Category Archives: Authors

Lack of Warmth in Summertime (TSS)

SummertimeAs I mentioned in my last post, the news that Coetzee’s Summertime was released sent me immediately to my favourite local bookstore to get my copy. However, I could get to it only a little later and have just read the last page, a few moments back.

When I first heard about Summertime and its theme, I was intrigued and awaited it patiently. It was due to release only in December 2009, but I guess the publishers wanted to cash in on the media coverage it got due to the Booker Shortlist and released it immediately after the shortlist announcement. As someone who has read and loved Coetzee’s work before, I was not complaining.

Summertime had to be a difficult book, for any memoir is difficult. However, Coetzee was no novice in the genre with Boyhood and Youth having been received well before. Still, Summertime had to be difficult. Unfortunately, that shows when you read the book as well.

Coetzee is a master of words, the nobel prize has confirmed it sometime back. For someone as accomplished in his art as Coetzee, his last novel was an inevitable experiment. A fiction that speaks through dated diary entries, without any character voice,  Diary of a Bad Year was an achievement as well. While Summertime is different for sure, it is that same experiment taken forward.

As someone who starts a story every 15 days and has never finished any, I do understand in my limited capacity the pain, discipline, and frustration of baking the final batter. You will see that Coetzee for some reason did not want to go through this process and has served you the batter with no apologies. Summertime is a half attempt. It is not that batter cannot be eaten, but cakes taste better. As one of the characters through whom Coetzee chooses to give a glimpse of himself remarks – Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion.

One of the reason I found this was a lazy attempt  is because the other works of his that I have read have left me in awe of him. From that pedestal, Summertime lacks warmth. It is no news that Coetzee shares little about himself or his inspirations in real life. He, I believe, is from the school of thought that does not have faith in public images of authors. With Summertime, Coetzee has taken that inhibition to his fiction as well. While I empathize with the thought that an author’s life has little to do with his works, my question is – Why write a memoir/biographical fiction then?

4 women, 1 colleague/friend, few dated diary entries, and a few undated fragments are what he has chosen as reflections of himself. Summertime begins with the diary entries which give a glimpse into the thoughts of Coetzee in the period (1972-1977) in which the memoir is set. A young biographer is writing a book on the nobel laureate John Coetzee, a white South African author who has recently died in Australia. The second part of the book is an interview the biographer conducts with a women named Julia. She is married, a mother and just out of adventure, gets into an adultrous relationship with Coetzee. She lives in the same neighborhood where Coetzee stays with his father. This part is in the form of an interview, though the questions are few and short and therefore the answers are more like narrations.

The third part of the book involves Margot, a cousin and childhood love of Coetzee. The biographer had interviewed her and is now reading out the narrative that he has culled out from her

Coetzee at Nobel

Coetzee at the Nobel Ceremony

answers. This, I believe, is the most powerful narrative in the book. Coetzee probably intended it so, as it is clear from the words Coetzee chooses to put in Margot’s mouth that she was the alternate that he never was. The only relationship where Coetzee admits some warmth is with Margot, the alter-ego which remained as cut-off from his real self as everyone else.

Adriana, mother of a young beautiful girl whom Coetzee teaches English in extra classes, is the most intriguing of all. In her testimony, Coetzee was in love with her and troubles her to no end. However, she cannot be trusted. Adriana is an emotion that intrigues Coetzee and he presents it to us in all its raw contradictions. He then moves to a colleague/friend who taught in the same university. He is the only person of the same sex that he chose to include, though very briefly, as his mirror. There is not much to suggest as to why is he the one man in company of four rather complex women from his life. You are only left guessing. The last mirror is a lady lecturer from France with whom he taught a course in African literature and had sexual relations for sometime. She is the one who talks about his writing, his books – but too little, yet again. It is almost like Coetzee wrote Summertime to tease his readers, his so called ‘admirers’.

Summertime is not as dry as it may sound from whatever I have said above. Despite all this, it is a book you will read through easily. It has underlying themes of life, of a father-son relationship, of the commerce of life and the soul that pays in the bargain. It is an insight into how lonely a thinking, writing soul can be. It also is a relevant insight into the complex psyche of the white South Africans who were not a part of apartheid but were silently accommodating nonetheless.

Summertime lacks nothing when it comes to Coetzee’s ability to put the right words in the right order to make the right strings in your heart or head play the right tune. But it does lack the richness of a Coetzee fiction. It is a biographical fiction by an author who does not want to tell you anything about himself after he started writing. With that disclaimer, it is not a book to let go. Though, if you have not read Coetzee before, go pick his other works. Summertime can wait.

