reading such twaddle.
Of course we have still not approached one of Tharoor's main subjects, one that looms almost as large in the book as the India he loves so. This topic begins with the same letter as India and stops right there: it is the writerly self, the "I". Tharoor is a highly energetic and committed self-promoter: in fact some of the most ingenious writing in his book takes the form of his acrobatics of self-aggrandizement.
Consider these two examples. Coming across a photograph of a sadhu chatting on a mobile phone at the Kumbh mela, Tharoor remarks that this contrast "says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today's India – a country that, as I wrote many years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time." In another passage about India as a land of contrasts and extremes, Tharoor closes a paragraph with the lines: "Any truism about India can be imeediately contradicted by another truism about India. I once jokingly observed that 'anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true.'"
What is going on here? In these lines we find not one but two Shashi Tharoors – Shashi Tharoor present and Shashi Tharoor past – supporting each other in confirmation of the most trite characterisations. Tharoor is not only saying something that all of us keep saying, but also insisting that he said the very thing earlier, as if by a continuous process of self-quotation he can lever the thought into the domain of his personal copyright. The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone abounds with such predictable moves out towards India on the one hand and preening gestures in towards the self on the other.
Not all of Tharoor's book is so tedious. In one chapter he argues persuasively that Hindutva, an ideology without any base in Hinduism even if it shares the same root word, is in effect a separatist movement, one that appeals to a majority rather than a minority. Another section offers some useful profiles of little-known or neglected figures. But most of Tharoor's writing is just noise. Although we know from Tharoor that "anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true", there is little chance about the same diversity of opinion about a work so banally, so fatally, in love with India as The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone.
And a recent essay on another book about the meanings of India: "Mark Tully and India".
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
On Ilan Stavans's Love and Language
And here are some old reviews for the Chronicle (these incidentally are three of the best novels I have had the privilege of writing about): Sandor Marai's Casanova in Bolzano, Leila Aboulela's Minaret, and Malika Mokeddem's Century of Locusts.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Congratulations to Amit Varma
This comes not just from me but separately from The Middle Stage itself, as Amit used to write it till he generously allowed me to take it over in April 2005. Amit, your old blog wants to know if it can persuade you to return!
Manish Vij of Ultrabrown has a photograph here of Amit looking resplendent in a suit, in the company of wife and candlestick.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Travelling with Graham Robb
And as it happens I’ve found the perfect book to accompany me on my travels: Graham Robb’s fabulous new work The Discovery of France. Robb’s area of specialisation is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, but thus far he has always threaded his interest in social history through literature: his books on Rimbaud and Balzac are among the finest contemporary examples of the genre of literary biography.
His new book takes the reader into the mental and physical universe of the millions of faceless people who, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were at the work of “discovering France” – gradually working their way into a sense of a world larger than that of their immediate village and province. The word pays, Robb observes, is translated today as “country” but it derives from pagus, or the area controlled by a tribe, and refers not so much to the abstract nation but to a smaller region that people thought of as home: "A pays was the area in which everything was familiar...To someone with little experience of the world, the pays could be measured in fields and furrows."
The France of this time was not "French" in any recognizable sense (just as people living on the Indian subcontinent had no sense of what the term "Indian" might mean). People's affiliations were to local places and traditions, local deities and saints, dialects highly specific to their town or village, local laws and strictures. People lived in a world where life spans were far shorter than they are today, yet the sense of time passing was far more burdensome and made life feel longer.
The limits of their universe were by the standards of our times highly circumscribed. "Until the invention of cheap bicycles," writes Robb, who himself went across France on a bicycle for his book, "the known universe, for most people, had a radius of less than fifteen miles." News of the wider world arrived on the tongues of pedlars, pilgrims, and smugglers; people lived at the mercy of disease, poverty, epidemics and catastrophes. “Life for most people was a game of snakes-and-ladders with very short snakes and very long ladders.”
