Below is the list of books I read in 2009.
1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohseen Hamid)
2. The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
3. Curtain (Agatha Christie)
4. Elephanta Suite (Paul Theroux)
5. The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai)
6. False Impression (Jeffry Archer)
7. The Glassbead Game (Hermann Hesse)
8. Life and Death of Harriett Frean (Mary Sinclair)
9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
10. A Partisan’s Daughter (Louis de Bernieres)
11. Netherland (Joseph O’Neill)
12. The Post office Girl (Stefan Zweig)
13. Kokoro (Natsume Soseki)
14. Homecoming (Bernhard Schlink)
15. Where Three Roads Meet (Sally Vickers)
16. Riotous Assembly (Tom Sharpe)
17. Auto da Fe (Elias Canetti)
18. Hollywood (Charles Bukowski)
19. People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)
20. Six Suspects (Vikas Swarup)
21. The Clothes on Their Backs (Linda Grant)
22. Uncommon Danger (Eric Ambler)
23. White Tiger (Arvind Adiga)
24. The Informers (Juan Gabriel Vasquez)
25. Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov)
26. Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)
27. The Dream House (Rachel Hore)
28. The Outcast (Sadie Jones)
29. The Interrogation (J.M.G. Le Clezio)
30. Indignation (Philip Roth)
31. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
32. Much Obliged Jeeves (P.G.Wodehouse)
33. The Book, the Film, the t-Shirt (Matt Beaumont)
34. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (P.G. Wodehouse)
35. The Family Tree (Carole Cadwalladr)
36. Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (Sue Townsend)
37. Wilt (Tom Sharpe)
38. Aunt Julia and the Script Writer (Mario Vargas Llosa)
39. Other Lulus (Philip Hensher)
40. The Food of Love (Anthony Capella)
41. The Believers (Zoe Heller)
42. This Book Will Save Your Life (A.M. Homes)
43. Absurdistan (Gary Shteyngart)
44. Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austin)
1. Kashmir Behind the Vail (M.J. Akbar)
2. Somewhere Towards the End (Diana Athill)
3. A Man Without A Country (Kurt Vonegut)
4. The Blair Years (Alistair Campbell)
5. The Angel of Grozny—Inside Chechnya (Asne Seierstad)
6. Entry from Backside Only (Binoo K John)
7. My Father’s Roses (Nancy Kohner)
8. Paper Houses (Michele Roberts)
9. Don’t You Know Who I am (Piers Morgan)
10. The Hungry Years (William Leith)
11. Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It (Geoff Dyer)
12. Freakonomics (Steven Levitt & Stephen Dunbar)
The fiction outnumbered the non-fiction by a ratio of almost 1 to 4. However, I am glad that I managed to read twelve works of non-fiction—two more than the target I had set for myself at the beginning of the year. I also read ten translated works (both fiction and non-fiction) about which (for no particular reason) I feel pleased.
In 2008 Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio, of whom not many had heard outside of his native country, France, was awarded the Nobel prize for literature; and was promptly (and unwittingly) embroiled in a controversy when Eghdal, the secretary of the committee, declared that the reason why no American author had won the award in years was American authors were insular (which predictably raised the hackles of many in America). I bought, from the local Waterstones, three of Le Clezio’s early novels: The Interrogation, War, and The Flight of Books. All three novels belong to Le Cleizo’s early, experimental phase. I read The Interrogation, Le Cleizo’s debut novel, published when he was not yet twenty five. The novel—its original, French title was Le procès-verbal—won the Prix Renaudot, prompting Paris Express to declare him as the literary revelation of the year. I found The Interrogation too much esoteric for my taste and struggled to finish it, despite its being relatively slender (in volume) at slightly more than 200 pages. I guess I just do not get the post-modern stuff. I do not think I shall be in a hurry to read the other two Le Clezio novels I bought from Waterstones (3 for the price of 2). Perhaps I should read his later novels; from mid-1970s onwards Le Clezio drastically changed his style, and his novels became more accessible. I am not sure, though, how many of these later novels are available in translated versions.
