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Friday, June 30, 2006

Another Review Reviewed

Here's an extract from Anne Garvey's review of Jan Dalley's The Black Hole in The Independent's June 25th edition:

"She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct), but she does ask questions. 'Was it deliberate brutality of the part of the victor, or was it simply a sad mistake on the part of the nawab's soldiers?' How did the story prevail in a century packed with bloodshed and massacre on a much grander scale? Why were succeeding generations keen to re-tell it?"

Now, here's an extract from Mahmud Farooqui's review of the same book in Outlook's July 10 issue:

"She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct although Little claims six survivors out of nine prisoners and British historian Linda Colley counts eight survivors out of 40), but she does ask questions. 'Was it deliberate brutality of the part of the victor, or was it simply a sad mistake on the part of the nawab's soldiers?' How did the story prevail in a century packed with bloodshed and massacre on a much grander scale? Why were succeeding generations keen to re-tell it?"

In another extract from Garvey's review, she writes:

"It is hard to credit that thousands would risk their lives, and more thousands their fortunes, for nutmeg. But do believe it. 'All historians agree the British Empire began with stimulants,' Dalley asserts. Our nation would 'go just to just about any lengths for a buzz'."

Over to Farooqui:

"The East India Company and its trading endeavours are, for her, a search for nutmeg, for exotica, 'the need for a buzz'."

Now, look at Hilary Spurling's review of the same book in The Observer of June 25:

"A dismal history of blunders on both sides had been successfully recast, in Nirad Chaudhuri's phrase, to throw 'a moral halo over the conquest of India'. "

Here's Farooqui again:

"...the memory of the Black Hole threw, as Nirad C. Chaudhuri puts it, 'A moral halo over the British conquest of India'..."

Finally, a sentence from Ashling O'Connor's Times' report on June 19th:

"There have been several challenges to Holwell’s account, not least by J. H. Little, an English schoolmaster, who, in 1916, labelled it a 'giant hoax'."

Over to Farooqui:

"So, what was the Black Hole? For British historian J.H. Little, writing in 1916, merely a 'gigantic hoax'."


(NB. Farooqui's review wasn't available online at the time of writing this post, so one couldn't link to it.)

Mr Dangerous, Mumtaz And The Barber Lover

The current online issue of Agni, Boston University's literary magazine edited by Sven Birkerts, has two pieces of interest for readers from India. The first is an essay entitled Mr Dangerous and Mumtaz, by Liesl Schwabe, and deals with her relationship with "Mr Dangerous", a tout-cum-guide, and Mumtaz, a creator of prayer beads, during her stay in Bodh Gaya. It's filled with detail, and resistant to easy conclusions. The second is an extract from Canadian writer Padma Viswanathan's novel-in-progress, a work set in the south India of the 1930s. Entitled The Barber Lover and written in a consciously plain style, it tells of the plight of a barber whose task it is to shave the heads of widowed Brahmin women.

(Incidentally, both are difficult to read off the computer screen because of the site's annoying use of reverse type on a dark green background. Try a "select all" -- makes it easier on the eyes.)

Nair's Namesake

Quite understandably, authors hand over the movie rights of their novels with a sense of trepidation. But Jhumpa Lahiri, for one, seems quite pleased with Mira Nair's version of The Namesake:

"It's exciting to see someone take my book and dramatize it...(though) certain things were definitely cut out, including a couple of scenes that I was really attached to in writing the book. From the beginning I realized that this was not my film. Filmmaking is much more complicated than someone sitting alone writing a book. You have to juggle so many balls in the air...When they filmed in Calcutta, many members of my extended family got to be in the film. It was Mira's idea to pepper the movie with people from my personal world....The most wonderful thing about the process, I think, is that I made a lifelong friend [in Nair]. She's so warm, gifted and real. I admire her in so many ways, not just for her work. She does so many things with grace and aplomb."

On an unrelated note: whatever happened to the other namesake, author Meera Nair? Her first collection of short stories, Video, showed great promise. But that was four years ago...

What Not To Submit To Esquire

Adrienne Miller, former Esquire literary editor turned debutant novelist, speaks of the submissions she received during her stint at the magazine:

"I did it for eight years. It’s a really long time for a job like that. Each magazine, given its sensibility, has its own house-style short story. We at Esquire tended to get a lot of misogynist stuff. Sort of gritilly realistic, Hemingway-esque type fiction."

But it had its advantages, too:

"It was an amazing experience to work with the caliber of writers with whom I worked. Had I been a book editor, I wouldn’t have gotten to work with Don DeLillo, for instance. That was really great. And as a writer, working with really amazing writers made me really want to achieve something at a very high level—and to really write. Not to write the gritilly realistic short fiction I had been spending my life reading, but to hopefully write something that was matching the couple amazing short stories I would read during the course of a year. Some of my favorite stories were by Richard Russo, Joanna Scott, Nicole Krauss, Heidi Julavits."

