Prufrock's Page

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Will The Next Arundhati Roy Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up, Please Stand Up?

After the success of The God of Small Things, writes William Dalrymple in The Guardian, "international literary agents and publishers descended on India from London and New York, signing up a whole tranche of authors, many of whom received major advances for outlines of novels they had barely begun. Picador launched a list exclusively devoted to Indian writing in 1998; the office was soon buried under an avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts. Throughout the late 1990s, barely a month went by without the news of some fledgling scribbler being discovered lurking as a sub-editor on the Indian Express or pushing papers in the Ministry of External Affairs.

"...More than a decade later, however, it has to be said that there is a slight sense of disappointment in Delhi. According to David Davidar, the founding editor of Penguin India, who did much to kick-start the Indian publishing boom, after the excitement of the 1990s, the situation has, as he diplomatically puts it, 'stabilised'...The truth is, however, that since 1997 there has been no new galaxy of stars emerging to match the stature of those of the 1980s and 90s. Many of the Indian novelists who were signed up with such excitement 10 years ago failed to repay even a fraction of their advances. The only Indian-themed book to win the Booker - The Life of Pi - was written by Yann Martel, a white Canadian. In India itself, there is no new internationally acclaimed masterpiece, no new Roy."

After a brief, wide-ranging survey that takes in contemporary and past Indian writing in fiction, non-fiction and the vernacular, he goes on to claim that it's from the south Asian diaspora that works of merit will appear:

"If the last few years are anything to go by, I suspect that in the years ahead the main competition Indian writers aspiring to win the Booker will face will not be the Alan Hollinghursts or the AS Byatts, so much as their own cousins born and brought up in the west."

PowerPoint Over Proust

In a delightful piece in The New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich (who earlier wrote Nickel And Dimed) skewers all those cheesy business self-help books. One simply has no choice but to offer up large extracts:

"...they're directed at an audience more familiar with Power Point than Proust.... The few words that do appear in these books are likely to be bolded, bulleted or boxed. Lists are unavoidable...Herewith are 'The Five Essential Principles of Business Success Books,' conveniently condensed for consumption in five minutes or less.

The 24/7 Happy Hour. Be positive, upbeat and perky at all times. Once, the job of corporate functionaries was to make things happen. Today, their mission is apparently to keep their colleagues company in the office....If you happen to be downsized, right-sized or outsourced again, just grin and bear your smiley face to the next potential employer...

Avoid Victimism and Anyone Who Indulges in It. People who fail at being positive -- and dwell morbidly on their last demotion or downsizing, for example -- easily fall into what 'The 8th Habit' diagnoses as 'the mind-set of victimism and culture of blame.' Avoid them...

Masters of the Universe. Being positive and upbeat not only improves your health and popularity, it actually changes the world....If you think money -- in a totally urgent, focused and positive way, of course -- it will come flying into your pockets.

The Mice Come Out Ahead. ...When the cheese is moved, the tiny people waste time ranting and raving 'at the injustice of it all,'...But the mice just scurry off to locate an alternative cheese source. They prevail, we learn, because they 'kept life simple. They didn't overanalyze or overcomplicate things.'...

Passionate. ...The endlessly churning, cutthroat, 21st-century business world demands greatness -- which means being not only enthusiastic but also passionate about your work. Presumably, you will pull all-nighters, neglect your family -- whatever it takes. And when you do lose your job, you will embrace your next one -- in, say, modular building construction -- with the same raging passion for greatness.

There you have it, the five highly condensed secrets of business success. If you find them immoral, delusional or insulting to the human spirit, you should humbly consider the fact that, to judge from the blurbs on the backs of these books, they have won the endorsement of numerous actual C.E.O.'s of prominent companies. Maybe the books tell us what these fellows want their underlings to believe. Be more like mice, for example. Or -- and this is the truly scary possibility -- maybe the principles embody what the C.E.O.'s themselves believe, and it is in fact the delusional, the immoral and the verbally challenged who are running the show."

To which one might add: not only are they running the show in companies everywhere, but they're also, it would appear, at the helm of the Mumbai civic administration.

The Lucky Sod

Chris Loxley, a secondary school teacher in Essex, plans to put aside unnessary distractions in order to complete a new assignment:

"Friends, family and personal grooming will be neglected as I struggle to read every novel [on the Man Booker longlist] before 8 September, and I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be horrifying to witness, as I push away comics, Doctor Who, Playstation, television, DVDs and the internet."

