Tuesday 29 September 2009

The Select Book Fair at the Alliance Francaise was quite fantastic. I picked up a lot of good things, genuinely interesting, hard-to-find and not particularly new books, including an obscure yet hilarious novel by RL Stevenson, typically brilliantly-written and ideologically disagreeable essays by GK Chesterton, a nice old complete Lamb, an illustrated shorter Pepys and an illustrated Pantagruel. I've always looked for old collections of ghost stories in Select and never found them. Turns out Mr. Murthy sends them all to Ruskin Bond.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

I make music.
This Sunday, Yasmine and I, along with pal Luke, went for a piano recital by Gilles Vonsattel at the Alliance Francaise. This wasn't one of those shows where you nod off a bit in between the most interesting passages. Vonsattel started strong with 3 Contrapunti by Bach - always an arresting composer to listen to, and followed through with the more lightweight but lively and engaging Bagatelles by Beethoven. Next came the piece I'd been waiting for ever since I read the programme about a week ago: Op. 110, Beethoven's 31st piano sonata, the second of his astounding final trilogy of piano sonatas. An ambitious choice, and Vonsattel betrayed just the slightest bit of apprehension, rushing offstage to fetch a cloth to wipe the keys with before commencing the piece. He needn't have worried; it was a superb performance. As far as I'm concerned I could have gone home then and there and had my money's worth - except of course that the show was free.

The second half of the programme was more impressionistic, beginning with Liszt's Les Jeux d'Eau à la Villa d'Este, a sort of impressonist precursor, evoking the sounds of a rippling fountain. It's the sort of piece that works best as a performance, rather than a recording, and I could see large sections of the audience hanging on each note. The show ended with Gaspard de la nuit by Ravel, another immense technical challenge. Again, I think a piece like this is meant to be experienced live rather than mulled over via recordings, and Vonsattel's performance had the right mix of precision and passion. Here's a video of him playing the Scarbo movement, one of the most devilishly difficult piano pieces around. I don't warm to impressionist music easily; I yawn through recordings of Ravel and Debussy. Vonsattel's performance had me engrossed, weaving pictures in my mind.

As important as his choice of music and his playing ability, Vonsattel is an engaging presenter, setting up each piece with an introduction that is inviting and informative without being either pretentious or condescending. We wound up at Spiga having dinner with Vonsattel and several other people after the show, and he seems like a pleasant, level-headed person. He is interested in modern music, admires the Kronos Quartet and Radiohead. I'd like to see him coming back to India some time with a more contemporary programme. But I'd also like to hear him take a crack at Op. 111.

Tuesday 8 September 2009


A whimsical, witty fable about Sita of the beautiful hips and her two husbands. Mann seems to have had a great deal of fun writing this one, and it shows. He is occasionally funny in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and ROYAL HIGHNESS and this novella gives free rein to his humour; a typically Mann-esque ponderous, ironic yet quite effective humour of course. Some of the scenes are truly exquisite, such as the aching adolescent lust evoked when the young men first spy on Sita bathing, the raw horror portrayed when Sridhaman enters the Kali temple, the elaborately satirical depiction of the ascetic in his 'unpeopled void' and more. I believe this was also adapted into an opera, and one can easily see how a book so full of colour, life and emotional drama could translate well to the stage. A minor masterpiece from a major writer.

Monday 7 September 2009


This was his second novel. It presents a microcosm as a symptomatic of larger currents, as in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. But the narrative seems less universally relevant and less well formed as a narrative in itself.

Sometime in the early 20th century, before world wars change the face of the world, a southern German principality lurches into moribundity as its finances totter and its decaying monarchy clings on to the ceremonial prerogatives and duties of hereditary rulers. Young Prince Klaus Heinrich takes the reins of power, and his life becomes a sterile, meaningless round of state visits and mugging for the crowds.

Then, Spoelman, an American millionaire of German origin buys one of his family's palaces and moves in. New wealth, and the power it commands are contrasted with Klaus' sovereignty, which has little of wealth or power left, but clings to pomp and ceremony for their own sake. Klaus is drawn to the liberal, enigmatic Imma, Spoelman's daughter. In embracing the new ideas and influences that she brings to his insular way, he may find a way to be reborn.

There are good points: an often sharply funny satire of decaying monarchy. An unforgettable portrait of a cold, loveless royal childhood. Interesting contrasts between old and new ways. Klaus' tutor Uberbein is especially interesting, as a type both for THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN's Naphtha and for the proto-Nazi tendencies explored further in DOKTOR FAUSTUS.

But the last third of the novel suffers from a near-fatal deflation. Klaus' family, his people, his family and even the object of his affection are all in accord with his romantic ambitions; all he has to do is read a few economics text books and show a genuine willingness to learn and care for his people and the deal is done with no loss and little anguish along the way. It just doesn't have dramatic resonance, and this also dulls the symbolic impact the story was meant to have.

Thursday 3 September 2009


An emigre from Sarajevo finds his life in the US a strange mix of promise and failure. He is married to a successful, attractive American woman; he gains a certain amount of fame because he writes a newspaper column about the immigrant life. But he is unemployed, and unable to find the hook that will help him turn his writing to better effect. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish emigre who was shot dead in 1908 by the then-Chief of Police of Chicago, the same city where the narrator lives. Finally, an opportune grant gives the narrator and a photographer friend from Sarajevo the chance to wander about Eastern Europe, following the trail of Lazarus' flight from the Russian pogroms and incidentally finding his way back home to Sarajevo. It should be a voyage of discovery, an attempt to make his mark in literature and to find some sort of parallel to his own life in the story of this young man who fled death and prosecution only to find them waiting for him in the land of the brave.

Instead, the narrator and the narrative, almost perfectly poised at first, begin to run off the rails. We are treated to increasing bouts of ennui as the narrator unravels the story of his uneasy, increasingly doomed marriage and his sense of displacement and loss. At first the narrative in which Lazarus' story is recreated alternates with the present-day narrative in perfect balance. After a while, past and present start to bleed into each other. Eventually, the narrator finds some sort of redemption, but even that is visited with a bitter aftertaste. From being a simplistic analogue to the present-day terrorist scare in the US, the Lazarus narrative take on multiple shades of tragedy and ambiguity, as we see the different strategies immigrants employ to assimilate or at least be left to live in peace.

It's a virtuoso performance, this gradual stripping away of a too-tidy structure. There is no simple parallel between past and present, truth and fiction (this is especially important to bear in mind in light of the parallels between Hemon's life and his narrator's). And yet, they can illuminate in each other in ways that may not seem obvious at first. To confront your identity often results in finding it unravelling before your own eyes; our lives are often built on verities that we take for granted because to examine them would be to expose their frailty. If all this seems to have very little to do with the plight of immigrants or the continuing distrust of swarthy, Eastern-seeming foreigners in the USA, it's because Hemon has written a book that contains its overt themes, but also somehow pushes beyond them to grapple with universal human dilemmas. An impressive, if sometimes uneasy and partly flawed novel.