Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book of the Month: Sunnyside (Glen David Gold)

Glen David Gold’s hugely successful debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, regaled the readers with the exploits of a popular American magician of the 1920s, named Charles Carter. Although few outside of America (and I suspect even in America) would have heard of the long-since-forgotten magician, it detracted not a jot from the inventive and highly entertaining novel.  The critical acclaim and commercial success of Carter Beats the Devil catapulted Gold to the A list of writers.

Therefore, when, a full eight years after Carter Beats the Devil, came Sunnyside, Gold’s extensively researched second novel, expectations were high. And the advertisement and promos proclaimed that at the centre of Gold’s new novel was another hugely popular entertainer from the early twentieth century America, one whose fame, unlike that of Charles Carter, went beyond the shores of the United States, one who was a truly international star in his time who is considered one of the greatest entertainers of the last century: the British born comedian Charlie Chaplin. 

If you start reading this behemoth of a book (560 pages, each one crammed from top to bottom with words in small type) with the expectation that Charlie Chaplin would really be at the centre of it, you would be disappointed. Chaplin forms one of the three strands of the story. The Chaplin story (which I found the most interesting) focuses on the three crucial years in Chaplin’s career which saw him forming the distribution company United Artists along with arch rival Mary Pickford (at least that is how the relationship between the two is depicted in the novel) and other leading names of Hollywood such as Douglas Fairbanks, ostensibly to protect the creative independence of the artists, as the leading Hollywood producers and distributors joined hands to control the rocketing star-salaries and have the decisive say in the production of films. The novel also recreates the events leading to Chaplin’s disastrous first marriage to the actress Mildred Harris, and the rapid disintegration of the relationship, which would end soon after the death of their son—born with severe congenital defects—three days after his birth.

The backdrop to Chaplin’s story is America’s entry into the inferno of the First World War. The war takes the centre-stage in the other two strands of the novel, which have fictional protagonists: Leyland Wheeler, who fights the war in France, and Hugo Black who finds himself stranded in the forgotten campaign of the allies in Russia long after the war comes to an end.  Wheeler, the result of a brief liaison between a lighthouse-keeper and a variety entertainer—a cheap imitator of the Buffalo Bill who heads the world’s worst Wild West entertainment group and gives a dreadful performance in front of Kaiser Wilhelm—, has an ambition to become a movie-star himself. However, he gets entangled unwittingly in the scam of a family—one of the several supporting characters, historical as well as fictional, pullulating in the novel—and finds himself in the trenches in France. There, he rescues two puppies from a bombed out winery and trains them. The female shows great promise but dies on the return voyage to America at the end of the war. Leyland decides to train the not-so-bright dog, and it is suggested that this is the same dog which later finds fame in the 1920s in the Hollywood films under the name Rin Tin Tin. Hugo Black, the solitary, priggish and bookish son of an engineer of engineers ends up in Archangel, Russia, and fights under the (real life) British general Edmund Ironside in what is now a largely forgotten half-hearted campaign the allies fought against the Bolsheviks.

Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel. As in Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives a panoramic view of America, Hollywood (on the cusp of becoming a global merchandise), and America’s role in the First World War. The novel is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. And, like in a Hollywood Blockbuster, there are some tremendous set-pieces. The novel has one of the most breathtaking openings I have read in recent times. Leyland Wheeler, working in a lighthouse off the Pacific coast, spots a sinking skiff in the stormy weather, the skiff’s only passenger being Charlie Chaplin, who drowns. At the same time, in Beaumont, Texas, crowds gather to see Chaplin who is coming into town on a train; however, when the train arrives, there is no Chaplin on it, and the crowd gives vent to its frustration by setting fire to the train and knocking the daylights out of its snooty engineer (Hugo Black). Afterwards no one can quite recollect why they were expecting Chaplin to be on the train. The bravura opening sequence is based on a true historical event: on a day in 1916, Charlie Chaplin, then the biggest star in America, was a subject of mass hysteria and was allegedly simultaneously spotted in several places set apart by thousands of miles. (He was, in fact, in the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)  There are more such dramatic highpoints in the story—for example, the culmination of the aggressive Liberty Loan campaign run by the then Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo (another real-life character who makes periodic appearances in the novel) in Los Angeles, or the grand and bizarre ballroom dancing of Hugo Black with the three princesses of the defunct Russian aristocracy in a crumbling palace in the middle of a forest to in Russia in freezing winter, to name just two—which Gold describes with great relish, and which, on their own are highly entertaining.

However, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to suspect that Gold has been perhaps too ambitious, as he (the reader) struggles to appreciate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence, to the narration. Putting it bluntly, Gold has bitten more than he can chew and the reader can’t swallow. Each of the three strands of Sunnyside is a novel by itself and, they do not gel. The story of Hugo Black and the American Campaign in Russia, supremely entertaining as it is, sits particularly awkwardly in the narrative.  Matters are not helped by Gold’s uncontrollable eye for detail. Each and everything—be it the countryside Ironside happens to glance at while travelling in his sleigh in the wintry wilderness of Russia, or the interior decoration of Chaplin’s sets, or the three course meal eaten in a banquet—is described with the ruminative delight of an obsessive. Even the simple act of listening to violin is described in a manner that leaves the reader reeling under the twin assault of Gold’s towering imagination and masterful prose. (“As he listened to the single violin, whose tremulous notes spoke of failed crops, loneliness, wide autumn winter skies with no sign of rain, Alf understood he was unable to write a memo to Accounting that explained how the set had become in his absence.”) Here is another randomly selected sentence:

“A newsreel photographer was there to capture it, a vision too broad for that camera’s small, dull eye: a sea of black wool, upon which seemed to bob many bright faces, the uniform of straw boater or tweed cap making it seem like a shoreline upon which shivered an infinite rockery of seagulls and terns.”

This is one of the easier, shorter sentences in the novel. Add to this the torrent of technical information Gold unleashes. A chapter begins in the following way:

“Lee Dunacn’s job was to maintain the machine guns for a DH4 airplane called Lenore. The observer seat had a pair of Lewises mounted on a Scarff ring that allowed them to swing up, down and approximately 270 degrees. Unfortunately the arc of fire included the empennage, the plane’s own tailpiece. For the pilot there was a pair of Marlin .30 calibres which fired through the arc of the propeller via the amazing precise harmonics of Constantinesco synchronizing hydraulic gear.”