He'll be keeping "a video diary" for a BBC Four programme entitled Bookered Out, and there will be regular entries on his online diary - the URL of which the article omits to mention.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Put Down That Book, Young Man, And Take Up Football Instead

During the course of lunch with Jason Urquhart of The Financial Times, Kazuo Ishiguro says:

"Don’t you think football is as valid as fiction? Football can really move people, with very complex feelings. Certainly at the emotional level people are being transported, and taken through enormous and quite profound emotions, which often mirror the frustrations and triumphs that people feel in their own lives. If you combine that with the sense of experiencing this en masse with a group of like-minded, like-feeling people, you’d say that if any novel could do that, you’d think that it was a masterpiece.”

"So football is more valid than fiction?" asks Jason, sneakily.

"Yes...” he hesitates.

Having got that out of the way, Ishiguro goes on to talk of his next novel:

“I want to write about a society where something has happened to people’s memories, so that everybody is mildly myopic. What is the relationship between the way in which an individual suppresses the past and the way a society does? When is it healthy, and when is it not healthy? I don’t think there are easy answers to these things. South Africa is a very interesting example of trying to balance truth and reconciliation without pushing all the things that happened under the carpet, because that could store up a sense of injustice. But on the other hand, they realised that you can’t obsessively dwell on the past.”

Then, he dwells on his yet-to-be-realised ambition:

”I want to collaborate with someone who can make CDs but who is pretty desperate and washed up in his career. It has to be very English, and singer-songwriterish; perhaps a slightly less effete Nick Drake - but who is still alive.”

Tough Enough

The wind was rough
And cold and blough;
She kept her hands inside her mough.
It chilled her through
Her nose turned blough,
And still the squall the faster flough.
And yet although
There was no snough,
The weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough
(Please do not scough);
She coughed until her hat blew ough

With the above ditty by Bennet Cerf as an example, Ralph Berry goes on to explain just why the English language "
can appeal to nothing systematic. You just have to know the word."

Helpfully, he adds:
"It has been said, on traditional authority, that there are only 36 words in English containing the letters 'ough'. There are nine ways of pronouncing them, all of which can be found in this rather obscure sentence: Though a rough cough and hiccouphs ploughed through him, he houghed the horse with thorough thoughtfulness. "

Hmm. Reminds one of George Bernard Shaw's suggested spelling for 'potato':
ghoughpteighbteau (the P as in 'hiccough', the O as in 'though', the T as in 'ptomaine', the A as in 'neigh', the T as in 'debt' and the O as in 'bureau'. Phew.)

Thursday, August 11, 2005


As a former member of the British Council Library in Calcutta, one of the things that caused much grief was books in which people had scribbled notes and comments.

These would typically take the form of underlined words and phrases with their meanings pencilled in the margins. In works of fiction, this blight would recede after the first few chapters, leading one to conclude that the hapless reader had simply given up the effort of ploughing through impenetrable prose. On other occasions, there would be an argumentative “No!” or “You’re wrong!” in block letters next to a passage that had caused annoyance. Here, the extent of displeasure would be in direct proportion to the number of exclamation marks employed.

Then, of course, there were the putative literary critics, a breed not known for being easily impressed, who would scrawl on the last page comments such as “A pleasant read, but not as good as _____" or simply a terse "Rubbish!". One longed to pick up a book where such marginalia actually contributed to the experience of reading – either though a sarcastic aside or a sharp insight – but one never came across any, more’s the pity.

Years later, one found that the books available from the Flora Fountain footpaths in Mumbai (no longer present, alas) weren’t immune to this malady. Worse, a few such books were scarred by indelible ballpoint pen markings, sometimes inscribed with such vengeance that their impression was clearly visible even on the other side of the page. (One recalls picking up a Corgi paperback of Philip Roth’s My Life As A Man and then putting it down in horror after detecting such tattooed atrocities within.)

One’s own attitude towards the books one possesses is to not try and deface them in any manner possible – even to the extent of reading paperbacks with care so as not to crack or crease their spines. (Damnably difficult, if not downright impossible, when it comes to those Faber paperbacks of collected editions of poetry.) As for actually writing in them – good heavens, no. Notes, comments, jottings can as well be written on a separate pad, should the urge arise.

One has been informed that this attitude is, well, obsessive, to put it politely. But….to take a book, to sniff it, to run one’s fingers over the texture of the paper, to settle down to read it – and then to scribble in it? No, no. One prefers one’s idols unsullied.

