Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tongue Set Free and Julie & Julia

It is very rare for me to read two books at the same time. By that I do not of course mean that I hold two books in each hand and try to read them—that would be silly (and probably impossible). What I do is read a few pages of one book, then keep it aside and pick up the other book and read a few of its pages.

I have never done this before, primarily because, once I pick up a novel, I prefer to read it till the end without interruption so that the plot and the characters in the novel stay with me. Again, it is not as though I finish a novel in one sitting—the only novel I have finished in this fashion, in recent times, is Sandor Marai’s Esther’s Inheritance, and, at less than 150 pages, it is more like a novella—; it usually takes me a week to finish a novel, which I do in several sittings. But, while I am reading it, there is no other novel distracting me. Some friends of mine can read two, even three, books at a time. I could never do that—there would be too much confusion in my mind—related to characters and plot—or so I have always thought. The confusion would be even more if the two novels have characters that have the same names. For example, one novel may have a character called George, who is a realtor, while the other novel may also have a George who is a Russian spy, and, to make matters more complicated (for me), may be masquerading as a realtor in the same country, even the same neighbourhood, as the George of the first novel; and the realtor George may have a wife called Cathryn who is an art critic, while the other George, the false realtor, may have a girlfriend called Kathryn who runs an art gallery. It will all get terribly confusing. Also, what if one novel is more absorbing than the other? You might say that that is easy: don’t read the boring novel and carry on reading the other one. But I couldn’t do it. Once I start reading a novel I have to read it till the end, even if reading it is about as enjoyable as watching a BBC 3 documentary on the sex lives of the Chihuahuas presented by a chap with a beard. I can’t explain why I do this; it probably cannot be explained rationally; may be it goes back to my impoverished childhood where reading books was an admission of being gay (I once listened to a talk given by the 2008 Pulitzer winner, Junot Diaz when he recounted how his father, a first generation migrant from Dominican Republic, got seriously worried that his son was gay when Diaz told him of his ambition to become a writer). And we were expected not to waste anything on plate. Don’t ask me what is the connection between food and reading—haven’t I accepted already that I can’t explain it rationally? So intense is my fear of not being able to or wanting to finish a novel that I don’t think I will ever read Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake or Ulysses. I had a lucky escape with Don De Lillo’s Underworld. It took me almost two months to finish it and left me feeling severely exhausted and underwhelmed. I had to read Jeffrey Archer to restore my health.

It is therefore a novelty for me to be doing what I am doing at present: reading two books at the same time. One is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell, which is a kind of memoir, and the other is Tongue Set Free, the first of Elias Canetti’s three-volume autobiography.

The two books, both non-fiction works, couldn’t be more different from each other. Powell’s book describes a year in her life in 21st century New York when she decideed to cook each of the 500 plus recipes from a cooker book of someone called Julia Child, who was America’s Delia Smith in the 1960s, and chronicle her endeavours on a blog, when—the first years of the last decade—blogging about food (perhaps blogging itself) was novelty. The blog became popular, and later Julie Powell wrote the aforementioned book, which, I believe, first came out in America five years ago, and was made into a film (I have not watched it). I think the book was either issued for the first time or reissued in the UK when the film came out. It is an easy enough read.

Tongue Set Free is an account of the 1981 Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti’s European childhood in different countries. It is an extraordinary book and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Last year I read Auto da Fe, the only full length novel Canetti wrote. I thought it was one of the best novels I have ever read. I had to buy the three volumes of his autobiography, which is considered to be Canetti’s masterpiece. The book, originally written in German, is beautifully translated. Indeed, bizarre as it may seem, I am finding Tongue Set Free, a translated work—and from German too—easier to read than Julie & Julia , which is written in English. Even Auto da Fe was superbly translated. I think it is linked to the fact that Canetti, while he chose to write in German, a language he did not learn until he was almost nine, was fluent in English which he learnt when he was six. He personally supervised the translation of Auto da Fe, and may well have done the same with his autobiography. It is an utterly absorbing account of Canetti’s very intense relationship with his mother. And reading it as I am, fairly soon after Auto da Fe (which is still fresh in my mind), it also gives an insight into the influences that not only went on to shape Canetti’s character (by his own acknowledgement) but also shaped the development of some of the characters in Auto da Fe.

I said I am reading the two books simultaneously. Which is partly correct. I started reading Tongue Set Free at the beginning of the week and read the first chapter (which begins with an extraordinary image). Then, in the local library, I spotted Julie & Julia and began reading it. I thought it was very well written and entertaining, so I borrowed it and read it again in the evening. The next day I picked up Tongue Set Free, and am unable to return to Julie & Julia, of which I have read hundred odd pages. I think I shall finish Tongue Set Free in the next couple of days and then return to Julie & Julia. Cooking French cuisine may be difficult (or tedious or both), but reading about it isn’t.