Thursday, 21 December 2017

Book of the Month: Trumpet (Jackie Kay)

Trumpet is the debut (and so far the only) novel of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998, Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The protagonist of Trumpet is a renowned jazz musician called Joss Moody. Moody is a famous trumpet player. Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. As the novel starts the reader learns that Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its great exponents. However, this is not the only reason why Moody, in his death, is dominating the headlines in the tabloids. In his death Joss Moody can no longer keep the secret he lived with all his life. Moody, who lived life as a man, and was married and adopted  a son, was born a woman. Anatomically, he remained a woman all his/her life.  The discovery of Moody’s true gender attracts lots of unwarranted media attention, complete with prurient speculations about the sex lives (and sexual orientations) of Moody and 'his widow'.

Trumpet  tells Joss Moody's story  through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in Moody's band; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of an elephant trampling the jungle in Jumanji;  Millie, Moody’s 'wife', who knew all along that her 'husband' was a woman; and last, but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know that the man he thought was his father was in fact a woman.

The premise of Trumpet is not as preposterous as it might seem. The novel is based on the life of a real life American Jazz musician called Billie Tipton. Tipton was born a woman—Dorothy Tipton. A piano player, Tipton started her musical career in the 1930s. She used to appear as a man during public performance, but, by 1940, began living as a man even in private. Tipton went on to have a series of relationships with women, some of which lasted for several years. Tipton adopted three sons in the 1960s when 'he' was in a relationship with a woman, and, upon separating from her, carried on living with his three sons who remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached adolescence. The sons became aware of their father’s anatomy when Tipton, at the age of 74 became ill (he had resisted for months going to the hospital) and paramedics were called. Tipton never explained or left behind any note explaining why he chose to live the way he did. It has been speculated that the scene of Jazz music was dominated by men in the 1930s when Tipton started out, and s/he probably felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of his professional colleagues felt that Dorothy Tipton was a lesbian because during the years when she was appearing as a man only during public performances, she lived with another woman.

Trumpet makes no attempt to explain the fictional Joss Moody’s sexuality. Was Moody a lesbian? A transvestite? A transsexual? Kay is not interested in spelling this out for the readers. Just as Dorothy Tipton, the real life inspiration of Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to speculate why Moody lived his life the way he did. What Kay is interested in are identity and love, and she explores these themes with great subtlety. On the one hand we have the dead Joss Moody who, for all outward appearances, had no conflict in his mind about his identity, which, to most, would seem more complicated than Christopher Nolan’s Inception; on the other hand there is Moody’s adopted son, Coleman, whose sexual identity is straightforward enough, but who has struggled all his life to come out of the shadow of his famous father, and, not having any musical (or any other skills) to speak of, is drifting in search of an identity. The revelation of his father’s gender triggers a riot of emotions in Coleman’s mind compared to which the Bolshevik revolution was a tea party, and makes his struggle for identity more convoluted. Coleman’s struggle to accept his father for what he was is a powerful strand of the novel. Millie, Moody’s widow, is also grappling with the issue of identity, though there is no confusion in her mind. Millie, who has always known that Joss was a woman, views herself as straight, and does not accept the media’s depiction of her as a lesbian. To Millie it matters not a jot that Joss Moody was anatomically a woman. She loved Joss for what he was. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Joss Moody considered himself a man, and that is good enough for Millie. The sections describing the relationship between Joss and Millie are very moving without ever descending into the maudlin. The ending has a twist but it’s not gimmicky.

Trumpet, at its heart, is a love story; but it is also a psychological thriller and an exposition of identity. Jackie Kay is a renowned poet and has an extraordinary feel for language. She knows how to select, what to focus on, how make her characters sparkle and how to make her scenes vivid. The different voices of the novel are handled with great aplomb and are utterly convincing. All—even the slightly stereotypical, unlikeable journalist—are treated with compassion. Not an easy thing to pull off, one would have thought, but Kay manages it.

Trumpet is a wonderful novel. Humane, poignant, wise and insightful, it’s one of those novels that give you a rich sense of satisfaction when you reach the last page.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Demise of Quotation Marks

I recently finished reading Autumn, the recent novel of the British novelist Ali Smith. The novel was short-listed for the 2017 Man-Booker Prize.

I am not planning to review Autumn in this post; I shall do it some other time. Suffice to say that I did not like the novel. It was reasonably riveting in parts; it even brought a smile to my face a couple of time; however, it lacked focus and coherent narrative, I thought.

Smith has a peculiar writing style. Not my cup of tea, I have to say. I have read reviews of Smith’s novels, which are encomiastic of Smith’s narrative style. Smith’s writing is often described as lyrical. I find the sentence structures clunky. Smith sometimes uses words, which, while they broadly convey the accepted meanings, are employed to perform syntactic roles that are unconventional. For example, in Autumn, Smith uses the word ‘maudlin’ as a noun, and not as an adjective which is its accepted role.

I can live with that. Thus when a character in Autumn declares that she is descending into 'the maudlin' I have no difficulty in understanding what is being conveyed.

What I find not easy to countenance is Smith’s use of punctuation marks which could be described, depending on your turn of mind, quirky or maddening. In Autumn Smith has dispensed entirely with quotation marks. I can’t remember whether she has done this in her earlier novels. I had read a novel of Smith a few years ago, the unusually named There but for The. I don’t remember anything about this novel other than that it was (like Autumn) an easy enough read, mildly amusing in parts, but overall, something of a let-down. Perhaps Smith did not use any quotation marks in that novel either.