THE LATEST ACQUISITIONS

After long, went berserk once again with book shopping. What triggered it was an email from flipkart informing me that Summertime by Coetzee, recently shortlisted for this year’s Booker, was available. A picture is worth thousand words. Not in the picture are Death On The Installment Plan by Louis-ferdinand Celine and Greenpeace: How A Group Of Journalists, Ecologists And Visionaries Changed The World by Rex Weyler ordered online at Flipkart.

The Latest Acquisitions

The Latest Acquisitions

Revisiting the Magic of Dostoevsky (TSS)

After almost a year and a half, I have finally picked up another Dostoevsky. People all over have recommended the company of Prince Myshkin and I think it was high time I finally delved into The Idiot, which I have been intending to read for a really long time now.

While I still have around two-thirds of the book left to finish, I can confidently recommend it to anyone as another masterpiece from my favourite author. After reading his three most famous works – Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, I had the choice between The Idiot and The Possessed. Since I was more inclined to visit Dostoevsky’s inquiry into an innocent mind than his take on the political upheavals in Russia, I fell for Myshkin.

Of what I have read till now, I am thankful to the good sense having prevailed over me to revisit the magical world of Dostoevsky, where gripping stories are not eternally divorced from substantive psychological or philosophical discussion. Starting with White Tiger last year, my reading trend had slowly shifted more towards ‘contemporary fiction’, a genre I had for queer reasons stayed away from earlier. However, in due course the realization has dawned upon me that no reading should be guided by the ‘genre logic’. While the beauty of a Kundera or the relevance of an Adiga deserves all the attention, the omnipotence of a Dostoevsky can be ignored at no cost.

There are very few characters in literature that live with the reader for its impact on his psyche. This is apart from those that become a part, in some ways, of the folklore. Raskalnikov, Ivan, and Alyosha are the kind of characters that will never become as famous as literary characters can be. But for most people who have read and appreciated Dostoevsky’s themes, these live with them eternally; not as people, but as questions. Dostoevsky has the uncanny ability to turn ideas that trouble him or the ones that he contemplates without an answer, into his characters. It is this ‘answerlessness’ that gives Raskalnikov, Ivan, Alyosha, and the like their luster, their opulence. Vision stops at them, the mind is forced to look beyond.

Looking beyond, however, is to be an excercise in comprehension. In the last one and a half years that I have known these three questions, every new round of contemplation has brought fresh insights. These insights in turn serve as clues for those eternally unanswerable questions whose impotrance always lie in the act of the attempt to a solution, and never the solution itself. Maybe, that is why Dostoevsky has always been a very ‘involving’ read.

The way the Prince is going, I am sure at the end of it all, I would have added one more to the question bank. I also have an inclination that these characters of Dostoevsky talk across books. In many ways Rakalnikov challenges Alyosha and Prince, while the Prince has a lot to say to Ivan. That, I guess, is something to investigate.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

Reading a Golden Notebook (TSS)

Inspired by Bob Stein’s email about the ‘integrated reading experiment‘ with The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I picked it up way back in early December 2008. Thanks to a lot of other things happening in my life, I have been getting very little time to read compared to what generally satisfies me. Ergo, I am yet to read the last chapter titled ‘The Golden Notebook’. However, this book is so rich with ideas that one may not need to finish to share one’s experience.

It is my personal opinion that though a little background on a work of literature helps our understanding of the intricacies of the work, it is generally advisable to read a book devoid of any preconceived or rather pre-propounded theories about the same. Anyone reading Lessing in our time will be struck by atleast two facts – that she won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2007 and that she is considered to be one of the leading ‘feminist’ authors of the 20th century. Neither of these are relevant to one’s being able to understand or appreciate her work.

The conciousness that Lessing is a ‘feminist’ author was something I made myself dispel within 20 pages of my reading. I realized that this fact was clouding my perception of every sentence I read. I feel, standing at the epilogue of this monumental work of literature, that Lessing has much more to convey than mere sexist themes. This is not to be misunderstood as an aversion of feminine rights in any way. Only that, I feel it is unjust to sweep away other powerful themes of such an epic merely because the feminist ones shock the male dominated society the most. Should shock and awe be a value to judge literature by?

Having said that, let me acknowledge Lessing’s masterful command over the female psyche. Probably, it is the dearth of such powerful and shameless expression by women that makes Golden Notebook relevant even after decades of its first publication. I consider Colin Wilson’s Outsider to be one of the most important books I have ever read and I remember him having observed that female ‘outsider’ artists were hard to come by. Lessing is definitely one of them.

One of the most interesting theme of this novel is the promise and disappointment of the communist revolution. She captures in all its essence, the temptation of communism to the generation of the 50s -70s, in various parts of the world. More than the feminist overtones, being able to capture with perfection the political debacle of communism and its effect on the intellectual youth of that era is the most important achievement of Lessing. Communism holds no temptation to my generation and therefore, to be able to understand its appeal in the past is a tricky task. I believe, Lessing provides an able road-map to all those who would care to.

