Friday, 4 December 2009

Bewitchment of Language

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein opens his Philosophical Investigations with the following excerpt from ‘Confession’ by Augustine, in which he, Augustine, describes the way in which he learnt language.

Cum ipsi (majores homines) appellabant rem aliquam, et cum secundum eam vocem corpus ad aliquid movebant, videbam, et tenebam hoc ab eis vocari rem illam, quod sonabant, cum eam vellent ostendere. Hoc autem eos velle ex motu corporis aperiebatur: tamquam verbis naturalibus omnium gentium, quae fiunt vultu et nutu oculorum, ceterorumque membrorum actu, et sonitu vocis indicante affectionem animi in petendis, habendis, rejiciendis, fugiendisve rebus. Ita verba in variis sententiis locis suis posita, et crebro audita, quarum rerum signa essent, paulatimcolligebam, measque jam voluntates, edomito in eis signis ore, per haec enuntiabam.

Augustine says, ‘When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.’ Augustine goes onto say that the more his elders pointed out objects with their bodily movements, he grew to learn how to speak in sentences and express desires.

Wittgenstein comments on this passage by saying:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Wittgenstein refers to this understanding of words as ‘ostensive’, for it “establish[es] an association between the word and the thing

We can only analyze concepts in terms of words. By the time one has reached the stage of thinking or reflection, one has learnt how to speak at least one language. A child [Wittgenstein argues] uses such primitive forms of language when it learns to talk. Here the teaching of language is not explanation, but training. An important part of the training will consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word.

‘The ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it can mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child's mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen, is it the purpose of the word? Yes, it can be the purpose. I can imagine such a use of words (of series of sounds). Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination,’ says Wittgenstein.

What is the purpose of language? An obvious use is for communication. We also use language for thinking or reflection. Communication, thus, involves at least two parties—it is, one might say, the public use of language. Thinking, on the other hand, is a private activity and need not comprise entirely of language; one might use mental images while thinking. In theory, then, it is possible that the person can create his own rules, a sort of private language, where words may be assigned meanings different from those in ordinary language. When language is used for public communication you have to use the words in their conventional meaning. This brings me to another related question. Say, I am speaking to another person; (borrowing liberally from an example Wittgenstein gives in ‘Psychological Investigations’) say I am a builder and giving instructions to this person who is my assistant; say, I want the assistant to pass on to me stones or a beam or a slab. I shall then use words or sentences to convey to the assistant what I want. The assistant, if he fully understands what I am saying, will do what I am asking him to do. The communication can be broken down into several steps: firstly I have something meaningful to say; I use words—which are symbols— and sentences to convey the meaning to the assistant; the assistant understands something—he decodes the symbols—by the words and sentences he hears. The communication between the assistant and me is effective only if the assistant understands the same as what I mean.

Learning language, according to Wittgenstein, involves giving names to objects, to human beings, to shapes, to colours, to pains, to moods, to numbers, etcetera. Naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the use of a word. But what is it a preparation for? What do words in a language signify? Wittgenstein would have us believe that the words signify the kind of use they have. For the communication to be effective there ought to be an agreement that people will use the same words to have the same meaning. The built in rules of a language would go some way towards achieving this. When the words are used to stand for concrete things, there can be an unambiguous agreement about what they signify. However, when the words are used to express abstract concepts it may be difficult to build up an agreement. Hearing words, or looking at them in print, Wittgenstein says, is like looking into a cabin of a locomotive. He uses an interesting analogy to put forth his point. We may see handles all more or less looking alike. But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro. Therefore, when we say 'Every word in language signifies something' we have said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make, unless of course we want to distinguish the words of language from nonsensical words such as occur in Lewis Carroll's poems.

Many of us have this idea, subconsciously if not consciously, that words have some kind of real, essential meaning. This assumption is fallacious. The same word may be used with different meanings in different contexts and connections. Take the word ‘Rascal’: it can be used to describe someone (frequently a child) who is playful and mischievous; or it can be used to describe an unscrupulous, dishonest person. So what is the real meaning of the word ‘Rascal’? I do not think that it has any real meaning. We can employ this word to perform different jobs in different contexts, and presumably the listeners would make a judgment about what is sensible for them to understand when they hear the word. Words can be used in very many different contexts and have so many different meanings that it may be argued that they do not serve any useful purpose as effective tools of thinking. If we consider the English language, the same word can be used as a noun or verb, or a noun and an adjective. Take the word ‘kind’, for example, which is used as an adjective and a noun, more frequently the former. Also, when used as an adjective it can sometimes have a moral connotation. When we describe someone as kind we could mean a variety of things: we might mean that the person is of generous, warm-hearted nature; or is showing sympathy; or is humane and considerate; or is forbearing; or is liberal; or is agreeable. Although the word used is the same—‘kind’—there are nuances related to the contexts in which the word is used, and, when we are talking, we emphasize the meaning by our voices, intonations, gestures etcetera. When we are writing, the function is partly served by the syntax and punctuation. None of the meanings, though, is an essential one. However, it does not mean that we can bounce off to the opposite extreme and use the words whichever way we choose, as that will increase the risk of being misunderstood and failure of communication. Even if you adhere to the position that there is no essential meaning to any word, it is a natural human tendency to hang on to something fixed in our thinking, and the majority of people will use a given word more frequently to convey a particular meaning. Wittgenstein gives an example: ‘Can I say "bububu" and mean ‘If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk”? It is only in a language that I can mean something by something. This shows clearly that the grammar of ‘to mean’ is not like that of the expression ‘to imagine’ and the like.’

This brings me back to what Wittgenstein calls the ostensive definition of a word. The ostensive definition, according to Wittgenstein, explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in the language is clear. Thus if I ‘know’ that someone means to explain a colour-word to me, the ostensive definition ‘That is called sepia (or beige)’ will help me to understand the word. One has to already know something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But [Wittgenstein asks, rhetorically] what is it that one has to know? He gives an example to elucidate this further. ‘I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: “This is the king; it can move like this,.... and so on.” In this case we shall say: the words “This is the king” are a definition only if the learner already knows what a piece in a game is. That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing 'and understood'. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do you call this?"-- that is, this piece in a game. We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it.’

To complicate the matter further, there are words, at least in English—possibly in other languages— which are used to convey similar or approximate meaning, for example, the two adjectives: ‘splendid’ and ‘ ‘resplendent’. It might be argued that the two words convey subtly different meanings. If we consult an expert about this, he might say that ‘splendid’, depending on the context in which it is used, can be used to express brilliance of colour, as in ‘splendid field of flowers’; or grandeur, as in ‘splendid costumes’; or admiration, as in ‘splendid achievement’; or praise, as in ‘splendid performance’. ‘Resplendent’, on the other hand is usually used to describe a striking or brilliant appearance; one would not use it to convey all the other meanings attached to the word ‘splendid’. If we ask a random sample of people the same question: what difference, if any, do they attach to the words ‘splendid’ and ‘resplendent’, and suppose the majority of the sample thinks that there is no difference between the two words and can be used synonymously, does it mean that they are wrong or are not properly educated (because they are unaware of the different meanings of the word ‘splendid’ which are different from ‘resplendent’)?

It would be safe to conclude that a reasonably valid distinction can be drawn between the majority use of a word, and its educated or expert use. And, since, the main purpose of language is communication, to depart from the majority usage is liable to lead to the failure of communication. This is not to say that the majority are always right, for example, if the majority of people believe that William the Conqueror landed in England in 966 AD, they are plain wrong and their thinking does not make it right. If, on the other hand, the majority thinks that a word is used to convey a certain meaning and use it in that way, then they are ‘right’, and it is their thinking and resultant action (i.e. using the word in a manner that conveys a particular meaning) make it right.

Are there then any desirable qualities one should attempt to adhere to while communicating, say, while writing? Should one be clear, precise, accurate and unambiguous in our writing? Some would argue that these are desirable qualities. (These would also be the people who would hesitate to label James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ a masterpiece.) It has also been suggested that any verse which carries these qualities cannot be considered, in any considerable degree, poetry. So, what is desirable? That would depend on the context and the task in hand, in other words. A relentlessly rational and cogent argument that leaves no one in doubt as to what the writer has in his mind may be desirable when one is debating or putting forth a case or attempting to give factual information. On the other hand, a novel, or a drama, that supplements the reader’s imagination may enhance the enjoyment one will get out it. The flip side of the coin is sometimes poems or plays are subjected to over-elaborate linguistic investigations and conclusions may be drawn which might not have been in the mind of the creator (as in ‘Waiting for Godot’.) There is a tendency to examine words minutely, as it were through a microscope, and pontificate on different meanings they might carry. The conclusions may be valid only if at least some people use the words in the manner in which a given usage of the word purports to describe reality.

So, what did Wittgenstein have in mind when he talked of the bewitchment of our intelligence by language? Sometimes a writer may deliberately (or should I say, ‘intentionally’? Is there a subtle difference between the two adverbs? Does ‘deliberately’ carry a slightly aggressive connotation—something done on purpose to irritate—whereas ‘intentionally’ is more neutral?) use language in a way calculated to evoke strong emotions that may override the intellect. I have utterly enjoyed novels where the force of the narrative and the accompanying emotions are so strong—for example some of the Tibor Fischer novels—that they make you ignore the fact that one can drive a schooner through the holes in the logic and consistency. However, I do not think this is the same kind of bewitchment Wittgenstein was referring to. A word, Wittgenstein says, has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it. He further clarifies (or confuses depending on your view) that the word ‘meaning’ should be taken to have been used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that corresponds to the word. That, in Wittgenstein’s eyes, is to confound the meaning of the name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say ‘Mr. N. N. is dead.’

