Prufrock's Page

Friday, May 26, 2006

Shawn And Remnick

Now that New Yorker editor David Remnick is on the road to promote his Reporting, several interviews and profiles have popped up. Here's an interesting one, from the San Francisco Chronicle, which ends with him saying: "William Shawn never went anywhere, but his mind went everywhere. That's the way he worked. I'm a different animal. I'm just stupider. I need to actually be shown things."

To The Person Who Was Directed Here...

...after Googling "night watch Naipaul": the volume you're searching for is The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book, an early short story of Naipaul's, written at a time when he was still capable of light-heartedness. No, it has nothing to do with Sarah Waters' The Night Watch.

Freeing Freedom Of Expression

Those who want to watch Fanaa will find a way, whether in Gujarat or elsewhere. Those who want to watch The Da Vinci Code will watch it too, be they in Punjab or not. Those who want to read James Laine will read his books, in Maharashtra or not. And indeed, those who want to read The Satanic Verses or Nine Hours to Rama will make sure they do so. As Goran Rosenberg says in his Eurozine article, "communications technology has made it possible for any expression, from any cave or cellar anywhere in the world, produced with any kind of intention, to instantly present itself in the public arena of any society in the world."

He continues: "Freedom of expression without common public spheres and common informal agreements will...produce and intensify social and cultural conflicts. When citizens are unable to talk to and with each other, or see no need to do so, they will increasingly talk past and against each other, and thereby will increasingly misunderstand and mistrust each other. Freedom of expression will thus be rendered useless for the kind of public discourse that is the oxygen of democracy...the main challenge to the freedom of expression is the lack of informal controls and agreements, a result of the rapid division of our societies into separate public spheres that no longer communicate with each other, and that therefore cannot work out any informal agreements about how public expressions might or might not be understood."

Playright Tom Stoppard echoes this when he writes of free speech that "it is not an absolute to be claimed for any and every position. It will prevail when we accord it. The rules are ours to make, and to modify for different situations."

It's precisely that unwritten code -- "the informal controls and agreements" -- which defines freedom of expression, and which we seem to lack. Of course, in order to start putting this into place, one needs a retreat from extremist positions and political jerrymandering. It's time to bring Amartya Sen's 'argumentative Indian' thesis into the current age.

They Left Out 'OH': Over Hyped

Time Out New York suggests that publishers follow the example of Hollywood and introduce a rating system for books: from 'WM' (Wait for Movie) to 'PP' (Probably Plagiarised).

More Power To His Elbow

Before Life of Pi, which has sold more than two million copies, Byng says he used to wake up in a state of paranoia that everything was going to crash and burn. "I used to look at the books and think 'f***, this is all going horribly wrong. I knew I had a great catalogue of books. I knew we had talented, original writers but was anyone going to buy them?" That was when he realised that he himself had to promote the books and so, in a way, the myth of Byng was born. "I don't care what people think of me," he says. "I don't care if they hate me. I'll do anything to publicise our books."

- From an interview with Jamie Byng, who's almost single-handedly made Canongate a name to watch in publishing circles. Without publishing a single J.K. Rowling book.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Role Of The Artist

From Arundhati Roy's interview with Amy Goodman of the syndicated radio show Democracy Now!:

"AG: I want to ask: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?

AR: Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, you know, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight, you know? But in a country like India, I'm not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists, you know? It's all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.

AG: And what do you think artists should do?

AR: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it, you know?"

A Nod Of Appreciation For...

...Jai Arjun Singh and Nilanjana S. Roy, who've collated a list of fiction and non-fiction titles that one can look forward to in the coming months. Since the Mumbai monsoon is nigh, and one confidently expects flood waters to restrict movements again, one plans to keep at least some of them handy at all times.

(Note: The link's been changed; see Comments.)

Not Very Majestic

A book which one recently began with high expectations was Richard Davenport-Hines' A Night At The Majestic. The Faber (UK) edition is packaged as a description of the events during a dinner party in Paris in 1922, the apogee of Modernism. (1922: the same year that both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published.) This wasn't your average dinner: among the guests were Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso. The mind boggles: all of them together, at one table? But while the first chapter takes you straight into the party's guest list and hosts Sydney and Violet Schiff's planning, the rest of the book is a paean to Proust, explaining in great detail the circumstances of his life and how they impacted his masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu. Which is all very well, but it defeats the purpose of picking up the book in the first place. The problem is that details of that historic dinner are disappointingly slight -- Joyce arrived drunk, Proust spoke about his stomach ailments -- and while the author does the best he can to pad it out, the rest of the time he painstakingly dwells on his adulation for Proust. Since, alas, one hasn't read the Frenchman's multivolume masterpiece (it's on the shelf, gathering dust and glaring at one accusingly), Davenport-Hines' book didn't leave much of an impact. Why, it could well have been titled Proust And Some Other Guys. Perhaps one ought to pick it up again when -- and if -- one actually begins Swann's Way and works one's way through the rest.

N.B. The US edition of the book has a different title: Proust at the Majestic: The last days of an author whose book changed Paris. Which, while still hyperbolic, is a lot more appropriate.