One of the translated novels I read was Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Script-Writer. Llosa of course is a legend and his fans are legion. (If the Nobel committee becomes less Eurocentric and deigns to acknowledge that there are writers of merit in other parts of the world, the odds on Llosa wining the coveted award must be high. Indeed, awarding the Nobel to Llosa would kill three birds in one stone: he is a South American, who writes in Spanish, and lives in France.) I had read a novel by Llosa (Death in Andes) years ago and, while I do not now remember what it was about, I remember enjoying it a lot. Since then, I have bought a number of novels by the Peruvian writer, but until this year, had not got round to actually read any of them. Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, I regret to announce, is not the best advertisement of the prowess of the great man. The novel runs at two levels simultaneously—the sexual exploits of the young protagonist with his older aunt (by marriage) and the literary exploits of a Colombian scriptwriter who works for the radio-station where the protagonist is working part-time. The two narrative streams never really gel satisfactorily, and the novel ends on an unconvincing note. A lot of questions remain unanswered, which, by itself, is not a problem—indeed some would argue (I won’t) that it is the hallmark of a great novel that it does not spell out everything for the reader and stimulates conjectures—but, in this case, it leaves you with the feeling of something lacking, something incomplete, as if, after banging out in excess of four hundred pages, Llosa could not be bothered to tie up all the threads and simply lost interest in the novel. I have not given up on him, though. I plan to read at least a couple more novels (may be Feast of Goats) next year.
Another mightily prolific author, who seems to have got a new lease of life in his old age, and who is mentioned every year as worthy of the Nobel only to be piped at the post by a German one year, a French another (there is anti-Americanism for you), is the indefatigable Philip Roth. I just can’t keep up with his fecundity. I read two of his novels this year: The Plot Against America and Indignation. Both novels, like many of Roth’s novels in this decade, are intense, persuasive, utterly lacking in humour, and immensely readable. Roth is a master of creating emotional frenzy out of ordinary situations, and you can’t help but join in, although at the end of it, once you have put the novel down, you are obliged to conclude that it was all a tad hysterical and you wonder what came over you to take it so seriously when you were reading it. That, I guess, is the power of great narration.
Philip Hensher’s Other Lulus could not have been more different in its narrative style from Aunt Julia and the Script Writer and Indignation. Hensher is not an easy writer to pigeonhole, not least because he has attempted many genres (with varying degrees of success, in my view). I have read two of his earlier novels: Kitchen Venom—his waspish (a la Evelyn Waugh), take on contemporary London, which I thought was terrific—and The Mulberry Empire—his ambitious, historical epic set in 19th century Afghanistan, which, as many critics observed at the time, was a ‘radical departure’ from his earlier novels. It was not very subtle, and, despite its richness of language, the characters were two-dimensional. Last year Hensher was shortlisted for his 800 plus page behemoth, Northern Clemency, a saga of a provincial family in Sheffield, over two decades. Coming back to Other Lulus, Hensher’s debut novel, it tells the story of Friederike, who, having been bequeathed considerable fortune by her grandfather, is learning to be an Opera singer in Vienna, and persevering gamely despite the accumulating evidence that she has little talent for it. Her teacher is an oddball Englishman called Archie who drinks gin, reads atrocious novels (sent by his mother) and insults Friederike’s singing all the time. So naturally Friederike marries him and moves in with him. The narrative, suffused with a relentless undertone of irony—a hallmark of Hensher’s earlier novels—, proceeds along nicely with a few twists thrown in. The novel teems with quirky and eccentric characters—some of which, you’d think, are in urgent need of psychiatric help. Nothing wrong with that—many novels of Muriel Spark have in abundance characters that are peculiar. What is missing in Other Lulus is the human element that underscored all of Spark’s work. Perhaps for this reason I found it difficult to empathize with the protagonist and the supporting cast of characters. Hensher was chosen (I think) in the 1990s as one of the young Granta novelists. Has he realized his potential? I think not. Will I read more works of him? I think I will (perhaps Pleasured, an early novel set in Cold War Berlin).
I note that there are a few ‘easy reads’ in this collection. I read Agatha Christie’s Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last case, after more than two decades, and was glad to discover that the magic of Christie’s whodunits, first cast in my adolescence, was still undiminished. Buoyed by this, I read a couple of novels of P.G. Wodehouse, another of my childhood favourites. I read two Jeeves novels in a row, and, while I thoroughly enjoyed them, I felt in need of a break after that. The delights of reading inane exploits of upper class toffs at the turn of the last century (or the one before that, depending on how you measure these things), whose biggest obstacles in life involve fending off unsolicited advances of high class totties, who like to go for a stroll under a starry night, tend to pall somewhat after a while. I think I’ll need gap of a few months at least before I pick up another P.G. Wodehouse book.
I have a confession to make. I am a great fan of Jeffrey Archer. I am not ashamed of this (though I do not go out of my way to advertise the fact either). The guy may be, as they say, more crooked than a dog’s hind leg, more twisted than a coat-hanger, a fraudster (allegedly), a serial philander (allegedly), a perjurer and a convicted criminal; but he is also, and I am choosing my words carefully, a very entertaining writer. Archer is famously supposed to have asked his publisher, when his first novel, Not A Penny More Not a Penny Less, was accepted, whether he (the publisher) thought he (Archer) would win the Nobel. He hasn’t, and, I should hazard a guess, is not likely to. What he will definitely continue to do is sell millions of copies of his blockbuster novels—he has sold more than 200 million already. False Impression was Archer’s first novel after his release from prison in 2003 (he has, since, published two more). I shall not bother to describe the plot, which boasts of more twist than a circus contortionist’s performance. It is all jolly good fun and you do not notice how time flies as you join Archer’s heroine on her roller-coaster ride. It is not without reason that the shelves of airport bookshops all over the world are overflowing with Jeffrey Archer novels.
