Prufrock's Page

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Page 3-fication Of Rushdie

In an interview with The Telegraph's Jan Moir, Salman Rushdie touches upon fundamentalist threats ("you just have to get on with your life") and Germain Greer ("barking mad") -- but all that the rest of the piece contains is details about his time with Padma Lakshmi, his reputation for being a "party dude", his lunch ("grilled courgettes and roast lamb at the River Café", "Rushdie still has the taint of Rosso di Montalcino on his breath and a spark of fire in his well-fed belly.") and his views on shoes: "They should be ancient and comfortable, and that's it." His views on his wife's Manolo Blahniks go unrecorded..

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Novels And The Stages Of Life

The LA Times reviews what sounds like a fascinating book by critic Edward Mendelson: The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About The Stages of Life

The novels, and the stages, are Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for birth, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights for childhood, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre about maturation into adulthood, George Eliot's Middlemarch for marriage and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts for personal love, parenthood and "the stage when life surrenders to the next generation," respectively.

Noticed that they're all by women? Mendelson says the choice "has nothing to do with any fantasy that women have inherent depths of feeling that men do not, or that women have greater moral and emotional intelligence than men have, or that women have any other essential qualities denied to men." He argues that their common confrontation with discrimination gave each of these women writers, as writers, "a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes, and to defend those values by paying close attention to them in her writing, by insisting that those values matter to everyone and that everyone experiences them uniquely."

Write On

The Atlantic collates the advice of its contributors on writing, including the likes of Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose and John Kenneth Galbraith: "Their collective wisdom covers virtually every step on the tortuous road to success, from the fundamentals of the craft, to dealing with editors, to avoiding alcohol dependence and making do on a writer’s salary." Ah, that last one is always a problem.

Kawabata's Challenge

In the New Statesman, Jason Cowley writes of his admiration for Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata:

"Influenced by the formal austerity and sparse, fragile lyricism of haiku, he is a miniaturist: he compresses where others seek to inflate and enlarge. His is a fiction of extreme economy, even of emptiness. Like the youthful Hemingway or, more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written of the influence of Kawabata on his own fiction, he leaves much unsaid and unexplained. To read him is to enter into an extended act of collaboration: Kawabata challenges you to interpret and imagine, to colour in and shade the empty spaces of his stories. Worked on and revised over many years, sometimes published as magazine extracts or episodically, his novels do not end so much as expire, in defiance of conventional expectations of narrative resolution and closure."

Pynchon's Next

Now that the title and release date of Thomas Pynchon's first novel in nine years has been made official, The Independent delves into the mystery of the man: "He is so elusive a writer that he makes Harper Lee appear a socialite. He gives no interviews and shuns all photo opportunities. Thomas Pynchon, cult figure of American prose, is a nightmare for his publicists."

Here's an extract from the author's own note on the novel, which spans the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after the First World War: "Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it's not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction."

At The End Of The Day, We're In The Black

Citing a whopping 10,000 news sources, including the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the Associated Press, an analysis by Factiva of clichés used by the press, by far the most commonly used is "at the end of the day." "In the black" and "in the red" follow at no. 2 and 3, respectively. While lazy, we're not quite sure how "concerned residents" qualifies as a cliché, but at the end of the day, you have to think outside the box.

- From a Fishbowl NY Report

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Playing Sacred Games

When asked, "What do you write for?", Vikram Chandra, in an interview with, replied, "The most honest way to put it is what they call khujli in Hindi -- I itch." Well, after having ploughed though Sacred Games, one can only wonder at the intensity of that itch.

His intent here is clearly to lift the genre novel to a more literary plane -- and, sentence for sentence, this is something he succeeds in, for the book is elegantly written and crafted. (In this aim, Chandra is not alone -- others such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen have confessed to their love of genre fiction and have attempted the same feat, taking detective novels and comic book characters as their material.)