Smith is not the only novelist who has decided that quotation marks, like NHS and EU-membership, are indulgences the British public can do without (although, throughout Autumn (the novel, that is, not the season) there is an undercurrent of despair at the UK’s exit from the EU, which suggests that Smith is not as much against the EU-membership as against quotation marks). There are other novelists, including some American novelists, who have stopped using quotation marks in their novels.

I don’t know about you, but I find reading books which do not use quotation marks while directly quoting someone irksome. You can argue that the quotation marks are not necessary to indicate a dialogue; anyone with two neurones to rub together will understand a dialogue even when there are no quotation marks. I wold say that quotation marks make it easy and obvious to the reader when a dialogue is being reported or quoted in the book. Absence of quotation marks makes reading a bit more tiring (and tiresome) for me. In Smith’s novel, for example (as in some other novels I have read but can’t remember), a comma serves the purpose of indicating to the reader that the character in the novel is speaking.

I read an article in the Guardian which suggested that the practice of not using quotation marks is relatively recent. The Guardian traced it to an issue of Granta magazine, in 2012, when its then editor, the American novelist John Freeman, decided to remove all the quotation marks in the magazine. Freeman’s purported intention was to make the writing ‘more immediate, more with it’. I have no idea what Freeman meant by this. I also wonder whether Freeman envisaged that some novelists would take to this practice like Damian Green to Internet porn and make a bonfire of quotation marks.

Authors going back as far as the first century have used some or the other symbol to indicate noteworthy text, so I read in the article in the Guardian. The quotation marks as we know them have been used for close to two centuries. They were preceded by double commas to indicate quotations.

Some novelists like Ali Smith are doing away with at least two centuries of conventions when they dispense with quotation marks in their novels. One can only speculate what their intentions are; perhaps, like John Freeman who started this trend, they feel that their writing becomes more direct to the reader when they remove quotation marks. To this reader the writing does not become more direct when quotation marks are removed. It becomes irritating. I am glad that this practice is not widespread.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Double Negatives

What determines class? I would say it’s the language. If you have to summon every ounce of your will power not to wince when someone uses a subjunctive wrongly, you are probably middle class.

What about double negatives?

The litotes is of course a figure of speech, unique, I think, to English, whereby an affirmative is expressed using a negative. When this figure of speech is employed while speaking or writing, one uses double negatives. Two wrongs might not make a right, but, in figurative speech, two negatives, one succeeding the other, make a positive. Or do they?

Why would one want to use double negatives to express a positive? Why not express the affirmative with the boldness of a teenager parading lardy mid-riff and traumatised naval? Why be mealy-mouthed when you want to express something positive?

The litotes use the double negatives as understatements, not infrequently, in an ironic manner. Many a times, though, you feel that the double negatives are employed in a way that makes the responses ambiguous at best. What does the answer “Not too bad” to the question “How are you?” convey? Does it mean that the person is feeling “good”? Or does it mean that the person is feeling bad, but not to a great degree, as suggested by the adverb “too”?  Are there degrees of badness, then, from moderately tolerable to immoderately tolerable (also known as intolerable)? The answer is often delivered with a smile. What does that mean? Is the person phlegmatically surviving whatever badness that is afflicting him with quiet fortitude, showing commendable self-restraint in the face of great adversity, which would send many others to the Samaritans? It probably reveals nothing more than an enchanting ignorance of figurative speech. In other words, it is something which the people say, without giving it much thought, comfortable in the knowledge that the person asking the question isn’t really bothered about the state of your wellbeing and is making the inquiry as a nicety. That’s what polite, middle-class people do when they meet other nice, middle-class people.

I am currently reading Rebecca Gowers’s excellent Horrible Words—A Guide to the Misuse of English, in which Ms Gowers feels obliged to devote an entire chapter to the double negatives. In it I came across an interesting example of double negative. The sentence is quoted from an article which appeared in the Guardian (why does this not surprise me?) and goes like this: Few doubt that certain views pervade, and practices persists, but even fewer will own up to holding or following them. The sentence leaves you nodding your head in admiration at the linguistic dexterity of the author.

Often, the double negatives are used, not as understatements but, to emphasise a point, like Al Johnson, who announced in the Jazz Singer You ain’t heard nothing yet, folks. This, I think, is not a standard use of the double negative. Rebecca Gowers gives another example; of Louis Armstrong, who declared: The music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. What was Armstrong trying to convey when he said ain’t worth nothing? If you use the rule of litotes, you might conclude that ain’t worth nothing means worth everything. But Armstrong follows it with if you can’t lay it on the public (that’s the third negative in the sentence). So, using the litotes mathematics, you will conclude that Armstrong was saying that music is worth everything if you can’t lay it on the public. But that does not make much sense either, because you get the feeling that what Armstrong is saying is the opposite of what you might take him to be saying (if you apply the standard rule of litotes to the sentence): The music ain’t worth anything if you can’t lay it on the public. Does this imply that Armstrong was simultaneously using another figure of speech, irony, conveying the exact opposite of what he was saying? The same goes for Al Johnson’s declaration in the Jazz Singer. What Johnson is telling the audience is that the folks haven’t heard anything, yet when he says You ain’t heard nothing yet. Armstrong, arguably (or should it be unarguably?), was a great jazz singer; but was the Pops’s grasp on the figures of speech as firm as his grasp on the trumpet? I don’t know. Armstrong was perhaps using the double negatives in an unorthodox manner to emphasize a point. Or, maybe, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Or, he did know what he wanted to say, and chose to say it, out of ignorance of the litotes, in a manner that Simon Heffer, in Simply English, described as vulgar. Or, Armstrong didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what Rebecca Gowers charmingly refers to as “the gripers” thought about the misuse of English, and deliberately used the double negative in this manner to express his contempt for the purists and their dogmas. Or, Armstrong said what he said without giving much thought to what he was saying; it was a slip of the tongue. We shall never know. Armstrong died in 1971 and is not available, now, to explain.