More Allen

From Maud Newton, a link to a transcription of 60 stand-up routines of Woody Allen. There goes the weekend.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Writers' Other Work

Completely by coincidence, one discovered Lawrence Durrell’s Antrobus Complete and Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories on the bookshelf, and re-read them back to back. Both, of course, seen as “lesser” work by the novelists; the first parodic (almost like a cruel P.G. Wodehouse in the British Diplomatic Corps) and the second, a self-mocking reaction to “selling out” to Hollywood.

Which got one thinking: which other such examples exist, of writers turning out work that’s a quite different in tone and manner from their regular efforts? (Not simply parodic sketches, mind you, but full-length work.)

For a start, there’s the charming Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot (which, as everyone knows, was the basis for the musical), written in the 1930s to amuse his godchildren and friends, but which proved irresistibly popular almost at once.

Then, Graham Greene famously dismissed his written-to-please Stamboul Train as an “entertainment”, and went on to produce others similarly dubbed; but then, such “entertainments” are as much a part of Greeneland as his other novels. Without the reception to Stamboul Train, in fact, he may never have had the confidence to go on writing novels.

In 1968, there was Colonel Sun, the first James Bond book to be published after Ian Fleming’s death, written by one Robert Markham – who turned out to be Kingsley Amis. (The plan was to release a series of James Bond novels written by different authors under the Robert Markham name, but this was the only one published.)

In a slightly different context, Arthur Conan Doyle made Holmes vanish into the Reichenbach Falls because he was fed up of the fictional detective and wanted to concentrate on the historical and other work that he felt was his true metier. (Hmmm…could it be that J.K. Rowling is dropping dark hints about Master Potter’s demise simply because she’s bored?) More recently, Michael Chabon published an accomplished Sherlock Holmes novella, The Final Solution, although with Chabon’s taste for delving into genre fiction and rendering it “respectable”, one can’t really point to this as an exception to his other work.

One supposes Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written for his son, could also fit into this category, although that would take us down a long and winding road of those who’ve tried their hand at children’s books, leading all the way to…Sir Paul.

One's Dream Job Description

Speaking of John Blackwell, who died in 1997 after working as an editor for 30 years with Secker & Warburg, Dan Franklin says:

"John never took on an author (though he wrote pithy, often hilarious reports on whatever manuscripts came his way), never saw his name in the trade press, never made a speech at a launch party. He did something much more precious. He line-edited text - checking facts and spelling, ferreting out inconsistencies, turning pedestrian sentences into models of elegance - and his authors loved him for it. Among the writers John edited were Tom Sharpe, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, J. M. Coetzee, John Banville and Louis de Bernières. The latter remembers John ringing him one day to tell him that Italian jeeps had a different kind of suspension than that described in his book. I bet every other of John's authors has a similar tale.

"...John's sort of editing took time - many cigarettes, many beers, much discussion and laughter. The impatient deadlines of modern publishing don't suit such people."

Stories Matter

There's been this lowbrow/highbrow tussle between novels of plot and novels of character for a long time. Well, here's A.S. Byatt on the importance of storytelling:

"One of my theories of British literature is that it suddenly began to flower -- the British novel -- in the 1970s because the novelists realized they didn't give a damn about literary theory. Or literary critics. And they started telling stories. And the reviewers were still saying, you know, stories are vulgar. Everything is random and haphazard and kind of a miasma. But the storytellers, people like Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, continued telling stories. I'm sure it has to do with a kind of split in my generation between university and being a writer."

(From Critical Mass, "the blog of the national book critics board of directors".)

Reacting Against Bloomsbury

John Macarthur recalls meeting Graham Greene on the eve of his 86th birthday and finding him disgusted with US foreign policy. That apart, here's a fascinating comment:

“I don’t think one’s novels should be too political. But, I mean, politics do come into them. Politics come into our lives. I think to exclude politics from a novel is excluding a whole aspect of life. It’s keeping a lot of people out of one’s life. Virginia Woolf, I mean, certainly wouldn’t have introduced politics. I began to get a little tired of Virginia Woolf, you know. Mrs. Dalloway going shopping up Regent Street and the thoughts which went through her head. I reacted rather against her by being a storyteller. You see, my mother was a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I’d like to think that I’ve followed in his tradition. I’ve reacted against the Bloomsbury circle.”

Finally, he asks the writer if his persistent criticism of Americans meant that he’d never met any he liked. “Yes,” Greene replied with a grin. “But they never seemed quite American.”

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Lee Speaks

While diehard fans wait and wonder about whether Harper Lee will ever write again, the reclusive author decided on O, The Oprah Magazine, as a forum for her most recent work. It's in the form of a letter, dealing with reading as a child. Some excerpts:

She says she must have learned to read "from having been read to by my family". "My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them.My mother read me a story every day, usually a children's classic, and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening."