If the idea was to convey to the reader that the aeroplanes were a bit dodgy, it has been done more than adequately. I have no idea what ‘a pair of Lewises’ or ‘Scarff ring’ or ‘Marlin’ or for that matter ‘Constantinesco’ is; however, this chapter began on page 284 of the paperback edition I was reading. By that time it was only a sense of grim determination that was propelling me on; I still had more than 250 pages to plough through, and had neither the inclination nor the energy to find out more about these terms. (Earlier in the novel when I had a bit more vigour I did make an effort to google diegesis on which Gold waxes eloquent without actually explaining what it is). 

Sunnyside is a very clever novel, but reading it can be very fatiguing. (I had to take a two week break after reading the first three-fifty pages before I picked up the novel again.) Mind you, the prose is excellent and crackles with wit and erudition on every page. Gold has a great feel for language, and the novel overflows with sentences like ‘Democracy bloomed, as it always blooms when forcibly planted in a kakitocracy [that was a new word to learn] of worst possible men.’

Sunnyside is a rich elixir containing minced, half-dissolved, and macerated ingredients of historical facts, biographical speculations and unrestrained imagination that makes the period tangible for the reader. The trouble is that amongst the giddy mélange of momentous events and an army-load of characters, the novel has lost its soul. You admire the rich tapestry Gold has woven; you are full of awe of the huge canvas against which the dramatic events unfold; yet you either don’t care or feel you don’t really know the main characters. Reams and reams of pages are spent describing Chaplin’s romance with Mildred Harris and the rapid falling out of love (on Chaplin’s part) soon after they are married. All of which, however, remains at the outer, superficial level. It is like reading a food-review that describes in excruciating detail how the food looks but remains silent on how it tastes. Surely, Gold, who has very cleverly mixed facts and fiction at other places in the novel, could have given us a glimpse—albeit speculative— into Chaplin’s inner world. Similarly when Hugo Black meets his strange fate on the Russian prairie, it fails to move you.

The title of the novel is taken from one of Chaplin’s less successful films. It is a shame that the novel, just like Chaplin’s film, despite the grand vision of its creator, is not a resounding success. However, just as no film of Chaplin was a total disaster, you will find plenty to enjoy in Sunnyside


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Books Read in 2014

Below is a list of the books I managed to read in 2014.

  1. Canada—Richard Ford
  2. The Observations—Jane Harris
  3. The Blueflower (reread)—Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. The Misfortunates—Dimitri Verhulst
  5. The Girl in Polka Dot Dress—Beryl Bainbridge
  6. Hotel Savoy—Joseph Roth
  7. The Cut—George Pelecanos
  8. May We Be Forgiven—A.M. Homes
  9. The Wasp Factory—Iain Banks
  10. The Painter of Silence—Georgina Harding
  11. Sweet Tooth—Ian McEwan
  12. England’s Lane—Joseph Connolly
  13. The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel—Deborah Moggach
  14. The Last Runaway—Tracy Chevalier
  15. The Temple Goers—Aatish Taseer
  16. A Possible Life—Sebastian Faulks
  17. Two Brothers—Ben Elton
  18. The Catcher in the Rye (re-read)—J.D. Salinger
  19. Never Let Me Go (re-read)—Kazuho Ishiguro
  20. The Mask of Dimitrios—Eric Ambler
  21. Infinite Jest—David Foster Wallace
  22. Gone Girl—Gillian Flynn
  23. Hotel Du Lac (re-read)—Anita Brookner
  24. The People in the Photo—Helene Gestern
  25. The Hundred Year Old Man . . .—Jonas Jonasson
  26. Love (re-read)—Toni Morison
  27. Wolf Hall—Hilary Mantel
  28. Narrow Road to Deep North—Richard Flanagan
  29. L’Mour Actually—Melanie Jones


  1. An Interrupted Life—Etty Hillesum
  2. Me Talk Pretty One Day—David Sedaris
  3. Whatever it is I don’t Like It—Howard Jacobson
  4. The Romantic Economist—William Nicolson
  5. Past It Notes—Maureen Lipmann
  6. Dear Lupin . . . Letter to A Wayward Son—Roger Mortimer
  7. A Dangerous Method—John Kerr
  8. Confessions of A New York Taxi Driver—Eugene Salomon
  9. Shakespeare—Bill Bryson
  10. Red Love: Story of An East German Family—Maxim Leo

I have heard people saying that the world can be divided into those who have read Ulysses and those who haven’t (I come in the second category, although the book is prominently displayed on my bookshelf. It is a modern classic and one of these days I am going to get round to read it.) I have also heard people describing Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest in similar—either or—vein.

The underlying theme about such books, depending on how clever/snooty you are, is that the books are so deep that only someone with an IQ high enough to withstand Stephen Fry’s questions on the QI would understand them (so not many). You might be forgiven for considering such people as a bit narcissistic. They are special; they belong to an elite literary group of people who inhabit a higher plane of existence that involves reading books (in prominent places such as underground tube, parks) most wouldn’t go anywhere near five miles of, snacking in organic cafes, starting book groups, starting book-blogs etcetera). If, on the other hand, you are in the habit of telling it as it is, a habit commonly seen in those who are scarred by the self-realization that they are not clever enough and have spent their entire lives rebelling against things they suspect they are not sophisticated enough to appreciate, you might say that these novels are essentially unreadable totems, which are not worth bothering with. As regards Infinite Jest, I can suggest that a third category be created:  those who started reading the novel with great enthusiasm and determination, but gave up before they completed reading the full novel. I started reading Infinite Jest in the summer of 2014, when I was on a vacation for 3 weeks. My (as it turned out overambitious) plan was to finish reading the novel during the vacation. Keeping aside the advisability of reading a novel like Infinite Jest while on a holiday, the folly of assuming that I could finish reading it in three weeks can only be compared with the disaster that was Operation Barbarossa. I finished roughly 70% of the novel (give credit where it is due), on vacation. I carried on reading the novel in the three weeks after I returned from vacation. By that time I had read nothing but Infinite Jest for 6 weeks and finished about 85% of it. At that stage I decided that I needed a break from the novel if I was to be able to maintain my sanity which would go a long way towards realizing my ambition of finishing it. I thought to myself that I would read a couple of light reads and then return to Infinite Jest. That has not happened. I really am cheating by including Infinite Jest in the list of books I read in 2014; however, I decided to include it because the book is almost read, and, without it, the number of books I read in 2014 comes to 38. That does not feel right. 39 books, while considerably lower than the books I read in previous years, is one more than 38 books, which makes me feel good. Anyway, what did I think of the novel? At the risk of adding nothing new or original to the plethora of reviews and opinions that pullulate the Net, I would say that the book in part is unbearably tedious, but also absolutely brilliant (not at the same time). The late David Foster Wallace had an encyclopaedic knowledge of drugs of recreation. His knowledge of the philosophy of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) is like that of someone who has had first-hand experience of this self-help group which has a lot of takers in America. The novel has three strands, which are very loosely connected. I must confess that I have not been able to figure out what the book is about; but I have read only 85% of it. There is no reason to believe that insight would not be gained when I finish the remainder of the novel. I do plan to finish reading the novel in 2015.