N.B. Just occurred to one that Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris probably contains an essay on the joys, or otherwise, of writing in books. One will have to look it up – if only one can locate it in the jumble of shelves. But that's another post.

Update: Karthik directs one to Pradeep Sebastian's far more erudite and enlightening piece on the same subject, in a previous issue of The Hindu Literary Review. Worth reading.

Bringing The Booker To Book

Who will judge the judges of the Man Booker, asks Boyd Tonkin in The Independent:

" eccentrically (perhaps shambolically) run award had raced so far down the road of seeking gossip, scandal and controversy that it wanted, above all, to reward judges who caused a stir. That would be terrible news for the long-term reputation of the prize."

The article is primarily a criticism of the actions of John Sutherland, appointed chairman of the judging panel one more time. (The Guardian's report on the longlist is here.)

John Sutherland himself says: "This has been an exceptional year, and in the judges' opinion may rank as one of the strongest ever since the prize was founded in 1969. It is also a nicely balanced longlist with four previous Booker winners, three first novels and a satisfying range of styles. The judges have enjoyed their judging experience enormously - so far."

So far. Heh.

Also see a nice, albeit brief, analysis of the longlist by Neel Mukherjee of The Times (UK) here.

Novelists And Terrorists

In an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal, Salil Tripathi asserts that authors are often the unacknowledged soothsayers of our age. Speaking of novels by British Asian authors that touch upon disaffection amongst the Muslim community, he writes: "Fiction writers have that sixth sense of being able to discern subtle undercurrents and cast light on the larger truth that policy makers miss."

Speaking of the work of Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali and others, he says: "If those novels were read carefully, then the composite picture that emerges today--of disaffected youth finding a new meaning through faith, joining religious groups and following foreign-born preachers, as well as of subterranean misogyny and ostracizing, and even killing those who leave the community by marrying outside the faith--should not have surprised anyone."

In his conclusion, however, Mr Tripathi shifts to launching an attack on the bogey of "political correctness":

"When Muslims in Bradford burned 'The Satanic Verses,' the government initially protected Mr. Rushdie's right to free speech and pandered to those who claimed to have been offended that the government's backing wasn't strong enough. This sort of political correctness has even driven Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, to welcome the Qatari-based cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who regularly offers religious justification for beating women, insulting Jews and gays, and praising suicide bombers.

"Heinrich Heine had warned in his 1821 play, Almansor': 'They who start by burning books will end by burning men.' Modern Britain is not Nazi-era Germany, but in 1989, in England's northern cities, Muslim activists burned copies of 'The Satanic Verses'--a chilling reminder of the massive book burnings undertaken by the Nazis in May 1933. Sixteen years later, young men from those English towns carried bombs in their backpacks and exploded them, burning--and killing--themselves and 52 other people."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The King James Version

Two more toothsome articles by James Wood, which deserve slow and careful reading.

The first, published in The Times Literary Supplement, analyses the prose of Saul Bellow and draws linkages with the King James version of the Bible.

“The excitement of Bellow’s prose has to do with its pressing mingle of sounds, a complex of Russian, American, Jewish and English influences. But, above all, the influence of the Bible cannot be overestimated… Good English prose often finds itself falling into the great English founding rhythm, iambic pentameter, or something pretty close to it … Bellow’s prose, with its colloquial interruptions and its habit of mixing high and low registers, rarely sounds exactly English. But it often sounds biblically English.

“…Lawrence, the most biblical of modern English novelists, can be seen as the bridge that links the Hebrew-biblical side of Bellow with the English-biblical side, the Jewish with the Anglican (Lawrence, apparently, translates well into Hebrew because of this biblical metre in his prose). And perhaps, too, Lawrence is the twentieth-century writer who most obviously links Dickens to the American master.”

And the second, in The New Republic, ostensibly a review of Realist Vision by Peter Brooks, but actually a re-statement of Wood's own position as to the type of novel he considers supreme:

“The realist novel, which Brooks expansively defines as stretching from Balzac to James and perhaps on into Proust, Joyce, and Woolf, was often politically and philosophically radical. Often, and most notably in Flaubert, it overwhelmed the world with words, with elaborations of style, even as it claimed exactly to match word with referent; and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.

“…Once realism is opened up, so that it becomes a way of writing deeply about the self-- a plunging into character--it comes to seem not a tradition, not a genre, but the broad central language of the novel, indeed of drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.’

“…Realism, seen broadly, cannot be only a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like subgenres. For realism teaches everyone else. It schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist.”

