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Friday, October 06, 2006

The Death Of The Novel: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery

It was a cold day in the winter of 19__ when my esteemed friend Mr Sherlock Holmes became embroiled in what turned out to be one of the more curious cases of his career in detection. The yellow fog licked at the windowpanes as my friend lay slumped in his armchair and I feared that he would once again take up his syringe to inject himself with the concoction that, he claimed, kept boredom at bay. Such are the traps into which a mighty mind can fall when idle.

All at once there was the sound of thunderous knocking downstairs, followed, a while later, by our good landlady Mrs Hudson flinging open the door to our rooms and showing in a visitor. A woman it was: cheeks flushed, tasseled shawl drawn closely around her shoulders to keep out the wind and, from the quivering of her lips, clearly one who had just undergone a severe shock to her faculties. “Mr Holmes,” she gasped, and then fell on the carpet in a dead faint.

I leapt up, carried her to the sofa and, after a hasty medical examination, attempted to administer to her some brandy that I procured from Holmes’ mantelpiece. My friend, meanwhile, had risen to his feet and was examining the creature with an ironic smile playing upon his lips.

“That may well be a waste of good cognac, Watson,” said he, as our visitor spluttered and started to revive.

“Really, Holmes,” I said. “That Irene Adler affair has permanently blighted your opinion of the fairer sex.” Holmes frowned. “A capricious woman she may have been, Watson,” he said. “But at least she was no novelist.”

“Novelist?” I asked, looking at the woman on the sofa who was by now blinking her eyes rapidly and clutching her forehead. “My dear Holmes…”

“Observe, Watson,” said the detective. “Not only does this lady write for a living, but her last novel met with indifferent sales and she is on the verge of publishing a new one. Beyond that, I can deduce nothing."

“Holmes, this is carrying things too far,” I said. “Surely this is mere guesswork.”

“I never guess, Watson. It is injurious to the logical faculties. You see, but you do not observe. The ink stain on her index finger, the pile of uncorrected proofs sticking out of her handbag – what do these tell you?”

“But how could you know that her last novel fared badly, Holmes?”

“Her shoes are scuffed and worn, Watson, though clearly expensive. Doesn’t that indicate that, though well-to-do, she has fallen upon penurious times of late?”

“It’s true, it’s all true,” said our now-recovered visitor with a sob. “My name is Clara – Clara Wentworth. And I was on my way to deliver these proofs to my publisher when I got a call to inform me that – ”Here, she broke into sobs.

“Courage, Mrs Wentworth, courage,” said Holmes. “What did the caller say?”

“Mr Holmes, he said that – that the novel was dead!”

I gasped. “Who is this villain?” I said. “The novel, that beloved form of so many, which has given succour to thousands, which has entertained, informed, created a sense of community, which –"

“Stop babbling, Watson,” interjected Holmes. “Rumours of the novel’s demise have been afoot for a while. But who was this caller?”

“I don’t know,” confessed Mrs Wentworth. “The voice was completely unfamiliar.”

“Data, data,” said Holmes in an irritated manner, chewing upon the stem of a pipe that he had filled with noxious tobacco. “Without data, we cannot proceed. Cast your mind back, madam. Is there anything else that you can recall?”

“Wait,” said Clara. “I think I could hear a woman in the background. High-pitched, strident – she seemed to be saying something about cats.”

I noticed Holmes straighten his back and give a pleased smile. The case was beginning to interest him.” Holmes,” I said, “Cats? Novel? How do we proceed?”

“In the manner one always proceeds, Watson,” said he. “Upon one’s feet!” He laid a calming hand upon Mrs Wentworth’s shoulder. “At this stage, the best you can do is to return home and stay there. Your case raises several interesting points and I shall do my utmost to clear it up. Come, Watson!”

I followed my friend out the door, shivering a little for the weather was still beastly. “Where are we going, Holmes?” I asked. “To Hatchards, Watson!” he replied. One may as well begin one’s investigations with a bookshop.”

