Prufrock's Page

Saturday, September 03, 2005

And Now, Time For Vikram Seth's New Book

In contrast to the high-decibel publicity surrounding Shalimar The Clown is the quiet arrival (so far, at least) of Vikram Seth's memoir-cum-biography, Two Lives. Anthony Beevor's just reviewed it for The Times, UK, and has some flattering things to say:

"Seth, with his beautifully simple prose, creates a truly unforgettable double portrait. He zooms in on tiny details, then broadens his focus to include Nazi Germany, India and Israel, with all the great events of the 20th century. It is also a meditation on love, courage and friendship, on betrayal through opportunism and moral cowardice, on identity, exile and alienation, on the dehumanisation of racism, and on those acts of spontaneous generosity which are all that is left to maintain faith in humanity....In recent years, there have been countless memoirs based on family papers, yet few are as moving and illuminating as Two Lives. At times, this rather long book can be heavy-going, but Seth has extracted from his material a wonderful richness of detail and considerable food for thought."

Sections of the above are going to appear as a blurb on the paperback edition, that's for sure.

Update: In the Sunday Times, Lucy Hughes Hallett tries to like the book, but winds up being baffled by Seth's genre-defying ways:
“Each of Seth’s books so far has been a surprise. Two Lives is yet another unexpected development in his dazzlingly polymathic career, but this time the surprise lies not in any new display of virtuosity but in the book’s plainness and its author’s self-effacement….Written as an act of love and duty, it is a testament to his modesty and familial affection, but it will perplex his literary admirers”

The Birth Of Shalimar The Clown

"In 1987, I was making a documentary in India about the 40th anniversary of independence. We did a section in Kashmir in which we actually met the village of these traveling players [actors and folk performers like the character Shalimar]. I spent a week or 10 days with them and was very struck by them, very touched by their lives and by this vanishing art form. But the problem was we couldn't use the sequence in our film because we couldn't get them to tell the truth on camera. Every time we switched the camera off they'd tell us amazing stories about their lives, but the moment there was film running they were obviously so worried about reprisals from one side or the other that they said their lives were just fine, thank you. So I dropped the sequence in the end. But these people really stayed with me. That's really where it was born."

That's Salman Rushdie, in an interview with Vanity Fair. (Yes, it's the issue with the fetching photograph of Jennifer Aniston on the cover.)

Having reached halfway through the book, I think there's little doubt that it's India that still has a hold on Rushdie's imagination and is the wellspring of his literary legerdemain -- the sections of Shalimar that are based in other parts of the world simply aren't as compelling and vivid as the ones set in Kashmir. Nevertheless, as Uma mentions in an e-mail, "it feels good to listen to him again." It certainly does.

Rushdie goes on to speak of his belief that the novel is alive and kicking (thank goodness):

"What fiction can do is do something that newspapers can't do, which is to allow the reader to enter imaginatively into realities that would otherwise be alien to them.…[novelists] can make you feel what people's lives in those situations are like, and make that part of your reality. That's what literature can do, and in these days, when we really do need to imaginatively understand the world, I think the novel can be getting to be a very important thing again."

(He repeats this direct rebuttal of V.S. Naipaul, in a conversation with Rahul Jacob of The Financial Times: "“It’s a long time since I bothered with his literary views, but I think fiction is unusually important at a time like this because we need people who can make imaginative leaps into reality. I set myself the challenge of understanding the way people become jihadis.”)

And he seems to have the same problem that one has when it comes to finding time to read:

"I like Vikram Chandra and Vikram Seth; I like Rohinton Mistry. I like Anita Desai and her daughter, Kiran Desai, a lot. I like Jhumpa Lahiri. But there's so much these days that you can't keep up, in a way."

On Zadie

The Times Literary Supplement has one of the first reviews of Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Sophie Ratcliffe seems impressed:

" If we are to ask, what, exactly, we are looking at in this novel, it offers an assured and readable, almost seductive lull. The 'hysterical realism' that James Wood saw in Smith’s writing seems to have been toned down....But the writing is superbly controlled....she has produced a novel that knows its own worth and weight....On Beauty is an attempt to pay tribute to the way others look, to Mozart’s music and to Rembrandt’s paintings. Zadie Smith asks for attention for others. She deserves more than a second look herself. "

Update: And here's another rave from The Guardian's Stephanie Merritt: "On Beauty confirms Smith as an outstanding novelist with a powerful understanding both of what the brain knows and of what love knows, especially when it comes to families."

Friday, September 02, 2005

Reviewers Reviewed

Writing about the brouhaha over the recent Washington Post review of John Irving's Until I Find You by Marianne Wiggins, Nicholas Klee has this to say in his New Statesman column:

"I have just turned down the opportunity to review a book by an acquaintance. If I had expressed reservations, he would have interpreted the review as an unfriendly, even hostile, gesture - because the friendly thing to do, if I did not like the book, would have been to avoid the commission. Another personal example: I once met the novelist Joseph O'Connor, who, to my mortification, quoted to me a rather pompous sentence I had once written about him ('He will write better books, I am sure'). Later, I got a commission to review his terrific novel The Salesman; the enthusiasm of my piece was not unrelated to the relief of being able to make up for my previous sniffiness. Both reviews were fair, I still think, but the process was messier than it should have been."

