Sunday, April 20, 2014

Best Served Cold

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the more commented-on aspects of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby was the decision to never show the face of the said baby. Rightly so, for dread, when left to the imagination, is more palpable than when every detail is depicted. This is what comes to mind when reading Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, a collection of 11 dark tales, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa’s stories don’t depend on the satanic, but on the malevolent forces that lurk in the heart of the everyday.

Revenge is one of the six titles on the recently-announced Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist, an award that recognizes the author as well as "the importance of the translator in their ability to bridge the gap between languages and cultures".  For the first time, two female writers from Japan appear on the list, the other being Hiromi Kawakami for Strange Weather in Tokyo (which appears to be a Murakami-style meditation on love and loneliness).

The particular eeriness of Ogawa’s interlinked tales comes from the contrasts between the subject, her quiet language and the unhurried release of information. Her characters are people whom life has pushed to the margins: an unassuming student whose mother is dying of cancer; an unfairly jilted beautician; a wife separated from her family and trying to be a writer; a mother who’s dealing with the loss of her young son. In many cases, the stories have a similar structure, first person narratives that start with a period of waiting – on a train journey, in a bakery, in a hospital – which is then intercut by distressing memories from the past.

The linkages between them are ingenious and carefully structured. In one story, we read of an abandoned post office filled with kiwifruit, an oddity explained by the actions of a character in the next. In another, a character throws a dead hamster into the trash, spotted by another in the tale that follows. Sometimes, characters are linked by location, as when one of them speaks to her boyfriend of a murder in the flat above, an incident that forms the submerged climax of another story. In yet other cases, a story is revealed to be one that’s written by an earlier character.

Ogawa’s metaphors go a long way in adding to the oddness. Most of them are drawn from routine objects and sounds: a mis-struck violin is “like the cry of a small bird”; a carrot is “in the shape of a hand”; a laundry cart rolls down a corridor “as though pushed by an invisible hand”; a dried-up plum emerging from a pocket “looks like a testicle”. (Ouch.)

A passage in one of the stories, during which a bag-maker muses on her profession, could well be a metaphor for Revenge’s act of creation. When she makes a bag, she says, she first pictures how it will look when it’s finished. Then, she sketches each imagined detail, “from the shiny clasp to the finest stitches in the seams”.  Next, “I transfer the design to pattern paper and cut out the pieces from the raw material, and then finally I sew them together”. As the bag takes shape, “my heart beats uncontrollably and I feel as though my hands wield all the powers of the universe”.


The bag-maker’s story, arguably the most chilling of the lot, moves away from the quotidian and exists at an angle to reality. She’s depicted as obsessed by one of her customers, a nightclub crooner who, because of a congenital defect, has her heart outside her chest. Another such story portrays the curator of a domestic museum of implements used for torture, who cares for a Bengal tiger in his garden.These are exceptions that veer towards the fantastical, but what is common to the collection lies in the words of a character who, when conversing with another, notices the “icy current running under her words”. The iciness of Ogawa’s vision reinforces the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now, A Reading App That Does Away With Reading

Today's Sunday Guardian column.


There’s been much chatter of late about a new app that promises to increase reading speeds. Claims are being bandied about that from an average of 250 words per minute, this app can make you reach up to 1,000 words – about four times as fast. There’s no need to quail anymore, enthusiasts say, at the sheer bulk of books such as War and Peace or Infinite Jest, which can now be finished in a day.  One imagines librarians across the land groaning at the increased rate of borrowings from the stacks.

What has been a closely-guarded secret until now, however, is that another app is being developed that takes speed-reading a huge step further by eliminating the need to read at all. After all, these developers say, why bother with mundane details when you can – in their words – think out of the box while pushing the envelope?

Understandably, the developers don’t want to release too much information at this stage, as they’re wary of competitors latching on to the same formula. However, this columnist has managed to unearth some particulars of their venture, which is radical in the extreme. I’m legally bound not to reveal all of the details, but suffice to say that the world of books and reading will never be the same.