This kind of use of double negatives, in a non-standard manner, usually for emphasis, is more often heard or read, in my experience, in American English. This was noticed and commented upon by Henry Mencken, the great American satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English, in his book The American Language. Mencken, who once said he was inspired by the “argot” of the streets of Baltimore, considered phrases such as I don’t see nobody, or I couldn’t hardly walk as examples of vulgar American English. (Mencken died in 1956. Had he lived longer, I would not have thought he would have been impressed by the lyrics of some of the iconic songs that came out in the subsequent decades: I can’t get no satisfaction (Rolling Stones) or I don’t need no education (Pink Floyd)).

There are examples of double negatives using pre-fixes such as ‘ir’, ‘in’, ‘non’, ‘un’. We often read phrases such as ‘not insignificant’ or ‘not uncommon’, which do not jar our (at least my) sensibilities, although I think it is neither necessary nor particularly stylistic. They are what I consider to be straightforward uses of litotes to express affirmatives. You might wonder whether such use isn’t (or should it be ‘is’?) pretentious. Occasionally, however, you come across words, which throw you. Take irregardless, which, when it is used, appears to be used in place of the conventional ‘regardless’, and conveys the same meaning. Kingsley Amis, in his superb The King’s English (reviewed on this blog), railed against irregardless and described it as a kind of illiteracy. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, ‘irreagrdless’ was popularised in American dialect in the early twentieth century, and spread over other parts of English speaking world. The dictionary informs that the word is not widely accepted and advises to use ‘regardless’ instead. For Rebecca Gowers, Amis, like Heffer, is a griper (she seems to use this word to imply that Amis and Heffer are pedants and fussbudgets, which is ironic, I thought, from an author who takes seventeen pages to discuss the difference between slipslops and malapropisms in her highly readable Horrible Words—A Guide to the Misuse of English). Gowers attempts to put forth her view, which, insofar as I can see, is ‘there is no need, really, to hyperventilate about these things, which have been going on for centuries’ by giving convincing examples which show that the words and word-usages scorned by the likes of Amis and Heffer have been in usage for centuries (though not frequent), and  not, as the "gripers" imply, relatively recent addition to the lexicon, say in the twentieth century, by the philistine. 'Brothel', for example, once meant prostitute, and not its current meaning (although, regarding ‘irregardless’, Gowers can’t go further back in time than 1865, and the example she comes up with is its American usage).

It seems to me that whether you will consider the use of a word or a phrase or an idiom or a figure of speech as vulgar or cultured will often depend on what appears right to your ears. It probably also depends on what you think is the correct use of the word. I will always baulk at using ‘irregardless’ (‘regardless’ would do very nicely, thank you), but the word does exist, though not so far in wide usage. It is also true that a catachresis, once it begins to be used in spoken and written language regularly, is no longer a catachresis (a point Rebecca Gowers makes convincingly).

Coming back to double negatives, I think I shall carry on using them (or, as Bart Simpson declared, “I won’t use no double negatives”) to express an affirmative in a figurative manner, and not to emphasize a point, the way many Americans do. Use of multiple negatives in a sentence is confusing, if not vulgar, and is to be desisted.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Book of the Month: Strange Bodies (Marcel Theroux)

Nicolai Fyodorov (Fedorov, in English) was an obscure (in the sense not very well known in the West in the twenty-first century) nineteenth century Russian philosopher, who pontificated about the perfection of the human race and, by extension, extension of human life. An idea Fyodorov wrote extensively on was resurrection and immortality. Death and after-death experiences, Fyodorov argued, must be examined scientifically.  The mankind’s ‘common task’, Fyodorov declared, was struggle against death. Continuation of human consciousness, Fyodorov helpfully explained, need not happen in the same body—the outer carapace, as we know, is imperfect, in any case—but the human existence can be replicated by transplantation of consciousness into another form that controls mind, and can be renewed infinitely. Sounds crazy? It probably is, in light of what we know of the human biology today; but, I guess, in the nineteenth century Russia, Fyodorov’s ideas were not dismissed out of hand. He even had celebrity admirers, one of them Tolstoy.

Nicolai Fydorov’s transhumanistic (for the want of better phrase) philosophy is the inspiration behind the literary thriller, Strange Bodies, by the British novelist Marcel Theroux –the son of American novelist, Paul Theroux.

