Thursday, January 29, 2009

Updike's Five

From an essay in Picked Up Pieces (1975), John Updike's rules for book reviewing:

1. Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

Update: Do also read Joseph O'Neill's wonderful appreciation in Granta: "The example of Updike is intimidating to the writer in the matter of sentences, in the matter of output, in the matter of aptitude – until, that is, one remembers that Updike himself was a stranger to intimidation, and that the Updike precedent ultimately authorizes, indeed obligates, the writer to give the task at hand his or her best shot."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chicago On The Nile

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

CHICAGO Alaa Al Aswany

“I am an American, Chicago-born,” said Bellow’s Augie March in his novel’s memorable opening sentence. Well, Alaa Al Aswany’s new novel is peopled by Egyptians, Chicago-bred, most of whom are enrolled in the University of Illinois’ medical department. The large cast of characters allows the author to create a microcosm of Egyptian society, much as in his earlier The Yacoubian Building. Of course, the postcolonial difference here is that these are Egyptians alternately embracing and fighting off the influence of America.

There’s the conservative Shymaa, conflicted between the desires of the body and the strictures of her upbringing; the brilliant but repressed Tariq; the radical Nazi; and the hypocritical Ahmed, among other students and professors, all of whom, in classic fashion, face conflicts that have the potential to change them forever. Most of the tales end on a pessimistic note, though the last section, dealing with the fallout of the Egyptian president’s visit to the US, skirts close to burlesque.

The narration is lordly and omniscient in standard 19th century style – barring one first-person tale -- and despite slabs of Chicago history being offered up every now and again, the city doesn’t really come alive as a backdrop to the characters. The dialogue is frequently stilted (as are the scenes of sex) and these, coupled with the author’s penchant of closing chapters on neat little suspenseful highs, make Chicago an uneven read.

What tips the scales in the novel’s favour, however, is that the varied backgrounds and attitudes of the characters, and their reactions to the predicaments they face, do evoke a sense of the travails of the post-Nasser generation. This, along with storytelling vigour and critique of authoritarianism, make Chicago rise above its weaknesses.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.


Consider, first, this description of the state of a man on the morning after: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” That’s Kingsley Amis, writing about the hangover of his most well-known character in Lucky Jim.

This is an author who knows what it’s like to imbibe one too many on one too many occasions. As he writes in his memoirs: “Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time”. But his liking for the stuff wasn’t merely brutish: Amis was ferociously well-informed about all aspects of all sorts of liquor, from their tastes to their origins to their combinations to their after-effects.

Which is why dipping into his Everyday Drinking is such a bracing exercise. The book brings together three out-of-print volumes: On Drink (1972), a manifesto of his bibulous views; Every Day Drinking (1983), a collection of journalistic pieces; and. How's Your Glass? (1984), comprising quizzes on the drinking life.

The tone throughout is very dry, and occasionally acidic, much like the wines he advises us to stay away from. Here, one comes across large pegs of information concerning the well-stocked liquor cabinet, getting value for money and, most delightfully, notes on “boozemanship” and the “mean sod’s guide” to serving guests. He pooh-poohs most traditional hangover remedies, from the hair of the dog to Prairie Oysters. Instead, he advocates rest, a warm bath and perhaps a little bread and honey. As for avoiding getting drunk, “the only absolute method is drinking less”.

There are cocktail recipes aplenty, including oddities such as the Falkland Island Warmer, the Hot Rum Cow, Serbian Tea – and the Lucky Jim, which involves vodka, cucumber juice, cucumber slices, vermouth and ice. Some of the recipes and attitudes sound a little dated; had he been here, one would have welcomed Amis’ views on, for example, flavoured breezers, fruit spritzers, microbrews and single malt snobs. Nevertheless, many pieces have aged well and go down smoothly, enlivened by the occasional aperitif such as, “Food is the curse of the drinking classes”.