The year started for me (book-reading wise) on a good note. I read Richard Ford's Canada and loved it. In Canada Ford returns to the type of story-telling that marked his earlier novels before he chose to become a literary novelist with Sportswriter. Canada is still a literary novel, I think, but it is very plot-driven, with not much of the meandering musings that characterised Sportswriter and the Pulitzer winning Independence Day. The novel loses its momentum a bit midway, but picks it up again in the last third. A very good read.

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2014 Booker, and for that reason I decided to read it. The novel, which Flanagan dedicated to his father, who was the prisoner of war for the Japanese in the Second World War and worked on the dreaded Thailand-Burma railway, reads like a non-fiction memoir at times. Flanagan’s prose style is often described as lyrical. On the evidence of the only book of Flanagan I have read I’d say that the descriptors are referring to his other novels. The prose-style of The Narrow Road to Deep North is direct, matter of fact, unostentatious, and very effective.

Sebastian Faulks’s Possible Lives was (surprisingly) a disappointment. Surprisingly because Faulks is a superb story teller, a weaver of different strands of narrative into a coherent whole. (A week in December is a case in point.) Possible Lives is an unremarkable attempt by Faulks to weave together different stories which, in themselves, are not particularly riveting, and don’t come together to form a whole.

Also disappointing was the late Iain Bank’s cult debut novel, The Wasp Factory. I have had this novel on my shelf for years (because I like to have cult novels on my shelf placed prominently), but got round to read it only last year because it was chosen by the book group I have been trying politely to disengage from for several months. I simply did not get into the novel. Perhaps when it first came out decades ago The Wasp Factory blew the critics’ socks off by the audacity of its story-line; however, the next generation of readers having grown up reading the likes of The Silence of the Lambs earlier, wouldn’t find it as shocking as that.

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth was (surprisingly) a winner. This is the first novel of McEwan in the past ten years that I enjoyed reading. It tells the story of a woman who, when she was a university student in Cambridge, was recruited by the British Intelligence Service. There is the usual McEwan twist at the end (no novel of McEwan is complete without a twist); but on the whole McEwan, to my great relief, concentrated more on the story and less on gimmicks. Sweet Tooth was a very entertaining read.

In The Mask of Dimitrios, we find Eric Ambler, the granddad of espionage novels, sadly, largely neglected these days, is in fine form. It is the story of the elusive Dimitrios,who is followed by an amateur British journalist. There are twists galore, and Ambler keeps the reader guessing and interested till the end. In the 1930s Ambler wrote six espionage novels which sealed his reputation as a thriller writer. The Mask of Dimitrios is generally considered to be his best novel. I wouldn’t know that (only because I have not read all of his novels published during this decade).

Like everyone else I read Gone Girl (though I missed watching the film). Entertaining but stretches the limits of your credulity to the length of Siberia as it progresses. The end was a bit unconvincing—a bit of a cop out if you ask me. This book was lent to me by a friend whose usual staple of books comprises misery memoirs (how I overcame my horrendous childhood which I spent eating out of beans and fellating my father etcetera) or stories. She gave me this book threatening that if I did not like it would be an incontrovertible proof that something was wrong with me. I told her that I liked the book. (In the interpersonal context I follow the safe policy of being scrupulously polite on people’s faces, and prefer to bitch on their back.) Gone Girl is not a dreadful book, but I can’t understand the big hoo-ha surrounding it. 

I can’t now remember why or how I came to be reading The Temple Goers by the Indian author Aatish Taseer. I must have picked it up from the library. The novel tells the unlikely and slightly unsettling story of an unlikely and unsettling friendship between a rich, upper class narrator and an ambitious lower or lower-middle class man (who, we are informed, belongs to one of the higher casts; it seems in modern India cast is not to be confused with class; you can be poor but of higher cast, therefore properly classier than some nouveau riche low cast person. Taseer’s novel is not about the Indian cast system; in any case the labyrinthine cast system is so complex, I don’t think even the Indians fully understand it themselves). The Temple Goers is remarkable for the unashamed inspiration its prose style derives from that of V.S. Naipaul: ruthless, cutting and pithy observations, which, with minimum of fuss, go to the core of things. A Naipaul-like character even makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Taseer is obviously a fan of the great author. On the whole The Temple Goers is an uneven effort, but still worth a read.

After reading slightly dystopian vision of modern India in The Temple Goers, I dived into Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac more eagerly than Michael Douglas dived into Catherine Zeta Jones. Hotel du Lac won the 1983 Booker prize, ahead of the critic’s favourite—J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which puzzled many (J.G. Ballard most of all). Brookner, in a display of self-deprecation worthy of heroines in many of her novels, declared that her novels were not deep and Ballard’s novel ought to have been given the award. More than 30 years later, The Empire of the Sun is considered a modern classic, whereas Hotel du Lac does not get talked about much. I re-read Hotel du Lac after many years. Brookner is one of my favourite authors and Hotel du Lac, which glows with the quiet cadence of Brookner’s measured prose, has everything in it that I like about her novels: not exactly bursting with events, but lots quiet discussions between people in which what is left unsaid gives you a lot of insight into human psych. I would without hesitation have put Hotel du Lac ahead of The Empire of the Sun (which I didn’t like) but (with some hesitation) put it behind Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year.

Wolf Hall, for which Hilary Mantel won the 2009 Booker, is an absolutely smashing read, the centre of at which is the shadowy figure of Thomas Cromwell. Even if you (like me) are not a fan of historical novels, I would recommend Wolf Hall, which crackles with wit and intrigue, and keeps you engaged till the end. I shall read Bring Up the Bodies, the next instalment this year.

Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Jumped out of the Window . . . (I can’t remember the exact title) was foisted upon me by an acquaintance who would not take a no for an answer. This novel, originally in Swedish, was a surprise hit with the readers, apparently, by word of mouth publicity. Its far-fetched story is told in a flat, matter of fact tone, which is sometimes amusing, sometimes irritating, and mostly not very riveting.

I re-read a few novels this year, The Catcher in the Rye, being one of them, which I read after almost 25 years, and found it as enjoyable a read as I had as a teenager. This is a timeless classic. More than seventy years after it was first published, it remains in circulation.

Another classic (one of the better choices by the book group), though it has not been around for as long as The Catcher in the Rye, was Never Let Me Go. Some of the members pontificated endlessly whether it was a science fiction novel or not, and if it was—which half of them thought it was—whether it was a credible science fiction—which half of them—from the half who agreed it was science fiction—thought it wasn’t. The other half (that is the half that didn’t think it was a science fiction) could not agree what it was that the novel was attempting to convey on the dubious grounds that they didn’t understand it. Of this half, some said that they were additionally disappointed that Ishiguro eschewed the main question which they (the members) eschewed by not clarifying what that question was. I think Never Let Me Go is a great novel. I am not bothered if it is a science fiction, therefore a genre, novel. It is a surreal tale which has melancholy at its heart. I am sure it will be read in hundred years (although I won’t be around to witness it).

When a member of my book group suggested that we should read a novel by Toni Morrison I suggested The Song of Solomon, which I think is Morrison’s best novel. I wouldn’t have minded re-reading Jazz or Beloved, both of which are first rate novels. But the group chose Love (for no reason other than that enough copies were available in the local library). Love is a readable enough novel but not a patch on some Morrison’s earlier great novels. As the title suggests the novel examines different layers of through the eyes of its female protagonists—one just about alive, another almost dead, and the third, dead. I gave the novel seven out of ten. (Yes we mark the novel out of ten; average the scores, and a really sad bloke amongst us updates the ranking. To Kill A Mocking Bird, I think, is at the top for several months, I think.)

I am an admirer of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, and have loved all of her novels bar two, which happen to be her most celebrated novels. Blue Flower, Fitzgerald’s take on the eighteenth century German Romantic novelist Novalis, was the last full length novel published in Fitzgerald’s life, and is considered by many to be her finest novel, including a rather narcissistic and smug chap in my book group, who insisted that this book be chosen by the group (and was terribly put out when a few amongst us had the effrontery to not love it as much as he did. I must say that second time round I was as underwhelmed as I was when I’d first read the novel when it came out in 1995 (I think).

I heard Ben Elton in a literary programme talking about Two Brothers, and decided to read the novel partly because I was intrigued to learn that the main characters were based on Elton’s father and uncle who grew up in the Nazi Germany, but also because the interviewer’s attitude towards Elton—who came across as a likeable geezer—was insufferably condescending (Elton gave back as much as he got). The interviewer clearly thought that Two Brothers was not a literary novel (I am sure he snacks in organic cafes). Two Brother is not a subtle novel. Not having read any of Elton’s other novels, I couldn’t say whether this is a style he feels comfortable with, or whether he chose it to convey to the reader the full horror of Nazi Germany and the apocalypse awaiting the Jews. It hits you with the force of a tornado. At times the novel reads like an elementary history lesson of the Nazi Germany; but I didn’t mind that.

May We Be Forgiven by the American author A.M. Homes was an enjoyable, if slightly meandering tale of redemption. Tracy Chivalier’s The Last Runaway was very disappointing.

Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was one of the light reads I picked up to overcome the exhaustion of Infinite Jest. Words fail me to describe how bad the book was, so I won’t try.

I read only ten non-fiction books in 2014, most of which were memoirs (bought on Kindle for 99 p). One which I did not buy as an e-read, but was worth every penny was Interrupted Life, the diary of Etty Hillesum the Dutch Jewish woman who, as it happened, lived in Amsterdam the same time as Ann Frank, and perished in the Holocaust. The title of the diaries (not of course chosen by Hillesum) is apt. A bit sententious at times, the book is remarkable for the calm and serenity with which Hillesum met her fate, without any rancour for her persecutors.

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare is a witty, if brief, account of the bard’s life. Bryson makes it clear that he was commissioned to write this book and perhaps it was not a labour of love. Still he makes it very interesting, primarily, I think, because he is incapable of writing a boring word.

Rest of the non-fiction books were not much to write home about. Me Talk Pretty One Day confirmed that its writer knew how to spin an amusing yarn, without really telling much about his life. Maxim Leo’s story of his East German family would have been very riveting had I not read three similar nostalgic memoirs of the long since dead GDR in the past. Past It Notes was too wordy and not very interesting.

2014 was not a very productive year reading-wise. With the exception of Wolf Hall, The Mask of Dimitrios, Canada, and Sweet Tooth, most of the novels which I enjoyed reading were re-reads. I am hoping that 2015 would be different, although it has not started well; I am plodding through David Mitchell’s (the British comedian, not the novelist) whining memoir, The Back Story.

The Top Ten novels (not including re-reads) in 2014:

1  Wolf Hall
  Sweet Tooth
3  The Mask of Dimitrios
4  Canada
5  Observations
6  May we be Forgiven
    The Narrow Road to Deep North
8   Hotel du Lac
  Gone Girl
     Infinite Jest

The best non-fiction was Etty Hillesums’s diary, followed by Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Boy Done Good

I heard the 2014 Booker Prize winner, the Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, in a literary programme a few years ago. I had heard his name and had even a novel of his in my collection, Gould’s Book of Fish (but only because I had got it for a couple of quid in a second-hand bookshop, and the title and premise had seemed interesting) which I had not got round to read. Indeed the only reason I attended the Richard Flanagan's talk was because I had bought the ticket for the whole programme for a discount.

Flanagan informed the audience with pride he made no attempt to conceal that his people were convict people. They had all been sent out during the famine to the gulag of the British Empire that was Tasmania. The land was originally called Van Demon’s Land, and the name remained until, I guess, it ceased to be a gulag. Flanagan was born in Longford, a village with a population slightly less than that of the backstreets of East End of London. Longford was the place where Flanagan’s great great grandfather was sent for stealing corn worth eight pounds (given what eight pounds at the height of famine would be worth nowadays, it was probably a robbery). Flanagan’s father was a primary school teacher and, when Flanagan was three, was posted to Rosebury, an isolated mining town with a population even less than that of Longford (so not really a town), five miles away from civilization in every direction (imagine Norfolk).