The film rights of Anthony Capella’s 2005 best-seller, The Food of Love, according to Capella’s official website, have been bought by Warner Brothers. I am not surprised. Capell’s reworking of the Cyrano de Bergerac story has all the necessary ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster: a young American woman studying on a scholarship in Rome; two Italian friends—one a god looking waiter, the other not so good looking cook (he has been deeply scarred by the unkind comments of his schoolmates on his nose); the girl initially falling for the handsome waiter (whose interest in her is strictly south of the border), blown over as she is by his exotic cooking—but wait, it is not the Lothario who is cooking all those dishes (some of which send the American beauty’s sex drive off the Richter scale) but the quiet cook who has fallen head over heels in love with the girl but can’t bring himself to tell either his friend or the girl about his feeling . . . I am sure you will have got the drift of where it is headed. In case you haven’t, let me advise you that it all ends well for all concerned. There is a modicum of sex and lots and lots of food (the clue is in the title of the novel). Since the narrative revolves around food, it gives Capella, a self-confessed aficionado of everything Italian, an opportunity to deluge the readers with recipes of Italian food; you can’t turn a page without coming across passionate descriptions of some or the other Italian delicacy you have never heard of. If, like mine, your knowledge of Italian food begins with American Hot Pizza and ends with Tiramisu, you are in for a surprise. If (unlike me) you are a carnivore, you are in for a treat. There isn’t a body part, it would appear,—from testicles to urinary bladder to outer membrane of transverse colon—, of various herbivorous animals that, if Capella is to be believed, can’t be fried or baked or casseroled.
Sue Townsend will always be remembered as the creator of Adrian Mole (I wouldn’t have thought she would be complaining about it), although she has written other comic novels (which I must admit I have not read) and even plays (which I have not watched). Born into a working class family whose attitude towards books was roughly the same as that of a blind man’s towards a needle, Townsend wrote Adrian Mole novels when she was a full-time housewife and mother of two children, in her twenties, during the nights when she could not sleep (incessantly crying children?). She never thought much of her literary efforts and stored the handwritten drafts for years in boxes under the staircase. Her first husband was not even aware that his wife wrote. She finally decided to send them to a publisher in the 1980s. The rest, as they say, is history. The public has, over the years, followed enthusiastically the career of Townsend’s angst (and acne) ridden teenage protagonist who grows into a neurotic adult. Adrian Mole: the Wilderness Years is a laugh out loud novel, guaranteed to cheer you up when you are Mondayish. Townsend has published another Adrian Mole novel this year, in which her Peter Pan hero grapples with his mortality s he is diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Tom Sharpe is one of my most favourite authors. I enjoy Sharpe’s comic novels more than those of Wodehouse, not only because they are set in times I can identify with, but also because the problems faced by his characters are more believable than those faced by Bertie Wooster, and the solutions they come up with, while they invariably land them in mess, are outré yet credible. Almost all of Sharpe’s novels follow the same formula, although the characters and contexts differ. There is a strong undercurrent of nastiness, sexual deviance is a-plenty, and at least one character meets an unexpected and gory end. The two novels I read this year follow the same pattern. Riotous Assembly may have been Sharpe’s debut novel (I am not entirely sure) and is one of the two novels he wrote on his experiences in South Africa where he lived in the 1950s for several years (and from where he was deported in the 1960s for anti-apartheid activities), while Wilt, the first book in his famous Wilt series, is based on Sharpe’s experience of teaching in a polytechnic in East Anglia (which, has since been accorded the status of University). One wonders whether the utter contempt in which Wilt holds his students echoes the frustrations Sharpe felt during his teaching career. Well into his eighties, Sharpe has published another novel this year, The Gropes, and I intend to buy it once it becomes available in the paperback.
