Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eugenides, Milton, and love

I've been reading Jeffrey Eugenides's anthology of love stories My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, and while trying to think about the effects of love stories as compared to love songs - songs are closer to our heart, I think, not only because they are shorter and can be committed to memory but also because, as a lyric form, they take the shape of addresses from one person to another and allow us to insert ourselves into them, while stories, as a narrative form, may move us powerfully but nevertheless leave us feeling like observers - I thought of Milton's vision of his late wife "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint", one of my favourite poems in the English language.

I don't think that in all of English poetry there is a pair of lines more plangent than those at the close of this sonnet ("But O as to embrace me she inclined, / I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night."), and in a very fine essay recently published in the Guardian Review, Claire Tomalin picks out some passages from Milton for close scrutiny, including these lines. She notes how "the softly worded 'O as to embrace me' invites you to expect a gentle follow-up, and instead comes a line of monosyllables like pistol shots. Even Shakespeare's sonnets sometimes slacken at the end, but this one rises to a climax, full of meaning and power."

And in a recent essay in the online edition of Poetry magazine, the poet and translator WS Merwin picks "Methought..." as one of his five favourite love poems alongside poems by Ben Jonson, Jaime Sabines, Stanley Kunitz, and Randall Jarrell. And in an older essay, the former American poet laureate Robert Pinsky chooses Milton's poem among his own favourite love poems.

I also disagree with Eugenides's contention that:

A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims - these are lucky eventualities but they aren't love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.
This seems a limiting view, and for this reason I have problems with some of the stories Eugenides has chosen, which don't seem to me to be love stories but stories about complicated relationships or about erotic tension, which are not the same thing. In fact, I can imagine several ways of writing a good love story that would not involve at least one cold heart or give love a bad name. Even warm hearts can have their misunderstandings, as in O Henry's anthology-favourite "The Gift of the Magi". As anyone who has given time and commitment to a relationship knows, mutual possession in love can be as unsettling and as complicated as no possession. In fact the real challenges of love lie in how one deals with possession, not with rejection.

And some old posts on love stories or philosophical works on love: On Anton Chekhov's "The Kiss" (Eugenides has gone for Chekhov's best-known love story "The Lady With The Little Dog"), "On Ilan Stavans's Love and Language", and "Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's language of love".

And two of my own favourite love poems: "Eyes" by Antonio Machado and "December, 1903" by Constantine Cavafy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Václav Havel, Kang Zhengguo, and prison literature

Never were more writers incarcerated around the world than in the twentieth century — the century in which totalitarianism reached its apogee and regimes all over the world painstakingly devised, honed and perfected techniques to suppress dissenting thought. Prison literature as a genre really took off in the twentieth century.

Here is Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and later president, on the carefully vetted missives he wrote to his wife (he was only allowed one four-page letter every week, without any scratching out or corrections) while incarcerated for subversive activities by the Communist regime between 1979 and 1983. These were later collected and published as Letters to Olga:

The letters gave me a chance to develop a new way of looking at myself and examining my attitudes to the fundamental things in life. I became more and more wrapped up in them, I depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered. All week long I would develop the essays in my head - at work, when exercising before going to bed - and then on Saturday, amid constant interruption, I would write them out in a kind of wild trance. Later I discovered ways of writing out a rough draft, but then the problem became where to hide it, since searches were part of the daily routine. In Bory I hid my rough drafts in a mountain of dirty sheets stained by millions of unborn children, and I would revise them during the noon break, while trying to avoid being seen by informers. Once I'd written out a fair copy, I couldn't change anything or cross anything out, much less copy it again. I'd hand it in, and then there'd be a short, suspenseful wait: would it get through or not? Since I wasn't allowed to keep a copy, I eventually lost track of what I had written, and which letters had been sent - which is why there are so many gaps, repetitions, and flaws in logic. In time I learned to think ahead and arrange my thoughts in thematic cycles, and to weave the motifs in and out of them and thus - in a rather uneven fashion - to build, over time, my own little structure, putting it together something like my plays.... The letters, in fact, are endless spirals in which I've tried to enclose something. Very early on, I realised that comprehensible letters wouldn't go through, which is why the letters are full of long, compound sentences and the complicated way of saying things. Instead of writing 'regime', for instance, I would obviously have to write 'the socially apparent focus of the non-I,' or some such nonsense.
To wriggle past the censorious gaze of a regime that has twisted and perverted language, Havel must encode his thoughts in an obfuscatory idiom that sounds to his captors like something they might say in all seriousness. And yet, at other times, he feels that exasperation that all writers feel at having put down a wrong or an imprecise word, and tries to revise his drafts even though he risks being discovered by informers! There are layers upon layers of irony in this little account.