Though it appears that he’s sampled and appreciated beverages from virtually every corner of the world, Amis points out that he himself is a malt whisky man: “The sign of what I call a serious spirit is that it’s profitably or even preferably drinkable neat, or with a little water.” He takes a refreshingly unpretentious view when it comes to wine. Though he appreciates the beverage, his views are moulded by thrift: “An under-regarded but surely powerful argument against wine is that very few of us can afford to drink quality wine with any regularity, whereas a fair number can actually afford reasonable amounts of the best beer most nights of the week”. He is severe, too, on snobs: “When I find someone I respect writing about an edgy, nervous wine that dithered in the glass, I cringe”, adding elsewhere a sardonic Wine Resenter’s Short Handy Guide.

In his preface, Amis stresses the role of drink as a social lubricant, something Hemingway puts more bluntly: “An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with fools”. Christopher Hitchens echoes this in his introduction: “The plain fact is that it makes other people, and indeed life itself, less boring”. Sadly, he continues, “the booze got to [Amis] in the end and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as his health”. Even so, there’s plenty of effervescence and high spirits to be found in this cocktail, leaving you with the overpowering urge to sample the distiller’s art forthwith.

Singing the Booze

Ten novels in which alcohol plays a starring role.

Devdas, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1917).

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy meets bottle

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara. (1931)

The decline and fall of a cocktail-tossing Cadillac dealer in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania.

Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton. (1941)

Borderline alcoholic with a split personality fights fascism in 1930s Britain, only to bring about his own defeat.

The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson (1944)

Failed writer goes on a five-day bender in the bars and streets of 1930s Manhattan. According to Amis, “…the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read”.

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947)

The last day in the life of an alcoholic ex-consul in Mexico. Should’ve heeded Amis’ words on mescal: “[T]he nastiest drink I’ve ever drunk in my life…”

The Alcoholics, Jim Thompson (1953)

Raw thriller in which a doctor treating alcoholism presides over a rogue’s gallery of twisted nurses and patients.

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley (1968)

Thinly-disguised memoir of a promising athlete who veers off track, changing from drifter to drunkard.

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (1969)

A ‘whisky priest’ stumbles across Mexico hoping for salvation, aided by some unholy spirit.

Post Office, Charles Bukowski (1971)

Misanthropic postman with an eye for women and horse-racing stays alive so he can stay drunk

Paradise, A.L. Kennedy (2004)

Alcoholic woman meets alcoholic dentist. Enough to set your teeth on edge.

Vigour Mortis

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express.


“The following day, no one died”. That is the sentence with which Jose Saramago begins and ends his new novel, Death at Intervals, which in form and content is of a piece with much of his earlier work. That is to say, he poses a philosophical question in terms of an allegorical event; then, step by step, works out its effects on the citizens of an unspecified country. In the process leaving himself with plenty of room to show up the nature of vested interests, be they conservative, religious or bureaucratic.

In this slender novel (felicitously translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa ) Saramago speculates on what would happen if, for a period of time, no-one was to die. In what can be read as a witty turning-on-its-head of the religious Doctrine of Eternal Life, he shows us the consequences of this deathless state on the country’s population – which grows from baffled to desperate – and how the church, government officials, undertakers and even the underworld react to and then try to cash in on the situation.

The trick to making fables even more resonant is, of course, to treat events with utmost seriousness, and Saramago does this here by going into details of how hospitals and old-age homes, among other institutions, deal with the predicament. Patriotic fervour plays a role too, with people ferrying the aged and unfit across the border, where the laws of death remain unaltered.

This is where the novel takes a turn. After seven months, death makes a sudden reappearance – initially personified as a shrouded female skeleton with a rusted scythe in a chilly room full of filing cabinets – and begins to send out letters in violet stationery to those who have a week to live. The reactions, naturally, range from shock to relief to avoidance.

Death’s plans, however, are thwarted by an ordinary cellist, and the rest of the novel deals with her preoccupation with this unwittingly defiant creature. It must be said, though, that this second half, marked by its playing out of ars longa vita brevis, is weaker than the first, but at least it does supply a narrative impulse without which the novel would have floundered.

Saramago’s trademark writing style much in evidence here: the long paragraphs drenched in irony, the run-on dialogue separated only by commas and the third-person narration with its omniscience undercut by self-deprecation.

In this idiosyncratic manner, he creates an enclosed world that floats free of mortal laws and, in doing so, reveals much about the vanities and petty obsessions of the rest of us. Confirming our suspicions that, as the philosopher said, there is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.