Even where there were broadly shared traditions of heritage and culture, these were more obvious to outsiders than to the people themselves. France was in effect a country waiting to be discovered by its own citizens, each one of whom knew a part intimately but had only the dimmest conception of the whole.
The human relationship with the divine inspires some of Robb’s best observations. Although most of the country was nominally Roman Catholic, religious practices (as in, say, Hinduism) owed as much to pagan rituals and local customs as to any overriding theology. And the god or saint who resided in the village church or shrine was seen as a personal, embodied deity not interchangeable with those of neighbouring villages. Heavenly beings in this world, writes Robb, “were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers.”
Robb's refulgent book reminds us powerfully of the attractions of the regional and the local in our age of globalism. Its highly detailed account of patterns of trade and migration, pilgrim routes and smuggling networks, religious traditions and proverbial and folkloric wisdom, burrows out a world loosely stitched together in motley colours, on the cusp of earthshaking changes (the railways, the telegraph, the newspaper) that would alter its sense of itself for good. It is very easy to import an Indian (or some other personal) parallel into hundreds of observations that Robb makes: his loving attention to the French past rouses us to think about our own remote familial and regional past. I'll just quote a paragraph in closing to give some sense of the richness of detail of his text. This passage seems to me to beautifully marry fact with feeling:
These seasonal migrants were once a more obvious presence, in towns as well as the countryside. On certain days, the main squares of towns and cities filled up at dawn with hundreds of families who had walked through the night with their sickles wrapped in spare clothes. The markets were known as loues or louées. Harvesters wore ears of corn, shephers sported tufts of wool and carters hung whips around their necks. Domestic servants wore their best clothes and carried a distinctive bouquet or some foliage to serve as indentification. The employer would make them walk up and down to prove that they were not crippled and inspect their hands for the calluses that showed that they were hard workers. A coin placed in the hand sealed the contract. As the day wore on, the crowd of hopefuls became smaller, older and more decrepit. Those that remained at the very end of the day might follow the harvest anyway as gleaners, covering hundreds of miles in a month or two before returning home.
Update, July 18, 2008: Claire Armitstead on The Discovery of France after it was awarded the Ondaatje Prize ("The unifying concept of the book is mobility - or, in many areas of provincial France and for most of its history, the lack of it. Therein lies the irony of being a cyclist historian of the 21st century: in its early days, the bicycle was all about speeding things up, about making distances seem smaller, and communities closer. Now, in the era of transnational autoroutes, its great virtue is slowing things down, enabling the researcher to note the particularity of people and places...")
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Some recent reviews
But here are links to some recent reviews for Mint: on Akbar Ahmed's Journey Into Islam, Nalini Jones's debut collection of stories What You Call Winter, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
On looking through Ted Hughes's Selected Translations
One is that, unlike most translators, who are comfortably multilingual or at the very least bilingual, Hughes was far more at home in English than in any other language: in producing these translations he often worked with preliminary versions produced by collaborators or sometimes by the poets themselves (such as those of his contemporary Amichai, a close friend). And secondly - and perhaps following naturally from Hughes's position, his particular competency as well as his limitations - is his minimalist, literalist theory of translation, reflected not only in these poems but explicitly articulated in the editorials he wrote for the influential journal Modern Poetry in Translation, which he founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort.
If Hughes was not among those skeptics and naysayers who believe that poetry is always lost in translation, he also believed that there was nothing to be gained by a certain kind of translation: one in which a translator is not so much a conduit as an active player. In an editorial for the third number of MPT (1967) he wrote that he and Weissbort held that in translation "the first ideal is literalness. The very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word versions is what makes our own imagination jump."
In the 1982 edition of MPT he wrote, looking back, that instead of translations that somehow domesticised the original, "we favoured the translations that best revealed the individuality and strangeness of the original. This usually meant a translation that interposed the minimum of the reflexes and inventions of the translator….We were happily resigned, that is, to all the losses sustained by the most literal translation of the verbal sense. Most often, oddly enough, we found the closest thing [to the ideal] in translations made by poets whose first language is not English, or by scholars who did not regard themselves as poets….Yehuda Amichai seemed good in any translation, but the best, the most touching and haunting, were by himself."