It is too easy to pretend that communism is an evil; though it is actually insane if we do. Across borders, throughout the wide world, more than a 2/3rd majority of the intellectuals were attracted by it in the last century. Most of them today are professors in various universities teaching either the history of communism or the economics of capitalism. For anyone interested in an understanding of the 21st century world, this political history is the single most important theme to understand. For that alone, The Golden Notebook deserves a very serious read.

The feminist aspect of the book deserves to be read with passion and a will to understand, at least from the male perspective. And that is what I have attempted to do. To be able to read a matter of factly stream of conciousness passage about the various kinds of female orgasm is an education in itself. Not biological, but psychological, and more importantly social. However, I shall hold my guns for now and return to this theme in detail once I have finished the last chapter of the book.

To conclude, a warning. This is a long book and becomes long specially when the diary entries record the dry facts. There are pangs of ‘Let’s Chuck it’. If you survive them, this is a book worth all the time.

Posted as a part of the Sunday Salon

My Best 2008 Reads

Now that 2008 is lived through and packed safely in our memories, like most of us, I decided to visit my 2008 chamber of secrets to reveal my best registered reads of the year. These are not books published this year, only that my good fortune of reading them happened to be in 2008. The only criteria for the selection of these three titles was to judge which one of them had the greatest impact on my memory register and whether I would want to read them again if I had the time.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The Book ThiefSometimes, all roads lead to Rome, no matter what. After watching The Pianist and Schindler’s List, and reading Liquidation by Kertesz and Cat & Mouse by Grass, the holocaust theme stuck with me. I had picked Book Thief randomly from the bookstore, just because the idea of Death being a narrator of what was publicized as a ‘teenage’ read sounded quite interesting. I was most pleasantly surprised by the power of this book and its depth, which was achieved in the company of most amazing simplicity. The Holocaust is a subject that will never exhaust the possibility of a fresh insight through fiction, and I believe, this is a befitting classic in that arena.
  2. Youth by J M Coetzee: Coetzee was an author I always heard of but never read. One fine Sunday in January 2008, I finally bought the first two Coetzee’s – The Master of Petersberg and Youth. Given my speed of reading, I never expected to finish them in a record time of 1.5 days each. Though I liked both titles and they go into my ‘all time favourites’ list, Youth had a special relevance for me. The protagonists journey from idealism to despair, I could identify with. Since then, I have often picked this little book and read a few random pages. Believe me, I have had something to think of every time.
  3. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith: This was another random pick at the bookstore. The book was very beautifully designed and the description sounded too interesting to ignore. I had never even heard of Smith. Her style struck me as immensely powerful and refreshing. The ease with which Smith’s words wrap around various complexities of modern life in Girl Meets Boy is unparalleled. More than anything, this is a masterpiece in homosexual literature, in feminism, and in brevity. This amazing take on the myth of Iphis has got me hooked to the amazing Myth Series of the Canongate publishers, of which I now intend to read each title. I have since read Weight by Jeanette Winterson and Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith from the series. Though I found the latter disappointing, Winterson’s take on the myth of Atlas is one I am going to return to quite often.

There are quite a few other titles that are worth mentioning, even though the three above beat them to my best reads of the year. Weight by Jeanette Winterson for the brave denial of Atlas’s burden. Imre Kertesz’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child for intellectualising a horror that is difficult for mortals like me to even comprehend to any understanding whatsoever. Moreover, Kaddish raises a question that has perplexed me for quite sometime – If you had a choice, would you choose to be born? This question must not be confused to ‘Whether life is worth living?’ and ‘Whether suicide is a valid choice?’. Another memorable book would be the White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Probably the only book I have ever read before it won the Booker. For me, the appeal of this book lies in its ability to make the haves contemplate the have nots. Also, this book finally broke the self-imposed prohibition on reading Indian fiction. Another book I must mention is Elie Wiesel’s Night, however, forgive me for I do not have the talent to comment on it. The only thing I can say is that every human being post 1945 must read it. One must know. That’s the minimum that can be done.

The White Tiger of Indian Fiction

The blogosphere is going to flood soon, if not already, with criticism of all kinds of the Booker 2008 winner. I am sure about it because, in the nature of things, critics are always more vocal than appreciators. I am not here to argue whether or not Aravind Adiga’s book was the best of 2008 but to tell you why, for entirely different reasons, I rejoice his success.

Despite being an Indian, I am mostly skeptic of all English language Indian literature – simply because, most often I fail to connect and even more often I can see through the false portrayal and pointless criticism. Why does everyone have to portray India as the land of poverty and misery alone? I have held this belief that Indian authors play to the galleries abroad by portraying that picture of India which they (foreigners) are most comfortable with. When I picked the White Tiger around a couple of months back, I was loaded with the intent to read and blast it off as an illogical portrayal of India. 30 pages down, I was seething to attack; but by the time I finished the novel, I was wondering about many things Indian that we had taken for granted. Small questions of life that have no answers but every minute spent pondering over them makes life even more worth the trouble. If a book achieves that, I thought, it’s a winner, Booker or no Booker.

