Friday, 17 February 2012

E-Books, Jonathan Franzen and Corroding Values

Jonathan Franzen is concerned. He not happy. He is more unhappy than George W Bush was when he was informed that the deadliest chemical weapons the Americans found in Saddam Hussain’s palace was a packet of aspirin. He is complaining. He is in a grumbling mood.

Having heard Franzen on two occasions in literary programmes I have formed a view that the writer of what many consider to be masterpieces of the 21st century (The Corrections and Freedom) is an inspired and creative grumbler. He is a first rate moaner. He is one of those chaps (I think) who are forever dissatisfied with the state of things. He is the sort of chap (I think) who goes to a restaurant and moans about the cleanliness of the cutlery or the decor of the restaurant or the curtness of the waitress or the lack of choice in the wine menu (he strikes me as a chap who considers himself a wine expert but is shocked if you call him a wine expert and responds by saying he is most certainly not an expert but he does not know a lot but he knows what he likes and likes what he knows). He will go to a cinema and complain about the lack of leg space or the uncomfortable recline of the back rest. On his way out he will moan about the film. He will go on a book promotion tour and agitate that he is compromising his integrity by selling himself. During the question answer session he will be irritated by the stupid questions posed by people who, he will complain after the session, must be made to take a test before they are allowed in. If he is invited to Ophra Winfry show, he will worry that he might get pigeonholed as a writer of Chick Lit. 

Give Jonathan Franzen any subject—the invasion of Iraq, the decline of socialism, queen of England, bourgeois affectations of the bourgeoisie, right-wing press, literary awards—and he will grumble a hypothesis into being.

That is the sort of chap Jonathan Franzen strikes me as (from the two literary programmes of his that I attended, during the entire period of which I kept my mouth shut as Franzen read out from his books, and with great forbearance attempted to answer stupid questions from people who ought not to be allowed within a five mile radius of a literary programme.)

I was therefore not surprised to read in The Guardian and in The Telegraph that Franzen is not impressed with the craze of e-books.

Franzen is not impressed with e-books. They are not the Real McCoy. The serious reader, Franzen claimed, while speaking in a literary festival in Columbia, wanted a sense of permanence. Handling a book, a ‘real object’ according to Franzen, is an essential part of the reading experience. This experience of ‘handling a specific object in a specific time and place,’ explained professor Franzen, is as essential to reading as Garam Masala is to an Indian curry. Can you make an Indian curry without turmeric and ginger-garlic paste? You can, but it won’t be an authentic curry. What is the point of eating a curry that does not burn your tongue? You might as well eat toad in the hole.

What is wrong with e-books? Professor Franzen explains: ‘A screen always feels like you can delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it is not permanent enough,’ he says.

Franzen will not read e-books. Forget it, he won’t do it. You have more chances of persuading Julian Assange to wear a condom while having sex with Swedish women than of convincing Franzen that it is not possible to delete (or change or move) e-books.

Maybe no one will care about books in fifty years time but Franzen does. Will the books  become obsolete in fifty years? Regrettably Franzen is unable to enlighten you on the matter; because he does not have a crystal ball. But if the books do become obsolete in fifty years, he will console himself with the knowledge that he will be dead by then.

In the Hay Festival Franzen also lamented the fact that ‘the combination of technology and capitalism that has given us a world that really feels out of control.’

So, to summarize: (1) Jonathan Franzen does not like e-books. (2) Joathan Franzen believes that e-books do not impart a sense of permanency. (3) Jonathan Franzen believes e-books represent the worst aspect of technology and Capitalism. It is not the unrest in different parts of the world or the clash of civilizations (as one mendacious British prime-minister put it to justify his war-mongering) that has given us a world that feels really out of control; it is the Kindle editions of The Corrections and Freedom (that’s right, both of these Franzen novels are available in electronic format) that are to be blamed for the disturbing deficiency of reality in our world. (4) Jonathan Franzen believes serious readers should avoid e-books with the alacrity of an upper caste Hindu who has spotted a lower caste person from fifty yards. (5) Jonathan Franzen thinks he will be dead in fifty years.