Whatever the problems with this approach - and note that in emphasising a scrupulous word-for-word fidelity to the original, Hughes does not simultaneously call for a similarly close rendition of the poem's form, which is arguably as much a site of its meaning as its language - I took a great deal of pleasure in dipping into this beautifully produced and meticulously annotated volume (the notes are by Weissbort) and found lots of poems in it that I liked, some by poets I'd never read before.
Here is one, "Harbach 1944", by János Pilinszky, translated by Hughes from a crib made by the poet János Csokits. Pilinzsky (1921-1981), a Hungarian, saw from up close the horrors of the Second World War, doing time in German prison camps. His poem evokes, in a series of unforgettable images, the spectacle of a band of exhausted and doomed labourers working at night - a memory that, as the first line asserts, the speaker has never been able to leave behind:
Harbach 1944The faraway celestial troughs, death with its gates "flung savagely back" - these scything images are a reminder to us prose writers that we should always read poetry. Regular encounters with the intensity and concision of verse serve to discipline our work, our forms which encourage and allow for expansion, and can sometimes lead to us making lazy choices of words or phrases in the knowledge that there are masses of other words to distract the reader's attention.
At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul an immense cart.
Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.
They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines
and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other's footsteps.
The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.
Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.
Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the faraway celestial troughs
because, prepared for their coming
like an opened cattle-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
death gapes to its hinges.
And here is a very different kind of suffering - a lack with which the speaker has more or less made his peace - in Hughes's translation (in collaboration with Antonela Glavinic) of the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran's "A Blind Man Sings To His City":
A Blind Man Sings To His City
The rain stops. Now from the drains,
From the attics, from under the floorboards
Of the shattered homes in the suburbs
Oozes the stench of the corpses
Of mice. I walk seeking
No special meaning in this. A blind man,
To whom it has been given to see
Only what others don't. This
Makes up for my deprivation: in the south wind
That touches me I recognise the voices
Of those who left this city. As if they were crying.
There, scent of the linden trees, close.
The bridge is near, where my step and my stick
Will ring differently - more light
In the sound.There, now, right by my ear
Two flies mate in the air.
It will be scorching hot again
Brush past me,hot
Smelling of bed, smelling of lust. I walk muttering
To God, as if He were beside me:
'Surely nobody in this city
Better than me - better than me, God,
To whom you have given never to see
The face he loves.'
I like very much the absolute certainty (and the rhyme) of "There, now, right by my ear/Two flies mate in the air" as well as the closing lines, both plaintive and gruff, aggressive and defensive. The blind man says that he has never been given the opportunity to see the face of God, but surely he knows that even those blessed with sight do not get to see the face of God either. One might propose then that his meaning is angular: the face of God is the world itself, from which he is walled off by his blindness even though he is part of the same order of creation.
An essay by Hughes on János Pilinszky can be found here, and some more translations of Pilinzsky's poems by Michael Castro and Gabor Gyukics here. You might also want to read Lajos Koncz's essay "Ted Hughes and János Pilinszky". An exchange between Daniel Weissbort and David McDuff on issues of translation in The New York Review of Books in 1982 is here. Some more poems from Selected Translations are here, including the very fine “O fold me away between blankets . . .” by Mário de Sá Carneiro.
And an old post about another fine Hungarian poet - "The despair of Attila Jozsef" - and two recent posts on other poets in translation: Constantine Cavafy and Wislawa Szymborska.
Monday, October 01, 2007
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Thursday, September 20, 2007
On Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul
If Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, the two best-known Turkish novelists in the English-speaking world, have one virtue in common, it is that both have persistently interrogated their country's self-image, contrasting the narrowness of Turkism with the cosmopolitanism of the old Ottoman empire. Both have gone on trial, too, under an infamous article of the Turkish Penal Code for the crime of "insulting Turkishness". In terms of their viewpoints there is not much to choose between them. Shafak's latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, shows her though to be a more attack-minded and perhaps less sophisticated novelist than her great contemporary.