Dissing Everyman

Philip Roth's Everyman has been getting respectful, if not glowing reviews everywhere. Which is why it's refreshing to come across Nicholas Spice's thoughtful and detailed piece, which opens by calling it "disconsolate" and "disagreeable". He goes on:

"The circularity in the narrative is a powerfully expressive feature of a book whose formal intricacy could be thought the most interesting thing about it.... if we came to it fresh from the invigorating experience of Sabbath’s Theatre or the American Trilogy or The Plot against America, and were hoping for something less well-behaved than structural virtue, we will have had a lot of adjusting to do."

Unashamedly Inegalitarian

Sanford Pinsker finds much to praise in Cynthia Ozick's new collection of essays, The Din In The Head. His words, and her essays, are a clarion call to those who hold that it's always the avant garde -- who may care nothing for audience or reception -- that contributes anything meaningful in the development of the arts:

"...Ozick insists that some works of literature are better — not merely 'different,' but better — than others, and that the unfettered (read: apolitical) literary imagination continues to matter. Many writers rant, but few do it with the aplomb of the curmudgeonly Ozick. She scolds and scours — all in an effort to pull down contemporary vanity and to promote writing genuinely worthy of our attention...Ozick is unapologetic about her elitism, because she was formed by a high modernism that has long ago receded. To come of age at a time when T.S. Eliot was literary culture's dominant taste-setter, when would-be novelists cut their teeth on Henry James and James Joyce, is to look on much that passes as postmodernist culture with great suspicion."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dream Life, Dream Debut

Have just finished Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov and found it quite remarkable. (Deservedly, it's been shortlisted for the Orange Fiction prize.) The prose, though a bit too adjective-filled to begin with, soon becomes bewitching in its ability to portray moods and memories; and the subject -- that of a Soviet art critic and editor ruing his lost artistic integrity -- achieves a resonance far beyond the specifics of this particular story. Grushin, the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, is currently working on her next, a novel that "concerns Russia once again, but this time some of it takes place in America, and my main characters are both Russian and American." One awaits breathlessly.

A Literary Anecdote?

In his review of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (a book that one wants to get one's hands on), Gary Dexter says:

Some of the anecdotes in John Gross's new collection force you to think quite hard. Take the following, told by A. J. Ayer about Bertrand Russell: 'Russell was quite incapable of seeing any merit in "ordinary language philosophy" and did not even try to take it seriously. Thus in a paper on the subject which he read to the Metalogical Society he pointed out that when a charwoman says "I ain't never done no harm to nobody", she does not mean "There is at least one moment at which I was injuring the entire human race."'

Which is all very droll, but what one wants to know is: how is the above a literary anecdote, exactly?

Monday, May 22, 2006

?htraE nO yhW

Italian accountant Michele Santelia earned himself a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records last year by typing 56 books from back to front, including "Romeo and Juliet," the Odyssey and everything by Leonardo da Vinci. Like his hero Leonardo, who often wrote backwards, Santelia used a mirror to see the words that he typed, all 3,004,767 of them.

The New Yorker Down Under

On the eve of a New Yorker writers' festival in Sydney, Hendrik Hertzberg reminisces on the magazine that was: One writer "sat in a room growing increasingly depressed for three years, then moved back to San Francisco", his home town. Five years later, the writer "was back in New York visiting a friend when he ran into Shawn in the hall". Shawn's response? "Hello. Have you been on vacation?"

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Great Filipino Novel

Filipino writer Vanni de Sequera is the editor of the acclaimed Story Philippines, an all-fiction magazine, and has just been appointed editor of Maxim Philippines, too. Here's how he plans to use his diverse magazine experience: " write the Great Filipino Novel. In English. Because I have no plot ideas to speak of, and because I am what may euphemistically be called a ‘mood’ writer, the novel will be about a mildly gifted but notoriously procrastinating writer who goes through numerous plots in his attempt to publish the definitive Pinoy novel, only to find out there is no such thing. So he remains the editor in chief of the biggest-selling men’s magazine in the world until he retires at the age of 80, whereupon he is enshrined in the Publishing Hall of Fame. It will be an event attended by a visibly wrinkled Jessica Alba.”

As an aside, here's an interesting tidbit on the ads in Story Philippines: " 'All advertisements in Story Philippines come in the form of very short, short stories,' De Sequera explains. 'Advertisers, I think, will really pay attention when readers of a magazine start to talk about the ads just as much as the content. Because in Story Philippines, readers really read the ads.' "

Ali's Blues

Monica Ali's second novel, Alentejo Blue, dealing with disparate characters in the Portuguese village of Marmarossa, seems to be a complete departure from the themes and characters of Brick Lane. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- but it leaves Natasha Walter quite unimpressed: "While her first novel grew cumulatively, with characters who were gradually revealed through different situations, this novel is structurally piecemeal, a collection of vignettes with no forward narrative thrust at all...All the characters bow off too hurriedly, little sketches that never get fleshed out, people glimpsed from a train that is moving too quickly through a strange landscape. Even if you enjoy the ride, you can't help wishing that Monica Ali had chosen to write about somewhere she knew better, or wanted to know better."