The protagonist of Strange Bodies is Nicolas Slopen, an academician and expert on Samuel Johnson. A man admitted to the secure unit of the Maudsley mental hospital, referred to in the psychiatrists’ notes as ‘Q’, claims that he is Nicolas Slopen. Indeed ‘Q’ was apprehended by the police for stalking Slopen’s ex-wife and their children. It is, however, impossible that ‘Q’ can be Slopen, as Slopen had died in a road traffic accident several months earlier. Yet, to the puzzlement of the psychiatrist, ‘Q’ seems to know many details of Slopen’s life that are personal and unlikely to have been in the public domain. The novel then tells the story of the real Slopen or the dead Slopen. Slopen’s story begins a couple of years earlier, when he is hired by an eccentric American music producer, Hunter Gould, to authenticate hitherto unpublished letters of Dr Samuel Johnson, offered to him by a rich and dodgy (is there any other type?) man (named Sinan Malevin), from Dagestan, which, the novel informs, is a Russian Republic in the Caucasus. Slopen reads the Johnson letters and comes to the not unsurprising conclusion that while the letters are written in the unmistakable style of Samuel Johnson, they are forgeries. When Slopen informs Gould of his conclusions Gould advises him to meet Malevin and see for himself. So Slopen turns up at Malevin’s palatial residence in the central London, where he meets the mysterious Vera, who is Russian and claims to be Malevin’s house-help. In Malevin’s house further surprises await Slopen. In the basement of the house he is shown a man who looks like the first cousin of Jaba the Hut, but who speaks and behaves as if he were Samuel Johnson. Some more time in the company of this man who is introduced as Vera’s brother—an idiot savant—leaves no doubt in Slopen’s mind that the man genuinely thinks that he is Samuel Johnson. This ‘discovery’ draws Slopen—who is going through a turmoil in his personal life, namely his wife has informed him that she was shagging his rich friend behind his back and has now decided to leave Slopen: the adulteress wants a divorce—further into a web of intrigues, and into Russia, with the help of the mysterious Vera, who is into it up to her nipples, but now wants out because she has made a discovery of her own: she has conscience. In Russia Slopen discovers the sinister plan (is there any other type?) some rogue Russian scientists have conjured up in order to bring into reality the vision of Federov. The only way to expose the skulduggery of the dastardly Russians is to create a doppelganger of Slopen himself, using the Procedure (which is never explained).  (Why not use ‘Samuel Johnson’ to expose the Russians? I hear you asking. It can’t be done for several reasons. Let me explain. Firstly, that would have made the plot straightforward and deprived Theroux the opportunity to introduce further twists in the plot, as also more philosophical pontifications on the concept of self (very readable, I hasten to add); secondly, even if ‘Samuel Johnson’ were available, it would have been difficult to convince the sceptical media that he carried the consciousness of the original Samuel Johnson, the original Samuel Johnson having been dead for more than two hundred years and unavailable for close scrutiny; thirdly (and lastly), ‘Samuel Johnson’—the fake Samuel Johnson, that is, although he is not strictly a fake, as he does carry the consciousness of the original Samuel Johnson—is also dead (how convenient is that?). By the way, he is no relation of Vera; he was just a convict picked out of a Russian prisoner by the evil scientists involved in this sinister project.) With the help of Vera, Slopen manages to have his consciousness transplanted (if that is the word) into another Russian toerag. So there are now two Slopens: the original Slopen, and the Russian toerag who also carries Slopen’s consciousness and sensibilities. So far so good. All that remains now is for the two Slopens to slip out of Russia, into the UK, and reveal themselves as each other’s doppelgangers. Quite how this would have proven to the sceptical public and media into believing that the two guys were not just freaks who shared a delusion (or, worse, con-artists), but were a proof, if proof be needed that the Russians, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, were up to no good, is not easy to fathom. Perhaps Theroux wrestled with the same problem, and decided to introduce another twist to the plot. Slopen—the original Slopen, that is—dies (or is he bumped off?) and the doppelganger ends up in the looney bin because of his extreme reluctance to part with the notion that he is Nicholas Slopen.

Strange Bodies is written in different forms, including a psychiatrist’s notes on ‘Q’—Slopen’s doppelganger (a psychiatrist who is losing her own grip on reality judged by the evidence), ‘Q’s memoir, and Slopen’s own account. All the sections of the novel are well written, almost erudite at times, although they all sound the same. (The memoir of the Russian toe-rag is a tad unconvincing: in the opening sections of the ‘memoir’ the Russian toe-rag and Nicholas Slopen travel together, and the ‘memoir’ leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the toe-rag retains his original identity plus Nicholas Slopen’s identity in his mind: in other words the doppelganger is fully and painfully aware that he is different from Nicholas Slopen, and, in that sense, is not Nicholas Slopen. Is that what Federov envisioned? On the other hand, it would be a fair guess that Federov did not know what the hell he was talking about, and neither does Theroux.) Marcel Theroux does have a way of telling a story that is nothing short of entrancing. As you whizz through the chapters, you are engrossed by the story notwithstanding the outlandishness of the plot. The novel, I must admit, is hard to put down once you begin.

Is Strange Bodies a genre novel, a science fiction thriller, or is it literary fiction? It doesn’t really matter; however, for what it is worth, I think that Strange Bodies, while it has the outer trappings of genre (science) fiction (like Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb Never Let Me Go), at its heart it is literary fiction. Theroux muses in the novel on what forms the core of humans, what makes us the unique (in a narrow sense of the word) individuals that we all are. Theroux comes up with the interesting and entertaining (if not wholly convincing) notion that it’s language that makes us what we are: we are all made of words. The novel brims with literary allusions, which Theroux liberally makes use of to illustrate his point, from Milton to Nabokov to Assia Wevill, in a manner that is not show-offy.

Strange Bodies, despites the silly plot, is an absorbing—at times thought proving—a read. Give it a go.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro wins the Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro said he was very surprised when he learnt that he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature. They all are. I have not come across any winner in recent times who, upon being informed that s/he won the Nobel, responded, “I knew this. I knew I was going to win the Nobel. My creative output has been of such a high calibre and I have been so consistently superlative that I couldn’t see how the Nobel committee could think of anyone else than me when it sat round the table to decide this year’s Nobel. Indeed the only surprise is that I did not get it earlier.” That would be viewed as conceited. So, while the true sentiment of the recipients might be “what took them so long to realise my greatness”, they are hardly going to say that in public. For example, novels of VS Naipaul, pre-2001, made it a point to mention that he had won every possible literary award other than the Nobel. This suggests that at the very least the Nobel was important for Sir Vidiya.