A name [says Wittgenstein] ought really to signify a simple. And, as is his wont, he gives an example, ostensibly to elucidate his point: the word ‘Excalibur’, say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if "Excalibur" is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence ‘Excalibur has a sharp blade’ would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. The meaning of a word, Wittgenstein concludes, is its use in the language. What then lies behind the idea that names really signify simples? Wittgenstein quotes Socrates [in ‘Theaetetus’] (who, it should be noted, is no easier to comprehend than Wittgenstein). ‘There is no definition of the primary elements--so to speak--out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exist in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not..... But what exist in its own right has to be..... named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names.’

Something red can be destroyed, Wittgenstein says, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word 'red' is independent of the existence of a red thing. What Wittgenstein is saying here is if as a result of the way in which we use language lead us to form erroneous conclusions about reality, then our intelligence is bewitched by the language—it is akin to believing that since the word gryphon exists, there must also exist an animal represented by the word. The word exists, therefore the thing exists—that is the bewitchment of intelligence by language. While most of us will not be misled when it comes to believing whether or not mythological creatures exist, it might create confusion at more complex and abstract levels. Like the so called essential meaning of the word: simply because someone talks about the essential meaning all the time does not necessarily mean that there is one, and setting about finding it is going to be as futile as collecting sand in a sieve. The language—its words, the structure of sentences—influences the way we think. When we are watching, say, a musical, and decide that it is splendid, how do we choose the word ‘splendid’? Do we form an idea in our mind about the quality of the play, then search for the word from the repertoire at our disposal that would code the idea appositely; or does our knowledge of the word ‘splendid’, that is, its meaning, influence what we think? When a child learns a language, at the most simplistic, or primitive, level, Wittgenstein says, the following process occurs: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone. And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher--both of these being processes resembling language. We learn language by association, and form an idea of what the words, constituents of the language, signify. And this knowledge influences our thinking.

That is what Wittgenstein meant by bewitchment of our intelligence by language. I think.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book of the Month: Life And Death of Harriet Frean (May Sinclair)

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.

May Sinclair (real name Mary St Clair) is a forgotten name these days. Yet, before Virginia Woolf’s emergence as a major writer, Sinclair was one of the most distinguished women writers from the Edwardian and Georgian age. Critically acclaimed and popular in both England and America, she was the author of twenty-four novels, of which Life and Death of Harriet Frean, (together with Mary Oliver: A Life) is remarkable as much for its exploration of Freudian themes as for its subtle and insightful analysis of English class and character of the Victorian era. In fifteen short chapters, the novel traces the life of Harriett Frean, from her birth to death, animadverting, in the process, some of the cherished values of the Victorians.

Harriet Frean, the eponymous heroine of the novel, like her creator, is a product of the Victorian era. There are no Victorian monsters in her childhood, though. Indeed, her parents are educated people—her father reads Herbert Spencer and Darwin, while her mother reads biographies of Great men—who are self-consciously free from any vulgarity in their personal conduct, epitomized by their refusal to deliver corporal punishment to Harriett. Little Harriett is brought up to believe that vanity is sin, and, like all those whose breeding is true, she mingles happily with the proles and tinkers. From an early age, her parents have inculcated her with a sense of moral righteousness: Self-denial and subjugation of will are two virtues that bring the greatest joy and make one morally beautiful. The deliberate deprivation of the self’s longing takes a poignant meaning when young Harriett renounces Robin, the man betrothed to Priscilla, one of her close friends, who declares that it is Harriett who he really loves. Harriett is convinced that she would be doing the wrong thing; she would not be happy, always thinking what she had done to her friend, and, even if she were happy, she had no moral right to get her happiness out of her friend’s suffering. It is a grand moment of self-sacrifice in Harriett’s life, a moment in which she puts into practice all that she has imbibed from her parents—indeed, Harriett’s decision of not reciprocating Robin’s feelings on moral grounds is subtly abetted by her parents. As the story unfolds and the once pretty Harriet mutates into a bitter, cynical, haughty, and impoverished spinster, the utter futility of that sacrifice is spread out for the reader.

The beauty of Life and Death of Harriett Frean is that the novel works at several levels. It can be enjoyed as a chilling case history of a life marred by the deliberate repression of one’s desires and instincts, of a life crushed by the weight of decorum and misdirected correctitude. However, it is more than that. It is also a severe indictment of oppressive influence of one’s family, derived in turn from societal moratoriums, thwarting individual aspirations. The narrative style, for the most part, strives to drive the point home via irony, occasionally sarcasm; except on one occasion: a dialogue between an old Harriett and a much younger woman, who censures Harriett, and suggests that she had been a selfish fool, her self-sacrifice having brought nothing but misery and unhappiness to all the parties. This didactic excerpt strikes a slightly contrary note in its directness, as though Sinclair, suddenly unsure whether the reader has grasped the message, decided to take a more direct approach.

Life and Death of Harriett Frean is also remarkable for Sinclair’s admirable, if somewhat clumsy, attempts at exploring Freudian themes. The novel was published at a time when Freud’s psychodynamic theories were at the height of their popularity in Europe. Sinclair, deeply influenced by the works of Freud and Jung, explored some of Freud’s defence mechanisms in her novels. In Life and Death of Harriett Frean she analyses repression and its consequences. Robin, spurned by Harriett, ends up marrying Priscilla with whom he had original fallen in love. Priscilla, realising soon enough that her husband’s heart belongs to her best friend, can give vent to her rage only by developing a hysterical paralysis. It is a kind of non-verbal pantomime, which castigates not only Robin—who, unable, perhaps by societal taboos and constraints, to end the sham marriage, is reduced for the rest of their married life, which mercifully comes to an end when Priscilla dies, to a glorified flunkey—but also herself, her ego killing two birds in one stone, so to speak, by punishing Robin for his emotional infidelity and herself for the intense hostility, albeit unconscious, she feels towards him for his betrayal. When Priscilla dies of pneumonia—it is not easy to die of hysterical paralysis—Robin marries Beatrice, who has nursed Priscilla in her final illness, and takes out his pent up bitterness and frustration on her by developing hypochondriacal symptoms, and Beatrice, with apparent willingness, takes on the role Robin had played in his unhappy marriage to Priscilla.

George Orwell once described Sinclair’s novels as an example of ‘good bad writing’. Orwell was unduly harsh on Sinclair. Sinclair’s writing style is deceptively simple, at times stark and trenchant; yet the writing has the lambency that many a writer with showy linguistic flourish would struggle to achieve. The sparse, parsimonious style also manages to effectively convey the misguided Spartanism that keeps Harriett in its vice like grip. It also conveys, without hyperbole, the gradual transformation of Harriett from an angelic girl, full of joi de verve into a sullen, peevish misanthrope. One wonders to what extent was Harriett was the author’s alter ego.

Harriett’s attitude towards men is kept tantalizingly enigmatic throughout the novel. In response to Robin’s declaration of love, never once does Harriett reciprocate. The author does not elaborate—deliberately, you get the impression—why Harriett chooses to live a life that many people, at least those from her generation, would describe as inefectual. Instead, she regresses more and more into the suffocating and cloying embrace of her parents, and fails to feel liberated even after their deaths. In real life, Sinclair did not have relationships with men throughout her long life and led, for all appearances, a life of celibacy. Youngest of six children, and the only daughter, Sinclair was very close to her family. She lived with her mother until the mother’s death, and nursed her brothers, all of whom suffered from an inherited heart condition, four of them dying before their fiftieth birthday. Whether Life and Death of Harriett Frean, written when Sinclair was fifty-nine (by that time Sinclair was showing unmistakable signs of early Parkinson's disease; ten years later she would stop writing completely), is a reflection on Sinclair’s own life, will remain a matter of conjecture. If it is, one can either admire the dispassionate dissection of an unfulfilled life, or wonder at the self-loathing that inspired the novel.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Hilary Mantel

The 2009 Man-Booker Prize judges have thrown a curve. For the first time in years the bookies’ favourite has actually bagged the prize. Hilary Mantel, an overwhelming favourite this year for Wolf Hall, her historical novel about the Tudor villain, Thomas Cromwell, romped home, seeing off a late challenge from Simon Mawer. Mawer, initially considered an outsider (he was given the odds of 14/1 to win the award when the long list was announced and few, at that stage, would have expected him to make it to the short-list), moved into the second position (7/2 odds) behind Mantel (10/11 odds) just a day before the announcement of the award. The Chair of the panel said that the judges were split between Mantel and one other finalist (who was not named); in the end Mantel ‘won’ after a secret ballot, which came out in her favour by 3-2. By awarding the Man Booker to Wolf Hall, the judges have laid to rest another long-held assumption that the literary awards rarely go to genre novels. In the almost forty year history of the Booker prize, not many genre novels have featured as winners. J.G. Farrell won the Booker in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, his revisionist take on the Indian mutiny of 1857, in the fictional town of Krishnapur. In the eighties Thomas Kennelly won the Booker for Schindler’s Arc, his fictionalized account of the German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