Mrs Unknown Indian

"What function do the better halves of writers perform?" asks Ashok Patnaik in The Pioneer, going on to discuss the relationship between Nirad and Amiya Chaudhuri: "They tied the knot on April 21, 1932 when he was 34 years and five months old, she 12 years younger."

Interestingly enough: “Nirad Babu never saw his sweetheart before marriage, and when asked by his elder brother to accompany the ‘inspection’ team, the eligible bachelor had this moral lesson to offer: ‘What I considered brutal and utterly without justification was for a young man to go and look at a girl for the purpose of marriage, and then choose or reject her for her looks. What should I feel, I asked, if a girl comes to have a look at me in the same way and refused to marry me for not being handsome enough? I would feel compelled to marry the first girl I saw. So it did not matter if I saw anyone or did not.’ ”

Years later, “the writer observed that his wife could have easily escaped from a husband who by ‘normal worldly standards was as impossible as I showed myself to be. But she did not. I cannot say whether that was due to her acceptance of the Hindu doctrine that marriage was a sacrament. But with me my marriage has certainly been something like that. It conferred regeneracy on me, and gave me a sense of purpose’.”

A book on traditional Indian cooking apart, Amiya Chaudhuri’s “Didimar Jug O Jiban (A Grandmother's Life and Times) was published in 1992 and Probashini Didima (Grandmother outside Bengal) in 1994 are the two autobiographical volumes which evoked immense interest in Bengal.”

Fury, Alive And Kicking

The Arts Telegraph informs us that Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown has been appreciatively reviewed by novelist William T. Vollman for Publisher's Weekly: "The transformation of Shalimar into a terrorist is easily the most impressive achievement of the book, and here one must congratulate Rushdie for having made artistic capital out of his own suffering, for the years he spent under police protection, hunted by zealots, have been poured into the novel in ways which ring hideously true".

However, the columnist goes on to add: "Publishers Weekly was one of the few places in which Mr Rushdie's dud last novel, Fury, received a rave review...His publishers, though, cannot have been so enamoured. Anyone who consults Random's website for Fury is told that it has 'expired'."

Actually, that's not quite true. One checked just now, and the site lists the e-book as being available for download, as well as the trade paperback. Click on the link that directs you to "the official website of Salman Rushdie", however, and you'll be told that the page you're looking for has expired.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

'A Garbled Book For Garbled Times' (With A Garbled Review)

The enviably-named Joy Press of The Village Voice begins her review of Salman Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown in this manner:

"The events of Rushdie's life are allegory for the unavoidable world-historical collision between rootless cosmopolitanism and theocratic absolutism, between civilization (with its values of secularism, skepticism, and relativism) and the gathering forces of a new medievalism."

Er...if you say so.

Her conclusion goes on to damn the book with faint praise:

"At its best, Rushdie's fiction holds up a warped mirror to real life, in all its absurdity and awfulness. Shalimar the Clown does that to some extent, but feels not fully inflated. Even more than usual, the characters seem allegorical, passion-play placeholders for the grand ideas and currents buffeting the world. The result is an honorable failure, a garbled book for garbled times."

Oops-Her-Ex-Is-A-Friend Dept

A month after running a negative review of John Irving's new novel, The Washington Post has run a negative review of that review.

Irving's 'Until I Find You' ...was panned in a July 10 review by Marianne Wiggins as a 'mass of lazy, unrefined writing....The story reads as if Irving woke from a recurring nightmare and started dictating compulsively.'

Wiggins wasn't the only reviewer to dislike Irving's book, but she was likely the only one once married to author Salman Rushdie, a longtime friend of Irving's. Noting that he had a personal relationship with Wiggins, Irving complained to the Post, which requires critics to sign agreements that 'any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book' should be disclosed to the paper.

In an 'Editor's Note' published Sunday, the Post stated: 'Had we known that Irving had dedicated one of his earlier novels (`A Son of the Circus') to Marianne Wiggins' ex-husband, Salman Rushdie, and had we known that Irving and Wiggins had socialized with each other in the past, we would not have made the assignment.

We apologize to our readers for this misstep.'