I consider myself a serious reader. I take my reading very seriously. I read literary fiction about which I talk to my friend John when I meet him once a week (over an authentic Indian curry), and try to convince him that there is more to reading than Lee Child and Jack Higgins. I can rattle out all the Booker Prize winners in the last 25 years, and I am learning the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (a much longer list). I order books of Nobel Prize winners and place them prominently on my bookshelf. I can speak for ten minutes non-stop on the magic realism in Salman Rushdie’s novels and how he might have been influenced by the magic realism of Mikhail Bulgakov. I have managed to read the first 25 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow without becoming comatose and I tell myself every few months that I ought to read Ulysses. Last month I bought at a second-hand book-fair Goethe’s Faust: Part 1 and 2 (one pound each).  I am seriously considering ordering all the novels of Jean Paul Sartre, and I am outraged that Philip Roth has not yet won the Nobel.

I think I have said enough to prove my credentials as a serious reader of serious fiction.

Have I got a Kindle (or any other e-reader, such as the Sony e-reader)? No I haven’t.

My friend David bought a Sony e-reader last year, which, while it is thirty pounds costlier than the Kindle Fire, is far better value for money (he claims) because Kindle apparently does not allow you to borrow e-books from your local library, but Sony e-reader does.

‘Kindle is a rip-off,’ David declared. ‘Amazon wants you to buy books from them, and that’s why they don’t allow you to borrow e-books. Don’t bother buying Kindle.’

I assured David that I wouldn’t bother with Kindle.

‘Buy Sony e-reader, the best value for money,’ David advised.

I had to disappoint him. I told him that I had no intention of buying a Sony e-reader either.

‘Why?’ David gave a very credible performance of initial incredulity and incomprehension, followed by dawning comprehension, succeeded by dismay that quickly mutated into withering contempt. ‘Don’t tell me, you plan to stick with physical books,’ he spat out the words along with a half-chewed cardamom pod in the chicken biryani we were sharing in the local Indian (with two male waiters sporting moustaches the size of an adult rat hovering in our vicinity, in case we decided to order extra poppodums; we didn't).

Now, if I had read the Guardian article, I could have told David that e-books did not give me a sense of permanence; that I liked to have a specific object in my hands at a specific place and time; and that e-books made the world unreal, even though I did not fully understand how they did it.

But I had not come across the article in The Guardian when the conversation with David took place. So I merely said, ‘I like reading books.’

‘Physical books are dead. They are on their way out. In fifty years no one is going to read anything other than e-books.’ David delivered his verdict on the future of books (not very different, clever readers will have noted, from that of Jonathan Franzen, except that David would very much want to be alive, unlike Franzen, to see that day).

‘If I am alive in fifty years time, and in control of all my faculties, and books are really obsolete by that time, I shall happily read e-books. However, I don’t expect to be alive in fifty years. I have a family history of heart disease and high blood cholesterol. I fully expect to die in the next thirty years. Thirty five at tops,’ I gave David my own prediction.

‘I gave Sue a Sony e-reader for Christmas,’ David said. Sue is David’s partner. A pointy woman with insubstantial chest and prissy little opinions. And a snob. She reads Jane Austen and George Eliot, which she thinks makes her cleverer than me because I read Jonathan Coe. I am confident that she won’t be able to tell the Booker Prize winners in the past five years, let alone twenty-five; and I will bet my mortgage that she has never heard of Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008.  

‘And now Sue will not read anything except e-books,’ David continued. ‘When Sue was converted to e-books, I knew the books were finished. No one would want to read books anymore.’ David gave me a challenging look.

‘That is axiomatically untrue. I am sitting right in front of you and I read only books.’ I took David’s challenge.

‘What have you got against e-books? Why wouldn’t you give them a go?’ David appealed to me, spreading his arms over the table, palms upwards, for emphasis.

The thing is I have nothing against e-books. I have even read a book on Kindle. Another friend of mine lent me his Kindle over last Christmas and I read a book (written by an Australian chancer about how to build up a property portfolio and become a millionaire in less than a decade, accumulating eye-watering debts along the way, and repeating to yourself the mantra that your property is going to quadruple in value in seven years. You can always hang yourself when the things begin to unravel). It wasn’t too bad, I have to say. However, the resolution of the screen was not the same as a paperback (although considerably better than a laptop and reading it did not tire my eyes). The Kindle on which I read had a smaller screen than your average paperback. The navigation was a bit slow.