Mantel is a prolific writer—in 24 years she has produced 10 works of fiction and a couple of works of non-fiction, besides contributing regularly to broadsheets— who is difficult to pigeonhole into a single category; she has handled different genres with equal ease. Her novels, at first glance, could not be more different from one another, yet they are bound by leitmotifs. Her first two novels, Every Day is A Mother’s Day and its sequel, Vacant Possession, were black, almost spiteful, comedies, characterized as much by their excellent, near-perfect prose—a stylemark that would distinguish Mantel over the years—as by their relentlessly bleak tone. She followed them up by Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, a political thriller in Saudi Arabia. However, it was not just a thriller; it was also a scorching denunciation of a society that (as Mantel saw it) reduced women to second-class citizen. Fludd, her next novel, was a theological mystery set in a fictional town in the North of England; the evil, whose presence can always be felt in Mantel’s fiction, actually takes the appearance of a person in this novel. It was her next novel on the chaos of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, that brought Mantel wider recognition. Even though it was the fifth to be published, it was the first to be written, and, perhaps, for that reason, it is the most straightforward of her novels. Mantel wrote the novel in her twenties when she was having severe health problems because of an undiagnosed gynaecological condition. (The monumental 350,000-words manuscript, as Mantel revealed later, was rejected when she submitted it the first time around. Later, she expressed doubts as to whether it was even read properly; the rejected manuscript, when it arrived, had a few chunks missing!) Since then Mantel has published five more novels (including the Booker winner, The Wolf Hall): A Change of Climate, which moves nimbly between England and Africa; An Experiment in Love, a coming of age novel; The Giant O’Brian, which could not have been further afield from her previous novels—the story, set in the eighteenth century, of a freakishly tall Irishman, who, when faced with starvation at home, decides to go to London and earn money by exhibiting himself as a curiosity; and the excellent Beyond Black. In an interview around the time of the publication of Beyond Black, Mantel said that the novel was conceived after the death of Lady Diana and it took her seven years to complete it. ‘In a spirit of mild curiosity’ Mantel visited a psychic and was ‘fascinated and amazed’ by her persona. As she went out, in the foyer, she saw a woman who was obviously the assistant of the psychic. This got Mantel thinking: ‘What kind of job was it? What did it involve?’ The novel, she said, began out of simple human curiosity.

A distinctive characteristic of many of Mantel’s novels, and much has been written about it, is the sense of something eerie and spine-chilling that pervades her narration—the hidden violence, nastiness, malevolence, and betrayal that lurk just underneath the surface. Her approach is calculated to get the hair on your neck rising, not in a sudden shock, but gradually; the sense of menace gets gradually overpowering. Her novels are often about pain and rage. There is comedy, but it is invariably black. It would be fair to say that Mantel does not tell the most pleasant of tales.

In 2003, Mantel published her memoirs, Giving Up the Ghost, which throws some light on the preoccupations and themes which have consistently appeared in her work. Born into a working class family in Derbyshire, Mantel, the eldest of the three children of her parents, Margaret and Henry, had, to say the least, rather disturbing childhood. She was a sickly child and missed school a lot because of her illness. In a recent interview she said that she was ‘squeezed’ into an observer’s role because of her frequent absences from school. A precocious child, she was gifted with a large vocabulary, yet retreated into being virtually dumb and hardly uttered a word during her primary school. Then, at the age of seven, she encountered devil, as she puts it, in her back-garden. What she encountered was so evil that she still finds it difficult to describe it. This is how she describes it in her memoirs:

‘It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. . . . It has no edges, no mass, no dimension, no shape except the formless; it moves. I beg it, stay away, stay away. Within the space of a thought it is inside me, and has set up a sick resonance within my bones and in all the cavities of my body.’

Much later she recalled: ‘The experience was absolutely destroying, as if my body was falling apart at a cellular level, which expressed itself in intense nausea. The way I rationalised it was that it was the devil. As a Catholic, that was the theology I had at my command.’ It was as if, the devil represented all the things that were going on in the house – ‘the unhappiness of our family and the pressure of secrets and lies’. Her childhood, she recalled later, was ‘distinguished by a pervasive quality of fear.’ Young Mantel would appear to have fervid imagination: she could feel dead whistling in the wall, was convinced that the house was haunted, and for a period when she was eight her field of vision was filled with ‘a constant moving backdrop of skulls.’ In an interview she explained this by saying she was probably seeing sensory images of other people’s unhappiness. (Such strange experiences seem to have dogged Mantel even in her adult life. She once claimed that she dreamt a whole story, got up and typed it in the early hours of the morning and went back to sleep; when she got up again, the manuscript had vanished!)

Hilary Mantel was born Hilary Thompson. Her father was a clerk. When she was seven or eight, the family took on a lodger by the name of Jack Mantel. Over the next 3-4 years, Jack Mantel became the dominant figure in the house, and replaced her father in her mother’s life. Her father, however, did not move out, not straightaway; he moved into the spare bedroom. He remained a peripheral, shadowy figure in the house. In the evenings, Hilary’s mother would be in the kitchen with the lodger while her father would stay in the front room. The ménage a trios lasted for almost 4 years. When Hilary was eleven, the family moved from Derbyshire to Cheshire. Her father, though, did not move with the family. He vanished, and Hilary never saw him again. In Cheshire, Hilary was instructed to tell at school that Jack Mantel was her father and the family took on the name Mantel. (The biological father, it turned out, married a widow who had six children, one of whom got in touch with Mantel after the publication of Giving Up the Ghost. He died in 1997.) After finishing school Mantel studied law. She married her husband, who was then a geologist, at the age of 20 (they divorced a few years later and remarried a few years after that). Mantel spent five years in Botswana and four years in Saudi Arabia, the two countries forming the backdrop of some of her novels. The twenties were traumatic years for Mantel, mainly because her physical health deteriorated and she was plagued with crippling pain. She was initially diagnosed as suffering some form of psychiatric illness. Unsurprisingly the treatment did not help; into the bargain, she experienced debilitating side-effects from the medications, and steered clear of the medical profession for the next few years. Eventually, feeling desperate, Mantel referred to the medical textbooks and self-diagnosed her condition! It was confirmed subsequently by the doctors. The treatment—this time the correct one—was not without its aftermath: she had to undergo hysterectomy (at the age of 27)—which meant that she could not have children—and the hormonal treatment caused her weight to balloon to twenty stone. In an interview, Mantel described herself—with the detached irony that is so characteristic of her writing—as a comic book version of herself. These scarring years, however, had one good upshot. They made her a writer. ‘I do not think I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been ill,’ Mantel once recalled. She said, ‘Illness forces you to the wall, so the stance of the writer is forced on you. Writing keeps you still and as long as your brain is working it doesn't matter if your body isn't.’ She was in ‘despair ‘as to how she was going to make her mark on the world. ‘All I was good at was writing, so I sat on the sofa with a notebook.’

It is not difficult to see how Mantel’s background, childhood and life-experiences are the driving force behind much of her fiction. Take Mantel’s last published novel before Wolf HallBeyond Black. The novel is absolutely first rate, with sharp, witty—even nasty— humour, and cool—almost detached—prose style reminiscent of Muriel Spark. The black comedy would have had Graham Greene nodding with approval. The novel nevertheless has a kind of unsettling feel to it; underneath the biting observations and satiric vision is lurking something ominous and creepy. (One of the two protagonists of the novel, Alison, is a medium, who tries to help people; meanwhile devils pour filth into her ears day and night (is she hallucinating?); her childhood is not overtly happy either, as she is locked into the attic of her prostitute mother.) In Change of Climate, the missionary couple, Ralph and Anna, are leading a quiet existence, doing good work, in Norfolk; yet something has happened in South Africa where they had lived for years before their return to England, something that happened to one of their children, which they cannot bring themselves to speak about. An Experiment in Love, which tells the story of the descent of an adolescent girl into anorexia, despite its razor-sharp observations and clear-eyed wit, has dark turns and, ultimately, is a deeply dispiriting novel. Eight Months on A Gazzah Street is remarkable for its narrative power—Mantel slowly builds up the tension and almost imperceptibly horror replaces the stifling boredom the protagonist, Frances, experiences. The central theme of The Giant O’Brian is freakishness, which, as one reviewer put it, holds the reader somewhere between nausea and fascination.

Mantel, whose quality was never in doubt, has been writing for well over two decades, since the publication of her first novel in 1985; but, until now, had never been excessively high profile. Earlier this year, in an interview, she said that Wolf Hall—which, she revealed, post-Booker, she almost did not write as she hesitated for years since the idea first germinated twenty years ago— might prove to be her breakthrough novel. And so it has proven to be: with the Man Booker prize, Mantel has stepped out of relative obscurity and entered the premier league of writers. And deservingly so.

Book of the Month: Don't You Know Who I Am (Piers Morgan)

In 2004 Piers Morgan was sacked as the editor of The Daily Mirror after he authorised publication of the photos of British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, which subsequently proved to be a hoax. As Morgan revealed in his delightfully trashy and gossipy memoirs, The Insider (for which he is reported to have received an advance £ 1.2 million and which he never tires of informing was in the bestseller list for a number of weeks), there was not inconsiderable schadenfreude in the media over his downfall.

In Don’t You Know Who I Am, published in the same diary format as The Insider, Morgan updates us on what he did next after his newspaper career, which reached the dizzy heights of editing not one but two British tabloids in the space of ten years, came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end when he was frogmarched out of the offices of The Daily Mirror. So what did Piers do next? Well, he became a celebrity. How did he become a celebrity? He became a judge on a reality talent show in America, imaginatively titled America has Got Talent, along with that bloke who used to run in slow motion (when he was not cavorting with busty women) in the serial Baywatch, and a singer improbably named Brandy. Whom does Piers have to thank for his celebrity status? Why, of course, Simon Cowell, the modern day Svengali, the creator of several reality talent shows, on both sides of the pond, which attract huge television viewership and have the common element of encouraging people to make spectacles of themselves in front of camera, giving Cowell (who frequently appoints himself as one of the judges) opportunities to tell them how utterly talentless and useless they are.