And The Fairy Godmother Was A Transvestite

BBC news reports on the seditious goings-on at the Latvian National Opera, which "has been banned from performing Sergei Prokofiev's Cinderella after setting the classic children's story in a brothel...with Cinderella working as a maid, her step-sisters as call girls and her stepmother as the brothel madam."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Depressing Thought For The Day

"Artists who would once have sought patrons, writers who would once have sought readers, managers who were once primarily concerned with the production of goods and services, are now dedicated to shaping market response."

- J.K. Galbraith in ‘The Economics of Innocent Fraud’, a part of the Pocket Penguin Series

Return Of The Snarks

If you thought Dale Peck was rude, wait till you read Cole Haddon's rant against Charles Baxter:

”No matter how eloquently he can string together a series of words or how profoundly he can grapple with man’s empty existence, Charles Baxter has only one voice. Every single character speaks in the same voice — even in a novel such as The Feast of Love, featuring an extensive cast of many ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds (but not races, since he only writes about white people). Sure, their individual vocabularies might shift incrementally, but those characters are still all performed by the same shitty actor. Like Keanu Reeves doing a one-man Hamlet.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Rushdie Redux

Uma has a round-up of reactions to Rushdie and Shalimar The Clown here. And here's another review -- this time, over the top in its acclaim -- from the Detroit Free Press, by the intriguingly-named Marta Salij: " all great novels, what it is about is unquotable and irreducible. It is 'about' what it is: a seductively told tale whose reading shifts the plates of the world."

Update: In The Times, UK, Justine Hardy strikes a note of guarded praise: "This book is a colossus almost bestriding the great and growing rift, though sometimes losing its balance. We have a double helix that spins together information and misinformation. Perhaps Rushdie expects us to be able to distinguish between truth and fiction, almost line by line. But this is a novel, and that must not be forgotten, particularly when it turns from tightrope to razor’s edge in the most powerful parts of the book, the ones that will be written about and argued over most...This is an important book, a wonderful reversing story with a cast of characters with names that are not their names, and ideals that have been thrust upon them, but this is not a real study of the anatomy of terrorist warfare or its perpetrators. Remember this as you read this vast story set in a splintering world reflected in lakes. "

Monday, August 29, 2005

My Airport Story

So it's clearly not in the same league as the horrifying tales narrated over here. But here's my airport story, all the same.

Saturday morning, and I'm at the Jet Airways check-in counter at Mumbai airport, ready to board a flight to Delhi. But: "Sorry," says the lady behind the counter, licking her lips nervously, "that flight's been cancelled. We've combined it with the next one, leaving three hours from now."

When I ask why no passenger has been given this information beforehand, there's no reply. Another irate passenger behind me mentions that this was the third time this has happened to him this month. We bond, momentarily.

I speak to the supervisor, who offers to help by getting me an Indian Airlines ticket for a flight that is to depart two hours hence. Okay, I say, and proceed to wait for half an hour, admiring the new airport interiors.

Finally, the supervisor returns. "Yours is a waitlisted ticket, Sir," he says. "Nothing I can do." Waitlisted? I point out to him, my voice rising a few octaves, that it's an e-ticket printed from Jet's own website, and the status indicated says "OK". To this, there's no answer from the supervisor, who falls back on the sneaky tactic of looking over my shoulder to speak to the other confused Jet passengers waiting to beseige him.

Muttering dark threats, I rush outside to buy myself a ticket from some other airline. Hurray for privatisation, I say to myself. Three cheers for open skies.

This is where the narrative becomes terse and fragmented.

I visit the Air Sahara counter. Next flight to Delhi? Four hours from now. Onwards to Spice Jet. Next flight to Delhi? Eight hours away. (Mind you, we're talking of connections between the nation's financial capital and the capital itself.) On to Air Deccan. Next flight in one-and-a-half hours. I cheer up. But: "There's something wrong with the system, Sir. We'll let you know if we can book you on the flight only in half an hour." I move on to the Indian Airlines counter. There's no one there. No one. Simply empty tables and terminals.

Mopping my brow with a handkerchief, I rush out of terminal two and lurch into a moving auto that takes me to terminal one. First stop: the Kingfisher Airlines counter. Next flight to Delhi? Six hours away. On to Indian Airlines. Yes, there's a flight departing soon, and yes, there's a place on it for me. Clutching the ticket in a sweaty palm, I stagger into the terminal, to be told that the flight's delayed by 45 minutes. I sink into a hard plastic chair.

All I have for company is Picador India's new offering, Cyrus Mistry's The Radiance of Ashes. Unfortunately, this does nothing to alleviate my mood for it is naive and cliche-ridden. I attempt to blog about this from the airport itself, but the Sify Broadband Cafe (which proclaims "No Limits!") is deserted and padlocked.

After what seems like an eternity, the flight takes off. And, almost seven hours after I've left home for Mumbai airport, I arrive, blinking, in the baking streets of New Delhi.

Ah, the joys of air travel.