What I can report is that, as with all works of genius, this one has simplicity at its heart. In essence, their plan is to eliminate the need for a person to measure reading speeds and eye movements simply by having the books read out to him or her. As the company’s vice-president said, “The ear is the new eye”. Those who think that this is just a rehashed version of an audiobook could not be more mistaken.

Once downloaded onto your smartphone, HearHere, as the app is called, will store details of your location and offer a menu of titles. All you then have to do is to tap your choices onto it, and you’ll receive an address and time where one of the titles is to be read out in public. Such venues are typically campfires, riverbanks, town squares and other such open spaces. Here, a group of like-minded people will assemble to listen to a trained representative of HearHere, called “a Storyteller”.

The initial plan is for such Storytellers to recite titles from mainstream and genre bestseller lists: thus, on any given evening, there would be a wide-eyed group listening to tales of the many shades of grey, whereas elsewhere, they would be enthralled by robots overtaking humans, or thrilled by locked-room mysteries.  This revolutionary new step, the developers claim, also decreases the waste involved in a single book being read only by one person at a time. (“It’s a Multiplier Effect”, one of them said.)

HearHere’s founders don’t plan to stop here. Once the stock of titles that people want to listen to start to dwindle, they intend to coach their group of intrepid Storytellers in order to take it up a notch. In this phase, they will start to riff on subjects such mythical battles between champions and demons, the origins of the universe and our place in it, local legends of love and loss, and so on. In passing, this is also the basis of HearHere’s business plan: companies can sponsor such tales and have their products woven into them. For example, a detergent manufacturer could sponsor a folktale of a washerman’s donkey, and cleverly imply that you’re an ass if you don’t use washing powder. Ingenious.


When I asked one of HearHere’s founders how their scheme differed from age-old pre-literate storytelling activity, he bristled. “There’s all the difference in the world!” he spluttered, taking a few sips of his hazelnut latte. “You see, in the past they simply recited stories. Now, we plan to simply recite stories – by using an app!” Refusing his offer of another latte, I returned home, marvelling at the uses of 21st century technology.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In An Antique Land

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express

At one point in Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, A God in Every Stone, a character writes to another to say: “All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth -- how can you stay immune to them?” Bringing such stories to light to examine history’s long shadow is what the novel sets out to do, as indeed was the case with her earlier Burnt Shadows. That novel encompassed events from the Hiroshima bombing to India’s Partition to 9/11; similarly, A God in Every Stone yokes together events separated by decades through their cumulative impact on individuals affected by them.

Given the emphasis on history, it’s apt that the work of a man known as that discipline’s father plays a large role here. In his Histories, Herotodus mentions Scylax, an intrepid Greek explorer who is supposed to have followed the course of the Indus down to the sea. Scylax’s exploits in particular, and archaeology in general, hold a special fascination for Vivian Rose Spencer, a young, spirited and impressionable Englishwoman who, when the novel opens in 1914, is on an archaeological dig in present-day Turkey. Shamsie’s counterpoint to Vivian is Qayyum Gul, a Pathan from Peshawar who is among the first soldiers of the Indian Army to arrive in France, subsequently being injured at the ill-starred Battle of Ypres.

Vivian and Qayyum, as yet unknown to each other, return to their families in London and Peshawar respectively, and other characters are brought in, notably Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb. When Vivian turns up in Peshawar in quest of a lost artefact of Scylax, she finds echoes of Kipling everywhere; she also discovers and then nurtures Najeeb’s own budding interest in archaeology, playfully nicknaming him “the Herotodus of Peshawar”. The stage is almost set for the novel to advance towards the other event that it brackets: the infamous confrontation between British troops and non-violent protestors at Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar -- or Storyteller’s Street – in 1930.

Shamsie doesn’t let the weight of all this history get in the way of depicting her characters’ inner lives, rendering them as interesting and absorbing. Her prose is fluid and sensorial, especially when it comes to depicting the sights and sounds of Peshawar, without tipping over into the florid (as with compatriot Nadeem Aslam).