In Don’t You Know Who I Am, Morgan supplies, in—to use slang from the country, which he says he has cracked like no one else—hellacious detail, his attempts to embrace the world of D grade celebrities such as Jade Goody (may her soul rest in peace), Abi Titmuss and Jordon, on whom, at the beginning of the diaries, he heaps scorn for having no discernable talent and doing outrageous things simply to stay on the front cover of Heat. Morgan then proceeds to describe, with candidness that makes you wince and, at times, self-deprecating humour, his desperate attempts to carve for himself a niche as a television presenter in programmes which few watched and fewer took seriously—he even sang and danced to Macarena while filling in for a day-time television programme, although he had the decency to cringe about it afterwards—before he washed up as the mean Brit on an American talent show. And this is not the only contradiction you will come across in these memoirs which are every bit as bitchy and causeristic (and therefore unputdownable) as The Insider. Having worked in the tabloid world for as long as he did—more than a decade of that period was as an editor—Morgan, of all people, should have known the tactics of the grub street to get juicy stories out of unsuspecting victims; yet he allows himself to be stitched up by a hack from The Daily Telegraph, and is surprised and disappointed when the published article shows him in less than glorious light.

There is name-dropping aplenty in the memoirs—you lose count of the celebrities Morgan dines with in the Ivy, gets drunk with, goes to watch cricket and football with, and who insult or snub him. We are also given salacious titbits from the interviews of celebrities he questions for the GQ magazine (Billy Piper, you might be interested to know—and I shall understand if you aren’t; or indeed aware who she is—is a really dirty girl). He is nauseatingly sycophantic about Simon Cowell, which is understandable seeing as he, Cowell, opened the proverbial doors of the celebrity world to Morgan. He is viciously vituperative about some others: Kate Moss, the supermodel, is dismissed as a ‘stroppy, pinched faced, cocaine-snorter from Croydon’, while her boyfriend, Pete Doherty is described as a hyena on acid. All of which, needless to say, makes very entertaining reading.

Morgan is obviously a witty, intelligent person, utterly untroubled by self-doubt; he is also, on the evidence of the two memoirs he has published, vain, egoistical, grandiloquent and (curiously) naive in an endearingly juvenile manner. You can’t help shaking your head as he boasts about some or more of his capers, be they tripping up George Galloway in an interview, or getting his back on Jack Straw in Question Time, or trying to gatecrash into parties only to be rebuffed by the security. You chuckle affectionately as he describes with unbridled ebullience his sense of delight when he is given his own trailer for the reality television show in America; it obviously is proof, if proof is needed, that Morgan has firmly ensconced himself in the celebrity world: the Hoff gets a trailer and so does Morgan. There is rather a lot of the Hoff, or David Hasselhoff, one of the three judges on the reality TV show America Has Got Talent. Morgan would have you believe that Hasselhoff, despite only ‘medium talent’, is a cultural icon of our times, but does not really provide any convincing evidence to support this assertion; what he gleefully dishes out, instead, is numerous anecdotes of the Hoff’s erratic behaviour and insecurities. Morgan himself does not seem to lack in insecurities: a thread running through the memoirs is Morgan’s attempts to woo the gossip columnist from The Daily Telegraph, Celia Walden, whom he gushingly describes as ridiculously beautiful and utterly gorgeous (going by Morgan’s description, Walden, the daughter of an ex Tory MP, is a cross between Bridget Bardot and Claudia Schiffer), and, linked to it, his insecurities when he thinks others are trying to hit on her or when she is speaking to someone like Shane Warne, who, according to Morgan, is so charismatic and has such animal magnetism (and not just with pub waitresses) that he feels compelled to be present throughout the 30 seconds he allows his girlfriend to speak to the Australian cricket legend. However, it is when Morgan writes about his own expectations and experiences in America, with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, that he is most entertaining, for example when describing his disappointment when no one recognises him, or, worse, someone recognises him as Alan Titchmarsh. Morgan recounts these incidents with a kind of easy banter which is simultaneously not at all serious and very earnest. His three children (who live, we are informed, with his ex-wife) get a lot of mention and Morgan comes across as a proud and affectionate father, even if he seems to contribute practically nothing towards their upbringing.

Don’t You Know Who I Am is an enjoyable, scabrous read, written in a forceful, no holds barred manner. It is impossible to take any of it seriously, of course, but you get the impression that Morgan does not want you to, in any case. You’d probably enjoy it even more if you have watched the talent show Morgan judges and know a bit about the celebrities he talks about. But even if you don’t, you will savour the book. Piers Morgan is a very funny writer, and Don’t You Know Who I Am is a thoroughly good fun.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Man Booker Short-list 2009

James Naughtie is thrilled. ‘Why?’ I hear some of you thinking. 'Who is James Naughtie?’ I hear some others wondering. Whoever James Naughtie is and whatever might be the reasons behind his excitement, why should it be made public knowledge? What has that got to do with hoi polloi?

Let me advise you that James Naughtie is the chair of the 2009 Man Booker prize committee. And the Man Booker, as all of us lettered, cultured, cultivated, informed, and scholarly people know, is the most prestigious literary award on this side of the Atlantic (or the Urals, depending on the direction from which you are looking); therefore, when James Naughtie publically admits to have been excited, we know that it can be only about one thing: he is excited about the short-listed novels.

So, what are the novels that are in the running for the award this year? They are, in no particular order, as follows:

The Children's Book, A. S. Byatt

Summertime, J. M. Coetzee

The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

There are two former Booker winners on the list—A.S. Byatt, who won it in 1990, and J.M. Coetzee, who has won it not once, but twice. Sarah Waters, I am sure, has been shortlisted in the past, for Fingersmith and also for Nightwatch. I do not think Hilary Mantel has hitherto been shortlisted or indeed been ever in serious contention, although her Beyond Black, one of the most delightfully quirky novels I have read in recent times, deserved to be short-listed. Finally, completing the short-list, are Adam Foulds and Simon Mawer, of whom I had never heard, but that is neither here nor there; Mawer, I discovered, has published seven novels prior to the Glass Room. Adam Foulds, at 34, is the youngest of the pack.

So, what is James Naughtie excited about? Well, he is excited about getting a headache. The short-list, he enthuses, is so strong, it is going to give him and his fellow panelists—he is sure of it—a headache when they meet to pick up the winner. These authors, Naughtie would have us believe, are at the peak of their powers, and he is definitely looking forward to reading their offerings again (and risking a headache).

The short-list this year is remarkable for, if nothing else, the absence of Irish or Indian authors, who had, in recent years, been a permanent fixture of the short-lists. Indeed, with the exception of the South Africa born Coetzee, all the short-listed authors are English. This meant that the veteran Irish Novelist, William Trevor, who, along with Beryl Bainbridge and Anita Desai, surely must hold the record of not winning the award despite being short-listed several times, and Colm Toibin, who has been shortlisted twice before, were both overlooked.

Who will win the award this year? Not having read any of the short-listed novels, it is impossible for me to form an informed view, but it will not deter me from making educated guesses. I can confidently reduce the list from six to four. I would be very surprised if either Mawer or Foulds wins. They must be the outsiders. Last year, Arvind Adiga, a rank outsider, surprised everyone (including probably himself) by winning the award. I do not think that will happen this year.

That leaves the four heavyweights: Cotezee, Byatt, Waters and Mantel. Coetzee, if he wins, would complete a hat-trick, and, much as I admire the Nobel Laureate, I do not think that is going to happen. So, Coetzee is out. That leaves us with the three women authors. Hilary Mantel is the Bookie’s favourite for her historical novel, Wolf Hall, set in the court of Henry VIII. That should rule her out: in recent years, no one who was favoured by the bookies has actually won the award. The last one who was an overwhelming favourite of the bookies and went on to win the Booker was Arundhati Roy, and she won it more than a decade ago. So Mantel is not going to win, I think. That leaves us with Byatt and Waters. Byatt has won it once, while Waters has been shortlisted, but not won. I think it will be third time lucky for Waters. Yes, I predict that Sarah Waters will win the Man Booker award in 2009. Or will she? The judges might decide to add Byatt’s name to the list of those who have won the award twice (Coetzee and Peter Carey). Or they might be driven by the desire to create history by awarding Coetzee(who never bothers to attend, but allows his publishers to submit his novels to every possible literary award) the prize a record third time. Or they might choose Hilary Mantel as the winner, thereby proving the bookies to be right when everyone is expecting that the bookies-backed author would lose out. Or, they might do an ‘Adiga’ and choose an author whose chances of winning are considered to be slimmer than an anorexic’s waist-line. In which case either of Foulds and Mawer is in with a chance. Anyone can win really; I have no idea who will win.

Book of the Month: The Inheritence of Loss (Kiran Desai)

Kiran Desai published Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard a year after her fellow Indian author Arundhati Roy won the Booker for The God of the Small Things. While The God of Small Things, heavily influenced by Salman Rushdie’s novels, lived up to its pre-publicity hype—Roy, a noisy socialist, was said to have received what was then an unprecedented advance—and became a big success, Desai’s debut novel—on which, too, in the opulence and lushness of its narrative style and quirky use of Indian English, the influence of Rushdie was writ large,—enjoyed only modest success, despite critical approbation. Then Desai went into a long hibernation, and one wondered whether the author who had shown so much promise in her engaging, and at times hilarious, novel was going to turn out to be a one-book wonder. Eight years later she published The Inheritance of Loss, and, like Junot Diaz—who won several awards, the Pulitzer amongst them, for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which was published fourteen years after his first literary offering, Drown, a superb collection of short stories that heralded the arrival of a major talent—, bagged a prestigious award (the Man Booker).