When the winners declare that they are very surprised at receiving the award, what they probably mean is that they genuinely had no inkling till they received the phone call to be informed that that they have won the £ 800, 442 jackpot. So, (like Naipaul, probably) they might not be surprised that they won the award and their inner reaction upon receiving the news might be “about time”; the news itself probably is a surprise.

When Dorris Lessing won the Nobel in 2007 (I think), the Nobel committee could not inform her straightaway; because Lessing was out, shopping for weekly grocery in a local supermarket. The Nobel committee then released the news of the award to the media, and reporters were waiting for Lessing at her doorsteps when she returned from her shopping. I don’t know if the video of Lessing’s reaction when she saw the gaggle of journalists in front of her house is available on the YouTube, but her reaction suggests that she was genuinely not expecting it (and also that she took the news of her triumph in her stride).

VS Naipaul, who, in 2001, ended the long wait for the British writers, by winning the Nobel twenty years after William Golding, was in his house when the phone call came, but he apparently refused to take the call, believing it was a prank or hoax.

In the English speaking world, at least, the media and newspaper knew who the Nobel Laureate for this year was, when Ishiguro’s name was announced. I have read that when JML Le Clezio, a novelist probably little known outside of the building he lived in, in his native France, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, the sub-editors of the literary sections of newspapers in the English speaking countries were scampering about to find any information they could get on Le Cleizo. Ditto for Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet who was awarded the Nobel in 2011.

The Nobel committee over the years has been accused of having regional, political and language biases while awarding the Nobel. Many more European and Scandinavian authors and poets have won the award in recent decades than those in the rest of the world. When the Europeans do not win the award, usually it is someone who writes in English who is awarded the prize. The former permanent secretary of the Nobel committee, Horace Engdahl, was unapologetic about it. In 2008 he declared that Europe was still “the centre of the literary world”. America, according to Engdahl, by contrast, was “too insular and too isolative.” Engdahl was responding, if I remember correctly, to the criticism, after the win of the little known JML Le Clezio in 2008, that a distinct European bias was creeping into the awarding of Nobel and that American authors were being deliberately ignored. Having read the literary outputs of the recent Nobel winners, I am struck how the writing of at least some of the European winners is so totally Eurocentric; indeed, if you were a reader in, say, an African or Asian country, you would not get the nuances unless you knew the historical as well as geopolitical context. Imre Kertesz, who won the award in 2003, and Herta Muller who won it in 2009 are two examples. Svetlana Alexievich, the Ukrainian born non-writer who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, has written exclusively on the Soviet era issues. (It is also true for non-European authors such as Mo Yan, the Chinese author who won the Nobel in 2012.) So I am not sure what Engdahl meant when he said that the Americans were insular. Did he mean the American writers were insular and isolative, because they wrote about American culture? I saw it as a very unconvincing attempt to justify what at that time was a very obvious anti-American bias. (Of the Nobel winners I have read, VS Naipaul, Dorris Lessing  and Mario Vargas Llosa were the only ones (and, in case of Naipaul and Llosa, only in their later outputs) who, I felt, wrote in their fiction about themes that transcended times and geography. And now Ishiguro.)

At that time of Engdahl’s comment in 2008, no American author was awarded the Nobel, after Toni Morrison won it in 1993. There would be a further wait of eight years before an American was awarded the Nobel, in 2016. And that was Bob Dylon, who for months did not acknowledge any communication from the Nobel committee. Not because Dylon was protesting, insofar I could make out (unless this was Dylon’s way of letting the Nobel Committee know that he was not overawed by the award). Dylon did not reject the award (like Jean Paul Sartre did on the 1960s, or Pasternak did, under duress, in the 1950s) because that would have given the message that the award was important for Dylon. Dylon just did not take the calls (because he was touring) and did not respond to letters (because he was touring). One must assume that he knew that he had won the Nobel (unless he does not watch television or read newspapers) but he did not think it was necessary to contact the Nobel committee for months. The Nobel committee thought it was rude. It certainly was priceless. I was practically weeping with hilarity when I read a piece in the Guardian in which the spokesman for the Nobel carped about Dylon’s rudeness.

The Nobel committee, mercifully, did not have such trouble in 2017, although Ishiguro’s land-line was consistently engaged when they attempted to contact him. The committee released his name to the media, but, unlike Dylon, they did manage to contact Ishiguro the same day. Ishiguro later remarked, half-facetiously one assumes, that they were a bit cross at the difficulty in getting in touch with him. The committee, however, would have to admit that wait was not anywhere as long as it was in 2016.

Ishiguro is a safe choice. Notwithstanding the rather strange reaction of Will Self (“He’s a good writer, and from what I’ve witnessed a lovely man, but the singularity of his vision is ill-served by such crushing laurels, while I doubt the award will do little to reestablish the former centrality of the novel to our culture”—I think what Self is saying here is that Ishiguro did not deserve the Nobel) most have described him as a deserving winner.

Ishiguro is the only novelist apart from VS Naipaul whom I had read extensively prior to his Nobel win. Ishiguro is a good writer and I like him. Apart from The Unconsoled (which I thought was a car crash of a novel; or, more likely, I found it in accessible) I have loved all of his novels, in particular Never Let Me Go, which I think is outstanding. I also thought When We were Orphans was excellent (I was surprised to hear Ishiguro describing it as his least convincing novel in a literary programme; apaprently his wife did not like the novel either). Then there is The Remains of the Day, which probably is Ishiguro’s most famous novel, for which he won the Booker Prize decades ago. His early novels are also well worth a read.