Shafak's novel drives the distant past into the path of the heedless present through a multi-generational narrative, and it addresses explicitly a controversial episode in Turkish history, the massacre of perhaps a million Armenians by Ottoman forces in 1915-16. The bastard of Istanbul is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate child of one of four headstrong sisters who live together as one family - the Kazanci men having an unfortunate habit of dying young. Asya does not know who her father is and has been taught not to bother with trying to find out; she is similarly indifferent to her country's history.
The single living Kazanci man, Asya's uncle Mustapha, has settled in America and married a divorcée of Armenian descent. When Mustapha's step-daughter, Armanoush, arrives suddenly in Istanbul on a search for her family's roots, the Kazanci women are forced to accept the truth that the novel dramatises, which is that "the past is anything but bygone". Thus, Shafak's double-sided narrative demonstrates how the Armenian diaspora and the Turkish people live in different time frames, one community still nursing the wounds of old crimes, the other living in a present that accepts no responsibility for the past.
Yet it could be said that, on balance, Shafak's novel is not all that novelistic. Its characters lack true freedom and interiority and can seem mere symbols or meanings fitted into an overarching structure. Indeed, one suspects that what seems to be a problem with Shafak's theory of character may really have to do with her choice of language. Shafak is that rarity, a bilingual novelist; she began writing novels in Turkish, but this is her second novel in English.
Yet deadly flat sentences such as: 'If her passion for books had been one fundamental reason behind her recurring inability to sustain a standard relationship with the opposite sex...' raise doubts about whether even a novelist as gifted as Shafak possesses the understanding and intuition to successfully dramatise her ideas in two languages.
And an old post: on Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Necessary and unnecessary steps in Constantine Cavafy
This is among the sentiments that emerge most powerfully from Cavafy's poetry: that setting out on one's own requires unusual courage, and even the person who has taken only the first step has done something truly worthy, for he has knowingly made himself an outsider, exposed himself to the gaze of those very same "ordinary people" with whom he has broken (this idea carries a particular charge in Cavafy's poetry because he was homosexual). Here is the thought again in the poem "Growing Strong", taken from Aliki Barnstone's fine new translations of Cavafy:
Growing StrongHow easy and economical the poem is: it seems almost to write itself from the first line onward, and it is resolutely unmetaphorical - Cavafy always choses understatement over ornament. The effect of the poem lies almost totally in the varying force and strength of the individual lines, which give us the sense of a voice thinking aloud, its pitch rising and falling (note the work done by the words "will" and "must", and the slightly self-satisfied and therefore self-ironising air - "virtuously" - of the tidy close, the only line of the poem that is also a complete sentence). And observe also that Cavafy is never the advocate of total, all-consuming revolution, whether in personal life or in politics: even here he says, of the person who wishes to grow strong, that "He will honor some laws" and "half the house must be torn down".
He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
He will honor some laws,
but mostly he will break both law and custom,
and he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously towards knowledge.
Cavafy's insistence that we not be afraid of "the destructive act" goes hand in hand with a respect for tradition: politically he was a conservative and not a radical. His poem "In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE", although set two thousand years in the past, seems to speak directly to the twentieth century and its totalitarian horrors with its message that nobody is as likely to repeat the errors of history as those who want to sweep away all of history. This is Barnstone's version:
In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCEAs Edward Said notes in his book On Late Style, in Cavafy "the future does not occur, or if it does, it has in a sense already happened. Better the internalized, narrow world of limited expectations than that of grandiose projects constantly betrayed or traduced." (Said's five or six pages on Cavafy make up probably the best passage of the book. He also writes: "One of Cavafy's greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm.") Lapidary is exactly the word for Cavafy.
There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.
Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.
They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it.
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.
And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go—
things that are nevertheless hard to dismiss.
And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.
Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring reget.
Certainly, and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.