But the privations of extreme states of confinement can also make something that was previously routine and humdrum suddenly sacred, wonderful, to be lingered over for hours. Here in Kang Zhengguo in his recently published Confessions, his memoir of a life spent in Chinese prisons and labour re-education camps for alleged "thought crimes", on the bliss of food in prison, the psychological sustenance provided by the anticipation of mealtimes, and the invented rituals of eating:

Two inmates [from each cell] had the job of serving breakfast first thing in the morning. [...] If they came back in with the basin saying that today's gruel was thick, or that the ladles had been full, or that they had gotten some doughy clumps, our faces lit up with joy. If they had not done a good job that day, we would sigh with regret.

[...] We were forbidden to doze on our bunks during the day. According to the rules, we were supposed to sit quietly and reflect on our errors, study Mao's works, or read the single copy of People's Daily. However, we did not always obey the rules. By about two o'clock, when the morning's watery gruel had passed right through us and we were famished again, we could smell the aroma of the preparations for that day's dinner. Standing on a pile of quilts, Number Nine craned his neck to look out at the tiny window at the chimney smoke and predict what we would get. He pointed to the three chimneys on the kitchen roof and said that since the second one was belching smoke, dinner would be steamed buns. This verdict was based on long experience, and sure enough, at dinner we each got a brownish wheat bun and a bowl of slightly watery vegetable soup.
Zhengguo writes that during his early days in prison, when he had some reserves of body fat still on him, he had found the food so unappetising ("it reminded me of pig fodder") that he could never finish his share and instead gave some away to one of his cell-mates. But now:

The bitter boiled turnips tasted good to me, and the salty broth, flecked with a few drops of oil, impressed me as a perfect balance of color, fragrance, and flavor. [...]

Some of my cellmates had unusual eating habits. Number Nine seemed to derive spiritual sustenance from keeping one steamed bun in reserve at all times. He always waited till he got a fresh bun before eating the old one he had saved and then hoarded the new one in a special bag that he hung on the wall. I could not imagine why he bothered to do this. He got no more food than the rest of us and always had to eat cold, stale buns. Perhaps the momentary illusion that he had an extra bun was comforting. Number Seven was a very particular diner. After spreading a clean handkerchief in front of himself, he julienned his bun painstakingly with a piece of string, which he called his bun cutter. Then he set the strips of bun out on his handkerchief like a heap of french fries and used a tiny stick to spear each one into his mouth and chew it slowly. After the rest of us had gobbled up all their food, he would still be savoring his sumptuous feast of bun strips.
[...] As the guards said, "If being in jail was a picnic, wouldn't everybody want to come? A little bit of hunger and suffering will teach you who's boss."
And finally, here is a marvellous passage from Havel's essay "Stories and Totalitarianism", which explains how the totalitarian state, with its insistence on a single master narrative, is grimly opposed to the realm of "story" and the freedom and plurality of meanings that realm implies:

Every story begins with an event. This event - understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic, initiates what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict. The story has a logic of its own as well, but it is the logic of a dialogue, an encounter, the interaction of different truths, attitudes, ideas, traditions, passions, people, higher powers, social movements, and so on, that is, of many autonomous, separate forces, which had done nothing beforehand to define each other. Every story presupposes a plurality of truths, of logics, of agents of decisions, and of manners of behavior. The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other.

The fundamental pillar of the present totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized "rationale of history," which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity. Public life ceases to be an arena where different, more or less autonomous agents square off, and becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent. In a world governed by this principle, there is no room for mystery; ownership of complete truth means that everything is known ahead of time. Where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.