David Lodge’s last novel, Author Author, was something of a departure for him in that it was a novel on a real person (the American author Henry James) involving a documented (i.e. real) period in his life (when James attempted, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to become a dramatist). He followed it up with a non-fiction book chronicling how he came to write Author Author and how its publication coincided with The Master, written by Colm Toibin, which had the same subject (Henry James). I had wondered then whether the creative powers of one of my all time favourite writers were ebbing. Lodge has belied those fears and, with Deaf Sentence, he is back on his terra firma of campus novels. The protagonist of Deaf Sentence, Desmond Bates, is a retired professor of linguistics, who, as the title of the novel indicates, is going deaf. Bates is married to his second wife, who, as his career peters down, seems to be excelling in her business. Then he gets inadvertently involved with a slightly unstable American woman more than half his age when she requests his help with her dissertation. Professor Bates is bit of a curmudgeon and does not let go any opportunity to rant against anything he disapproves of, his wrath being especially reserved for the Modern Art. Lodge does not develop some of the streams to their climactic end, and there is a feeling of being let down a bit, but this is a seriously good read. As is Zoe Heller’s The Believers, her first novel since The Notes on A Scandal. Heller, originally British, but now settled in America, writes extremely well, which, in my view, more than makes up for the weakness of the plot. Heller’s tale of a dysfunctional Jewish family as its head lies in a coma crackles with uninhibited irony, sarcasm and trenchant wit.
Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger was the unexpected winner of the Man Booker prize in 2008. It tells the story, via its unscrupulous protagonist, who belongs to what Adiga sententiously declared in his post-award speech as the other India—the millions who have not tasted the fruits of the country’s giant economic stride in the last decade. It is to Adiga’s credit that he makes the protagonist, contemptible in many ways, human, and, after reading the fictional account of his fictional life, you cannot help thinking that his life would not have followed any other trajectory.
Louis de Bernieres’s A Partisan’s Daughter is, compared to his earlier novels, slender in volume. In the 1970s Bernieres met a Yugoslavian girl in London with whom he formed a friendship. He wrote down in his diaries at that time the account of her life. Decades later, Bernieres returned to those diaries and the young girl’s life-story was fictionalised. It is an easy enough read, and, in parts, very moving. Recommended.
Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood is, like all of the other novels of this great writer (and poet) highly autobiographical and immensely readable: it is a fictionalised account of the making of the film Barfly, a biopic on Bukowski’s life (Bukowski was also the screen writer of the film). But there is a difference. The tone of the narrative is mellow and lacks the edge of Bukowski’s other works of fiction; and you suspect that the old rapscallion has finally matured. This may have something to do with the fact that at the time of writing of the novel (which might be the last published novel in his life) Bukowski had finally achieved financial stability, fame, and was happy in a meaningful relationship. A late classic from the master.
A.M. Home’s This Book Will Save Your Life was amongst ‘Richard and Judy’s Best Summer Read’, in 2007. I should clarify that it is not a parameter that I follow when I choose the books to read. I had not heard of A.M. Homes until then. Last year I bought and read her memoir, Mistress’s Daughter, which I liked a lot, and ordered four of her novels on an impulse, one of which was This Book Will Save Your Life. Full of idiosyncratic characters, it is a strange, surreal novel which, for the best part, seems to meander aimlessly, and you wait for the denouement which never arrives. It is not a laugh out loud book either, as promised on its cover; but there are plenty of chuckles.
Paul Theroux once modestly described himself as a ‘good but not great’ writer. I have read over the years many novels of Theroux, and have liked most of them. The Chicago Loop, The O Zone, The Mosquito Coast, and the two autobiographical novels, My Other Life and My Secret History (not to be confused with Donna Tartt's equally enjoyable, but totally different, Secret History) are amongst my favourite novels. In Elephanta Suite Theroux turns his searchlight on modern India. Comprising a series of novellas, which are superficially linked, Elephanta Suite is a searing and caustic observation on the squalor underneath the splendour of modern India, supposedly economically booming. Theroux does not pull any punches and, as the cliché goes, tells it as it is (a trait he perhaps picked up from his one time mentor, V.S. Naipaul). Elephanta Suite is highly readable, almost a mini-classic.
This year I read, after many years, crime thrillers and espionage fiction: Eric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger, and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Golden Tattoo. I have written on this blog earlier how I came to read Eric Ambler, so I won’t repeat it again here. Larsson’s The Girl with the Golden Tattoo became a world-wide sensation (which Larsson unfortunately did not live to see), is the first of the trilogy. I picked the book out of idle curiosity, to find out what the fuss was about, from the local library. I was hooked on from the first page and finished the book in 3 days (which is something of a record for me, as I am a slow reader). I think I shall read the remaining two books of the trilogy.