The canvas of The Inheritance of Loss is vast: the story takes place over two continents—India and America—, spans two—no, make it three—generations of a family, and has, as its backdrop, the political unrest in the North-East of India—the agitation of the Ghurkhas (who have a country of their own, Nepal, but also have a sizeable presence in the East and North-East of India) for a separate state in the Indian Federation—in the 1980s. The story has two threads, indeed, one might say the novel has two stories within it, which are only tenuously linked.

In the foreground of the novel is Sai, Desai’s 17 year old protagonist, who arrives at the doorstep of her curmudgeonly maternal grandfather, Jemubhai, a Cambridge educated retired judge, who is quietly festering in a crumbling mansion in Kalimpong, a misty hill-station in the North-East of India, from where one can see the majestic ‘Kanchanjunga’ (Kalimpong is not an imaginary place; it is a town nestling in the lower Himalayas, in the Indian state of West Bengal). Life is not exactly a bed of roses for the poor Sai, both her parents having perished in an accident in Russia. This means that she has to leave the convent where she has been incarcerated, as her parents were stationed out of India. If Sai heaved a sigh of relief as she is rescued from the clutches of the sadistic, mildly deranged nuns at the convent, and expected some TLC from her grandfather, whom she has never met before, it is too soon; disappointment is in store for the orphan. Jemubhai is a surly, embittered misanthrope, who has love—inasmuch as he is capable of experiencing love—only for his dog, Mutt, whom he treats with more affection than his loyal cook, who has worked for him for decades. Moreover, Sai should have known: Jemubhai had disinherited his daughter, Sai’s mother, years ago for marrying a non-Hindu, and had never set eyes on his only grandchild before. The life for Sai, in the decaying mansion where her grandfather barely acknowledges her existence, is as bleak and depressing, though perhaps not as regimental, as it was in the dreadful convent. It is not really a surprise, then, that she develops a crush on Gyan, her Nepalese tutor, who is only a couple of years older than her and whose family has lived in Kalimpong for several generations. However Gyan and Sai’s nascent romance is about to be rifted, as the region (and, with it, the town of Kalimpong) is buffeted by the violent protests of the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF), which is demanding a separate state for the Nepalis. The judge’s home gets a taste of what is in store when a group of GNLF ‘bandits’, barely out of their teens, raid the house and take away the judge’s rifles. Gyan, tied to the history of his people, feels obliged to rally for the cause of the GNLF, even though he has doubts in his mind about their methods. The cook, meanwhile, has pinned all his hopes on his son Biju, who has been living in America for the past two years. Biju is an illegal immigrant, leading a shadowy existence along with other illegal immigrants from different nationalities in the loathsome basement kitchens of various restaurants and, inevitably, getting exploited—low wages, abysmal living conditions, very long working hours, no holiday, and no insurance if he becomes unwell. Biju’s struggle to better his life is ceaseless but futile, and, for that reason, heartbreaking. The story of Biju and his dismal, cheerless life in America is the other major thread of the story. The narrative flits between Kalimpong and America; however, the two threads never really meet, and the reader may wonder, as he glides on Desai’s sometime-languid-sometime quirky-prose, where it is leading. The denouement, however, comprising as it does betrayal, retribution, and (bizarrely) hope, is surprisingly creditable.

In an interview, Desai confessed that the novel was inspired, at least in part, by her own experience as an immigrant, someone who travelled between the East (India) and the West (America). As she began writing, she realised that she could not restrict the novel to her own experience, and the experiences of her parents as well as grandparents, all of whom had travelled between the East and the West, were included. However, The Inheritance of Loss is not a thinly veiled memoir. What Desai has also covered, and very effectively, in the story of Biju, is the journeys of the people who do not fit into the globalization, and end up leading shadow lives. Via the unassuming, meagrely gifted Biju, Desai shows that under the shiny patina of globalization things are as they have always been for decades; nothing has changed—the power imbalance, poverty, hate between nations still exist. The experience of being displaced, of being in exile, and how the unmoored, the unhinged, have the cri decoeur—it is not just Biju, in a foreign land and culture, who feels dislocated; Jemubhai, living the last years of his life in the country of his birth, and the Nepalese, Gyan, whose two generations have lived in India, feel alienated—of wanting to belong, to connect, is at the heart of the novel.

The Inheritance of Loss is also remarkable for its vividly evocative descriptions of nature and landscape. Barely a page passes without Desai waxing eloquent on the details of the quotidian, and attempting to make it enchanting. Overall, it works well, although at times such passages have an over-refined, contrived air about them. At other times, Desai’s writing becomes exuberantly convivial. The prose, thus, does not have a settled rhythm to it, alternate as it does between linguistic hijinks and languid, soft gentleness. That is not necessarily a drawback, though.

The Inheritance of Loss is a hugely ambitious novel. Moving across eras and continents, Desai tackles big themes. However, the novel is not just about abstract ideas; it is also strong on, and offers all the pleasures of, a riveting plot in a form that is very reassured. Kiran Desai dedicated The Inheritance of Loss to her mother, the celebrated author Anita Desai, who has the dubious distinction of being nominated for the Booker prize three times, only to be piped at the post on each occasion. The Inheritance of Loss is a worthy winner and Anita Desai can be justifiably proud of her daughter’s achievement. Kiran Desai has oodles of talent; one hopes that we do not have to wait for eight years for her next offering.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Eric Ambler: the Granddaddy of Espionage Writers

When I was growing up, I used to raid my father’s library—if it is not a hyperbole to describe two cupboards chocked up with books—every now and then. The ‘library’ comprised a hodgepodge of fiction and non-fiction books. There were many crime novels and espionage thrillers cramming the shelves in the cupboard. My father considered John le Care, all of whose novels he proudly owned, to be the greatest writer writing in English. He was also a fan of Len Deighton, many of whose novels were in his collection. He was very interested in the cold war espionage. When he was in the mood, in the evenings after supper, my father would talk about spies, intelligence and counterintelligence, MI5, KGB etcetera very animatedly, frequently referring to what le carre and Deighton had written in their novels (as if they were gospels). My father infused in me the love for reading and books. Unsurprisingly, when I began reading novels for grown-ups, le Carre, that stanchion of espionage and thriller writers, was the first one I tried. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was the first (and to date only) le Carre novel I read. I found it pretty hard going not least because—I dared not say this to my father—try as I did I just could not get interested in the story, and le Carre’s siccative prose style did little to alleviate my ennui. When the coda with its big revelation was reached, my reaction was ‘Is that it?’ Next, I tried Deighton. I started with The Ipcress File and gave up after a few pages. The Game-Set-Match trilogy was more accessible. Then my elder brother gave me a slim (in volume) novel titled The Catcher in the Rye. I read it and decided that that was the sort of novel I wanted to read. I have not got round to read a single le Carre or Deighton novel since—without suspecting at any time that the rich tapestry of my life is missing threads—, although I have read the novels that Graham Greene wrote in that genre (The Human Factor remains one of my most favourite novels).

One writer I never read, even though he came highly recommended by my father, was Eric Ambler. Ambler was outstanding too [my father declared] and was more versatile than le Carre in that his novels, while they were of suspense, action, adventure and intrigues (generally in foreign lands) did not adhere only to the theme of espionage , le Carre’s metier at the time (the Cold War was still on and le Carre and Deighton had no need to look anywhere else for ideas for their novels). I remember a few Eric Ambler novels in his ‘library', such as Passage of Arms, Journey into Fear and Intercom Conspiracy.

Years went by and, immersed as I became in the world of what I liked to pompously think in those days as serious twentieth century fiction, Ambler went totally off my radar. I think that happened partly because he went out of fashion. In the High Street book shops, while le Carre continued to be allotted a prominent space amongst main-stream, contemporary fiction writers and some of Deighton’s cult novels could still be glimpsed in the ‘Crime’ section, Ambler disappeared completely. I do not remember reading the news of his death eleven years ago, at the age of 89. Then, while browsing through a second hand bookshop (owned by an old, well oldish, man who wore a toupee (which was always, ever so slightly, misaligned), and a musty cardigan with a subjacent yellow (probably not the original colour) shirt, which, like the pair of black trousers, was probably not washed since the WW2) I came across three novels of Eric Ambler: Passage of Arms, The Schirmer Inheritance, and Light of Day. Passage of Arms was a hardbound edition while the other two were dog-eared paperbacks. Feeling nostalgic for the memory of my father’s dilatations of long ago, I bought all the three books (also, they cost only a fiver). The old man seemed to approve. ‘Good choice young man,’ he said, putting the books in a brown-paper bag. I left the book shop wondering whether the epithet ‘Young Man’ was in appreciation of my youthful looks (despite a balding pate and crow’s feet) or in reference to his excessively advanced years (which, if true, meant that his looks were youthful). That was a few months ago. I added the novels to the to-read-one-of-these-days-perhaps-when-I-am-on-vacation list and forgot about them.