Flanagan went on to inform the audience that, disgracefully, he always wanted to become a writer, which, he acknowledged, made no sense. He even wrote a letter to his sister when he was six, informing her that he wanted to be a writer. The conclusion is ineluctable: Flanagan was a child prodigy. He didn’t inform his parents, however, until he was well into his twenties, about the career he had chosen (probably because he was worried what his mother’s reaction would be, as she had set her heart upon Flanagan becoming a plumber). Be that as it may, once Flanagan decided to become a writer he had to leave Tasmania. “Why?” I hear you asking. I have no idea. If it helps Flanagan couldn’t provide a satisfactory explanation either in the programme, although that was not, going by his facial grimaces when he discussed it, because of want of trying. You just could not do literature in Tasmania, and that is that. You could be a labourer or a goatherd (or a primary school teacher) in Tasmania, but if you wished to become a writer, you had to go to Europe and America. Trying to become a writer in Tasmania was like having your teeth checked by Shane MacGowan. No sane person would do it. So that’s what Flanagan did, or didn’t do. He came to England, Oxford to be exact, on a Rhodes scholarship. It was in Oxford that Flanagan started writing and getting published. He wrote history books, even though what he really wanted to do was to write a novel (which would with the Booker Prize one day), because it was apparently easy (or easier) to publish history books.

After the stint in the grimy, grey and flat England, Flanagan returned to Tasmania and (since the money he earned from the history books would not have bought a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe) he started labouring. Literally. He worked as a labourer through the winter and a river guide through summer. He hadn’t given up on his ambition to become a writer, though, and, through a friend, managed to get paid $ 10,000 to write the story of a Bavarian criminal. The German had defrauded the banks in Europe of hundreds of millions of dollars, and, after escaping to Australia and being subjected to the biggest manhunt in Australian history, was eventually caught and sent to prison, where, entirely expectedly, he was offered a huge contract to write his story, which he had accepted. The slight trouble was the man could not write. That is where Flanagan stepped in and started inventing the criminal’s life story in a Hobart Cafe. Could he not have, like, interviewed the German? Well, no; because the criminals blew his brains out before he was to appear in court, which was within a few weeks of Flanagan trousering his ten thousand dollars.

Flanagan’s first published novel was The Death of a River Guide, which, Flanagan disarmingly informed the audience, did not attract rave reviews from the critics. But, what do the critics know? The readers loved the novel, kept on buying it, which meant that the publishers had no choice but to publish reprints of the novel. Tough, but such is life.

Flanagan’s second published novel was The Sound of One Hand Clapping. (If you want to know how that can be possible, you would need to read the novel.) Flanagan focused on the Eastern European migrant community (Slovanian, in this case) in the novel. Flanagan nearly won a prize for this novel, but was pipped to the post by a novel which was about a Ukranian mass murderer. The novel was written by one Ukrainian writer named Helen Demidenko, except that she was not Ukrainian and was not Helen Demidenko. Her real name was Helen Darville and she was the daughter of an English nurseryman. That Demidenko/Darville cheated him out of a prize obviously rankled with Flanagan after all these years. He described the Demidenko/Darville’s novel as an anti-Semitic work that read like a pornographic comic book, and added, incredulity written all over his face, that the literary establishment loved it. (Maybe the novel indeed was as poor as Flanagan thought it was. Let’s hope that he will be in a more forgiving mood towards Demidenko/Darville’s novel after The Narrow Road to the Deep North was lapped up by the critics.)

Flanagan’s next novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, is the one he was most famous for (until The Narrow Road to the Deep North came along). Flanagan had never heard of either Gould, a convict called William Gould, or his book comprising 28 water colour paintings of fish. The archivist who made Flanagan aware of the existence of the book had hidden the book (also named as Gould’s Book of Fish) in a cupboard. Apparently no pictures of convicts incarcerated on Sarah Island (where William Gould served his sentence) are available and, as Flanagan looked at the paintings of fish, it seemed to him that the convict Gould was trying to smuggle some sort of experience out of the island through the eyes of these fish. The idea of the book came to him instantly. He knew that each chapter of the novel would begin with one of the pictures of the fish. This book took off and—Flanagan had no hesitation in declaring this—became a monster across the globe. This was a fun book for Flanagan, but he did not want to be imprisoned in it. So his next book was the incredibly bleak (by his own admission) novel describing the unsafe paranoid world we have come to inhabit after 9/11 (The Unknown Terrorist). (It always amazes me how many of us in the Western world made the discovery for the first time that the world is paranoid and unsafe after 9/11. If I make so bold as to point out, the world was always paranoid and unsafe; a modicum of research would reveal that people in different parts of the world were always getting massacred and meeting horrific deaths, before 9/11.) This book, too, was a big hit and a best seller in Australia, though it received mixed reception from the critics.

The programme I attended was really about what at that time was Flanagan’s most recent novel, entitled Wanted, but, by the time Flanagan came round to talk about it, my concentration, which, at the best of times, has a shorter span than that of the fish in one of Flanagan’s novel, was wavering (the interviewer’s proclivity to ask very long-winded questions, matched by Flanagan’s proclivity to give longer winded answers might also have something to do with it, as also the captivating spectacle of the man sitting in the front row showering dandruff on his collar every time he moved his head).