However, given the framework of interactions between characters from different worlds, the action, at times, does largely depend on coincidence. Such are the treacherous currents of an intricate plot, and novelists often have to work hard to keep their characters afloat. (Again, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows had a similar reliance on happenstance, a cheeky acknowledgement of which can be found in the words that one character in that novel tells another: “Both times you've entered my home it's been nuclear-related. Once was acceptable; twice just seems like lazy plotting”.) While that may be an acceptable and not lazy strategy, it turns out that Shamsie also introduces new characters with defining and almost phantasmagorical roles very late in the narrative, and this does come across as over-egging the pudding.


Another way of reading the novel would be to see it as a series of choreographed exchanges between counterparts. In its pages, there are journeys to the West and expeditions to the East; World War I engagements and Peshawar riots; a chaotic, walled city and its orderly cantonment; Western notions of history and local legends that fill the air in the Street of Storytellers; an embittered Pathan soldier and a naïve Englishwoman both seeking means of fulfillment; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent protests and brutal colonial retribution; and the rose-scented intensity of attar contrasted with the mellow fruitfulness of autumn. Such a pas de deux of opposites is everywhere, and it is skillfully done. It is this, along with Shamsie’s empathetic view of characters caught in history’s undertow, that are the defining and often pleasing features of A God in Every Stone.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tolstoy Reports From Crimea

My Sunday Guardian column.

Over one-and-a-half centuries ago, a young Russian aristocrat racked with gambling debts enlisted in the army. A few years later, as a second lieutenant in the artillery, he arrived in Sevastopol, a strategic fort then under siege by the British, French and Ottoman armies, the loss of which proved to be the final episode of the Crimean War.

His experiences in Crimea provided the 26-year-old Lieutenant Tolstoy, already in the grip of literary ambition, with fodder to write three fictionalized accounts set in the Black Sea port during the blockade. It's because of these that he's sometimes referred to as the first modern war correspondent. In a paragraph from the second sketch that was censored when first sent for publication, Tolstoy’s as-yet budding pacifism comes to the fore. “One of two things appears to be true,” he writes. “Either war is madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate that they are far from the rational creatures we for some reason commonly suppose them to be”.  We’re still far from realising the truth of those words.

All three pieces first appeared in a reputed St Petersburg journal in 1855; they were later collected under the title, The Sebastopol Sketches. His incipient attitudes towards armed conflict apart, they also provide a foretaste of literary talent. (The Crimean War has other literary echoes, the most well-known being Tennyson's thundering The Charge of the Light Brigade.)

In the sketches, one can find Tolstoy trying to come to grips with his feelings when he sees at first hand the confrontation between notions of nationalistic pride and the reality of carnage. Death is a commonplace in Tolstoy’s Sevastopol: it arrives unexpectedly, yet is treated in an everyday manner. The wounded and the limbless recover from and reflect upon their experiences; others at the front display attitudes that range from the courageous to the boastful to the cowardly.

The first sketch is in the second person, addressed to a newcomer to Sevastopol. Here, Tolstoy writes, you will “witness spectacles both sad and terrible, noble and comical, but which will astonish and exalt your soul”. There are further contradictory experiences: despite a conviction that “the strength of the Russian people cannot possibly ever falter”, you will see “fearsome sights that will shake you to the roots of your being; you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression -- as blood, suffering and death”.

In the second sketch – which ran afoul of the Russian censors – more doubts emerge, often couched in irony. This alternates between the fortunes of fellow officers during the conflict, revealing behaviour that’s often vain and haughty. One officer is “infected by that painful excitement that is commonly experienced by onlookers who are confronted by the outward manifestations of battle at close quarters but are not taking part in it”.  Elsewhere, “the soldier who has been wounded in action invariably believes the battle to have been lost with fearful carnage”. The real hero of the tale, Tolstoy adds, “is truth”, which “will always be supremely magnificent”.