Obviously, the totalitarian system is in essence (and in principle) directed against the story.
The translations of Havel are by Paul Wilson and that of Zhengguo by Susan Wilf. A short review of Zhengguo's book I've written is here.

And here are two old posts each citing an example of prison literature: Ganesh Gaitonde's description of days in captivity in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and "Nazim Hikmet in prison".

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New posts coming up

I am finally close to the completion of something that's taken up most of the last two years - I hope it's close to finished - and once that's done I'd to work on some essays I've been formulating in my head the last few months but have been unable to write.

Here are the titles of some of the things I hope to put up here in April and May:

"Anjum Hasan and the Indian Shakespeare" (Anjum Hasan's debut novel Lunatic In My Head was on my list of books of the year for 2007)

"Schoolteachers and accountants in the fiction of Kunal Basu"

"Books, music, time and death in José Saramago"

and "The unpoetic poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz"

I also hope to have an essay up on David Levering Lewis's fascinating God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215, which I've just finished reading.

Also, as Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic ticket goes from strength to strength, my post from last year on his excellent book The Audacity of Hope has suddenly become one of the most-read pages on the Middle Stage. So here you are, all ye American readers, there's no need to go through Google any more.

Finally, here is an old review from Mint last year of Nalini Jones's exceptional debut collection of stories What You Call Winter. The essay begins with the question "Is fiction useful?"

Monday, March 10, 2008


Rohit Chopra, who writes Anti-History/In Another Life, one of the couple of dozen blogs I read carefully, has just launched a new webzine, Interjunction, with his friend and fellow academic Chindu Sreedharan. Here's an extract from their introductory letter to readers:

Interjunction is ...a bridge across media and academia. A platform. At its simplest, it is a multi-blog. At its best, a full-fledged newszine on issues of interest to media professionals and academics.

We also see it as a networking tool, a forum that will put journalists and academicians from across the world in touch. Read more about our objectives here.
And here's the link to the lead piece in the first issue: "Whose Prince? Whose War?".

I've been thinking of what to write for Interjunction, but distressingly I can't think of any media-related topic that I really want to talk about - analysis has always been my weak point - other than the cheque for Rs.1000 I received from Biblio last September for a piece on Orhan Pamuk I'd written for them early in 2004. The other exceptional attribute of this cheque was that it was dated 2004. I feel my thoughts on this matter will turn out to be too trivial, too personal, for the readers of Interjunction. But I'm working on it, Rohit.

If you'd like to contribute to Interjunction, email Rohit at interjunction@gmail.com.

Monday, March 03, 2008

On Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva

Manil Suri’s new novel The Age of Shiva, like his first novel The Death of Vishnu, begins with a scene of a woman offering liquid nourishment to a needy male. There it was the calculating housewife Mrs. Asrani, unwilling to waste her good tea on the dying manservant Vishnu; here it is the protagonist, Meera, breastfeeding her son Ashvin, a scene that Suri dresses up in language that suggests lovemaking.

This is quite appropriate, because The Age of Shiva develops into a story about the hope of redemption invested in passionate and suffocating mother-love – a Lawrentian theme, but also one with roots in Indian mythology (in which Suri is very interested), in the story of the goddess Parvati’s creation of a son to keep her company in the absence of her philandering husband Shiva.

The device of telling his story through the voice of Meera, rather than in the third person, relieves Suri of the burdens of the cloying commentary on the lives of his characters that debilitated The Death of Vishnu. Unfortunately Suri fails to give this kind of narration the proper depth and focus it demands by adding to it a kind of novelistic ticker tape continually breaking news in the life of newly independent India. This creates an excess of suggestion that muddies his story.

A representative example of the confusion generated by this method appears when the teenaged Meera goes with her sister Roopa and Roopa’s boyfriend Dev to a Republic Day rally in Delhi in 1955. Meera hears a stirring speech by Jawaharlal Nehru, and decides to assert her agency by stealing Dev from Roopa, and asks “Hadn’t the prime minister of India, Nehru himself, nudged me in the direction I was planning to take?”. That “nudged me” seems to be an evasion weakly argued by the protagonist yet licensed by the author.

