Tuesday 23 September 2008

'It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night color. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.

As she sensed Shimamura's approach, the woman fell over with her breast against the railing. There was no hint of weakness in the pose. Rather, against the night, it was the strongest and most stubborn she could have taken. So we have to go through that again, thought Shimamura.

Black though the mountains were, they seemed at that moment brilliant with the color of the snow. They seemed to him somehow transparent, somehow lonely. The harmony between sky and mountains was lost.'

- Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country. Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker

Monday 22 September 2008

'I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters—I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional ... My characters have a profession, have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each one of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world.'

- Georges Simenon. More here. (caution: pdf)

'..if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion.'
'No one suspected that it was some part of himself that he had nearly struck when he had raised his fist, or that it was something of his own past which he outfaced in the prisoner's eyes.'

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids by Kenzaburo Oe.

Set in the second world war, this novel follows the fortunes of a group of teenaged reformatory school boys, evacuated from the city and dragged about the countryside until a village that will take them in is found. When they are finally taken in, an outbreak of disease causes the villagers to flee, leaving the despised group of boys trapped in their abandoned village. The boys try to carry on on their own, and make a stab at building a life and society of their own. Then the villagers return, and the high-handed brutality of the adult world re-establishes itself.

It's a very short but vivid and intense story which doesn't flinch from dealing with violence or sexuality. It's been compared to The Lord Of The Flies, but if anything is the exact opposite, with the despised children attempting to live a decent, fulfilling life in the absence of adults, and being plunged back into a state of abject captivity when the adults return.

I felt the book suggested that the war had completely compromised the moral authority of the adult world, and only those who were not a part of it, either because they were children, refugees or deserters, had any chance of rediscovering what it meant to be human. Everyone here is more or less corrupt here in direct relation to their degree of assimilation with the adult world.

A very bleak and haunting little book.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
-Gustave Flaubert

That's what.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Great Apes by Will Self.
Listen up, you yahoos, there's nothing here Jonathan Swift hasn't already said. But Self's tale of a man who wakes up one morning to find himself a chimp in a world of sentient chimps is certainly the coked-up, post-Beat version of the old satirical trope for our times. Lovingly scatalogical depictions of chimp social behaviour hold a funhouse mirror up to our own human foibles, all sorts of linguistic virtuosity and detailed research is aired and several nice satirical barbs fired. The sheer depth and pungency of Self's thorough imagining of a rather more interesting planet of the apes and his often manic prose style make up for the fact that it all peters out to a rather weak end.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Twenty years from now they'll be singing they were singing that they were singing sweet home Alabama all summer long

The only stupider than Kid Rock paying homage to a Lynyrd Skynyrd chestnut by ripping it off and changing the lyrics, while sucking all the guitar jamming and sense of groove out of it is people singing along to said song.

Dude, you're singing along to a hit song about singing along to a hit song.

Just consider the hall of mirrors of utter pop cultural vapidity your life has become. Try suicide. I urge you.

Friday 12 September 2008

Fernando Pessoa's The Book Of Disquiet is getting to me, despite my smug assumptions - I'd thought I was too evolved from the gloomy cuss state to totally appreciate the book's unrelenting pessimism and ironic self-regard. But there are virtuoso passages of rare lyrical beauty, observations that must resonate with the experience of any hapless denizen of any city and, most incredibly, butterfly-delicate states of mind and shades of thought captured alive. I'd quote something, but then I'd wind up typing in entire pages.

I'm stretching out the last few chapters of Dr. Faustus. I'm not sure Leverkuhn's life is quite the perfect metaphor or parallel to Nazi Germany's disastrous Will To Power; does a lot of it hinge on how literally one takes the pact outlined halfway through the book? Because, to my mind, that is clearly not intended literally, and is a part of Leverkuhn's own severe, almost masochistic attitude toward himself.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Pal Anoofa on Bangalore: 'That city is dying the worst kind of death. And people want to dance'.

Monday 8 September 2008

Karen Russel is two or three lexical generation ahead of me. Neologisms like 'tankini' throw me for a loop, not because I can't back-engineer them and figure out what they mean but because they seem like words from a future generation of speakers to me, inhabiting as I do a word world where the Beats and Joyce still seem pretty radical. I'm often overwhelmed, and frankly unable to swallow some of her more sesquipedlian feats of language virtuosity when placed in the mouths of juvenile narrators.

Also, perhaps it's all a bit too modern American for me. Modern America is the least interesting country in the world, because the most ubiquitous and attention-demanding.

Thursday 4 September 2008

A perceptive essay on Mann's Dr. Faustus and Kafka's The Castle, written in response to new translations of both novels issued in the late 90s.
'Kafka's art of understatement complements Mann's art of grandiloquent, self-consciously outdated overstatement in parody of traditional modes. But at bottom an underlying common sense of modern need can be discerned in The Castle and in Doctor Faustus. Kafka's K. and Mann's diabolically gifted Leverkuhn are seeking to restore some kind of contact to a realm that transcends the alienated materialism and conformist mediocrity of middle-class life.'
'Mann, of course, continued to write in the parodic mode after Doctor Faustus. Though he was able to imagine the breakthrough into new forms, he did not achieve it.
When Kafka finally ascended into the canon of modern novels, after World War II, Mann, Hesse, Broch, and others tirelessly praised him as the figure who had broken through into a mythic expression of modernity.'
Another interesting essay on Dr. Faustus.