The last is the most personal of the lot, dealing with the actions and sacrifices of two brothers -- one sensitive, the other boisterous -- during the siege. One can detect the character of the writer in the younger brother, especially when “he was going to have to endure much mental anguish if he was to become the man, patient and calm in toil and danger, who constitutes our generally accepted image of the Russian officer”. In the shadow of constant shelling by the enemy, the port has been transformed into “this terrible place of death”, yet he can see “beautiful, festive, proud Sebastopol surrounded on the one hand by yellow, misty hills and on the other by the bright blue sea, sparkling in the sun”.  All these years later, that beautiful and festive city is once again under threat.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"One Of The Few English Novels For Grown-Ups"

This appeared in the latest issue of the Sunday Guardian -- although, by mistake, under a different byline. 

When I first read George Eliot's Middlemarch, the question I asked myself was: what makes it a novel? There's a profusion of characters of various ages and backgrounds, facing different predicaments, many of whom never meet, with parallel, sometimes interlocking narrative strands. On the other hand, if, as the novel's subtitle has it, it's meant to be a study of English provincial life, why the emphasis on Dorothea Brooke, commonly held to be the novel's heroine?  This reaction seemed a faint echo of Henry James’ own mixed admiration for the novel:  it was “a treasure house of detail”, but “an indifferent whole”.

One of the answers to the question of what holds it together, I later realised, is that of a distinct sensibility. Eliot, with her famous authorial interjections and empathy for all her characters, was tying the whole together with a magisterial understanding of what it means to be human, with human yearnings that are satisfied -- or not.

One of the satisfactions of reading New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead's new book on Eliot's novel is that it delves into this answer, and offers many more besides. My Life in Middlemarch is Mead's investigation into Middlemarch’s origination and conception, and the ways in which it intersects with her own life. It’s a beguiling combination of a devoted reader's analysis, explorations into Eliot’s life and relevant vignettes from Mead’s own experiences. Fittingly, the book’s structure mirrors Middlemarch itself.

As Mead reminds us, the novel was an amalgamation of two ideas that Eliot separately toyed with: the first, a study of provincial manners, and the second, simply called “Miss Brooke”. Bringing them together, she created a master-work, a clever inversion of the marriage plot that was “arresting in the acuteness of its psychological penetration and the snap of its sentences”, with, as Eliot wrote, “tolerant judgment, pity and sympathy” extended to every character.

The most famous thing ever said about Middlemarch was Virginia Woolf’s observation that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. It’s a statement that Mead unpacks, concluding that what Woolf meant, perhaps archly, is that it’s for “those who are old enough to appreciate the artistic representation of failure rather than success.”

Mead reads Eliot’s diaries and letters, visits the author’s childhood house and walks the streets that she herself would have walked, in Coventry, London and Oxford, among others. She explains the ways in which Eliot’s life shaped her fiction, and how her fiction shaped her, detailing the effort required for Mary Ann Evans to turn herself into George Eliot. (She also speculates on the origins of the characters: were Casaubon and Dorothea based on the Rector of Lincoln and his wife? How much of Lewes, the man Eliot lived with, was there in Ladislaw?)

My Life in Middlemarch is also a paean to re-reading: “The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it.” Through episodes from her own life – moving from the provinces to the city, affairs, marriage, children – Mead highlights how Middlemarch provided revelation at every stage: “The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe the old, and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?” From an immersive identification with Dorothea, Mead moves on over the years to appreciate and sympathise with the other characters, Lydgate, Ladislaw, Rosamond, Fred, Mary and even Casaubon. As she puts it, the book was reading her as she was reading it.