As far as I am concerned, Kindle or other e-readers don’t offer any advantage over physical books. True, Amazon has cunningly priced Kindle editions of books at a level lower than that of paperback editions. Which means you stand to save money if you buy Kindle editions of books instead of paperbacks. However, if, like me, you borrow books from the local library and don't buy them, you save even more money. I don’t really see the advantage, unlike my friend David, of Sony e-reader, which allows you to borrow on-line from the library without having to go there to borrow or return books. That is because I don’t mind going to the library (and neither should David seeing as his BMI is in the range of clinically obese), but mainly because the e-books collection in the local library is meagre; not a single one of the last fifteen books I read was available in the library in electronic format. True, all these books are available on Amazon in Kindle editions. But here is another thing. Of the fifteen books I read, only one (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan) had a ‘repeat value’ for me. I wouldn’t mind having this novel in my collection (it has also won the 2010 Pulitzer award for fiction), and I shall buy a paperback rather than Kindle edition (but not from a high-street book shop or Amazon. I am sure that in a couple of years, if not earlier, I shall see the novel in second-hand book shops. If I don’t spot it, I won’t bother. I have read the novel. If I am suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to read it again in future (though I doubt it) and if I haven’t still got it in my collection, I can always borrow it from the library.

Another alleged advantage of e-books is that you can take as many as you want when you go on a holiday, whereas paperback books will clutter your suitcase, which you could otherwise put to good use by packing them with cheap wine you buy on the continent.  Maybe if you go on two month-long holidays at a time and your speed of reading is such that you work your way through two books in a day, e-books will be an advantage over paperback books (although, if all that you are doing on a holiday is to bury yourself in books, one might wonder whether you couldn’t do it at home). When I go on a holiday, it is never more than a couple of weeks, and I read a book a week at most.

So, I won’t buy an e-reader any time soon. Not because I am not a serious reader (I am a very serious reader. I am currently hand-to-hand struggling with Michael Frayn’s memoir, My Father’s Fortune, which, I won’t lie, is a bit heavy going; but I will not give up; I will continue with my struggle until the book finishes or my life ends (whichever is earlier). This shows my commitment to reading.) I won’t buy an e-reader because I think it is a waste of my money. I don’t need it. I am very happy reading paperback books. I do not think they put a strain on my resources.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t like e-books because he believes they are corroding values. Perhaps he will put his money where his mouth is, and not allow his novels to be available as Kindle editions.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book of the Month: Small Memories (Jose Saramago)

JoseSaramago, who died two years ago, at the age of 87, is often described as the finest Portuguese writer of his generation.

I wouldn’t know about that, because he is the only Portuguese writer I have read; and not a lot. Of the more than dozen novels Saramago wrote, I have read only one: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, his first blockbuster novel. I read this novel more than a decade ago. In it Saramago told the story of Dr. Ricardo Reis, one of the more than eighty heteronyms adopted by FernandoPessoa, Saramago’s most famous literary compatriot. (Saramago was often compared to Pessoa, although he allegedly never liked such comparisons.) I do not remember a great deal of this novel other than that I found it a bit heavy going, not least because of the ponderous style of translation. Sentences went on for miles, with parenthesis, clauses and sub-clauses thrown in, interspersed by a medley of hyphens, colons and semi-colons that only made them more confusing. Maybe it had to do with how sentences are constructed in Portuguese, but the sentences in the translated work did not flow very smoothly. No one, I thought, writing in English would write this way (until I read a novel, entitled The Immortals, by the Indian author Amit Chowdhari. This novel, written in English, read a lot like Saramago’s translated novel. What might this mean? There are three possibilities: (1) Chowdhari translated Saramago’s novel. (I doubt this is the case.) (2) Chowdhari is influenced by the style of translated novels of Saramago. (Possible but not probable) (3) There are writers who cobble up sentences that progress laboriously, like a rusty train from Jabalpur to Bhawalpur.)

However, back to Saramago. If you had asked me, say, a year ago, what I thought of Saramago, I’d have said that Saramago was a very fine writer. I’d have said that—called Saramago a fine writer— even though I have read only one of his novels, the lasting impression of which on my mind was its wearisome translation compared to which the Radio 4 programme on Balkan funeral music was like ten cans of Red Bull. (But that, I accept, may be the limitation of my mind, which, like Keira Knightley’s brassiere, is rather small.) I would have said that because I would have remembered marvelling, in the midst of my battle with the translation, at the grand canvas against which the story unfolded. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is—for want of better phrase—a typical European novel. It proceeds at a leisurely pace with lots of musings about nothing in particular. The intermittent appearance in the novel of Fernando Pessoa (who, appropriately enough, discusses poetry with Dr. Reis) is a deft touch. It is a cerebral novel. And I like to read cerebral novels; that is to say I like to read novels which I think are cerebral; or I like—or think I like— novels which are—or I think are—cerebral. Reading cerebral novels makes me a cerebral person by association, an intelligent reader, which is good for my self-esteem.