I left the literary programme thinking to myself that I should read Gould’s Book of Fish, which seemed like an intriguing novel. And forgot about it (and its author) until this year when it was announced that Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North last month. I must confess that I wasn’t swept away by it—and neither did I notice (therefore appreciate) the lyrical quality of Flanagan’s prose (about which the interviewer in the literary programme had talked a lot, making faces as if he was trying desperately not to burp)— but I thought that it brought to the fore the ironies and futilities of life in a manner that made you think. You can’t say that about many books. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Book of the Month: May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)

May We Be Forgiven, American writer A M Homes’s 2012 novel, starts brilliantly. Harry Silver, a Jewish underachieving academic (there is no cause and effect, here), a Nixon scholar, married to an American-Chinese woman, who is more successful (that is she earns far more money than Harry), is having a Thanksgiving dinner with the family of his younger brother, George. George, of whom Harry is secretly jealous, is a successful executive in a television company and—it is a job requirement, really—is an aggressive psychopath who likes to brag. So that’s what George is doing at the dinner table. Talking about himself while “picking turkey out of his teeth”. Harry is toing and froing between the kitchen and dining room, as Claire, his Chinese-American wife, is sitting at the table listening to George’s self-aggrandizing talk and George’s teenage children are sitting like “lumps” at the table, “as if poured into their chairs”, “truly spineless”, their “eyes focused on the small screens” in front of them. Its Jane, George’s wife, who is helping Harry clean up in the kitchen. Then Jane cosies towards Harry and plants a kiss, “wet, serious and full of desire” on George. Fast forward a few months. George jumps a red traffic signal and rams into another car, killing the couple in the car on the spot though their young son survives. George has what the psychiatrists describe as a breakdown and is wheeled into the local hospital. Harry is dispatched by Claire to help George and Jane. Harry takes his job way to seriously and begins comforting Jane in George and Jane’s marital bed while George is undergoing psychiatric evaluation in the hospital as his lawyer tries to figure out whether the charges against George can be mitigated by a diagnosis of psychiatric illness. One evening, much to Harry’s discomfort, George arrives at the house (it is after all his house), having taken his discharge against medical advice, and finds Jane and Harry in the master bedroom without any clothes on and so close that no light can pass between them. George picks up the heavy bedside lamp and swings in the general direction of the head of his unfaithful wife; then he swings again. The lamp makes contact on both occasions and Jane’s head is a squishy mess of broken chips of bone, hair and grey matter. Now George is in serious trouble, and is wheeled off to the locked loony bin for the criminally insane. Claire discovers Harry’s infidelity and gives him the marching orders. The head of the university where he teaches “Nixon” gives Harry the news that comes as a surprise only to Harry: no one is interested in learning about Nixon, and Harry would not be required from the next semester onwards. Not exactly the circumstances that would put you in the frame of mind to take on the guardianship of your nephews whose mother's speedy dispatch off to the next (not necessarily better) world was substantially assisted by your bedroom callisthenics with her in the moments leading to her death. But that’s what Harry ends up doing. It is a responsibility for which he is ill-prepared, not having any children of his own; and, to be sure, he finds himself in unexpected, not to say tricky, situations, such as advising on telephone his niece who has started menstruating which “hole” to insert the tampon into (she has inserted into the wrong “hole”), and organizing his nephew’s bar mitzvah in a South African village the nephew has “adopted”. Then there is Harry’s mother, stagnating in a nursing home and losing the last of her marbles to the inexorable march of dementia. George, the psychopathic killer, has been shifted from the high secure mental hospital to a scheme that looks more dodgy than the money laundering capers one reads about in the Daily Mail.  In the middle of this hectic itinerary, Harry has to find time to sexually satisfy mentally unstable housewives and random women he meets in local supermarkets, more horny than a rabbit on Viagra. When the novel ends, 365 days (and 500 pages) later, Harry is in charge of a whole gaggle of children (including the hyperactive kid whose parents George killed before he decided to treat his wife’s head as a golf ball), and a village in South Africa that seems to subsist nicely for months on the pocket-money Harry’s nephew sends them by saving on his ice-candies. Does Harry grow up emotionally and is a better person at the end of the year more topsy turvy than the helter skelter in the village fun-fair? You certainly hope so.

May We Be Forgiven is a sprawling, frequently meandering, tale with a large cast of characters. There are several strands to the plot, some of which—for example, Harry’s expertise on Nixon and his involvement with the Nixon’s family who has found a stash of manuscripts of short stories the disgraced former president of America allegedly wrote—sit uneasily in the bigger story, while some others—such as Harry’s dementing mother who is having a nookie with a man of advanced years—much to the disgust of his daughters—probably do not effectively serve their intended purpose, which, I thought, was to depict Harry’s slow maturation as a person and re-establishing dwindling family ties, although they are, undoubtedly, funny.

There are a lot of whacky characters in May We Be Forgiven (rather like Homes’s earlier novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, which was a great commercial success). As a result, the novel has a surreal, almost absurd, feel to it. In an interview Homes commented that she believed that we lived in moment when reality itself was somewhat surreal. What she appears to have tried in May We Be Forgiven, with considerable, if uneven, consistency, is capture the oddity and inexplicability of daily life. The narrative pitch is (deliberately, I think) kept an octave high to arrest the reader’s attention. The novel seems plot-driven at the beginning, but after that the story becomes somewhat picaresque; however, such is Homes’s control over the pace of the narrative that the reader carries on turning the pages, plunging more and more into Harry’s life which seems increasingly adrift.

What also raises May We Be Forgiven above the mundane is Homes’s great feel for dialogue and her black humour.  Some stretches of dialogue are side-splittingly funny; they could easily fit into a comic sketch. Life, Homes once remarked, can be so painful and disturbing that if one has to survive it, one has to find humour in it. The novel is not a satire, but what it manages with appreciable success is to combine the serious with the comic, and in the process tells the story of the redemption of a cold, emotionally distant man.

May We Be Forgiven, despite its flaws, is a gloriously readable, wickedly funny and uplifting read. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book Groups

I must admit to several character weaknesses in my personality make-up. Call me squeamish, but I don’t like confrontations. I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. I am also a creature given to contradictory, usually short-lived but very genuine, enthusiasms. I have a near-compulsive need to rationalise; I try with the best of my abilities to put myself in others’ shoes; I try to understand; I attempt to find reasons when there are no reasons to be found; and then I try to convince myself, against my better judgment, that what is clearly unpalatable will be palatable if only I tried harder. The result, more often than not, is I end up making decisions I regret even as I am making them. I agree to do things I know I will hate even as I agree; and I accept things every rational part of my brain is screaming I should be treating with the same suspicion with which Prince Philip approaches the extended hand of an Australian aboriginal.

I have been a member of a book group for more than a year. Don’t ask me why I agreed to join the group (see the paragraph above). Essentially I could not say no when a friend of a friend invited me to join. To be honest I was also flattered—like when an unattractive teenager with spotty face and dandruff on his collar is asked out by the attractive girl in the class with bouncy bust, he is secretly lusting after—when he said he and his book-mates would be very honoured if someone like me who was such a voracious reader joined the group. I got a bit carried away. I thought that in these monthly gatherings to discuss literary fiction I—the voracious reader—would dazzle the other members with my searing comments, mordant wit and incisive insights. 

