Prufrock's Page

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Saint Jane

It is a truth universally acknowledged that popular authors create fans who canonise them. So Max Davidson finds after a visit to Jane Austen's house in Hampshire, during the course of which he tries to rescue the writer from the saint:

"As the tributes flow and the obituarists go into overdrive ('the varied charms of her character…ennobled by Christian faith and piety'), it is like wading through treacle...You need to go back to the novels, note the lapses from benevolence, note the waspishness without which the comedy would be stillborn, to reconnect with the real woman: a creature of flesh and blood with a depth of feeling, even anger, that you miss at your peril."

McInerney's Defence Of Fiction

"I write novels. In fact, I just finished one, which is one reason I was alarmed to hear VS Naipaul declaring recently, in an interview with the New York Times, that the novel was dead. Which would make me, I guess, a necrophiliac."

- From Jay McInerney's piece in The Guardian on the need for fiction after 9/11.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Banning Bapsi, Prosecuting Pamuk

Vikki Reed, mother of a student at DeLand High School, came across Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India (a.k.a. Ice Candy Man) on the school's reading list -- and wants to ban it.

According to The Orlando Sentinel: "At issue is a two-page scene that describes Lenny's rebuffing of an older cousin's sexual proposition. The passage references oral sex." Reed says: "I think that anything this sexually explicit should not be mandatory and should not be handed out to our kids."

The report continues: "Author Sidhwa...said the controversial passage is 'just high jinks'...The encounter in her book is intended to be 'very innocent' and not 'obscene or pornographic at all.' "

Significantly, another report states: "Reed, who has not yet read the entire book, said she has been researching reviews of it on the Internet to prepare for today's meeting [with the school committee]." (emphasis mine.)

(Link via Maud Newton.)

Meanwhile, Turkey continues to provoke the EU with its ongoing prosecution of author Orhan Pamuk "on grounds of insulting the Turkish state."

Memo to illiterates and rabid nationalists: Why don't you take your paws off books and go play with yourselves instead?

More On Lolita

Stacy Schiff, biographer of Mrs Nabokov, offers this overview and appreciation in the novel's 50th year:

"The wonder is that - in a confessional culture, in taboo-toppling, hail-Britney times - [Lolita] still startles and sears...She travels light, without moral or agenda. Her plot still makes headlines; 'outlandish perverseness' is us. But art is meant to transgress, to venture beyond what we permit ourselves. On all counts Nabokov's is a deeply subversive work, a humorous novel about a state of damnation, an enchantment and an ache."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Shoot Mouth Off In Haste, Issue Press Release At Leisure

Following her earlier vitriolic comments about the state of England, Zadie Smith now appears to have had a change of heart. One doesn't want to offend the Booker jury, after all:

"I have lived in England my entire life and have an enormous love of the place, a fact that is obvious to anyone who has read my fiction. English fiction is my first love and the joy of English culture and history infuses every aspect of my work…I said I had no 'f***ing chance' of getting on the Booker shortlist because it seemed to me that the longlist was of an incredibly high standard. I am amazed and delighted to have been shortlisted…”

Read the entire press release here.

Oh, and former Booker nominee Zoe Heller seems to have been convinced: "...if I was really pushed to bet on somebody, it would be Zadie Smith. I think it's her time."

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Naipaul's Tattle

“I would say, from what I’ve read, that, in all India, Bengal at the beginning of the last century had such a [intellectual] life. Politics later swamped that life; what should have been a flame in independent India is now only a flicker. Without the outer intellectual life people cannot grow.”

“Communist Calcutta rots and rots in the most shameful way; but the talking people there hold fast to their ancient Marxist half-truths."

“The future of India cannot be assessed from rates of growth alone. In fact, if we go by the experience of some other countries, increasing general wealth might start laying bare many of the conflicting nostalgias and sources of the old pain that poverty and subjection half covered up. This is a potentially dangerous time and now more so than ever India needs sound intellectual life.”

"India vitally needs to arrive at an understanding of its own history. Every other great country has an understanding of itself. India doesn’t, and this lack makes it incomplete and vulnerable.”

In The Telegraph, Amit Roy offers us choice extracts from a forthcoming interview with V.S. Naipaul in the October issue of The Tatler.

The Continuing Power Of Great Novels

"I find, in all great novels, a human project, call it passion, love, liberty, justice, inviting us to actualize it to make it real, even if we know that it is doomed to fail. Quixote knows he fails, as do Pere Goriot and Anna Karenina and Prince Myshkin. But only through the consciousness, implicit or explicit, of such failure, do they save, and help us save, the nature of life itself, human existence and its values as lived and proposed and remembered by all the ages, all the races, all the families of humankind, without alienating themselves to an illusion of unending, certified progress and felicity."

- Carlos Fuentes on Cervantes, Kafka, Faulkner and the saving grace of literature.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

13 Ways Of Looking At The Novel

So we've heard about all those novelists who absorbed the impact of 9/11 and then transmuted it into their books-- from Saturday to Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Author Jane Smiley, however, "decided to shut her laptop, walk away from her own novel, and devote herself instead to reading and enjoying 100 great novels by others."

The Christian Science Monitor offers a review of the book that was the result.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Spirit of T.S. Eliot Enters Salman Rushdie While He Writes Shalimar The Clown

Kashmir is the cruelest state, breeding
Saffron out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull prose with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Manhattan in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried caviar.

There is a shadow of Strasbourg in this section
(Come in under the shadow of this section.)
And I will show you something different from either
Midnight’s Children or Shame.
Or Christopher Hitchens at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you how to leave magic realism behind.