Ishiguro is more than just a good writer. He is an excellent writer. Many of his novels deal with memory, either individual or national or cultural; and how individual memories can differ from the national memories to the point of delusion (which I thought was explored very movingly in When We were Orphans). Although Ishiguro is not the only writer to have done this (Salman Rushdie tackled this issue slightly differently, and in his inimitable style in Midnight’s Children, in my view), he has done it consistently in most of his novels (is that what Will Self had in his mind when he talked about “the singularity” of Ishiguro’s vision?).

Three cheers for Ishiguro.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Book of the Month: Birds of Passage (Bernice Rubens)

Burnice Rubens once said that she was a very slow writer. She congratulated herself if she wrote three good sentences in a day, and celebrated the momentous event by playing a cello (many members of Rubens’s family were talented musicians). It is therefore a testament as much to her tenacity as prolificacy that, by the time she died in 2004 at the age of 76 (or 81, depending on which year you believe she was born in—Rubens always said that she was born in 1928, but, according to one obituary, she was actually born in 1923—) Rubens had published twenty five novels and a memoir. Her first novel was published in 1960, and the last in the year she died, which means Rubens published a novel on average every two years. Rubens dealt with many genres in her novels. Her personal favourite novel was Brothers, an epic saga of three generations of a Jewish family, beginning in the tsarist Russia in the eighteenth century and continuing beyond the Second World War She wrote a few more novels on this theme, including her last one, The Sergeant’s Story. However, Rubens’s lasting reputation rests on a number of black comedies she wrote, characterised by her deadpan humour—pans did not come deader than Rubens’s.

Birds of Passage, first published in 1981 (and later filmed for a television drama) tells the story of two neighbours—Ellen and Alice—who, after they have been finally and respectably widowed, go on a cruise together. They have been abiding patiently for their respective husbands to do the decent  thing and die without creating too much fuss. Neither of the husbands is even once referred to with his first name—Alice’s husband is ‘Pickering’, while Ellen’s is ‘Walsh’—, probably to emphasize their peripheralness in the lives of the two protagonists, despite having been married to them for decades. Walsh obliges and drops dead of a coronary one day. But Pickering, to the annoyance of Ellen and embarrassment of Alice, carries on living. The two families also share a hedge and it is the husbands’ responsibility to cut and trim it. One hedge-cutter is dead, but the other continues with his duties. Pickering, however, does not have the courage to trim the hedge on the Walshs’ side, because he does not want to usurp his dead neighbour’s place in any way, oblivious to the fact that this act of omission is making his dead neighbour’s widow more and more resentful. Ellen has no choice really, then, to marry again; and marry she does. Her second husband, Thomas—he, like the other two, is only referred to by his surname—begins trimming the hedge, till, one day, he, too, drops dead. This, even Alice silently agrees, is very unfair, and begins wishing fervently for Pickering to pop his clogs. Which, he finally does. After a decent period of mourning, the two widows, who, between them have 126 years, although none would confirm the individual contribution to this sum, are ready to embark on a cruise. On the cruise they become part of a group, which includes Mr. Barlow—recently widowed and going on the cruise to celebrate the memory of his dead wife who, so he tells others, if she were alive, would have accompanied him— and Mrs Dove—a widow, who has spent her recent years entering various draws of crossword competitions, and, having been finally rewarded with two tickets to go on a cruise, she has, much against her better judgement, invited her daughter—another Alice—who is going through a midlife crisis. The younger Alice’s husband has left her for another woman and she has found succour in an aggressive lesbian. Alice (Dove) is an angry woman, and although she has decided that she is angry towards men, she is also coming round to accept that she not a lesbian. To this group attaches Wally Peters, a bachelor in his mid-sixties with an impressive paunch and socially awkward manners. Wally has never been in a serious relationship; indeed he may have been a virgin. Amongst the crew is lurking a waiter, who has, during his fifteen years of waiting on the cruise, successfully raped a number of single women—age is no bar for our rapist; he is equally content to rape grannies as well as younger women—without, incredible as It may seem, getting caught even once. He has hypothesized, it would appear, successfully, that the bourgeois pride of the women would stop them from reporting him to the purser; and he has also surmised, again accurately, that some or more of them have probably not been involved in bedroom gymnastics for a while and would actually welcome his attention. The rapist zeroes in on the two widows—Pickering Alice and Ellen—and, over the next ten days, that is the half of their cruise, rapes them every night, having cleverly persuaded them to move into different cabins when one couple—comprising a bossy woman and her henpecked husband—leaves the cruise after the wife is publicly humiliated when, feeling sea-sick, she is caught short. The sexual assaults have the diametrically opposite effects on the two neighbours. While Ellen is consumed with rage she can barely contain—the waiter has guessed that this would be the case, and has taken the precaution of taking her nude photograph, hiding in the cupboard of her cabin when she was changing clothes, which he uses to blackmail her—in Pickering Alice it leads to sexual awakening. Neither of the women guesses that the other is also the object of the waiter’s lust. Neither thinks, for different reasons, that the other would believe, if told. The after-effects of the nightly (for Ellen) and pre-dawn (for Pickering Alice) encounters are there for all to see. The once confident Ellen becomes increasingly haggard and concocts various improbable schemes to wreak her mighty revenge on the waiter (which culminates in her buying, while spending a day in one of the ports, having gone to great lengths to dissociate herself from her inquisitive group, a Swiss army knife!), Alice is aglow with effulgence and is filled with hitherto unknown self-assurance which surprises Ellen, though she still does not suspect the reason behind it. When Ellen can bear it no longer, she tells the story of her nightly ordeals to the widower Barlow—who, for all appearances is wooing Ellen in a manner that probably went out of fashion before the First Great War—during a fancy dress competition (in which Barlow appears as Mahatma Gandhi). Barlow, in turn opens his heart to Ellen and confesses that his marriage was far from happy, at least not towards the end, as his now-dead wife was having it off with another man; indeed the two cruise tickets were bought by Barlow, as a perversely gentlemanly gesture, for the two love-birds to go on a cruise in order to find out whether the two really wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. As it turns out the rest of Barlow’s wife was not long when she meets with a road traffic accident while driving to give her lover the good news of the unexpected manna from heaven—the cuckold is actually sponsoring their cruise—, and leaves for presumably not heaven. Barlow is appropriately and suitably outraged when he hears of the sexual assault, and promises to accompany Ellen to the purser after the fancy dress competition is over. Just when Ellen is heaving a sigh of relief that her aged loins would finally get respite from the nighttime invasion, Barlow drops dead of a heart attack in the midst of the fancy dress competition.  At this stage the rapist makes his first mistake. He decides to turn his attention to the other Alice, who, he correctly guesses, would provide a spirited and vigorous resistance to his amatory attentions—indeed the more resistant his victims are, the more they fight, the more he is turned on; that is why the thought of raping the hostile Ellen excites him more than having a sexual congress with the Pickering Alice, who has willingly opened to him her inviting second lips as it were, and has taken to putting on her best chiffon dress for what she has come to expect as the nocturnal adventure—but, he incorrectly assumes, would yield herself to his power eventually. As it happens, it is the waiter—he, too, like the rest of the male characters save Wally—and even here we know only the diminutive—remains nameless—who bites the dust, and Alice Dove drags him to the purser. The purser does not believe her, but for the sake of propriety offers to investigate the matter further if she lodged a complaint. Alice Dove decides not to lodge a complaint, and the waiter, thanking his stars for the unexpected reprieve, decides to lie low for the rest of the cruise. This has the opposite effect on the two protagonists: Ellen regains her self-confidence, while Alice, feeling rejected, goes back to being her mousy, dithering self. Just when it appears as though the cruise would end without any further kerfuffle, Rubens has one last, and not very pleasant, twist to offer.