Mead’s assessment of this “home epic”, then, shows how Eliot draws us deep into her fictional panorama and “makes Middlemarchers of us all”. In answering the question I put when I first read it, it makes me want to return to Middlemarch myself.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

One Of Marquez's Heirs

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

To the world, Gabriel Garcia Marquez still remains Latin America’s best-known writer, One Hundred Years of Solitude his best-known work, and magic realism his best-known style. Since that novel appeared, however, a new generation of authors has sprung up, one that has forsaken fabulist narratives but is as uncompromising in the search to tell stories that capture their region’s history.

One of the best examples is that of fellow-Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez. In an earlier novel, he mischievously has the narrator tell us: “This is not one of those books where the dead speak or where beautiful women ascend to the sky, or priests rise above the ground after drinking a steaming potion”. Clearly, despite the author’s stated admiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude -- one of the books that he says made him want to become an author – a new approach was necessary.

Vasquez’s recent The Sound of Things Falling, translated by Anne McLean and the third of his books to be available in English, is a perfect illustration of his concerns and technique. “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find that their life has been moulded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from their own decisions,” thinks the narrator of The Sound of Things Falling, and the novelist sets out to unpack this statement in the context of his country’s recent history.

The narrator, a law professor in Bogota, tells of his encounters with one Ricardo Laverde at a billiards parlour, and of how these chance meetings lead to an event that will transform him. We learn bits and pieces of his own life – romance, marriage, fatherhood – and this deftly segues into the heart of the book, a reconstruction of the life of Ricardo himself, revealed as an aspiring, morally compromised pilot taking advantage of his country’s dubious opportunities; and of his wife Elena, an impressionable Peace Corps worker from the United States sucked into the vortex of current events. All of them fall prey to “the violence whose actors are collectives and written with capital letters: the State, the Cartel, the Army.”

A presence that pervades the novel – as it does Colombia’s recent past – is that of Pablo Escobar and the continuing havoc that his actions have wrought. To drive home the point, The Sound of Things Falling opens with an escaped hippo from Escobar’s private zoo in Hacienda Napoles, a place that the narrator and Maya, Laverde’s daughter, re-visit near the end. At one point, the latter wryly says: “We have an abnormal relationship to Bogota. Being there through the 80s will do that to you.”  Later, the narrator himself observes: “One day I’d like to find out how many of them were born as Maya and I were at the beginning of the 1970s, how many like Maya or me had a calm or protected or at least unperturbed childhood, how many traversed their teenage years and fearfully became adults while the city around them sank into fear and the sound of gunshots and bombs without anyone having declared any war, or at least not a conventional war, if such a thing exists.”

Vasquez also grounds his narrative in other historical events that have scarred his country: the 1938 aircraft accident during a ceremony to mark the founding of Bogota is one such, cross-matched by another air disaster, that of the American Airlines flight in 1995. Other temporal markers are provided by, among others, conversations about Nixon, Ho Chi Minh and the Sea of Tranquility.


In a Washington Post interview, Vasquez has said, “I realized that the fact that I didn’t understand my country was the best reason to write about it — that fiction, for me, is a way of asking questions. I think of it as the Joseph Conrad approach: You write because there’s a dark corner, and you believe that fiction is a way to shed some light.” This is exactly what he– thrillingly, arrestingly – has done in his new novel.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

This Land Is Our Land

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

The members of a dysfunctional family come together to celebrate an event. Old bonds are renewed, old wounds re-opened, old secrets spilled. Upon their departure, they are driven to make changes in their circumstances. Some are sadder, some wiser, some both.

That’s a familiar scenario in many novels and films, and it is this that Prajwal Parajuly employs in his debut novel, Land Where I Flee. Many of the novel’s aspects will be recognisable to readers of his earlier short story collection, The Gurkha’s Daughter: among others, the fast-changing cities of the North-East; the psyche of Nepalese immigrants in the United States, feisty domestic workers; political manoeuvring for Gorkhaland; and divisions of caste and class.