There is also the minor matter of the Nobel Prize in Literature which Saramago was awarded in 1998. That clinches the issue for me. I must admit to this weakness in my character. I am inordinately impressed by literary awards. I am in awe of them far more than is required. I shall fight on grimly even when all hope is lost until I reach the end of a novel if it has won a major award. (Like Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer award winner, I hand-to-hand struggled with last year. The award board described Tinkers as

‘a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality.’

The novel was bollocks from beginning to end and left me feeling more exhausted than the Bangala Deshi construction worker fleeing Tripoli.)

So, a year ago, I had two reasons to hold Jose Saramago in high esteem. He had won the Nobel; and I had read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which was described in the Independent as a masterpiece that cast a spell on its reader via an alliance of wit and seriousness, and in the New York Times as written in the classical style (which I think is praise). An American friend of mine says that Saramago is not read widely in America and that he—who likes reading books—has not read any of Saramago’s novels. However, since this friend has a predilection for novels with titles like Skinny Dip and Death by Hollywood, I am not sure how representative his views are of wider book-reading American public.

I hold Saramago in high esteem for another reason. When he died in 2010, I read in his obituary that he was a life-long atheist. While I don’t have a firm ideological position on the subject of God, I am plagued by the suspicion that He may not exist; however when I am up the proverbial creek I prey fervently and beg Him to get me out of trouble. I therefore admire—envy, even—people like Jose Saramago who have resolved this conflict in their minds and arrived at the conclusion I am leaning towards but am too cowardly to embrace fully. 

Saramago was also a life-long member of the Communist party. I find that impressive, although I couldn't tell you why. I have never been a member of Communist party; indeed I have never been a member of any political party. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Socialism and Communism although I am positive that I read somewhere that Communism is the logical endpoint of Socialism. 

Has anything changed since my last assessment of Saramago? Yes. I have read one more book of Saramago. First published in Portuguese in 2006 it, might not have been the last book Saramago wrote, but it is probably the most recent book to have appeared in English. It is a memoir of Saramago’s childhood called Small Memories.

Small Memories is a fascinating book to read. In it Saramago recounts his childhood and the influences that shaped him. The translation unfortunately is not great and detracts a lot from the pleasure you derive from this sweet memoir.

It is not my intention to review Small Memories here; rather I want to put down the impressions left on my mind by these recollections of a humble childhood.

Born into a poor family in the small Portuguese village of Azinhaga, Saramago moved with his parents to Lisbon when he was two. However, throughout his childhood he returned every year to the village into which he was born and where his maternal grandparents continued to live. Both of his maternal grandparents were illiterate and led a hand-to-mouth existence by breeding pigs. Saramago’s childhood was spent not reading great classics or playing a piano but taking the pigs and piglets out of their pens every day and looking after other farmyard animals. His own family wasn’t rich either. Over a period of ten years the family changed addresses ten times, moving from one run down neighbourhood of Lisbon to another. (The frequent moves were not, Saramago assures us, because his father was fleeing creditors.) Saramago’s father eventually got a job in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Lisbon Constabulary while his mother remained a housewife.

Saramago does not say a lot about his parents, but gives the impression that he was closer to his mother than his father. Indeed he seems to be closer to and have spent more time with the mother’s side of extended family. At one point he mentions that his father resented the close emotional bond between Saramago and his maternal grandparents. Throughout the memoir there are brief sketches of the members of his extended family—an aunt and her jealous husband, another elderly aunt with alcohol problem who was once found with her skirt above her waist, singing merrily and masturbating—which bring a smile to your face. Saramago also talks about some of his neighbours and drops hints that his father might have had a fling with a neighbour’s wife. He talks about some of his schools and school mates. He gives us a taste of the inevitable intrigues and petty quarrels between neighbours and amongst members of the extended family, which went on for years.

The memoir has the feel of an octogenarian reminiscing about his childhood taking small sips of Dao, remembering different snippets and anecdotes every day, not paying too much attention to the linearity of the narrative. The overwhelming impression on my mind, as I read the memoir that meanders to and fro in time was of a lonely, solitary and introverted boy. This could partly be because for almost all of his childhood Saramago was an only child—he had an elder brother who died when he was four years and Saramago was eighteen months old—and may not have had the opportunity to make lasting friendships because of his parents’ frequent changes of address.