The venerable sales assistant at Hatchards paled when Holmes enquired how his novels were faring. “Poorly, poorly,” he said. “They’re all writing memoirs these days. Even novelists like Franzen and Seth – turning to personal histories and lives of relatives. Pah! They should take care – look at what happened to him,” he said, pointing.

We turned to see a most peculiar creature: shuffling along the walls of the bookstore, he averted his eyes from any contact with others, every once in a while pawing through shelves and then falling back in dismay as though finding his efforts fruitless.

Holmes studied him intently for a few minutes. “I see,” he said. “Poor fellow. But just desserts, eh, Watson?”

"I’m foxed, Holmes,” I said. “Who is that man?” The creature now was quite close to us, snuffling and squinting at the arrayed volumes. “I don’t have personal acquaintance, Watson,” said Holmes. “But undoubtedly he is the man who wrote a memoir of hardship which was then discovered to be heavily embroidered with fiction.”

“How do you ascertain this, Holmes?” I asked, never ceasing to marvel at my friend’s powers. Holmes pointed at a poster behind me: it featured the visage of the person who had now been reduced to the pathetic creature before us. “Oh, that’s an old poster, Sir” said the assistant, rushing to take it off the wall. “His book has been removed ages ago, but he keeps coming back here hoping to find an overlooked copy. Poor, poor Mr Frey.”

Holmes and I passed on down the aisle and, seeing an attractively produced volume of photographs on felines, I picked it up. “Cats, Holmes!” I said. “Cats!”

“Put that down, Watson. There’s nothing for us in that book. Or this bookshop either,” said the detective testily.

I followed him out onto the street again. “But Holmes, perhaps in that book is hidden a clue as to what women who was overheard on the phone was talking about. The book was indeed, interesting, Holmes – it covered everything about cats: their breeds, their food, their upbringing…although I myself would always prefer a dog as a pet. A cat would be too much of an enigma.”

Holmes stopped dead in his tracks. “What did you say, Watson?” he said, eyes shining. “I prefer dogs as pets,” I repeated, a tad startled.

“Watson,” said Holmes clapping me on the back. “I may have wronged you in the past but the fact is, more than once, you have unwittingly provided me with the clue to the whole mystery. May it be so in this case as well.” With that he hailed an omnibus, dragging me in. “To Wiltshire!” he said to the driver. “And there’s a guinea extra in it for you if you can drive twice as fast.”

I tried to get more information out of the detective as we rattled on towards the countryside but, with his love of the dramatic, all he said was, “Wait and watch, Watson! Wait and watch.”

All too soon, we arrived at an imposing country house – the sort characteristic of British gentlemen who’d made their fortunes and now wanted to advertise that they were leading lives of leisure in the midst of the countryside.

“Enigma, Watson," said Holmes. "It’s the word you used, if you recall.”

“What do you mean, Holmes?”

To my surprise, Holmes winked. “The enigma of arrival,” he said, adding, “It’s a way in the world.”

I studied the man closely, but finding no evidence of alcoholic intake or substance abuse, held my tongue.

The door was open, and after knocking a few times, we made our way inside, entering a large room the walls of which were lined with books of all types and sizes.

“Yes?” said a querulous voice behind us. “Who are you, and what do you want?” We turned to find a portly yet imperious man in his 70s, looking not a little pompous because of a silken cravat and white goatee. Though his manners and accent were undeniably English, his visage was nut-brown – “wheatish”, as I have heard the complexion referred to while on tour of duty in the subcontinent after the Mutiny.

Holmes approached the man. “My apologies for barging in,” he said. “But it was necessary in order to prevent further crime.” “Crime?” said the man. “What crime? How dare you?”

At this point, we heard the patter of footsteps and before my eyes an oversized cat leapt into the room and settled in the man’s arms. He stroked it, softly. Behind the cat came a woman with a hard, calculating expression on her face. “What is it? Who are these people? I thought I told you to spend the morning writing, come what may!” she said, as the man shrank back.

“Nadira, I was just – just –“ he looked at us helplessly. Holmes stepped forward and took charge. “My Lady,” he said, and the woman preened upon hearing this form of address. “I am Sherlock Holmes. And it is now my unpleasant duty to advise you to stop asking your husband to spread rumours about the novel’s demise.”