The term chick-lit frequently has a pejorative connotation to it in some people’s mind. It is considered somehow superficial and frivolous, and therefore not to be taken seriously. Wikipedia defines chick lit as a genre fiction, within women’s fiction that addresses issues of modern women, often humorously and light-heartedly. That does not of course mean that the issues are not solemn; it is just that they are presented blithesomely. A couple of novels I read this year— Rachel Hore’s Dream House and Carole Cadwalladr’s The Family Tree—will broadly fall within the genre of chick-lit as defined by Wikipedia. I bought The Family Tree two years ago after reading a novel titled A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian by Maria Lewycka, her debut novel. (As an aside, I heard Maria Lewycka in a literary programme last year, where she was promoting her second novel, The Two Caravans, and she described very eloquently, tongue firmly lodged in her cheek, her efforts to become a writer; I thought her speech was funnier than her debut novel which I had bought chiefly because its title was unusual.) One of the reviews of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian had mentioned that The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalldr, was a more accomplished book on the same theme. Rachel Hore’s name was suggested by a friend and I decided to try out The Dream House, her debut novel. It is beautifully written, and Hore certainly knows all the tricks of the trade, and throws enough hints in every chapter to keep the reader turning the pages. At times it becomes a bit schmaltzy, but on the whole it is a satisfying read. I shall read more of Hore’s novels (she has published three so far), perhaps during the summer holidays. Cadwalladr’s The Family Tree, by comparison, was a tad disappointing, probably because my expectations were high. Cadwalladr does, however, have a quirky sense of humour and a wonderfully nuanced sense of time and places.
Can Pride and Prejudice, one of the most enduringly popular novels in English, be classified as a chick-lit? This pre-Victorian romance was the last book I read in 2009, thereby fulfilling a promise I made to a friend, who has been agitating for a couple of years to convince me that the tapestry of my life was missing several threads because I had not read what was without doubt the best novel ever written in English language. The plot, such as it is, involves dowagers conspiring to get their daughters married; sisters, destined to end up as spinsters, scheming to get their brothers married; and young women machinating to, well, get married, amidst lots of tea parties and balls, during the course of which there are misunderstandings, plotting and counterplotting a-plenty. I am pleased to announce, however, that it all ends well and neatly. I especially enjoyed the dialogues and understated humour. That said I will not be in a hurry to read another Austen novel.
Enough of fiction. What about non-fiction? Geoff’ Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It is described on its cover as a ‘genre-defying’ work. I had never heard of Geoff Dyer until last year. He was one of the guest speakers at the local literary festival—I think he was promoting his most recent novel, the intriguingly titled Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi. I did not attend his talk (which I regret now), but did some search on his name on the Amazon, and discovered that in addition to penning intriguingly titled novels, Mr Dyer also specializes in writing ‘genre-defying’ works of literature. I ordered the aforementioned genre-defying book and I am glad that I did. Yoga for the People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It is part bohemian travelogue, part memoir, part philosophical musings. In parts the book is excruciatingly funny. Dyer has a keen eye for the absurd, and, in language that is simple yet aphoristic, he effortlessly mixes serious disquisitions with casual, often hilarious, anecdotes. I am going to have to read more genre-defying work (Out Of Sheer Rage) of this modern day de Montaigne. I shall probably also read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi. Dyer, without doubt, is my discovery of the year.
Nancy Cohner’s My Father’s Roses is an achingly elegiac memoir that traces her Jewish heritage from her father’s side (he was a refugee from Sudetenland and arrived in England a few months before Hitler’s army invaded the region, and married a local woman), leading, inevitably, to some terrible family secrets and tragedies her father had not been able to bring himself up to revealing to his English family. My Father’s Roses is a beautifully drawn portrait of a family, painstakingly compiled from the voluminous correspondence left behind by Cohner’s ancestors, interspersed with Cohner’s wise and humane observations. I found it immensely moving.
Michele Robert’s memoir, The Paper Houses, is erudite and funny, if ever-so-slightly and self-consciously twee—the relentless mood of bonhomie sounds a bit counterfeit at times. The Paper Houses evocatively recreates the bohemian milieu of which Roberts was a part in the 1970s London, and also offers interesting insight into the making of one of the important authors of our generation.