A year down the line, I am regretting the decision. It was a mistake. It was never going to work. When a group comprises more than half a dozen individuals, it is impossible that they will have the same taste in reading. Now, you might say that that’s a good thing. People, in such groups, will suggest different genres, and you’d read books you’d otherwise not have read.

That is exactly my problem. I have been reading books in the past one year I’d have not read otherwise, and, reading them has confirmed to me that I was right in avoiding them all these years. I do not buy this argument that it is good once in a while to read books that won’t be on your usual reading list. Taste in reading is a bit like taste in wine. If you don’t have the taste for it, no amount of trying is going to make you like the vinegar that is passed for a wine in California.

Then there are the members of the book-groups.

One of the group members relishes in describing himself as a “working class boy from East End of London”. I don’t know what he does for living (he works for some charity, I think), but he gives autumn parties, books tickets for the first day of the Ashes tests, drinks  white chateauneuf du pape, and is a member of a frigging book club. But he refuses to consider himself even an honorary member of the middle classes. The man does not strike me as mentally privileged and his command over English is shaky at best.  Probably for these reasons he claims to hate middle brow fiction. Which basically is any novel that is literary and does not have gruesome murders in it. Sometime ago we discussed The Good Soldier. The man read the first ten pages of the novel and apparently lost the will to live. He could not carry on. It’s a matter of regret that he did not kill himself.  That’s what he does with any novel that challenges his attention span, and announces in the meetings that the novel was full of “middle class nonsense” and he simply could not read such tosh. He gets on my nerves. He is forever suggesting novels of writers like Carl Hiaasen and George Pelecanos. A couple of months ago, probably just to have a break from his moaning, the group agreed to read a George Pelecanos novel called The Cut. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel was. It really had no redeeming features. It was an easy read, but, since I am not a fast reader, I still wasted four days finishing it. When the group met, it turned out that the majority had not liked it. A few members laid into the novel, and I actually found myself arguing that the novel was not as bad as that; that it had some witty dialogues; and that there was a semi-believable depiction of the soft underbelly of Washington D.C., the city in which apparently majority of Pelecanos’s novels are set.

This brings me to my second problem. In the past one year I have not managed to dazzle the group with my searing observations and mordant wit. Indeed I have not managed to say much at all in the meetings. There are a few reasons for this. It seems to me that for some group members the ability to listen to others is about as useful, in this day and age, as the ability to make fire with twigs. It is not necessary; they can do without it. As soon as the discussion opens these guys launch into their monologues as if a yearlong curfew on speaking has just been lifted for a few hours. They are fluent, I will grant them that. (Do they rehearse in front of the mirror what they are going to say in the meeting?) Some of them have done creative writing courses and, even though they have not got round to publish even a short story, they use lots of technical words with the relish of a gynaecologist explaining hysterectomy procedure to his patient. It is not that they don’t have a point. Unlike the “working class boy from East End of London” some of these guys have an interest in reading. (The “working class boy”, I suspect, comes mainly to eat, and also because he has probably heard that sophisticated, cultured people join book groups, although he would soon shoot himself between the eyes than accept that he wants to be cultured and sophisticated.) But they talk too much, probably working on the principle that it is a sin to be precise and concise when you can waste five times the required number of words. They are tireless and tiresome. As they drone on I try to keep myself awake, as I poke about my pepperoni pizza, by thinking imaginative questions such as why only fingernails continue to grow while the rest of the body stops, and whether the plump waitress sashaying seductively between tables (although for all that sashaying not great in the tits department) and wearing improbably tight trousers would burst an artery in her pelvis. On the rare occasion when I manage to get a word in edgeways, I, to my disgust, find myself saying mealy mouthed wishy-washy things which are vaguely complimentary. Even when I have not liked the novel (which has been the case 75% of the time so far) I avoid criticising it harshly. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reason I do not make a fuss when the waiters are rude in restaurants, or when a young mother demands to get ahead of me in the queue at the till because her child is cranky, or why I don’t ask the old biddy, who happens to sit next to me on the bus and who attaches great importance to telling you her entire life history, to shut up. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be nice.

If I were a man of metal, if I had the personality strength of an iron skillet, if I were not obsessed about offering the world my unwavering amiability and appearing relentlessly reasonable, I would tell the other group members that I was sorry to be the bearer of a bad news but it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest anything different; that the book group meetings were so dire that I would rather have my teeth slowly extracted (without local anaesthesia) by a chatty dentist who has had lots of onions for lunch than spending an evening in a restaurant the white tiles of which put you in the mind of a urinal, in the company of people in comparison with whom parish meetings of Dagenham city council were like a gallon of coffee.

We are going to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry next month.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Book of the Month: Trumpet (Jackie Kay)

Trumpet is the début (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 (the title of the novel is a direct reference to the instrument that brings fame to Moody). Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. The novel begins with the death of Moody. Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its greatest 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 has lived with all his life. Moody, who lived all his life as a man, was married and adopted  a son, was born a woman, and, anatomically , 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 the story of Joss Moody through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in the band to which Moody belongs; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of George W Bush on a bad-hair day;  Millie, Moody’s “wife”, who has known all along that her “husband” was a woman ; and last but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know, until he reads the newspapers, 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  real life American Jazz musician called Billy 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, she had begun 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. (Those partners of Tipton who could be contacted after Tipton's death clarified tat they were aware that Tipton was a woman; all of them consaid that they considered themselves to be heterosexuals.) 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 apparently remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached puberty. Tipton died in poverty in 1989. 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 might have felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of Tipton's 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 behind Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to figure out 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 and 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, 18 October 2014

Who Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature These Days?

The hiatus is over. After two years of awarding the Nobel  Prize for Literature to non-Europeans, the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to an European; a Frenchman. Quelle surprise!