A few weeks ago, something happened that prompted me to order all of Ambler's first six novels except The Dark frontier. I was driving to work in the morning, listening to John Humphrys carping about I forget what subject. Suddenly Humphrys started talking about Eric Ambler and I began to pay attention. I heard that this was the year of Ambler’s birth centenary. Humphrys said that he had never heard of Ambler, nor had he read any of his novels (a piece of otiose information; if Humphrys had never heard of Ambler, it was unlikely that he had read any of his novels). ‘But,’ Humphrys continued, ‘Ambler was very popular decades ago.’ He was also held in very high esteem by Graham Greene and John le Carre. For Greene [Humphrys informed] he was unquestionably ‘our best thriller writer.’ John le Carre described him as a ‘source on which we all draw.’ Ian Falming, too, was a fan of Ambler: in his 1957 novel From Russia with Love, Bond, who couldn’t be more different from Ambler’s almost-anti-heroes, whiles away his time, while flying to Istanbul, by reading The Mask of Dimitrios, although I wouldn't have thought he continued beyond a few pages (I have not read Ian Flemming either) concentrating, instead, on his next seduction. Why then, Humphrys wanted to know, Ambler went completely out of fashion, ‘suddenly disappeared’, after the Second World War. He then briefly spoke to Ambler’s sister and an ‘Ambler expert’. Neither could throw much light on the mystery. Ambler’s sister, who, I suspected from the way she spoke of her author brother, had not remained close to him with the passage of time—either that or she belonged to that generation which thought heaping praise on someone, even if he was your brother and dead for over a decade, was vulgar. She had no idea, she said, why Eric Ambler stopped writing. She remembered how Ambler, when he received the advance for his first published novel, took her and their mother to a sea-side resort in England for a holiday. The expert informed that Ambler remained prolific until the end. He quoted from an interview Ambler gave in 1990 when he was in his eighties. In the interview Ambler claimed [the expert said] that he was still writing. (If that was the case, the publishers must have jettisoned him; Ambler’s last novel, The Care of Time, I discovered after a brief Internet search, was published in 1981. He published an autobiography, cheekily titled, Here Lies Eric Ambler, in 1985.) Ambler published six novels in the 1930s, beginning with The Dark Frontier. These six novels (one of which was Journey Into Fear which was in my father’s ‘library’, while another was The Mask of Dimitrios which, according to Ambler fans and many experts, is his best spy novel, as much for its cracking plot as for its interesting take on the history of the crucial years between the two World Wars), I learnt, were Ambler’s best. With the advent of the Second World War, Ambler stopped writing for almost a decade. During the war he joined the British army and spent much of the time training and making educational films. Noel Coward exhorted Ambler to return to novel writing, which he duly did, in 1951, with Judgment on Deltchev, borne out of his increasing disillusionment with Communism, and which, apparently, attracted much opprobrium from his former comrades who accused him of going over to the dark side. Over the next thirty odd years, Ambler published ten more novels, which, however, did not enjoy the same level of success and popularity as his pre-war novels. This happened [the expert on the BBC Radio 4 pontificated] because Ambler found the Cold War uncongenial (an interesting choice of word); he did not have a dog in the Cold War (what could he have meant by this phrase?); he could not take the Cold War seriously; and he had a low opinion of intelligence services. What the expert was circumlocuting, I concluded, was that the Cold War and its intrigues did not motivate Ambler the same way the fight against Fascism, in the 1930s, did. There may be something in this hypothesis. When Ambler returned to writing novels in the 1950s, after a long hiatus, he eschewed the subject on which John le Carre and Len Deighton built up their reputations, and, instead, concentrated on the turmoil in the Developing World: thus Passage of Arms was set in South East Asia; Levanter had the Israel-Palestinian conflict as its backdrop; and Dr Frigo, which came out towards the end, was about a group scheming to grab power in a Caribbean island. Perhaps, these subjects did not catch the fancy of the European or American readership the same way the machinations, plotting and underhand scheming of the Cold War did. This is a pity, as Ambler had (probably) lost none of the verve, intricate plotting, and easily flowing prose style that made his early novels a success. His last published novel, Care of Time begins thus (I read on the Internet): ‘The warning message arrived on Monday, the bomb itself on Wednesday. It became a busy week.

I found an interview of Ambler on the Internet, an extract of which, reproduced below, throws light on his political views and views on the Cold War:

Early in my life and books, I was a little to the left. I voted Labour in 1945, but that was the extent of my political involvement. What I believe in is political and social justice. I’m of the same generation as [Graham] Greene. While he was hostile to America, he was never rude about it. I never put the Cold War in any of my books. Never took sides during the Cold War, not that I was a closet Communist. I always found the Cold War distasteful. For my wartime generation, it meant taking the best years of your life and turning them around. After the war, nobody wanted to return to prewar conditions. They had dreams of an improved way of life. Unfortunately, the Cold War did not help those dreams.

I found out a few more interesting titbits about Ambler. In the 1950s, Ambler collaborated with an Australian writer called Charles Coda, and the results, a total of five thrillers, were published under the nom de guerre Eliot Reed. Ambler later claimed that he had contributed substantially to only the first two thrillers. He also recounted an incident that stimulated him into becoming a thriller writer (this anecdote may also have been mentioned in his autobiography which is sadly out of print, like most of his novels): when Ambler was working in advertisement, in the early 1930s, he was once vacationing in Marseilles, and was cheated out of money while playing poker by an unscrupulous bartender. Ambler fantasized about killing the bartender with a rifle at a street crossing the city. At exactly the same spot, a few months later, a Croatian assassin shot dead King Alexander of Yugoslavia. Ambler claimed, almost half a century later, that this incident spurred his imagination; he became aware for the first time of a fresh bit of his personality, which was an assassin; he felt that there were people like him all over Europe, ‘ready to kill’. There were ‘strange and violent men’ with whom he felt he was in touch.

Ambler was, like James Hilton (another British novelist, hugely popular in his days but almost totally forgotten these days, who gifted the term Shangri La to the English language), also a successful screenwriter in Hollywood and, in 1953, was nominated for an Oscar for the best screenplay for a film called The Cruel Sea. Many of his own novels were also made into successful films, the most famous of which was of course Orson Wells’s Journey Into Fear; however, he did not write the screenplay of any of these films. Another successful film of the 1960s, Topkapi, was based on an Ambler novel, Light of the Day(Jack Murphy, who stole ‘Star of India’, world’s largest sapphire, from New York Natural History Museum, did so after watching Topkapi).

In an interview given towards the end of his life, Ambler remarked that thrillers said more about the way people think and governments behave than conventional novels. ‘A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer clues to what was going on in our world,’ he said.

It seems a pity that Ambler remains largely disregarded these days. He is, as Humphrys declared, the granddaddy of all the thriller writers.

Book of the Month: Uncommon Danger (Eric Ambler)

Eric Ambler, born a century ago, was one of the paramount designer of the espionage fiction. He lifted the genre from the turpitude of hackneyed plots, trite dialogues and unsubtle characterization into a hypersophistique cloak-and-dagger world of intrigue and moral ambiguity. He made thrillers respectable. In the 1930s, beginning with The Dark Frontier, Ambler published six espionage novels, which are generally considered to be his best. One of them was Uncommon Danger, published in America as Background to Danger.

The hero of Uncommon Danger, Desmond d’Esterre Kenton (his full name appears only once; throughout the novel he is referred to by his surname), like many of Ambler’s heroes, is not a professional spy. He is an ordinary, unexceptional man who finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a conspiracy with high stakes, double dealing, and fraudulence—of which he is unaware to begin with but, being a quick-witted person, he cottons on to what is going on—by being the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong place. He is an impoverished freelance British journalist with a penchant for losing money in ill-advised games of poker. He is travelling from Nuremberg (where he was reporting a meeting of the higher echelons of the Nazi party) to Vienna to cadge money from a Jewish acquaintance whom he helped two years before to escape from Munich. On the train he meets an exotic character named Herr Sachs, who claims to be a German Jew trying to escape Nazi Germany and offers him a substantial sum of money to smuggle an envelope (containing, he says, ten thousand marks in German securities) over the frontier, because, he, Sachs, is convinced that he is being watched by a Nazi spy, ‘a small eyed man with an unwholesome face’. Kenton susses out that the man is not being truthful and that he is also not who he says he is; however, the lure of money is too strong to resist—this is another characteristic of many of Ambler’s heroes; they are ever so slightly louche—and Kenton accepts the assignment. When he reaches the hotel, after passing through the customs at the Linz station, where Herr Sachs has told him he would be waiting, he discovers that the slippery Jew, who in fact is not a Jew, has been murdered. It gets fantastically convoluted and messy after that, with several parties, political and industrial, involved, pursuing their separate agendas. At the heart of the conspiracy is a plot to install a Fascist government in Romania by whipping up hysteria and mobilising public opinion against the Soviet Union. Kenton forms an uneasy alliance with a pair of Russian brother and sister, Andreas and Tamara Zaleshoff, and, after a series cliff-hanger situations that leave you gasping for breath and action that moves continuously across the borders of more than one country, foils the evil designs of the malefactors.

All of this is great fun, and, if the ambiance is not excessively tense, the cracking pace of the narration and witty, sardonic dialogues more than adequately compensate it. Ambler does not waste time in long passages describing scenery and architecture, and gets going from the first chapter. The story, notwithstanding some fantastical situations, has an air of authenticity, which is at least partly to do with the main protagonist, who is not the ultra-suave proto-Bond, oozing charisma and charming glamorous women into bed; he is an ordinary man who has trouble keeping stiff upper lip and who, in the face of temptation is prepared to bend principles; he has never fired a gun; and when he tries to hit someone he is as much likely to miss as connect. Kenton is someone the reader has no problem identifying with. Similarly, the villains, while loathsome, are plausible. Joseph Balterghen, the unpleasant chairman of the Pan-Eurasian Petroleum Company, is keen to have exclusive access to the oil fields in Bessarabia, Romania, and concludes that a regime change is Romania is the logical step to achieve his goal. The story also rings true because it reliably reflects what at that time was the real life political situation involving countries with different political systems: democracy, Marxism, and Totalitarianism. For example, the alleged soviet military secrets, the le point essentiel around which the plot revolves, relate to the actual source of tension between the soviet Union and Romania over the region of Bessarabia, which was controlled by Romania since the end of the First World War but over which the Soviets had staked a claim.