What Adiga acheives in the book is a difficult combination of thought provoking literary fiction without being preachy. The style of the narrative as well as the idea behind the novel are as original as could be. The plot is definitely not its strong point, niether are the characters such that you might remember them for life, but the novel will haunt you for long, if you happen to get the central idea.

What, you may ask, is the blasted central idea I have been harping on? Let me warn you, whatever I say are my words alone and it may very well be that even the author might disagree with me. The central idea of the novel is what Adiga describes as the ‘Rooster Coop’ and its essence. The never ending psychological tussle between the have and have-nots. Mind you, its no book about revolutions, though the narrator Balram Halwaimay proclaim his story to be one. It is the psychological nuances of the inevitable ‘haves & have- nots’ relationships we all have, most of the times filling different roles in different ones; that is the highlight of Adiga’s book.

Balram Halwai is funny no doubt, but more often than not he leaves a bitter after-taste to your smiles. And if anyone has any doubts about the actuality or potentiality of whatevet Balram Halwai tells you, please – you need to live in India (and not just the Metros) for a few years to realize that the have and have not equation presented in the book is accurate, to say the least. Only difference, if I am asked to point one, would be that there is no after-taste after the smiles here, it’s just a way of life.

What pleases me most about Adiga’s White Tiger winning the Man Booker Prize 2008 is that it is refreshing to see an easily accesible, smooth, and an easy-read to win one of the most prestigious literary awards. My problem with Booker and a lot of the ‘famed literary circles’ has been that anything that is drab or difficult to comprehend is often considered good and anything potentially popular or smooth is dismissed as non-literary. This pseudo intellectualism must end. Let a book stand for itself, not for pre-conceived notions of what is literary. Read it becaue of or despite the award, whichever school you may belong to.

Let me end this piece with the hope that maybe Adiga’s Booker will interest more people to read sensible fiction, literary and not pointless. Maybe such books can convey the message that the good books ‘others’ keep talking about are not always boring. Maybe people understand that books that deserve to be read are not always drab but most often a lot of fun. Maybe… or may be not; inertia wins more often. For now, let me just cheer Adiga for producing the white tiger of Indian fiction!

UPDATE: Read an interesting piece by Adiga on the genesis of the idea behind the book here

Murakami’s Magical Madness

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

The Win-Up Bird Chronicle

It happens rarely, but when it does, all the effort that reading takes is justified ten times over. Less than 20 pages down while reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I knew I was in company of a mastermind – in all senses of the word.

Murakami has been one of the many authors whom for some reason I just kept ignoring despite intending all the time to read him ‘a little later’. Finally, after Murdoch’s painfully real Under the Net, I needed some respite from reality. Of what I had read about Murakami, I ventured hoping he would give me some. And lo! he did not disappoint; on the contrary he surpassed all expectations.

Murakami is not a fantasy, fairy-tale, or sci-fi novelist, yet he hangs you at the edge of reality throughout the journey of his book. In terms of a sense of the real, it’s niether here nor there. As his protagonist himself wonders while Murakami takes him on a roller coster ride where the next turn is invisible – truth is not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.

The real genius of Murakami lies in the fact that not only does he weave a magical ‘on the edge of reality’ tale but does it in a way that even the skeptics are bound to love this magic. For the cynics who equate life to mathematical certainity, Murakami is the devil. For venturing into the ‘unreal’ with such precision and logical flow would shatter all the conceptions of our mathematical cynics.

Along the fun ride that Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, Murakami plays around with a quite a few difficult themes – marriage, relationships, loneliness, war, reality, existentialism, et all. He deals with such themes as if teasing the reader to go on to a new one. He challenges your intellect and when you respond, he defies your logic in progression of his plot. 

Many compare him to Kafka, but I do not think that is right. I find him to be original. It is true though that if Kafka’s literature had not been witnessed by the world before his, it would be difficult to the critics to understand him. He might have risked the chances of him being dismissed as nonsensical.

In literary fiction, I believe, it is more common to have a story founded on certain very strong characters, plot taking a second seat. However, Murakami’s characters are far from strong. Except the protagonist and a couple of other ladies in his life, the rest of them are just sketches. All focus is on the plot. Characters come and go, abruptly. But in that brief time, they have moved the plot to another level. You need to read him to understand how magically he makes his characters tell the story without, almost, being a part of it. He’s magical. He’s maddening. He’s Murakami

This was my first Murakami and I am already itching for another one. Any suggestions? Kafka on the shore or Norwegian Wood? Or should I jump to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World?