The reason for the family re-union in Gangtok is the chaurasi – or 84th birthday – of the materfamilias, the formidable textile factory owning, beedi-smoking Chitralekha. Three of her grandchildren arrive from overseas: the disgraced Bhagwati, married into a lower caste and working as a dishwasher in a Colorado diner; the tentative Agastya, a New York oncologist who has to keep his gay side hidden; and the embittered Manasa, an erstwhile financial consultant in London who spends her time caring for a paraplegic father-in-law. Their parents died in a car crash when they were young and all of them have complicated, not to mention fractious, relationships with their grandmother.

Rounding up the cast of characters is the spirited eunuch Prasanti, Chitralekha’s long-time servant-cum-confidant, and another grandson, the cocksure writer Ruthwa. He’s carrying a double burden of ignominy: his first novel laid bare secrets the family would rather have withheld, and the second gained notoriety because of charges of plagiarism. (Ruthwa’s family would no doubt have agreed with Czesław Miłosz, who once said: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”)

Most of the time, Parajuly does justice to this collection of disparate individuals as he cross-cuts between points of view, keeping the narrative moving through an artful release of information. He deftly makes them negotiate identities: those from the past, those in the present and those that are emerging. As one of them thinks, "How complicated adulthood was. It had so many dangerous curves, so many restricted areas that, if trespassed, the adults would find themselves squashed in. Had they been children, they'd have probably called each other names, fought and made up a dozen times throughout their journey to Gangtok. As adults, they could barely muster up enough courage to ask the questions that mattered.” As the novel proceeds, their interactions and arguments continue in the family house under the gaze of Mount Kanchendzonga.

The fleshing out of the character of Ruthwa, however, is disappointing given the central part he plays in bringing the narrative to a close. Some sections are his first person account, incorporating chapters and articles he’s written on the story of Prasanti as well as the Gorkhaland agitation, and these come across as inorganic, a departure from the quiet, convincing realism of the rest. His actions as a writer of repute are somewhat unpersuasive, and his departure is anti-climactic.Every once in a while, though, Parajuly has fun in sending up Ruthwa’s public image, such as the time when he thinks: “Of course you must stick to pigeonholes in your writing; otherwise, there's all that talk about inauthenticity”.


At one point in Land Where I Flee, Ruthwa thinks: “This reunion was strange, but I wasn't expecting anything different. There'd be big, uncomfortable silences, I had conjectured. There were. Awkwardness. There was. Reminiscences. There were. The revisiting of past follies and passions. There was. Vindictiveness. There was. Vindication. There was.” All of this is to be found in Parajuly’s novel as it depicts the shifting intersections between past and present,individual and collective, and freedom and responsibility.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reading's Serious Pleasure

Today's Sunday Guardian column.


Now that Jaipur's "largest free literary festival on earth” has come to a close, it’s time to return to the quiet, private activity that makes all such festivals possible. Reading. As Anna Quindlen observes in How Reading Changed My Life, “Of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung.”

Her own love of reading is what Wendy Lesser, founding editor of the Threepenny Review, unpacks in her new book, Why I Read. Why does she read? “To pass the time. To savor the existence of time.To escape from myself into someone else’s world.To find myself in someone else’s words.To exercise my critical capacities. To flee from the need for rational explanations.” In short, as the book’s subtitle has it, reading yields serious pleasure.

Lesser goes on make clear where she finds such pleasure, and in this, she reveals herself to be more conservative than catholic. Nineteenth century literary realism is her touchstone, and Henry James her exemplar. Authors bare their prejudices and partialities in the books they write; readers do so with the ones they read.

Many of Lesser’s opinions – and some can be incisive – arise from a dissection of her favoured tradition. On plot and character, for example, she writes, “it doesn’t make sense to think in terms of plot versus character: plot modifies character and character modifies plot…we know what people are only by seeing what they do when confronted with what happens to them”.

It’s not that Lesser only focuses on so-called literary fiction: happily, murder mysteries and detective stories come in for praise, too. “A novel like A Coffin for Dimitrios or Ripley Under Ground is as good as almost any book written during that time, and I venture to say we will be reading these novels for as long as people read John Updike or Toni Morrison.”