The Lady Naipaul – for it was she – shrank back. “What do you mean?” she said, drawing herself up. “The very idea!”

Sir Vidia, as I was later to identify him, sank back on an overstuffed armchair. “But how did you know…” he asked, weakly.

“Simplicity itself,” said Holmes. “Your books weren’t selling as well as they used to. The upkeep of this mansion was driving you to ruin. This is a situation your wife – a clever women – tried to rectify by forcing you to call up other novelists and threaten and dismay them with the news that the novel was dead. You could then have a clear field.”

At this point, the cat Augustus tried to claw Holmes, but he firmly threw it off. The Lady Naipaul scooped up the creature and pressed it to her bosom. “And what’s wrong with that?” she snarled. “He’s a genius! And arrivistes from Rushdie to Safran Foer keep stealing the limelight with their silly tales!”

Sir Vidia spoke again. “She made me do it,” he whispered. “She and her blasted cat.”

Little remains to be said. Since no crime had actually been committed, we left the couple with a stern warning to stop their wayward actions, failing which we would report the matter. I recall Sir Vidia suddenly remarking that the idea for a new novel had occurred to him in any case, and he would like to start on it at once. Holmes threatened the Lady Naipaul with deportation to Pakistan, upon which she meekly agreed to fall in line.

“You see, Watson?” said Holmes, once we were back in Baker Street, having communicated the successful conclusion of events to Mrs Wentworth. “There is nothing that simple deduction cannot solve, though I must confess that it was your remark about cats as pets that put me on the right track. I remembered then reading a profile of the author, during the course of which he made several disparaging remarks about the novel as a genre. The interviewer also mentioned his affection for his pet cat as well as the presence of the Lady Naipaul. All the pieces then fell into place." He rose from his chair. "And now, my dear chap,” he continued, "let us repair to the concert hall to forget the stresses and strains of Literature by means of the strains of a violin concerto.”

And with that we made our way down the avenue, ignoring the piteous cries of James Frey who had somehow made his way to Baker Street to ask us to take up his case and clear his name.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stick With The Print Version Instead

You've heard of the show that brings you the complete works of Shakespeare (abridged). Now, the Public Theatre of South Florida has just opened its season with All the Great Books (abridged), during which three artistes "race through allusions to some 90 books, from 1984 to Wuthering Heights, lingering just a little longer on The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace and James Joyce's Ulysses. Many of the bits are just plain silly (or stupid, depending on your point of view), as when the 'Trojan horse' (two of the guys in a horse costume) hops around to the strains of Havah Nagilah."

Not Naipaul's Point of View

"Basically, the great thing is that you can't say there's a school of Indian writing. Because of the width of references that we can select ... that's what makes Indian literature as rich as the literature of Europe....When I'm writing in English, I'm referring not only ... to other Indian writers in English, but also to people like Shakespeare and Jane Austen and George Eliot, and I expect a certain catching of reference from those writers."

- Vikram Seth

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Where Is The Indian Perspective?

Think the India-themed Frankfurt Book Fair is going to cement our place in the world of literature? You're not going to like the words of Sir Vidia: "India is finding its feet. Slowly. But it might not become a really important literary country. It's too dependent on the rest of the world, on how they view its literary production. Books are being written for the international market and foreign critics. And the authors read the most diverse styles and think they can copy them. They think they can be Latin America, Günter Grass or James Joyce. Where is their own perspective, their own sensibility? This isn't only the case with Indian authors. There are the Chinese authors that write about the horrors of the cultural revolution; they've all taken 'creative writing' courses in the USA and write identically."

A Cross Word

Browsing though the shelves of Crossword, Kemp's Corner, recently, one came across two old uncorrected proof copies for sale: John McGahern's All Will Be Well (simply titled 'Memoir' in this copy) and Joseph Ellis' His Excellency George Washington. Now, if one isn't mistaken, such uncorrected proof copies are handed out gratis by publishers to reviewers and booksellers in the hope of whipping up favourable pre-publication buzz. And here's a bookstore that has the gall to simply slap price stickers on the copies and offer them up for sale! Tch, tch.