Birds of Passage is a dark comedy. Dark subjects such as death and sexual assaults occur repeatedly, and unexpectedly, in the novel; and are treated with terrifyingly comic nonchalance. Yet, it is a testimony to Rubens’s greatness that at no stage does she trivialise or downplay the sinisterness of what is going on. The full horror of the rapaciousness of the waiter’s assaults is laid bare for the reader. As the novel progresses, the increasing helplessness and futile agitation of Ellen, while depicted in an impassive manner, is full of pathos. It is for this reason you feel distinctly queasy while smiling at Ellen’s comically inept attempts to put an end to her nightmare. Alice Pickering, the other protagonist, reacts very differently to the waiter’s ravishment, which, in her, engenders wholly different feelings. Here, too, is pathos at work: that a woman, who has avowedly enjoyed conjugal pleasures for decades, is actually unfulfilled, and has to wait till she is sixty something and go through what most would regard as acts of utter degradation in order to experience sexual enjoyment, is somehow more sad than funny.

Birds of Passage, however, is not just a dark comedy. It is also an exquisite comedy of manners.  It is a story of bourgeois airs and pretensions, the morbid secrets that lay hidden under an outwardly happy, contented, middle-class, appearances. Nothing is, as it seems in the novel. Ellen and Pickering Alice are united in their grandiose belief that they are somehow special compared to the other women on the cruise because the waiter, they think, has chosen only them for his attention, unwarranted in Ellen’s case, and gratefully received in Alice’s case. It does not occur to them that they are just cannon fodder to the waiter’s lust, and there is nothing remotely special about them. Mr. Barlow, the devoted widower, has not enjoyed the happy connubial bliss he leads everyone to believe. Supporting the main plot of the narrative is the subplot involving the bachelor Wally and Mrs Dove, the mother of the younger Alice. Rubens is at her toe-curling best, here. Both Mrs. Dove and Wally are desperate to find a life-partner, and in a moment of rashness which he soon comes to regret, the pompous, gauche and awkward Wally proposes to Mrs Dove; and she, in a response that is as impulsive as his proposal (and which she, too, would bemoan when sanity prevails) accepts him. Both realise in no time that they have no intention of tying themselves into matrimony, but continue with the charade for the rest of the cruise in order to save the embarrassment to the other. The other members of the group cotton on to what is going on between Wally and Mrs. Dove at different times and in different circumstances.

Rubens does not let the pace of the plot slacken at any time, and, when the reader is least expecting it, gives a hundred watt jolt of surprise. Reading this novel is like driving down a picturesque winding route, whereby, after a while, you come to expect another surprise, but do not know whether it would actually materialise or in what shape or form.

Birds of Passage finds Burnice Rubens, one of the best writers of her generation, in splendid form. Buy it from a second hand book-shop, and read it.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sillytonian and Slug-a-bed

The linguistic department at University of York, after months of painstaking research, has discovered more than two dozen words which have gone out of fashion, but which, they feel, have so much relevance to the current times that they ought to make a comeback.