Barnstone's work compares favourably with the standard English translation of Cavafy: the Collected Poems by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Although her lines often depart only slightly from those by Keeley and Sherrard, sometimes they produce an improved tone. Here is a comparison of two versions of one of my favourite Cavafy poems, the plangent and totally unforgettable "Voices":
Ideal and loved voices
of the dead, or of those
lost to us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes the brain hears them in thought.
And, for one moment, with their sounds,
sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives—
like music at night, remote, fading away.
(translated by Aliki Barnstone)
Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.
And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life’s first poetry—
like music at night, distant, fading away.
(translated by Keeley and Sherrard)
Though there is not much to choose between them, I find I prefer the opening of the first, with its simpler formulations and fewer pauses making for a graver sound. On the other hand, Keeley and Sherrard have a smoother close, while Barnstone's version has the word "sounds" twice one upon the other, which to some ears might sound jarring as it does to mine.
Some more translations from Barnstone's book are available here and here, and the entire set of Keeley and Sherrard translations here. Here are some of my own choices: "Body, Remember", "Candles", "He Asked About The Quality", "But The Wise Perceive Things About To Happen", "Waiting For The Barbarians", "Since Nine O'Clock", and "The God Abandons Antony".
Also, the writer André Aciman compares four different translations of Cavafy's poem "The City" in an essay called "Translating Cavafy". And there is a large selection of essays on the theory and practice of translation in this old Middle Stage post.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
On VS Naipaul's A Writer's People
For instance, Naipaul finds both good and bad things in Flaubert. He praises the style of Madame Bovary. Even though Flaubert's reputation is that of an ambitious, even self-flagellating stylist, the language of his great novel is "plain and clean and brief". Indeed, the continuous pleasure and surprises of its details are in stark contrast to the straining and languor of Flaubert's historical novel Salammbô. There the novelist's determination to parade the fruits of his research "sets up a barrier between the reader and what is being described". The writing rings false because it is too detached, overstated, theatrical.
Again, the young Gandhi, like the young Vidia, left the simple moral world and easy satisfactions of his provincial environment to voyage to England and seek a place in the world. Naipaul admires his diligence, his assiduous self-fashioning. Gandhi's travels, "first to England and then to South Africa, made him see that he had everything to learn. It was the basis of his great achievement." Naipaul compares Gandhi to the Buddha: "Both these men make wounding journeys." The reader may hear here the shadow of an allusion to Naipaul's own wounding journey from "the periphery to the centre".
As ever, Naipaul's sentences are tightly coiled and and muscular: they seem to be revealing something even when Naipaul is merely summarising. His recapitulation of the movement of a poem by Virgil - one that "celebrate[s] the physical world in an almost religious way…making us see and touch and feel at every point" - is as delectable as the poem itself. I enjoyed in particular section in which he recalls the years he supported himself by reviewing books. The concerns of this passage are mundane things like word counts, the ways of literary editors, factions and petty rivalries, the pleasure and the dread of seeing oneself in print - gossip that makes the day go by.
An excerpt from Naipaul's chapter on Derek Walcott can be found here, an older essay called "On Being A Writer" here, and an essay on RK Narayan not included in this book here ("All languages have their own heritage, and English cannot easily escape its associations with English history, English manners, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible. Narayan cleansed his English, so to speak, of all these associations, cleansed it of everything but irony, and applied it to his own little India. His people can eat off leaves on a floor in a slum tenement, hang their upper-cloths on a coat stand, do all that in correct English, and there is no strangeness, no false comedy, no distance."). And I have always admired Naipaul's essay "The Universal Civilization", the rousing close of which I quote here:
It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
And some other posts on Nobel laureates: Orhan Pamuk, Saul Bellow, and Wislawa Szymborska.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Mark Tully and India
In part this is because India's Unending Journey - there is something cliched about the title itself - is the most autobiographical of Tully's books, as also the most polemical. The balance between observed detail and overarching argument is different from that of Tully's previous books, and the writing is more clearly addressed to the western reader. Tully makes a critique of aspects of western life though the lens of India, and thus addresses two constituencies at one go. In some ways he flatters his adopted home at the expense of the civilization in which he grew up. Although Tully knows that India itself, with its manifold problems, has yet to find any kind of balance, the argument he extracts from the experience of "forty years of living in India" is how the West itself is now unbalanced, unquestioningly secular and meanly materialist.