Recently, an apartment complex in Whitefield was innundated by waters rising as a result of the freakish rains that have been lashing Bangalore. The residents were evacuated, with the exception of a friend of my wife's. This woman has pet animals at home - cats and a dog - and as they could not be evacuated as well, elected to stay in her flat (fortunately well above the flood waters) and make do with stored groceries until the waters receded and normal life could be resumed.

She spent a whole weekend alone, except for her pets, in her flat, with no electricity and dwindling supplies. A reporter from the Slimes of India spoke to her, but chose not to mention her predicament in the published coverage.

I can't help but wonder how different it would have been if she hadn't been a slightly dotty cat-and-dog-lady but someone whom the Slimes could embrace as one of their own, a happening citizen of the hip new India everyone loves and wants to a ticket to. What if it had been a dj?

I can see the headline...

Heroic dj wishes Bangalore could party longer

DJ NoVein, a resident of the XYZ Apartment Complex in Whitefield, is stranded in his flat, trapped by floods, with only his collection of rare house music CDs to keep him company. 'Some guys came to rescue me but they wouldn't take my CDs so I stayed here, man. This stuff is priceless!' NoVein earns an honest living playing tracks from these CDs to sweaty partylovers in the clubs and pubs of Bangalore. Leaving them at the mercy of looters would not be an option for this hardworking presser of the play button.

'I've got my stash with me so I'm okay,' he says, referring no doubt to a treasure trove of his favourite Saif-style Lays chips, 'but some JD would be nice,' he adds with a boyish grin. Always a paper with a will to support a deserving cause, the Slimes has set up a fund to help buy NoVein that bottle of Jack Daniels. A team of ardent socialites has been despatched by car to deliver this all-important life saving cargo and was last seen taking a detour towards Hoskate for herbal diversions. In the meantime, NoVein urges his fans to be calm, and says 'Man, I can't wait to get back to the party! Pity it has to end at 11.30.'

I've been dipping cautiously into St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves by Karen Russell, and it's a slog. The stories often wind up being quite memorable and even moving, but the writing style is a bit of a pain. I suppose it's just too jumpy, modern and perhaps too American for my more sedate Old World tastes and pedantic ways. I suspect that I might have embraced this book quite enthusiastically about a decade back, but one's arteries do begin to harden with time.

Far more in keeping with my emerging taste for sedateness, pedantry and a touch of well-applied pomposity is Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, which I am already halfway through.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Books read recently:

All Souls by Javier Marias. A multi-layered novel of a Spanish academic adrift in Oxford, which he finds, is a town outside time, frozen in treacle. It is from the perspective of a man who has since moved on, whom 'time has caught up with' that he looks back on his intrigues, affairs and obsessions in the ancient university town. More than just a novel on academic life in many ways, among them the brilliant analysis of the source of Arthur Machen's unique horrors, the juxtaposition of two ideas which taken seperately are not horrific at all, but when put together can evoke horror by their association. It's an idea that applies to a larger context than the creation of uncanny stories, like everything in Marias' TARDIS-like novels.

Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici. 18th-century English country gentleman Westfield, a self-appointed philosopher, is plagued with insomnia. He engages Samuel Goldberg, a Jewish writer, to read him to sleep. Somehow the assignment changes in nature, and Goldberg is expected to write an original composition to lull his patron to sleep with each night. The 30 chapters of this book are nothing so straightforward as the stories Goldberg might write - instead, they're meditations on the process of storytelling, on the past and how it touches the present, on art, music, literature (especially the warhorses of the western canon) and philosophy and the relation they might bear to wisdom. Good stuff, very elegant and economical in style and packed with substance to mull over. In a way this is the sort of allusive, nuanced, symbolic and formally ambitious book that's tailor-made for me to enjoy. And I enjoyed it.

Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. Linked in setting and several characters, Isherwood's 'Berlin Novels' are really a novel and a collection of linked vignettes and short stories. 'Mr. Norris' is the story of a rather pathetic, yet unscrupulous conman who plays out his convoluted, doomed tricks - they really seem more like the gambits of some misguided, compulsive entertainer than the shrewd strategems of a criminal - against the backdrop of a Germany on the brink of the Nazi era. 'Goodbye' is a more or less autobiographical portrait of the growing tensions in Berlin, among the politically involved, the opportunistic and the just plain hapless natives and expatriates. It's the portrait of the end of an era. Both books are memorable for more than just the context that gives them their initial interest.

The Lambs Of London by Peter Ackroyd. Perhaps the most satisfying novel by Ackroyd I've read since 'The Last Will and Testament of Oscar Wilde'. It's about Charles and Mary, their strange, bookish, lives and a young man who forges Shakespeare documents and a play and the obsessions that drive literary endeavour. 'The Clerkenwell Tales' was a bit disjointed, and 'The House of Doctor Dee' didn't quite pull off the mystical leap, but this one is a perfect miniature (read it on a sunday afternoon, if you can, with a ginger kitten worrying at your toes) with much going on.

Maigret And The Ghost by Georges Simenon. Another one of Maigret's excellent novels about the Parisian inspector Maigret. The sensational crime involves art treasures, intrigue, forgery and a doomed young artist. The matter-of-fact way in which Maigret goes about resolving the conundrums ground the story in everyday realism in typical Simenon fashion. Madame Maigret finally gets a more prominent part, and finally gets to have a lunch date with her chronically overworked husband. A nice touch.