Indeed, the unintentional nudge by Nehru raises a larger question in Suri’s fiction, which is that of the moral responsibility of individuals. All through The Age of Shiva the characters around Meera – beginning with Roopa and her father, and extending to Dev and his family and later to Ashvin– are moral savages: blanketed in egotism, complacent in their hypocrisy, greedily seeking sensual and material pleasures, always on the brink of intemperate speech.

For instance, after Dev and Meera have made love on their wedding night, Dev lies back and begins to think of Roopa (as he might plausibly do). But then he asks aloud: “Don’t you wonder what she’s doing right now?” This is one of numerous occasions when characters behave oddly, as if enlisted in an authorial conspiracy to make a martyr of the lead character: although their moods wax and wane, but there is no productive ambiguity to them. Here is Hema, Dev's fifteen-year-old sister, speaking with Meera for the first time:

"...I suppose we shouldn't expect you to be good either, being a rich man's girl and everything. I've already told my parents. When I get married, it's going to be to the wealthiest man they can find. Marry for comfort, that's what I want, not for love like you. Tell me though, is it true what you two did in the tomb? They were quite outraged, the Muslims, they're saying you defiled the grave. Even the stationmaster, Mr. Ahmed, said it was an insult to one of their Muslim saints.
I kept my gaze focused at my feet, willing my body to be absolutely still. Sweat trickled down my face and neck under the gunghat, but I didn't draw it back or take it off.
"You can tell me, I promise not to repeat it to anyone. Pushpa down the street says you both were naked." Hema giggled. "Were you really? Babuji was called into Mr.Ahmed's office, you know. Given quite a firing."

Everything about this passage is problematic, from the the implausibility of a teenaged girl speaking like this to someone she barely knows ("Marry for comfort, that's what I want, not for love like you"; "Pushpa down the street says you were both naked") to the wooden phrasing and jarring locutions ("Tell me though..."; Babuji was called into Mr.Ahmed's office, you know").

Also, it would seem from passages like this one that Suri wishes to preserve the specificity of certain Hindi works, like gunghat. But he does not show the same confidence in KL Saigal's song "Diya Jalao", preferring to call it "Light The Fire Of Your Heart", which makes it sound like something by the Bee Gees. (Another song, "Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya", Suri translates bathetically as "When The Heart Only Has Broken"). The heart only?

Meera’s father himself is a veritable deus ex machina, as when he cozens Dev into persuading Meera to abort her first child (he feels she is too young to conceive, when the previous year he had not thought her too young to marry) by offering him a flat in Bombay to allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a playback singer. With this the novel moves to Bombay, where Meera's suffering continues at the hands of her strangely unfeeling and implausible husband.

Meera’s life, then, is undone by men acting brutishly, either singly or in concord. But while her narrative supplies painstaking and often tedious summaries of events and problems in Indian politics – Partition, Hindu-Muslim conflict, the wars with China and Pakistan, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the rise of Hindu nationalism – it surprisingly never offers any larger meditation on why human nature, or male nature, or Indian nature, is as cruel or unthinking as it is, when this is the main question raised by her troubles, and she has absolute liberty to speak in her story as she perhaps cannot in real life.

The episode of Dev’s death is neatly illustrative of Suri’s ham-handed approach towards his craft. In Chapter 23 we find him sullen because jobless, and hence given to wearing “the darkest shirts he owned, with pants that were charcoal black”. In Chapter 24 we are told of war breaking out with Pakistan; because of the power blackouts the police have advised pedestrians “to wear white shirts” to avoid being run over (not white clothes, note, but white shirts). Ergo, Chapter 25: Dev is run over by a cab in the dark. “What with the dark shirt he was wearing, and no streetlamps or headlights…” a police officer explains. Yes yes, we know.

Suri’s novel – apparently the second in a trilogy – is awash with petty superfluities of this kind, and spoonfeeds its meanings to the reader from start to finish. It is content to clutch at the teats of myth and history, and never attains maturity as a work of fiction.

And an old post on the use of Hindi words in an English novel: "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games".

[A shorter version of this piece appeared yesterday in the Observer.]