It is worth while noting the gentle treatment meted out to the Communists in the novel. The Zaleshoffs are depicted as essentially decent folk of integrity, and Communism is not viewed as the evil nemesis of the free world, as it came to be viewed in the post-WW2 fiction. Ambler was never officially a Communist; however, between the two World Wars, he leaned, ideologically so to speak, to the Left. As reflected in Uncommon Danger and his other masterpieces in the 1930s, he viewed Fascism as the main enemy. (Ambler would jettison his allegiance later, in his 1951 novel Judgement on Deltchev, which marked Ambler’s return to the world of crime fiction after a hiatus of more than a decade).

Beautifully written, superbly paced, and minaciously real, Uncommon Danger manages the rare feat of providig escapist entertainment and appearing bona fide at the same time, by a clever mix of grand political themes and topical action. It is unputdownable.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Michael Vaughn Retires

Cricket lovers in England and other cricket-playing countries will have been saddened by the retirement of Michael Vaughn, last month. The former England captain finally accepted that he had lost the battle against the recurrent knee injury. Vaughn had hoped for one last hurrah against the Aussies this season, but continued concerns about his fitness and lack of form in the County championship meant that the man who led England to a historic Ashes win in 2005 was left out of the test squad. Vaughn, in a style characteristic of his batting, did not waste much time dithering, and announced his retirement from all forms of cricket with immediate effect.

Vaughn was England’s most successful cricket captain in recent years. The statistics speak for themselves. He won 26 out of 51 tests in which he captained England, a very impressive success rate of more than 50%. He led England to six successive test series victories in a row, which included, in addition to the Ashes win in 2005—the first time in twenty years England beat the old enemy—a first series-win in South Africa for more than forty years. He also became the first England captain not to lose a test series in India for more than 30 years when England belied pundits’ predictions of a ‘brownwash’ and squared the series. Andrew Flintoff had no hesitation in choosing the best moments of his career: ‘It was when Michael Vaughn took over as captain for the South Africa series and the years after that,’ said the all-rounder, whose own test career, riven by injuries, will sadly come to an end at the end of the current Ashes series. Most England test players of recent years, who played with or under Vaughn would agree. Vaughn’s relaxed style of captaincy was in sharp contrast to the dour, bum-cheeks-firmly-clenched style of his predecessor, Nasir Hussain. For Hussain, a test match was a war and losing it was a catastrophe; the players needed to be badgered and continuously exhorted to focus; he rarely smiled on the field—one would feel sore in muscles by just watching his intense, glowering countenance. For Vaughn, as the cliché goes, cricket was just a game; he treated people as grown-ups, allowed his players the freedom to do their own things—he knew that players like Flintoff and Pieterson needed to be given an attacking license even if that meant that sometimes they played injudicious shots when caution was required— and, counterintuitively, got the best out of his players. Matthew Hoggard, another seamer who flourished under Vaughn, put it even more bluntly than Flintoff. When asked whom he preferred playing for, Vaughn or Hussain, Hogaard answered without hesitation: ‘Vaughn. He does not shout at me as much as Naseer.’ Vaughn brought a sense of fun and enjoyment to the England dressing room. Boycott, who is known to suffer from tongue impediment when it comes to praising people, compared Vaughn to Mike Brearley. The comparison is apposite: both Brearley and Vaughn succeeded in blending harmoniously the talents of diverse groups of players to forge winning units. They were both unflappable, calm, collected and had excellent man-management skills.

Unlike Brearley, who even by his own estimation was a mediocre batsman (he was that rare entity in cricket; he held his place in the team because of his leadership skills and not playing abilities), Vaughn was a very gifted batsman, who, at his best ranked amongst the top players in the world. Blessed with oodles of natural talent, he had a kind of lazy grace, which made batting look easy and world-class bowlers club-class. At his peak Vaughn was one of the most majestic players to watch, who utterly dominated the opponents. Different batsmen have different styles of batting. Some, like Boycott and Gavaskar, systematically ground the opposition to dust by batting for hours. (I remember watching a test match between England and India when Sunny Gavaskar batted for almost three days—he scored 70 runs on the first day, added another 70 on the second, and batted for a few more hours on the third day; when he finally got out having scored 170 odd runs, the test match was dead and all except die-hard Gavaskar fans had lost the will to live. Boycott was once dropped from the side after he scored 246 because the selection committee felt he took too long to score the runs and put his personal milestones ahead of the interests of the team.) Others, like Vivian Richards, wanted to destroy the opposition from the first ball. Vaughn’s style can be best described as silken. He was temperamentally incapable of being a grinder; neither was he a destroyer. He was pure elegance and a treat to watch. Repeatedly the bowlers were left shaking their heads in wonder and admiration as Vaughn leaned into his trademark cover drive sending the ball to the boundary as if in a slow motion. Vaughn was probably at his best in the 2002 and 2003 season. He scored three big hundreds against India, which included 197 in the second test, his highest score in tests, and 195 in the last test. He continued his excellent form when England toured Australia and scored three big hundreds in an otherwise dire tour for England, which included a match-winning 183 in the final test. He became, briefly, during this period, the number one batsman in the world, according to ICC ranking, ahead of Tendulakar and Lara. It was inevitable that he would lead England when Nasir Hussain stepped down in 2003. At that time his test batting average was an impressive 50.98. Vaughn did not manage to maintain the same form and consistency over the next few years which could have been a result of knee problems and the pressure of captaincy; but he scored when it mattered, and when he got going, like he did when he scored a regal 166 in the epic 2005 Ashes series, he was a pleasure to watch. He had wanted to play for England again and had withdrawn from the lucrative IPL (Indian Premiere League) in order to concentrate on his return to the test squad. However, his form deserted him; playing for Yorkshire, he managed 159 runs in eight innings, and Newspapers began speculating whether he would retain his place in the Yorkshire team. In the press conference, announcing his retirement Vaughn was brutal in his own assessment. ‘I guess two weeks ago in the garden with my little lad Archie, he bowled a ball that hit a weed and it knocked my off-stump out of the ground. I think that was the time. If a three-year-old is bowling me out, it's time to move over.’ When asked how he would liked to be remembered, he replied, ‘As a nice player on the eye, and an intuitive captain with an attacking style.’ He certainly was that.

Book of the Month: People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)

In the afterword of her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks mentions that the novel was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks, who, for years, worked as a newspaper reporter, first heard of the Haggadah when she was in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, covering the Bosnian war. (In a talk given in a literary event to promote the novel, Brooks said that the Serbs were deliberately targeting the City’s library, the National Museum, and The Oriental Institute, intent as they were on the cultural annihilation of the Bosnians.) The fate of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which had resided in the city for over hundred years—it came to light in Sarajevo, the outermost post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1894, the year in which Gavrilo Princip, the Yugoslav nationalist, who, twenty years later, would assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg empire, and his wife, an event that would trigger the First World War, was born—was not known at the time. After the Bosnian wars of the 1990s ended, it was revealed that a Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovich had rescued the codex at the height of the war when Sarajevo was being shelled every day, and hidden it in a bank vault. The librarian, Brooks recounted in a talk, requested the City’s police force to accompany him into the museum. The police, unsurprisingly, were not keen. Imamovich then announced that he would go into the museum on his own and the police force was shamed into giving him an escort of six police officers into the museum. However, this was not the first time in the twentieth century that the Haggadah was saved from destruction in nick of time. In 1941, Dervis Korkut, an Islamic scholar smuggled it out of the museum and saved it from falling into the hands of a Nazi General, Johan Hans Fortner (subsequently hanged for war crimes). The Haggadah, which is thought to have created in Spain sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century; which somehow survived the years of Jewish expulsion from Spain; which travelled across more than one European country—in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had made its way to Venice, where it was saved from the book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition by a Catholic priest called Vistrioni—before emerging, 250 years later, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where an indigenous and impoverished Jewish family, which had had the Haggadah in its possession for at least a century, offered it to the authorities for sale; which, after spending a few months in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire where it was sent for restoration (and where it was terribly mishandled) was returned to Sarajevo; and which has survived the turbulent twentieth century that saw the two Great Wars and a Civil war, now sits in the restored National Museum in Sarajevo.

Hannah Heath, an Australian rare-books expert, is offered the job of restoring the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, it has turned out, was not destroyed or lost, as feared by many, during the civil war that engulfed Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She meets the man who has saved the Haggadah during the war. The man informs her that the book was saved half a century earlier by the then librarian from falling into the hands of the Nazis. This arouses Hannah’s interest in the book. While restoring the Haggadah she also discovers interesting artefacts such as an insect’s wing, wine and blood stains, traces of salt, and white hair probably of a cat. She is also intrigued by the imagery depicted in the Haggadah, which shows what appears to be a Moorish woman amongst a Jewish family. Hannah assumes that the woman was a family servant, and is puzzled by her presence in the imagery. Hannah decides to investigate further and her investigations take her to Europe and America. The chapters telling Hannah’s story are interlocked with a series of flashbacks, each a quasi-historical vignette, as the novel goes back in time and traces the crucial moments in the 600-year history of the Haggadah. Each artefact Hannah discovers serves as a springboard for Brooks to spin an engrossing yarn, each one different from the next. The ‘historical’ chapters, separate as they are, are still linked by the Haggadah; however, there is a very clear motif: the trials and tribulations of the Jewish race over the centuries. As the novel goes back in time, tracing the provenance of the Haggadah, there is, perforce, rather a lot about the treatment of the Jewish people over centuries at the hands of the Christians; the reader at times may feel a bit deluged by unpleasant images of cruelty and torture.