The Nobel Prize went to a cuddly Chinese, Mo Yan, in 2012, who was derided by some as an apologist or a puppet of the dictatorial Chinese regime; therefore, presumably, not worthy of the award, which, in the years bygone, was awarded to such luminaries as the Nazi apologist Knut Hamsun. Herta Muller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate, was moved to publically declare that she felt like crying when she heard that Mo Yan had won the award (not because she had anything to say—at least not in the interview she gave—about the literary merits or lack thereof of Mo Yan’s novels, but because of his political leanings; that Mo Yan was not outraged enough (or not at all)  to publically express his outrage of the outrage of the Tiananmen Square in 1989, which outraged many Western intellectuals—and avoided certain incarceration, was unacceptable). One hoped that the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan helped Muller to sympathize with many in Rumania, the country of Muller’s birth, who no doubt felt like crying when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for what many in that country regarded as her unreadable paranoid rants against the Communist regime which she passed off as fiction (her rants, that is; not the Communist regime, which was very real). In 2013 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alice Munro, a short story writer of meagre talents who elevated monotony to the level of art. The menu of your local Tandoori will have more variety than Munro’s short stories.

The 2014 Nobel Prize for literature has been awarded to one Patrick Modiano. Why was Modiano awarded the Swedish award?  According to the press-release by the Swedish academy, Modanio got the Nobel

for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”.

What in the name of Allah does this mean? Art of memory   . . . most ungraspable human destinies . . . life-world of occupation . . . Who writes such lines? Does the Swedish academy employ someone on the verge of thought disorder (or has taken long distance course in writing like a patronizing tw*t) to do the press releases? If you search through the entire awful vocabulary of clichés, you’d struggle to come up with something as nonsensical as this.

When I first read this I interpreted “occupation” as activities people do to earn their daily living, to keep themselves occupied etcetera. I was wrong. “Occupation” , here, refers to the occupation of France by Germany during the Second World War. An understandable mistake, you will agree, I hope, if you have not read anything by Modnio, or, for that matter, never heard of him until the Nobel committee decided to confer upon him the award, using barely decipherable language.

An article in The Guardian (after Modanio won the award) informed that Modanio delights in mystifying his readers. Is it a short-hand for wooly writing? I wouldn’t know. As I said, I have not read any of Modanio’s novels.

What might increase your chances, these days, of being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Firstly it will help you enormously if you were European or Scandinavian. A glance at the Nobel Laureates in the past twenty years will show that 13 were European (including British & Irish). Of the remaining seven, one is Turkish (Orhan Pamuk), another is Naturalized British of Indian descent who was born in the Caribbean (V.S. Naipaul), while a third one is naturalized French of Chinese descent (Gao Xingjian). Kenzaburo Oe (1994) who is Japanese; J.M. Coetzee (2003), who is South African; Mo Yan (2012), a Chinese; and Alice Munro (2013), who is Canadian, are the only authors in the last twenty years to have won the Nobel, who can be said to have no European connection.

Have you heard of J.M.G. Le Clezio? I thought not. He won the Nobel in 2008. He is the author of “new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy”. He is the “explorer of the humanity beyond and below [but not above or sideways] the reigning civilization”. I bought, on an impulse, three books of the “author of new departures”, hoping to find the promised sensual ecstasy. I am sorry to say that I couldn’t find it despite using the most powerful microscope, in the only novel of Le Clezio (his debut novel) I have read till date. Would I find it in the other two novels which I bought? Possibly, but I am not going to risk it. I am thinking of flogging the novels on the Amazon. 

Herta Muller, who won the Nobel the year after Le Clezio, is a writer “who with the concentration of poetry and frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”  (What is “concentration of poetry”?) The two novels of Muller which I have read (one of which I have reviewed on this blog) were almost as unreadable as those of Le Cleizo, but less abstruse in their themes. Muller is a writer (both the novels dealt with the plight of ethnic German in Communist Rumania after the Second World War, so Muller does write about the dispossessed) who takes boredom to unheard of levels. This is a writer who will give you an eye-witness account of the Crucifixion and can still put you to sleep. 

Imre Kertezsz, who won the award in 2003 has had a 3-4 of his novels translated into English, of which I have read a couple. Fateless, Kertesz’s autobiographical work of fiction (? A fictional memoir) was outstanding, but the next one I read, Kaddish for an Unborn Child where an unnamed narrator explains why he chose never to have children was a masterclass in abject misery and self-pity. When you finally reach the end of this 80-odd pages novella, the only reason you don’t strangle the moaning whingeing, self-obsessed narrator is because you are too  exhausted by the ponderous style (either of the translator or Kertesz) to do anything other than totter into a dark room and wash down some paracetamol with Jack Daniel's and lie down for the next five hours.

This brings me to the second criterion. In addition to having some connection to Europe, you must make efforts to write on subjects no one is interested in, and in a style that is a cure for treatment resistant insomnia. Your novels cannot, under any circumstances, be accused of having a story or a narrative structure.

The third, and most important, criterion is that you are not allowed to be American. If you are an American novelist hoping to be considered for the Nobel, just forget it. It’s not gonna happen, at least not any time soon. The last American to win the Nobel was Toni Morrison, who won the award in 1993. There were those who thought Updike ought to have been awarded the Nobel. Well he wasn't. The trouble with Updike was that for the best part of his career he wrote novels that were accessible, enjoyable, and which people took the trouble to read. He tried to make up for this shortcoming by writing a series of novels, in the later part of his writing career, which were about nothing in particular and not particularly easy to read. But that was not good enough (too little, too late); he was never going to be on par with the likes of Le Cleizo and Muller. Not surprising, really; you can’t expect a toaster, after a life-time of making crunchy toasts, to become a washing machine; it might try, and you might applaud the effort; but it is not going to be good at it.  Updike died unawarded.

These days I read, from time to time, how Philip Roth is thought by many (mostly Americans) to be a worthy Nobel winner, and how it is a shame that he continues to be ignored. Well Roth is not European; so tough luck. He also suffers from the fatal flaw of having written countless novels which were funny, extremely readable, thought provoking, and, mostly, of high quality. He might consider (like Updike) changing his writing style and attempt writing something that would inspire the hacks at the Nobel committee to describe his writing as something that depicts the universality of myth (richly and inventively, I hasten to add), imbued with poetic intensity, and showing deep awareness of the human condition. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. (Indeed Roth has declared that he is through with writing novels. Nemesis, his 2009 novel is going to be his last novel, Roth has announced.) And, as a Philip Roth fan, I would not have wanted him to do it anyway. Would you ask your favourite chef who specializes in making mouth-watering, succulent, rich (and fattening)) roast beef to make a tofu dish, which, nutritional it might be, will have the taste and texture of office furniture?