A friend of mine has been after me for a while to read Freakonomics, and I finally read it this year. Written by the two Stevens, or, rather one Steven (Levitt) and one Stephen (Dunbar), Freakonomics is an amusing excursion through what the authors describe as hidden sides of everything. The authors pontificate on questions such as what do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common (they are all cheats), why do the drug dealers still live with their mums (because they are piss-poor), and what makes a perfect parent (apparently, if you have lots of books at home the chances of your child performing well at school are high—provided, of course, you are living in America; all the data presented are American—, but reading stories to your child every day makes no difference—positive or negative; neither does spanking or allowing the child to watch interminable cartoon programmes on the television). One whole chapter is devoted to whether a person’s name makes a difference to his or her progress in life—the reader is presented with endless lists of typical ‘Black' names (Imani, Ebony, Precious, Unique, Dimond, Aliya, DeShawn, Tyrone, Malik, Jamal etc.) and typical ‘White' names (Molly, Amy, Emily, Claire, Emma, Abigail, Jake, Scott, Dustin etc.)—and the conclusion—surprise! Surprise!—is that names are not causal but mere indicators of the socioeconomic status of parents and their culture. The authors also heroically try to prove, in one of the chapters, that the main reason why the crime rate in the USA came down in the 1990s (wrongfooting many a Cassandra who had prophesied bloodbath on the streets) was that abortion was legalized in most American states in the 1970s. The reason? Majority of women who availed themselves of these facilities were unemployed, not very bright, drug addicts, petty thieves, and scum; and their progenies, whom they would have been forced to beget but for the legalization of abortion, would have reached exactly the right age to embark upon their criminal careers, when the 1990s arrived. In other words, thanks to legalization of abortion, many would be criminals were not born. I did not think that I gained deep insights into the myriad issues covered in this book (by the authors’ own admission, the book does not have a unifying theme), and found the debates ultimately sterile and non-productive, if entertainingly presented; but, as I said earlier, the book is an enjoyable and easy read. (My friend has given me Superfrekonomics, written by the same pair, as a Christmas gift, which I shall read one of these days.
Finally, if (like me) you are interested in (and follow) contemporary UK politics, you will have read Alistair Campbell’s The Blair Years. Campbell was variously described by tabloids as the brain behind Tony Blair, the modern day Machiavelli, and a twat. He comes across in these memoirs as a self-indulgent and arrogant, yet insecure, narcissist, who feels hurt, unappreciated, betrayed and let down, if he is not told at least five times a day that everyone is deeply appreciative and admiring of the sacrifice he has made for the party and the nation, and who struggles with the concept of putting others’ needs ahead of his own as much as, say, Boy George might with that of heterosexual sex. (In other words, he is a twat.) But he writes well and his writing has the ability to suck you in. The Blair Years is unputdownable. (Campbell has recently published a novel, the name of which escapes me; it I might check out if it appears in the local second-hand book shops).
My resolutions for the new year? No specific resolutions; however I will read some or more novels of Kingsley Amis and probably Saul Bellow. I shall also read Patrick French's biography of my all time favourite writer, V.S. Naipaul.
I shall conclude the post some (banal) statistics:
Writers (fiction as well as non-fiction) I read for the first time in 2009: 22 (I am counting the two authors of ‘Frekonomics’ as one)
Debut novels read: 9
Translated books read: 10
Nonfiction read: 12
Best novel read this year: Auto da Fe (Elias Cannetti) and Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov) are joint winners.
Best Non-fiction read this year: Somewhere Towards the End (Diana Athill)
Saturday, 2 January 2010
Professor Kien—he is not a real professor, and has never worked in an academic department; it is a title given to him by the caretaker of the building in which his apartment is situated— is also a very strange man. A misanthrope, a misogynist, a recluse, an obsessive bibliophile, and a fantasist, Kien is as close to being clinically insane as possible without inviting a formal diagnosis. However, he is not the only character in Auto da Fe, the 1981 Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti’s only novel, who is clinging on to sanity with, as they say, his eyelids. With the exception Georges, Kien’s younger, Psychiatrist brother (who makes a very late entry in the novel and, quite inadvertently, triggers the final crisis in the life of his reclusive brother)—incidentally, also the name of Canetti’s younger brother—all the other supporting characters in Auto da Fe are unhinged and appear to live in a fantasy world, although none of them is quite as extreme a case as professor Kien.