She is acerbic, however, when it comes to those who fall outside her preferred purview: “There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature.” She makes the point that style and structure should be at the service of overall intent and not merely ornamental, but strangely, scorns those who have done so. Franz Kafka’s “strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure” and Joyce’s Ulysses “is a novel that has always gotten on my nerves”. The past, as always, has the answers, with Cervantes and Swift held up as successful innovators. (To be fair, there's also praise for Murakami and Bolano as well as -- oddly enough -- Norman Mailer.)

Other Modernists are hardly mentioned, and she also disdains the unreliable narrator, “that foolish, pathetic guy who thinks he’s telling us the whole story when we and the author are obviously meant, at least eventually, to see around him”. Anyone who’s read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, to take just one example, would find that hard to digest.

Lesser’s slightly more accommodating of e-books. Preferring the physical object for its spatial orientation, among other things, she nonetheless is a fan of Project Gutenberg and rightly points out that those "who have grown up reading bound books will miss them if they disappear, not because printed books are objectively preferable, but because we will feel deprived of something we care about".


Such devotion to reading in an age of electronic distraction is admirable, but Lesser's insistence on preferred texts makes her book overly prescriptive. Then again, her title does have a personal pronoun. For a different point of view, one has to turn to another logophile, Alberto Manguel, who, echoing Kafka, once wrote: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?"

Sunday, January 12, 2014

To Be Read In Bed

A slightly condensed version of this appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

I spent most of last weekend in a horizontal position, something I can heartily recommend to anyone seeking a break from the city’s hustle and bustle. One’s needs become simple: a comfortable bed, some food and, of course, wi-fi access. My bed, however, pales in comparison to the one designed for Maharaja Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi IV of Bahawalpur in the 1880s. Built in Paris, it weighed more than a ton, including 290 kilograms of silver, and featured statues of buxom females at each corner. When the Maharaja stretched out, music began to play and the arms of the figures moved, creating a soothing breeze at the head of the bed and keeping flies away from the royal feet. History does not record whether this was conducive to sleep.

The story of the kingly bedstead is among the many recounted in The Art of Lying Down, a delightful little volume by Bernd Brunner, recently translated from German by Lori Lantz. Brunner defines himself as working at “the intersections of cultural history and the history of science” and has, in the past, written about subjects as diverse as the history of Christmas trees, aquariums and the moon. In his “guide to horizontal living”, Brunner makes a persuasive case that choosing to lie down can be “a calculated move to escape the ever-present pressure to be fast and efficient”. Such surrender to gravity is not an act of laziness but one of resistance: to turn one’s back on the modern world, one keeps the back in bed. It’s a move that doesn’t call for defensiveness; as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man.” Tellingly, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt have also pointed out that the “three great acts of life” are “birth, coitus, and death,” all of which usually involve lying down.

Brunner then branches out into other aspects of his subject. He’s no votary of lying down in the great outdoors for prolonged periods, but Turkish hamams meet with his approval, as do divans. He also notes that the Greeks and Romans were known to eat and drink while lying down. This, of course, calls to mind traditional Indian habits of reclining during music and dance performances, as well as such representations of Ganesha, Vishnu and Buddha, among others, not to mention Mughal miniatures of lounging lords.

The Art of Lying Down also goes into details of how mattresses and recliners have evolved (Brunner waxes eloquent over the invention of the coiled spring) as well as the ways and poistions in which people have wooed sleep. Examples of the latter include the classic Spoon, the Tandem Cyclists, the Zipper and the extreme Bread and Spread, “in which one partner lies directly on top of the other (who somehow manages to avoid being crushed or suffocated)”.

Writers are among those who have long known the worth of lying down; it’s almost a professional perk. Mark Twain and Proust are perennial examples. Edith Wharton, according to Brunner, celebrated her eightieth birthday in bed with a candle-covered cake that caught on fire. (A nice anecdote, but one wonders at its veracity because Wharton died when she was 75.) As for Flaubert, it’s said of him that he “would have liked to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching cities, ruins, and landscapes pass before him like the screen of a panorama.”  And Truman Capote was characteristically unambiguous: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch.”