In his youth Tully briefly trained to be a priest in the Church of England, and if anything the autobiographical tone of his new book explains why the question of religion, and the place of religion in an increasingly secular climate on the one hand and a radically shrunken world where previously hostile faiths are forced to co-exist on the other, lies at the heart of his work on India. For in India not only is it taken for granted that you believe in God (as a Goan priest tells Tully), in a way that is no longer so in Europe, but also the other, the stranger, is always in one's field of vision, forcing upon every citizen the imperative of co-existence.
It was in India, writes Tully, that he refined his understanding of religion and came to believe "that a universal God made far more sense rationally than one who limits his activities to Christians", which is the sense of exclusivity, of chosenness, that his upbringing and later his abortive training as a priest taught him and which is shared by dedicated believers of the three great monotheisms. This explains his position on two dominant strands of contemporary Indian thought: he feels equally distant from "a secularism which seems to respect no religion, and a nationalism which carries with it the danger of only respecting one". The view that "any cause that is not secular is illiberal, seems to be illiberal itself," he remarks (not surprisingly some of his critics in India have accused him of being a BJP sympathiser). The religiosity of Indians is clearly congenial to Tully's temperament (while in the west "Mammon is triumphant and God on the retreat"), as is the openness and syncretism of Hinduism, even if it has recently taken on a militant aspect.
But everywhere in this essay and others in the book - on the history of the Sufi faith, on farmers's problems in Karnataka, on cyber-governance in Hyderabad, on the reinvention of Rama by the BJP - there is evidence of Tully's talent for what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description". Although the title India In Slow Motion is primarily a reference to the "peculiarly Indian form of bad governance" that has immiserated Indian people and retarded economic growth, it might also be understood as a metaphor for the writer's painstaking methods.
We end, then, with two paradoxes. One is that Tully, by dint of his decades of travel and exceptional learning, has a more sophisticated sense of India and its past than many Indians, who cleave to exclusive and partial views of it. But two: because of its insistence on distilling the meanings of Indian civilization into simple assertions that don't hold up for very long, India's Unending Journey actually waters down a perspective on Indian life that is strongly made, even if never explicitly stated, by Tully's other distinguished books.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted
She looked at her watch again. Now she was 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 4 seconds old. She sang the numbers song in her head. It was almost a lullaby, one she had known since she was a child, the tune working like a step graph with a line that rose and rose, then flattened out when it got to sixteen, ending with a comforting monotone. [...] The figures continued in her head...they were wholesome, even numbers, created through doubling alone. 32 and 32 are 64...128...256...512. Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly. It made her think of her dad's big, warm, open hands, the lined palms in which she used to put her face on Sunday mornings when he and her mum were in bed. He used to pretend those hands were crocodile jaws waiting to gobble her up. That had been when he hadn't been so obsessed with mental arithmetic and getting the right answer.
And then it would be announced in Assembly, how she was leaving them behind - Rafferty, Harris, the lot of them. She'd get her hair cut in advance, with a big fringe that spiked up a bit, and somehow get hold of a ra-ra skirt. When the list was read out at the end for football, table tennis and all that extra-curricular stuff, she'd raise her hand.
She's get up and say, "Yes, I have an announcement. I'm moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren't cruel and rude and don't make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I'm never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say that British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it [...]. So it doesn't make much sense for me to live here, to be honest, because I don't agree with it. I'm going back to where I came from.
She knew that she would have to make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn't take it personally. Or maybe she'd warn them in advance, so that the shock of what she was about to reveal, about their own history as British people, didn't upset them too much.