Saramago’s style of narration is unsentimental, almost flat. Not being able to read the original Portuguese memoir it is impossible to know whether the original style is droll. If it is, I have to say that the translation does not do it justice. It is only in certain anecdotes that the quirky humour comes to the fore: as in the narration of how the family acquired the name Saramago. We learn that Saramago was not the family name (that is surname) at all; the surname was de Sousa. Saramago—which apparently means wild radishes in Portuguese—was family’s nickname. The clerk in the registry office where Saramago’s father went to declare his son’s birth was a drunk and added Saramago to the plain de Sousa his father intended him to be. The father remained blissfully unaware that the family’s nickname—which he had come to dislike since moving to Lisbon— had been inserted between his son’s name and family name until it was time to enrol him in the primary school. Feeling intimidated by the law that demanded to know why his son’s name was different from his the father ended up adding Saramago to his own name. To his dying day Saramago’s father believed that the clerk acted out of spite.

In this memoir, which is like a patchwork, Saramago is in a nostalgic but not dewy-eyed mood. He does not provide us with personal anecdotes or peculiarities of his maternal grandparents, even though he was obviously very close to them. Neither are there any incidents to savour, which stand out or provide an insight into the workings of their minds. You don’t really feel that you know these people; they remain distant figures, hidden behind the mists of time. The only time Saramago’s grandfather really comes alive is, paradoxically enough, in his last illness. The grandfather suffered a stroke and died in a hospital away from his village-home. It would appear that he had a premonition of his death, and a few weeks before he suffered the stroke that killed him, he went around the front of his house, tearful and embracing and talking to all the trees he had planted and tended over the years. It was as if he knew somehow that he wouldn’t be seeing them for very long. The simplicity of narration breaks your heart.

Sarmago was well into his eighties when Small Memories came out, and he was reminiscing about events of almost seventy years earlier. Perhaps that is the reason why he seems unsure of the chronology of events. Many of the reminiscences are preceded by caveats such as ‘if I remember correctly’. As mentioned earlier, Saramago had an elder brother, who died when Saramago was very young. Saramago’s only memory of this brother is rather banal. He remembers being in one of the many apartments in Lisbon where the family lived. There is a dressing table just below the window with its drawers flung open. The brother, Francisco, is trying to climb on to the top of the dressing table when Saramago’s mother enters the room and whisks him away from the window. This is Saramago’s only memory of his brother which, he concludes may be false. 

For me the best part of the memoir came at the end. There are a series of family photographs, and rather than giving them drab captions, Saramago makes comments. This is the only time in the entire memoir he comes closest to showing his emotions. It gives you the feeling that you are sitting next to the great man and he is personally showing you the photo-album.

There is one photograph of Saramago’s maternal grandparents. In it we see the grandparents standing side by side and smiling at the camera, his grandfather’s hand on his wife’s shoulder. Saramago’s comment follows:

‘Here they are, Josefa and Jeronimo. I find that hand on my grandmother’s shoulder very touching. They didn’t much go in for public display of affection, but I know they loved each other.’

Another photograph of Saramago’s stunningly beautiful mother, taken in a studio, shows her gazing, slightly self-consciously, at the camera. Saramago’s comment is:

‘My mother was a beauty. It is not me who says so, but the photo.’

The last photograph in the series is of Saramago’s parents, in their late-middle ages. His father, a distinguished looking man, is wearing a suit and standing next to Saramago’s mother. His mother is smiling broadly at the camera while there is only a hint of a smile on his father’s face, as if he is finding the whole charade amusing. Saramago comments thus:

‘The years passed, and this is possibly the last photo of my father. Despite his various shenanigans, he was not a bad person. One day, when I was already a grown man, he said to me: ‘Now you, you’ve always been a good son.’ At that moment I forgave him everything. We had never been so close before.’

This is the only time Saramago allows us a glimpse into the uneasy relationship between him and his father.

In its review of Small Memories, the Independent commented that the memoir provided a real insight into the making of a great writer. I am not sure about that. There is nothing in this memoir, of a boy born into an impoverished Portuguese family of illiterate peasants, that gives so much as a hint of what he would one day become: a writer of weighty themes and the Nobel Prize winning sage.

If anything Small Memories proves that great writers are born, not made.