Lying down can also be a form of activism and Brunner mentions John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous 1969 bed-in to protest the Vietnam War. He could have also cast his eye on the numerous horizontal demonstrations over the years – there was one just two months ago, when thousands of cyclists lay across a London street to agitate against dangerous traffic conditions. A case of lying down to take a stand.

Clearly, the art of lying down doesn’t exist just for its own sake. Brunner affirms that “it is inextricably linked to other art forms: the art of doing nothing, of being content with little, of enjoyment and relaxation and, of course, the proverbial art of love”. He even suggests that “human culture can be viewed as a side effect of our ancestors’ efforts to get a good night’s sleep”. Such efforts continue; meanwhile, one takes solace from the epigraph by Groucho Marx: “A thing that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all”.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Favourite Unread Books Of The Year

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

What a year it's been for not reading. From translated novels to Indian debuts to American bestsellers to British award-winners, they skulk on my Kindle and lurk on my shelves, each one a priceless memory of time spent doing anything other than reading. Few pleasures come close. Here, then, are my favourite unread books of the year, in no particular order of merit.

To begin with, there were the big novels -- big in terms of size, big in terms of accolades. The sheer heft of these volumes, containing intricate interactions between characters spread all over the globe, was so impressive that I had to spend a whole morning squeezing out space on the shelves to accommodate them. This is why, alas, I only had time to read the just the first few pages of one of them before being pulled away to save the brave explorer in a new version of Temple Run. (Priorities, people, priorities. Not to mention marauding monkeys.)

Then, there were the works of non-fiction that spoke of the rise of India, the decline of the West, the resurgence of China and the diversity of Bora-Bora. What insights, what analyses, what weaving together of personal anecdotes and public observations! I put one of them down for a minute to ponder over the writer’s interpretations, only to find a little later that as I had lightly dozed off, I was unable to pick it up again. I will soon, of course.

From Europe came the novellas, little existential depth charges that spoke of mankind’s helplessness in the face of a malign universe as well as in the plate of stale croissants for breakfast. These were beautifully translated and packaged; I could look at the cover art for hours. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve done so far. Each one is etched into my brain.

Next, the novel from America that everyone was talking about, the one that was ecstatically seized upon by the cognoscenti, the one that you simply had to have an opinion on if you were to be Among Those Who Count, the one that spoke of high philosophical ideas in the guise of an unvarnished tale about the pleasures of obtaining fresh croissants for breakfast. Immediately after purchasing this, I came across so many perceptive Facebook posts touting its charms that I felt I knew it intimately without having to read a word of it.

History and biography, too, played a large role in my year of not reading. After all, who wouldn’t want to enrich one’s knowledge of the present by learning about the long shadow of past events and the deeds of men who define our age? I do need a few uninterrupted hours to really get into these books, however: I wouldn’t want to do the authors’ labours a disservice by simply skimming. Until I find such time, though, I’ll just have to make do with checking out the Wikipedia entries on their subjects. They’re quite informative, too.

As always, Indian writers didn’t disappoint this year. In particular, there was the much-heralded debut about love in a small town that was called “lyrical”, “incisive” and even “luminous” by the reviewers. I must confess that I read so many of the reviews that all the details of plot and characters were revealed to me. I spent time sending congratulatory tweets to all the critics instead, and am now eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up.


Books aside, there was also the joy of collecting the year-end issues of magazines, with their lyrical, incisive and luminous articles on the highlights of the year gone by, not to mention the lists of the year’s favourites. I have a shiny stack of them next to my bed, which I’m going to turn to as soon as I clear the backlog of other such issues. Right now, I’ve reached 1977, and Saturday Night Fever is sweeping the nation. I can’t wait to find out whether they made a sequel.