Quality of prose apart, the other aspect of genre fiction that Chandra tries to overcome is that of stock characters. In this, one feels he's only partly successful: true, Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde are certainly more developed and rounded than characters you'd come across in a run-of-the-mill cops-and-robbers potboiler, but this development is limited. The underworld don's ambition, brutality and lecherousness are sought to be fleshed out by making him painfully self-aware, and the upright police officer's sense of irony and acceptance of corruption come across more than occasionally as a marriage of convenience. The moral murkiness of Graham Greene's world, for example, had no need of such contrivances. (One also had a clear sense that Chandra's characters were caught too tightly in the mesh of plot and structure, rendering them unable to break free from the page and emerge as living, breathing individuals in their own right.)

The above, however, are offset by Chandra's total immersion in and transmutation of his material: Mumbai's sights, sounds and smells are marvellously portrayed and this vivid delineation of a sense of place -- one of fiction's "lesser angels" as Eudora Welty put it -- is a chief source of pleasure to be found in these pages.

Which brings us to the key characteristic -- and, in one's opinion, key weakness -- of the book: its size. Where, really, was the need to make it so jaw-droppingly large? If your intent is to illumine the nature of society during a specific era (as Tolstoy set out to do in War And Peace) or portray the narrow-mindedness of English provincial life (as George Eliot did in Middlemarch) then, yes, you need bulk, you need heft. Even Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy justified the number of pages because of the creation of numerous characters, from distinctly varied backgrounds, all adding up to a snapshot of India in the Fifties.

Sacred Games' size, however, seems to have come about because of sheer self-indulgence. (Jai Arjun Singh makes much the same point in this earlier, astute post, pointing out -- very rightly -- that the so-called "insets", for a start, could well have been done away with.) It shouldn't take close to 900 pages to transcend a genre and create a novel involving characters drawn from a specific aspect of Mumbai's life.

It's been widely reported that Chandra took seven years to write Sacred Games. If he'd taken another year to make it more compact, it would have been worth the wait. As Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review of Seth's Two Lives, "this one would have been told better if it had been told more briefly."

Update: Just came across Nilanjana Roy's take: "’s worth the nine hundred pages".

Obligatory Post On The Longlist

Sarah Waters, Peter Carey and the bookies' favourite, David Mitchell, last night looked the strongest contenders for this year's £50,000 Man Booker prize.

Their names were conspicuous in a longlist which took longer to agree than almost any in the award's 40-year history.

The five judges - two men and three women - took more than six hours to pick 19 authors, a length of debate far longer than that taken by previous judges to choose most eventual winners.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Limning Reviews

The excellent blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors lists ten words and phrases that, they say, ought to be avoided by all book reviewers. Let's hope the Indian ones are listening:

1. "limns." 2. The construction: "Thanks to (this author),...." 3. "mordantly funny." 4. "Laugh out loud." 5. "By turns x and x" 6. Recipe sentences, i.e.: "Put a little Charles Olson, mix it with Charles Manson, and you'll get an idea..." 7. The adjective "insightful." 8. "It is a testament to..." 9. "Sophomore effort" 10. "more than the sum of its parts."

Remembering His Family And Other Animals

"Those brought up on My Family and Other Animals will never forget who put the scorpions in the matchbox, the water snakes in the bath and why that 'bloody boy', 'the most ignorant boy in the school', loved animals more than anything."

Oh, absolutely. David Dellamy sings a paean to Gerald Durrell on the 50th anniversary of his wonderful book.

Fact Vs Fiction

"Americans are pragmatic. They like the sense that something has actually happened...Yes, Americans like to be immersed in the actual. But they also like to be immersed in stories, and that's something novels and memoirs share."

Novelist Charles Baxter on the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction, in an article that examines the fall of the novel's popularity.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Guessing The Shortlist

John Sutherland again, on the people who will be happy with the upcoming Booker longlist, and his three picks for the shortlist, based on gossip and personal preference: Andrew O'Hagan, Howard Jacobson and DJ Taylor.