Kien lives for his books. He is so consumed by books that even when he goes out for his morning walk—precisely between 7.00 and 8.00 am—he carries with him a briefcase crammed with book, which he clasps very tightly, in a particular manner—he has given the matter a great deal of thought—so that the greatest possible surface area of his body is constantly in contact with the brief-case. The briefcase gives him the feeling that his library is with him all the time. Kien despises humanity; it holds no attraction for him; he is happy and contented in his cocooned world of books. Then the hermit-like Kien takes a step that would change his life, and not in a nice way. He marries! The only human being who inhabits Kien’s world in a shadowy peripheral manner is his housekeeper, Therese, whom he had employed eight years earlier. The sphere of Therese’s duties involves, in a cycle of four days, dusting all the rooms with the books in them from floor to the ceiling, one day at a time. The coarse and illiterate Therese has roughly the same relationship to books as an anorexic to a cheesecake. She has no understanding and therefore appreciation of the work and passion of her eccentric employer, who, she suspects, is hiding a dark secret. She snoops around in vain when Kien is away, taking his morning walk, for a mutilated corpse. Then, a series of comical misunderstandings lead to Kien marrying Therese: on his part, Kien begins to believe that the uneducated Therese has a quest for learning and is a lover of books; she is convinced that he is rich and her ticket out of poverty. Kien’s nightmare begins soon after marriage. The new ‘lady of the house’ has her eyes firmly set on two goals: she wants all of Kien’s money and property—the spacious apartment—and she wants him out of the way. Intellectual midget she might be, but Therese is lacking neither in low-level cunning nor in brutal physical strength. Therese repeatedly pesters Kien to make a will bequeathing everything to her, and, when that does not seem to be happening immediately—not because the unsuspecting Kien sees through her underhand scheme, but because he believes, improbable as it may seem, that Therese wants to bequeath him her property, such as it is, at the same time, and is waiting for her to make the first move—subjects Kien systematically to physical torture—at one stage Kien loses consciousness after an episode of vicious beating at the hands of Therese and is confined to bed for six weeks—, prohibits him from entering three of the four rooms, and eventually throws him out of his own apartment. The care-taker of the building, a brutish ex-policeman with fascist tendencies called Benedikt Pfaff, who has physically and mentally abused, first his wife and then his daughter for years till they both died of despair, and who is hated by all the tenants save Kien, initially agrees to help Kien, but later changes sides and moves in with Therese once Kien is thrown out, and helps her pawn Kien’s precious books when she runs out of money. Over the next few weeks Kien roams the streets during the day, carrying his library inside his head, eating meals in disreputable restaurants, and sleeping in different hotels. He still has the possession of his chequebook and he has cashed in all of his remaining money. In one of the restaurants, Kien meets a humpbacked dwarf called Fischerle, who is married to the owner of the restaurant who is also a woman of leisure. Fischerele fancies himself as a world chess champion, and, when not pimping for his wife, spends his time fantasizing about winning world chess championship in America. Kien hires Fischerele as his assistant so that Fischerele can carry inside his head the burden of Kien’s non-existent library. The crafty dwarf, with help of other low-life wastrels, hatches an outlandish plot to divest the increasingly erratic Kien of his remaining money, and succeeds. Fischerele’s plan is to escape to America on a false passport and challenge the reigning chess champion of the world, whose name, he decides, would be Casablanca. The dwarf spends the next few days fantasizing about his triumph and acquiring a passport from a thug by telling him colourful lies. However, Fischerele does not live to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of his skulduggery; he meets his comeuppance and comes to a gory end at the hands of his wife’s customer (who, ironically, is one of Fischerele’s associates), but not before he has carried out two acts that would, in fullness of time, send Kien hurtling towards his final crisis. He sends a telegram to Kien’s younger brother, Georges, a psychiatrist, in Kien’s name, informing him, Georges, that he, Kien, is going ‘crackers’. He also falsely informs Kien through one of his associates that the dreaded Therese is dead. Kien then runs into Therese and Pfaff at the pawnshop and, in yet another bizarre twist of events, is arrested for attempted robbery of jewels at the pawnshop, although he believes he is arrested for murder of Therese, having convinced himself that Therese must have starved to death in the apartment after he left it. He also convinces himself, in keeping with the novel’s tone of deliberate absurdity, that the Therese in front of his eyes is a hallucination and a sign that he must be losing his mind! In the police station, Pfaff changes sides yet again and brings back Kien to his residence, but not to his apartment. Paff keeps Kien virtually imprisoned in his own room and harasses him for money. In the meanwhile Georges, Kien’s younger brother, arrives from Paris and, after finding out from Kien—an extraordinary dialogue between the two brothers during which Kien gives him several examples of deviousness of women in Greek and Roman mythology—what has happened, takes the necessary steps to get rid of the pair of Therese and Pfaff, and installs Kien back in his apartment. However, a chance remark by Georges triggers the final disintegration of what is left of Kien’s mind.