Talking of the times we live in, in the UK, one might be tempted to ask whether it is wise to spend tax-payers’ money on a bunch of linguists who bury their noses for months in historical texts and old dictionaries, and come up with a list of strange sounding words, which no one has used in the previous two centuries, and which, should you use them in your day-to-day discourse, would invite incomprehensible looks from the listener. But that, I should guess, would be Philistine. I know a man who is employed by the local council as an expert in medieval graffiti on the walls of the churches and cathedrals in the county. For the last few years he is threatening to publish a book on the subject which, he insists, is cruelly neglected and is not in the consideration of hoi polloi, their minds addled by the latest gizmos, carb-rich food, politics, holidays, music, clothes—anything that is not mediaeval graffiti. The guy is the most dyspeptic, self-martyred, whingeing person who ever breathed (and these are his good qualities), but he has, I feel obliged to point out, a point.  We all should have a higher reason for existence, shouldn’t we? It can’t be about Apple X, holiday to Tenerife, watching gruesome medical dramas on television, and night-outs with your mates, waking up the next day with your knickers round your ankles (or over your head).

The chief investigator of the linguistic project, one Dr Watt (probably not a real doctor) said, “As professional linguists and historians of English we were intrigued by the challenge of developing a list of lost words that are still relevant to modern life, and that we could potentially campaign to bring back into modern day language.”

I am with the good doctor (real or not) Watt on this. These days, campaigns seem not to be about higher pursuits. They are about mundane issues: campaign against homelessness, campaign for the victims of tragedies—natural or man-made, campaigns for the rights of various oppressed and ill-treated minorities, campaign against Israel (usually outside M & S, where you see beardy types with placards, advising you to boycott Israeli avocados, as if that is going to make the Israelis vacate Gaza), campaign to increase the  already-overinflated salaries of public sector workers (they are so special), campaign against Brexit, campaign for Brexit, campaign to keep the libraries in Norfolk open, campaign for free tai-chi lessons for the geriatrics, so on and so forth. Where is the charm in that? Campaign to bring back words which, if you start using them, will make people worry you have gone soft in the head—that’s what I want to see. It is regrettable that art has to convince people that they need it (the mediaeval graffiti expert is a case in point), whereas it is taken for granted that the bloody NHS, the bloody Fire Services, and the bloody police are bloody indispensable, and people bloody well can’t do without them. It is unfair. Wouldn’t you prefer art to life? In life you are surrounded by bores and rogues and schmucks. Life is littered with mistakes, accidents, regrets and the eventual (inevitable) despair. You may start your life with whatever ideology, you are going to end up damaged, disillusioned, and more bitter than the lemon I squeezed in my gin last night.  Art, on the other hand, is interesting, satisfying and entertaining. And, if it isn’t, well, you can discard it and take up another one. Can you do that with your life? To paraphrase Logan Pearsall Smith, people say life is the thing but I prefer campaigning for lost words rediscovered by the linguists in York. You would be hard put to find a more campaign-worthy object than “a list of lost word that are still relevant to modern life.”

Such pursuits are, in some ways, very middle-class. Nothing wrong in that; not everyone is capable of finding relaxation and enjoyment in shouting racist chants at football matches. If you are the type who finds fulfilment from knowing about, say, the manifold similarities (and differences) amongst the multitudes of translations of The Odyssey, or whether Robespierre really kept his eyes open as the guillotine rushed towards his neck, or from spotting the wrong use of the subjunctive (and the correct use of synecdoche), I have no doubt that you will find that knowing obscure words from the past, newly discovered by experts at York University, is a life-enriching prospect.    

I don’t want to be labelled a momist (if you want to know what this word means, you will have to read this post till the bitter end), and I offer my unhesitating support to the linguistic project taken on by the folk at York University. Ferreting out words and phrases long since fallen into disuse (probably for good reason) is a very worthy activity. In terms of providing entertainment, it may not overwhelm you with excitement, true, but none of us can cope with (or even wish for) hair-raising psychedelic experiences all the time, can we? Once in a while a quiet, relaxing day on the massage-table of Basel hot-spring resort is what we need.

So what are the words the linguists from York University have found?

One that immediately caught my attention was ‘betrump’. Apparently it means ‘to cheat’ or ‘to deceive’. It may remain topical, as Dr Watt confidently predicts, for the next couple of years, at least.

There are, I noticed, quite a few words in the list, which throw into relief the baser instincts of humans.

A ‘quacksilver’ is a person who dishonestly claims knowledge of medicine, and spreads false cures.

‘Coney-catch’ is not a noun. It is a verb with roughly the same meaning as ‘betrump’. If you have been ‘coney-catched’ (or is it ‘coney-caught’?) you have been duped. Deceived. Swindled. Cheated. Betrumped. And you would be well within your rights to describe this person to the police as a ‘nicum’ (except that they won't have a clue what you are on about).

Some of the words in the list are in usage today, but, looks like, in the bygone days, these words had very different meanings. ‘Teen’ was a verb and its meaning was ‘to vex’ or ‘to irritate’ (I can see the links between the current and the past use of the word). A ‘Percher’ was not an object for a bird to alight on; a ‘percher’ was a person who aspired for a higher rank or status.

I liked ‘Tremblable’, which means ‘causing horror or dread’, and ‘Sillytonian’, which means a dunce.

What is a slug-a-bed? A slug-a-bed is a person who spends long time in bed through nothing other than laziness.

‘Rouzy-Bouzy’, meaning ‘noisily and boisterously drunk’, is another word that might find its way into current usage, without requiring a campaign.

I was surprised to see a word in this list of ‘lost words’ which I knew the meaning of: ‘Hugger-mugger’, which means doing something clandestinely, or in secrecy.

I thoroughly enjoyed going through the list of ‘lost words’. Even if you think this is exactly the kind of nonsense for which Lenin shot the bourgeoisie after the Bolshevik revolution, I suggest you give it a go and join the campaign of Dr Watt, in the spirit of hyper-conformism. Who knows, you might start enjoying it.

Momist: a person who has a special talent for finding faults.