- From The Chicago Tribune

Harry Potter And The Overactive Imagination

Sarah Crown, of the Guardian's Culture Vulture, raises her eyebrows at this report in The Times of India, stating that certain passages in Harry Potter 6 are pornographic in nature:

There was no need to stick the wand in that hard,' he (Dumbledore) said gruffly, clambering to his feet. 'It hurt.' (p 64)

...a hole opened in the middle of all the tentaclelike branches; Hermione plunged her arm bravely into this hole, which closed like a trap around her elbow; Harry and Ron tugged and wrenched at the vines, forcing the hole to open again... (p 281)

Lupin burst out laughing. 'Sometimes you remind me a lot of James. He called it my 'furry little problem'... (p 335)

'I dunno,' said Harry. 'Maybe it's better when you do it yourself, I didn't enjoy it much when Dumbledore took me along for the ride.' (p 355)

'You see?' Dumbledore said quietly, holding his wand a little higher. Harry saw a fissure in the cliff into which dark water was swirling. 'You will not object to getting a little wet?' 'No,' said Harry. 'Then take off your Invisibility Cloak... and let us take the plunge.' (p 556)

The article even attempts academic justification: ‘It's not impossible that literary passages contain sexual innuendoes planted by the author. But in the case of Potter, it can't be said with certainty whether it's sprinkled with double entendre. Yes, when read out of the context, they are quite provocative,’ says Malashri Lal, professor of English, DU.”

Written by one Ranjan Yumnam, it goes on to point out how even Archie, Betty and Veronica are at fault: " 'Countless strips feature Veronica in a revealing dress or bathing suit bringing boys to a libidinous swoon. And Betty, in her desperate moments, is also known to show off the goods,’ says Suresh Manchanda, an avid reader of Archie comics."

Libidinous swoon? Must experience one of those soon.

Monday, August 08, 2005


The Washington Post reviews a new book on The Beatles by Stephen D. Stark, who claims that they were so successful in large part because they were...feminists:

" 'The Beatles helped feminize the culture,' Stark writes, in part because they usually 'displayed a more sympathetic attitude to women in their songs than most other rock writers.' In addition, the band 'not only sounded and looked feminine because of their style and their hair; they were more feminine in their group dynamic.' Key to this inadvertent revolution were the deaths of Lennon's and McCartney's mothers when each Beatle was still in his teens..These deeply traumatic events had the effect, Stark argues, of repeatedly driving both composers toward strong women who shaped them at every turn."

Let it be.

William The Sublime

In The Independent, Brandon Robshaw celebrates literature’s favourite schoolboy. No, not young Potter.

“Shock-headed, freckled, anarchic, determined, boastful, sarcastic, combative, swaggering, irresponsible and irrepressible, with his school cap on crooked and his socks falling down and his shorts' pockets filled with conkers, string, catapults, penknives and pea-shooters, William is the essence of boyhood. Perhaps boys are not quite like that any more; perhaps they never were. The portrait is a heightened, comically exaggerated one - but there is something about it that rings true nevertheless, and something about it that is immensely appealing.

“…in Crompton's glorious middle period, she achieved a combination of dry wit, high farce and sly characterisation which makes her oeuvre outstanding, not just in children's literature but in the English short story as a whole. And it still makes me laugh out loud.”

Me too, me too.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Move Over, Damien Hirst

You know, of course, that Douglas Coupland was the author who coined the immortal term "Generation X". But then, coming up with newer ways to grip the public's imagination through writing alone must be very trying. So this is what the man is chewing on nowadays:

"Using Google to translate texts out of and back into English, then photocopying the results on every available colour of Kinko's paper, he winds up with large mosaic text paintings, coolly seductive and visually pleasing textual hacks. Coupland extends the idea of translation with his collection of wasp's nests, each constructed from 'hand-chewed' copies of his first novel, Generation X."

Not Drowning But Waving

Jason Cowley, former Booker Prize judge, has finished reading new novels by Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel, among others. His findings:

"I would argue that the novel, so often declared dead or moribund by VS Naipaul and other cultural pessimists, is as vital now in this time of profound political crisis as it has ever been...Why is this? The obvious answer is that no other art form privileges consciousness and interiority in quite the same way. One can tell fabulous stories through moving images, but how to show thought in film without resorting to the clumsy device of the voice over? How to show in film what Virginia Woolf called the 'quick of the mind'? Only the novel can truly show, from the inside, how it feels to move through space and time, from one day to the next, with contradictory thoughts constantly clashing, over the narrative of a lifetime."

In conclusion, speaking of Zadie Smith's On Beauty: "Above all else, it is, like the novels of McEwan and Ishiguro, a book about the present that fulfils the most stringent test of fiction as stipulated by Ezra Pound: that it brings news of how we live that stays news. No reader can ask for more than that of a novel - especially when, as they have this year, our best novelists are engaging so imaginatively with the challenges tossed up by the culture."