Auto da fe was first published in Germany in 1935 as Die Blendung (The Blinding or Bedazzlement), when Hitler’s National Socialistic Party was at the height of its power. In America, it was first published as The Tower of Babel). Canetti was 30 at the time. Born in Bulgeria in a family of Sephardic Jews, Canetti, the eldest of three brothers (his youngest brother, Georges, was a microbiologist, and discovered a strain of tuberculosis-causing- pathogen which is named after him—microbacterium Canetti), he had lived in Vienna, a city to which his family had shifted, since the age of 10. He was trained as a chemist but had never worked as one after getting his degree in 1929 from the University of Vienna. He had instead published a couple of plays (The Marriage, in 1932, and The Comedy of Vanity, in 1934) and translated works of the American Writer Upton Sinclair into German. When first published, the novel while it sold moderately well and was well received critically, remained largely unknown outside of Germany, where, too, with the advent of the second World War, it was banned, and subsequently went out of print, its author having fled Germany in 1939 to France and then to England where he settled. The novel was first published in Great Britain as Auto da Fe, in 1946, superbly translated by C.V. Wedgwood under personal supervision of Canetti (and reissued in 2005), but it would be fair to say that it did not make much of an impact at the time. It was rediscovered in the 1960s after the publication of Crowds and Power, Canetti’s strange and surreal anthropological musings on the bipolar world post World War II and the stalemate of the Cold War. It was reissued again in the 1980s after Canetti won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1981. By that time Canetti, a man famous for holding deep-seated grudges, had banned his works from being published in Great Britain—his adoptive country where he had lived for almost four decades—an act of vengeance and spite triggered by Penguin’s decision, in 1977, to delete Auto da Fe from its list of publications . He could not, however, prevent its republication as also of his other masterpiece, Crowds and Power, but he withheld his wonderful memoirs Tongue Set Free and Torch in My Ear from getting published in the UK at the time. Auto da Fe now sits amongst the towering novels of the twentieth century.
Auto da Fe, at almost five hundred pages, is a humongous novel. It is not an easy book to read; a reviewer described it as a ‘long, provocatively odd and emotionally demanding novel’. Although written prior to the Second World War, and having its roots in the Weimer era, its appeal is ageless, no doubt because of its social relevance—the increasing predicament of the estranged and world-weary aesthetes—which strikes a chord with readers of successive generations. (Indeed, when the novel was re-issued in the1960s, coinciding with Canetti’s enhanced stature in the literary world, it was widely regarded as ‘contemporary work’, and was mistakenly believed to be a ‘post-war’ novel.) Besides, Canetti’s lifelong interest in social arrangements—discoursed at length in the novel—has universal appeal. Canetti was a man of varied interests and experiences, and the panoply of his erudition is on a magnificent display in Auto da Fe as he satirises Freudian theories as well as some or more of the philosophical movements that arose in-between the two World wars, and makes links between the virulent anti-Semitism and failure of humanism. He could also be deliberately provocative, as he impishly makes a cultural case, through its eccentric protagonist (who, nevertheless, is repeatedly beaten by his female adversaries), for misogyny! Auto da Fe can also be described as a study of madness. Everybody is to a greater and lesser degree insane, and all the characters have some or more notions, and behave, at some or the other time, in a manner that is strange, absurd, and incomprehensible; yet the internal logic that drives their behaviours makes these actions seem somehow reasonable, a triumph, above all, of the power of Canetti’s narration. Indeed, the grand finale of the novel, Kien’s final act of destruction of everything that he has held sacred, the clue of which can be detected in the novel’s title—Auto da Fe seems more apposite than the original Die Blendung—, does not seem insane at all in the light of Kien’s nightmarish experience.
Auto da Fe is a viciously funny novel. The humour is unrestrained yet bleak, and it is the genius of Canetti that he manages to convey big and strong symbols through the absurd and unrealistic notions to which the protagonist and supporting characters seem prone. There is a brilliantly comic image early in the novel. During one of his several flights of fancy, Kien imagines himself to be a general, preparing his army of soldiers, his books, for a blitz against his scheming hausfrau, and turns all of them with their spines towards the wall! The dwarf Fischerele’s schemes, first to defraud Kien and then to obtain a false passport for his escape to America are boisterous; at the same time there is an underlying pathos in the wheeling-dealings and petty aspirations of these characters. Withal hilarity, the strong impression left on the reader’s mind is of the desolate lives they are leading. The trials and tribulations of all the characters and their struggle for survival are narrated in a tone of detachment and amusement, and not of sympathy, as though for the omniscient narrator, they are nothing more than experimental guinea pigs. None of the characters is particularly likeable—one may pity Kien as he is abused by Therese, or shake one’s head in wonder at his naivety, but one cannot empathize with him. His mind remains an unsolvable puzzle until the end. There is an edge to the humour. Canetti’s fictional world may be funny, but it is also an unpleasant, twisted place full of absurdities and betrayals—as Salman Rushdie once said, everyone gets in the neck in the end. In its nightmarish vision of the horrors of the modern world, the novel relentlessly depicts the increasing disconnectedness of the experiences and mental processes of Kien, the protagonist, paving way for fragmentation and disintegration of thought processes, and, ultimately destruction. Peter Kien is a radically individualistic man who has no time for the outside world, the forces of which, nevertheless, exert their (what he considers as) nefarious influences. Canetti is often compared to Kafka, and with very good reasons. In its content, if not in form, Auto da Fe, described by Iris Murdoch as ‘savage and beautifully mysterious’, is ensconced at the very top of the twentieth century modernist literature.