O O O O that Maximilian Ophuls--
He’s so elegant
So intelligent
"What shall I do now? What shall I do?"
"I shall rush out as I am, and walk to Kashmir
"With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
"What shall we ever do?"

Well, if Shalimar won't leave you alone, there it is, I said.
What you get reviewed for if you don't want to be profiled?
Well, that Sunday Boonyi Kaul was on the hill, she had a hot lunch,
And she asked me to write it down, to get the beauty of it hot--
Goonight Julian. Goonight Zadie. Goonight Kazuo. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, awards jury, good night, sweet jury, good night, good night.

If there was a Booker
And also the prize ceremony
And accolades
One by one
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no Booker.

I sat upon the shore of Dal Lake
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my characters in order?
My hair is falling down falling down falling down
Bareilly ke bazaar mein
Jhumka gira re

These Manolo Blahniks I have shored against my ruins
Padma. Padma. Padma Lakshmi
Shantih shantih shantih

A Full Head Of Irish Hair

“The problem for us Irish novelists is that we publish in London and are reviewed in England by English reviewers who often regard Irish novels as a failed attempt to be English. I read something the other day that referred to the 'Celtic fringe' of writers. I thought: Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett - if this is the Celtic fringe, where would I find the full head of hair?”

- John Banville in The Independent

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Not Quite In Harmony

The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw (Harper Perennial)

(A brief review, part of Veena's 2005 Booker Mela.)

“Death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and for ever,” says one of the characters of Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory. One of the tasks of fiction, then, becomes the overcoming of death through the recreation of lives. In pursuit of this aim, The Harmony Silk Factory delineates the life of Johnny Lim, an ethnic Chinese labourer in Malaysia, who rises to wealth and power at the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The book attempts to do this by presenting three versions of Johnny’s life, told by his son, Jasper Lim, his wife, Snow Soong, and his friend and associate, Peter Wormwood. The use of multiple narratives is, of course, a much-used device in fiction, and Aw here is walking in the footsteps of novelists from William Faulkner to Graham Swift to Barbara Kingsolver who have employed it to indicate the shapeshifting nature of reality.

The first narrative, told by Lim’s son, gives a broad overview of Lim’s life; the tone here is matter of fact and rich in particulars, yet recued from dryness by many personal digressions. We learn of Johnny’s rise from impoverished tin mine labourer to textile merchant to one of the most influential people in Malaysia in the 1940s and 50s. Then, there are extracts from the diary of Snow Soong, Lim’s wife, which center on their trip to Seven Maiden Islands, accompanied by Kunichika Mamoru, a Japanese professor, Frederick Honey, head of the tin mining concern, and Peter Wormwood, an Englishman adrift in the tropics. Snow’s account is a dream-like saga that tells of the dynamic between the characters on the island as if through a glass darkly. Finally, there’s an operatic recollection of the same trip by Wormwood himself, now an inhabitant of an old-age home in Malaysia.

Though the voice in each section is distinctive, as it ought to be, and though the characters and their Malaysian milieu are vividly portrayed, the book’s chief flaw is that it seems to shift a third of the way through from an exploration of Johnny Lim’s life to an account of the relationship between Lim, Wormwood, Snow and Mamoru during their ill-fated island visit. Snow and Wormwood’s account come through as explorations of self-justification, and the reader is left wondering why the initial portion, narrated by the son, focused on Johnny’s life, only to have the spotlight shift away later.

It was one of the stated aims of the Taipei-born, Malaysia-bred and London-based author to rescue the novel of the South-east Asian countries from the pink gins and Long Bars of Maugham and the self-questioning nautical narratives of Conrad. In this, he’s certainly been successful, adroitly evoking a Malaysia during an age of imperialism in retreat, of communist uprisings and, of course, the Japanese invasion. Lucid prose apart, Aw also crafts clever narrative signifiers to refer to the novel’s design, such as the form-defying gardens that Wormwood is obsessed with, or the nebulous, hazy contours of the Seven Maiden Islands.

Despite these strengths, the novel is unsatisfying because it is less about refracted views of the life of one man and more about relationships between characters during a specific, crisis-filled journey. And because this dichotomy is never fully resolved, by the end of the novel, neither do we have a realised portrait of Johnny Lim, nor do we have a deep understanding of the motivations of his son, wife, or confidantes.Ultimately, The Harmony Silk Factory turns out to be, well, disharmonious.

State Of The Nation

"A pinko magazine printed on very cheap paper ... It's probably the only magazine in the country [that] if you make a Xerox of it, the Xerox looks a lot better than the original."

That’s what Calvin Trillin said of the liberal The Nation. The 73-year-old editor of the publication, Victor Navasky, just has a memoir out, A Matter Of Opinion. "After almost 10 years in the editor's chair, at least three things were clear," he writes. "First, I needed a new chair."

In a more stentorian vein, he says: “At our best, we take these two charges - the telling of truth as best you can, and fighting for the things you know or believe to be right. And then, if the country has lost its moorings, or the world has gone off in some crazy direction, you can help restore the equilibrium by talking common sense."

Read The Guardian’s fascinating profile here.

A Life-Changing Masterpiece

The Independent has one of those standard-issue articles on books that have influenced lives. And while people have mentioned To Kill A Mockingbird (Meera Syal), The Female Eunuch (Sue McGregor) and even the Kama Sutra (Kathy Lette), all that Dr Raj Persaud, professor of psychiatry, can come up with is Vikas Swarup's Q&A:

"[It's] the story of an Indian street urchin who wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But there is an inquiry afterwards because they think he cheated. Reading the book changed my life. It is about surviving under pressure when the world seems to be conspiring against you."

One can concede that the book in question can be found entertaining. But...a book of life-changing influence? What were you thinking, doctor?