Brooks may not have the stylistic flair to her narrative, but her prose flows easily, and, coupled with the riveting storyline involving plausible, if imperfect, characters, the narrative sucks you in. However, Brooks also appears to have a hidden agenda. People of the Book is not just a literary mystery—the first one to be published since A.S. Byatt’s Possessions—it is also attempting—and not very subtly—a quasi-political message: Jews and Muslims can live in harmony, sharing as they do the same roots. This theme recurs so often that you might as well be getting hit over the head with it—very little is left to piece together. Those who prefer their authors’ messages to be subtle, may feel a tad disappointed. All the characters in the novel, especially the Muslims, behave with impeccable integrity, tolerance, and understanding. They are all saints—wise, gentle, self-sacrificing, and not blood but milk of human kindness flows through their veins. The reader is always conscious of the ventriloquistic presence of Brooks, the puppeteer, pulling strings, intent on conducting a lesson in religious tolerance—it seems a bit contrived at times, and makes for rather thin, one dimensional fictional universe. The female characters, through the ages, are all crypto-feminists, or at least think like contemporary feminists. Thus the Moorish woman, the one who is credited in the novel as the creator of the images in the Haggadah, animadverts the Emir for his religious intolerance, while a Bosnian woman in the middle of the twentieth century decides that the Nazis are evil because they are against diversity! That said the historical sections are the most satisfying part of the novel. Brooks, a former Wall Street correspondent, is in her elements here, doing what she probably loves the most—researching extensively to create for the reader a tableau vivant of a bygone world, be it seventeenth century Venice, or fifteenth century Spain. By contrast, the ‘modern’ section of the novel, the story of the main protagonist Hannah, her relationships with her friends and colleagues, and her overbearing Neurosurgeon mother, the mystery of her absent father, who—surprise! Surprise!—turns out to be Jewish (the extraneous plot-line merely distracts from the compelling mystery of the Haggadah), leading, eventually, to the melodramatic, implausible and unconvincing finale, fails to grip. Hannah, rather than coming across gutsy, intelligent, and resourceful, comes across as irritating, opinionated and hysterical.

People of the Book shows glimpses of what Geraldine Brooks, who won the Pulitzer for an earlier novel, March, is capable of. The novel has passages of great beauty and emotions, and tackles grand themes which have contemporary resonance, sometimes in predictable ways, sometimes in flights of fancy that demand suspension of credulity by the reader.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

King of Pop

‘Where were you when you heard that Jacko was dead?’ This was an e-mail I received from someone who thinks I am her friend (because I tolerate her), yesterday. I replied that there were so many exciting things happening daily in my busy and exciting life that I could not remember where I was and what I was doing at the exact moment when I heard that the ‘King of Pop’ was dead. (As it happened, I was driving from place A to place B and cursing under my breath every five minutes as I was stuck in the morning rush hour traffic.) Then I read on Charlie Brooker’s blog that souvenir shops were selling tee shirts with printed slogans such as ‘I was at Glastonbury when Jacko died’. Is this turning into a ‘flashbulb memory’ event, similar to the ‘Diana moment’ 12 years ago, I wondered.

The response, certainly the online one, to Jackson’s death has been unbelievable. Google news had so many searches for him that they thought they were under automated attack. Wikipedia got roiled because so many people were trying to update the page on Michael Jackson. And Yahoo’s story on his hospitalization apparently got more than three quarters of a million page-views in ten minutes. On twitter, as many as 30% of tweets related to Jackson on the day of his death. People are in danger of running out of superlatives to describe him. He is the greatest; he was their idol; he touched their lives; he changed their lives; he will live in their hearts forever; he healed the world; he eradicated racism in the world; we have not just lost a legend, we have lost a part of our heart; and so on and so forth.

A distraught fan posted the following:

Michael Jackson was a brilliant singer i really miss him now i heard that he died from a heart attack i am really upset about it and i wish he was alive now so i can get his new songs he makes but because he is dead i'll never get to hear his newer songs he will make. Rest in pease Michael Jackson

Here is another heartfelt tribute:

a absolutely loved michael jackson i was going to see him in the o2 i had even booked V.I.P, i loved michael he was my dear freind i met him a couple of times in 1972 and recently in 2004 i am also a freind of uri geller michael's freind, i wish i was there to protect him, and now i give my thanks to his fans freinds including me and family, we love you michael R.I.P

If you thought that the public outpouring of grief was tad hysterical, you would not be the only one. In the UK, similar noisy, public breast-beating had taken place after Diana died in a car crash while trying to flee from the paparazzi who wanted to photograph her and her then lover Dodi Al-Fayed, who was also in the car at the time. It seemed that there were lots of people, whose lives were so empty that the death of an emotionally disturbed woman who had not done an honest day’s work in her life, who had no discernible talent other than fluttering her eyelids coquettishly at the camera and hooking up with stinking rich men, and whom they had never known personally, left them feeling utterly bereft. Diana was compared to Mother Teresa and, at her memorial service, Elton John sang a saccharine (and nauseating) version of Candle in the Wind. We must thank Barrak Obama for not joining the chorus of maudlin, cliché-ridden tributes, unlike Toni Blair, the then British prime minister, who managed to get himself in every photograph and look more grief-stricken than the family.

It would be fair to say that by the time his tired heart beat for the last time, Jackson’s glory days were behind him. He had not released a new album for eight years. His last album, Invincible, was branded a failure despite debuting at number 1 in not just the USA but also in 12 other countries and selling almost 10 million copies worldwide. Indeed, all of Jackson’s albums after Thriller, with possible exception of Dangerous, were branded as failures despite achieving mind boggling sales: Bad sold 30 million copies (in the UK, according to Wikipedia, it sold more copies than even Thriller, and it also holds the record of all its released singles, five in total, reaching the number one spot in the USA, a feat no other album has managed to achieve in the history of US Billboard); Dangerous sold 35million copies; and HIStory, a multiple disc album, sold more than 20 million copies. These are figures most artists can only dream of; sells of each of these albums were five to ten times more than what most artists achieve in their whole careers. It was Jackson’s misfortune that all of these albums were always compared to the seminal 1982 album Thriller, which sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. I once heard Louis de Bernieres saying in a literary programme that he was resigned to his fate that he would always be asked about and probably associated with only one novel, the mega-successful Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, although he had written novels before and after it. Joseph Heller wrote several novels, most of which were very entertaining, but they always suffered in comparison with his debut novel, Catch 22.

After Jackson’s death, a friend, who revels in arguments the point of which, insofar as there is one, is scoring petty points—his general strategy, during these arguments, alternates between presenting lopsided, preconceived judgments as facts—believing, mistakenly, that bullshit will baffle brain—and focusing on non-issues, eliding the crux of the argument—tried to convince me that ‘Bad’ was awful, and sent me a link of a survey carried out by the Rolling Stone magazine, which apparently came to the same conclusion and in which 23,000 Americans participated. Bad, my friend argued, is bad because Jackson wrote the lyrics of the majority of the songs in Bad, which, in his considered opinion, are not up to scratch, especially in comparison with Thriller, where Quincy Jones wrote most of the lyrics. I wrangled with him a bit but my heart was not in it, primarily because, if truth were told, I am not a die-hard, obsessive Michael Jackson fan, although I have liked his music—from Off the Wall to Invincible—for its melody and rhythm. I also think that his voice was unique and had a dulcet quality to it, thought it was not the sweetest. I have never thought that the lyrics—I can’t be bothered to investigate who wrote the lyrics; I am not interested—, either of Thriller or of subsequent albums, were profound commentaries on the human condition—they are, like those of countless popular Pop and Rock numbers, rather silly. (I once heard a song, where the singer shouted at his beloved that he liked very much to ‘come and go’ between her ‘kidneys’. In case you wondered which end he was planning to enter, the singer left you in no doubt as he provided description of the procedure, which was graphic enough to turn most healthy stomachs.) I doubt that lyrics contributed substantively to Jackson’s stratospheric popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s and his iconic status. Another argument often put forth by those who just cannot stomach the commercial success and popularity of Jackson’s music is that he had become a brand, implying that a behind-the-scene PR machine was in overdrive. This is a specious argument: Jackson was no more a brand than say Elvis or Beatles were. Indeed, it was Bernie Epstein, the Beatles manager, who is credited with first creating the concept of commodity tie-ins for pop music. Remember Beatles lunchboxes and Beatles cartoons?

My friend also threw in, during what he described as his polemic, the oft-heard tattle about Jackson’s personal life: the (unproven) charges of child sex abuse, the progressive lightening of Jackson’s skin colour over the years—‘The man could not even accept what he was, and tried to become what he was not, and could never be’— and the plastic surgeries. This is not surprising; people find it difficult to extricate Jackson’s music from his persona, from all the allegations, scandals, and the inevitable media frenzy that blighted his later years. Perhaps it is impossible to separate the real Michael Jackson from all the media speculation. May be only those—if them— who were near and dear to him had an idea what sort person Jackson really was. The rest of us should not even try.

The public life of Michael Jackson can be roughly divided into three phases: the first phase as a child prodigy when he was the star performer of the Jackson Five; then the dazzling height in the eighties and early nineties, post-Thriller, the phase of multi-million-selling albums, spectacular live tours and television appearances; and finally, the phase as a freak, his behaviour becoming increasingly erratic—if anyone initially thought that the whole thing was a propaganda initiated by Jackson’s PR machine, they would have soon be left in no doubt, as the news of Jackson spending long periods in a hyperbaric chamber began circulating, that the man had not just lost the plot, he had lost the whole library— , increasingly coming to resemble a manakin who had had a run in with a lawnmower, getting dragged through the courts on charges of sexual abuse, getting mired in debts, leading an increasingly nomadic existence—moving from one continent to another—, and career coming to a grinding halt. Posterity, however, will remember Jackson for his musical genius and for all those wonderful performances with which he entertained us. The final phase will be a mere footnote. A long footnote, perhaps, but only a footnote.