Finally, she asks: "And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal." John Updike would approve.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Thus Ate Zarathustra

"To the devout, the notion of anything but cereal for breakfast produces anxiety and dread, but with the death of God anything is permitted, and profiteroles and clams may be eaten at will, and even buffalo wings."

While Woody Allen's films may have moved away from that earlier comic spirit, it's welcome to see that his prose writing -- if this piece in the New Yorker is any indication -- remains as antic as ever.

The Future Of Fiction (And Advertising)

The New York Times reports that "a campaign for Svedka, a Swedish vodka, is serving as inspiration for a series of articles to appear online and in a is teaming up with Spirits Marque One, the importer and distributor of Svedka, to commission 16 writers to imagine what the world of 2033 will be like in areas ranging from sexuality to politics to science"

The writers commissioned aren't unknown: they include include Ana Marie Cox (of Wonkette) Jay McInerney, Rick Moody, Walter Kirn and Will Self. Their stories will be available online, published in an anthology and the writers will go on a book tour.

As the report states, this "is indicative of how the road between advertising and entertainment is increasingly becoming more of a two-way street."

Executives of both companies say that the writers are not required to include or mention Svedka, vodka or drinking in their stories. But still. How seriously should such work be taken? Reminds one of what BMW did in film, showcasing the work of directors such as John Frankenheimer and John Woo, among others.

Llosa On Writing

The always-impressive Mario Vargas Llosa has written historical novels, erotic tales, memoirs, short stories, comic novels, a murder mystery, an essay collection, a study of Madame Bovary and other nonfiction. In an interview with Beirut's Daily Star -- at the end of a a regional speaking tour in Lebanon -- he answers why: "I consider writing a kind of adventure. I don't want to repeat myself, doing things that I have already done. No, because that would impoverish something for me that is very fresh, very new always. And that's why my books are very different, one from the other ... Even the writing is different because it depends very much on what you want to tell ... You have to find the way it is with each story.

"That is something that I learned reading Faulkner, that anything can become the most important, the most deep human experience, if you have the ability to reach this story or this situation, linking it with the human condition in general."

Orientalism is Alive And Well

"...Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi wasn't a typical Indian schoolboy. Sensitive, precocious, exotically beautiful with eyes the color of nutmeg, he never got on with children his age...His refuge was a tree house -- a few planks of wood in a fragrant bakul tree...He calls his mother, Padmini, 'a lioness in a sari'...Shanghvi has been talking for hours...his large brown eyes [have turned] into droopy wet pools in need of siesta."

- From an interview with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi in the San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, June 26, 2006

Looking Into The Black Hole

What exactly happened on the night of June 20, 1756? Was it a politically motivated hoax, or another vile act by an unfeeling despot? Jan Dalley delves into the incident known as the Black Hole of Calcutta and comes up with a book that, according to The Independent, is an "imaginative and forensically relentless examination." The review continues: "She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct), but she does ask questions. Was it deliberate brutality of the part of the victor, or was it simply a sad mistake on the part of the nawab's soldiers? How did the story prevail in a century packed with bloodshed and massacre on a much grander scale? Why were succeeding generations keen to re-tell it?"

(In The Observer, however, Hilary Spurling remains unimpressed by Ms Dalley's effort: "This is a story that requires fresh evidence or a thorough, imaginative overhaul, or both, to be worth retelling.")

Another article on the 250th anniversary -- if 'anniversary' is the right word -- of the Black Hole quotes Partha Chatterjee at the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences: "The event is largely forgotten.Whenever it is brought up now it is simply as an example of a falsehood of imperialist history." Basudeb Chatterjee, director of West Bengal's government archives, is more blunt: "Holwell was a congenital liar. His underlying motive was to impress on his superiors that he behaved nobly for surviving the experience. So he exaggerated."

Now, some trivia: the site of the incident is marked by a small plaque in the General Post Office in Dalhousie Square (now B.B.D. Bag), where Fort William once stood. And an obelisk at the square erected by the British to commemorate the event now stands in St John's churchyard, "where it now provides a perch for raucous crows". (The church, by the way, also contains the mausoleum of Job Charnock.Some photographs here.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Amit Chaudhuri's New Work

A droll verse that's subtitled On Constantly Mishearing 'Rioting' As 'Writing' On The BBC by Amit Chaudhuri appears in today's Observer. Do read.

(Link courtesy The Literary Saloon.)

The Library Built By Writers

Last year, David Grand, a novelist and father of 6-year-old twins who attend a public school in Brooklyn, heard that other parents were trying to establish a library at the school. It was among the 20 percent of the New York City's public elementary schools that do not have one.

His idea? Ask other novelists in the neighbourhood to pitch in. And they have: Grand's friends, acquaintances and fellow Brooklynites agreed to participate in a reading series. For a $10 admission fee, people have seen and heard writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer and Rick Moody. So far, the readings have earned $12,000.

And yes, the school has a new library.