(Oh, and someone really ought to tell them to remove James Frey's A Million Little Pieces from their 'recommended' section.)

Yes, Rushdie Again

In Warsaw (he does get around, doesn't he?) Salman Rushdie recently said that he was using his education as a historian in writing a new novel that is partly set in 16th century India and Italy: "The 21st century is so horrible that it is really quite nice to spend my days in the 16th century. Anything was better than now." However, "I used to write much more in a day than I write now, but it was much less finished. When you are young, the battle is for control, when you are older, the battle is for energy."

And in Frankfurt, Amit Chaudhuri gives a thought-provoking interview on the state of Indian writing in English today: "Rushdie represents a kind of hallucinatory cliff behind which we cannot see, almost like an obstruction we've created -- we cannot see what was there before him. There are continuities going back beyond Rushdie, though Rushdie is an interesting and forceful occurrence." (Get ready for a rude rejoinder from the man himself, Mr Chaudhuri.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

'Couples Survive. And Passions Die'

Julian Barnes re-imagines the ending of his literary hero Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

First Sighting Of The Last Mughal

In The Times, Max Hastings praises William Dalrymple's eagerly-awaited new book: "Dalrymple is an outstandingly gifted travel writer and historian who excels himself in his latest work. Although it focuses upon the person of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah II, who was known by his pen name of Zafar, it is a portrait of Delhi before, during and after the Mutiny. One of its many merits is that it calls upon hitherto unpublished Urdu and Persian material in Indian archives, to tell the story from an Indian as well as a British perspective."

Very Graphic

"George Bush is a buffoon, manipulated by people much smarter than he is. I can forgive Bush because he is a bloody idiot. But Blair isn't stupid. And with the intelligence he clearly has, to have legitimised this warmongering is unforgivable."

- Marjane Satrapi. (For more acid, click here.)

James Frey, Step Forward

"I would award the Nobel Prize for literature to James Frey, since A Million Little Pieces was an achievement in both fiction and nonfiction."— Andy Borowitz

A more thoughtful discussion on the prize is here.

'A Brave Attempt, But Unconvincing'

The Sydney Morning Herald's Anthony Macris isn't too enthused about Martin Amis' latest, House of Meetings:

"Did Amis really think he could simply dress up one of his middle-class English bad boys in a series of Russian costumes, and pass him off as authentic?

"If you want your wartime atrocities gift-wrapped in poignant (if mannered) ironies, read Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. If you want your atrocity in all its raw, unplugged glory, read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. And if you need true comic tastelessness, get out a DVD of The Producers.

"But if you want the view of a high-brow wag with a taste for the dark side, read House of Meetings. It's a brave attempt, brimming with dark wit, even if it doesn't quite convince us of the horror that was the Soviet Gulag."

In The Times, Douglas Kennedy is a tad more forgiving:

"As a novelist, Amis has never been emotionally user-friendly, and in House of Meetings there is a chilly distance created between the narrator and the horror show he is describing. As such, it’s a bit like being guided through a series of museum exhibitions depicting a vortex of hell. Though fascinating, they lack visceral punch. This reservation aside, the novel has a cumulative power and resonates with many reflections about the course of individual destiny in a profoundly cruel universe. And it’s a reminder — especially for the Schadenfreude brigade — that Amis is always, at the very least, an interesting writer. "

The digested read is here.

Rushdie Hits Out Again

Sadly, the man seems to be making a career out of rebuking those who've written less than flattering things about his work. Here he is on John Updike: "The thing that disappointed me most about Updike is that he did not say in that review [of Shalimar The Clown in The New Yorker] that he had just completed a novel about terrorism. He had to sweep me out of the way in order to make room for himself. I don't subscribe to the very predominantly English admiration of Updike. If you take away Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and some of the short stories, there's a lot of ... slightly ... garbage. Think of The Coup! The new one [Terrorist] is beyond awful. He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."