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To Write Or Not To Write

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Victor Hugo once said: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” Great novels are not dated in any essential sense as they capture the timeless human condition and longevity is the ultimate test for them. A vexing question for writers is as to why they write and what they seek to achieve via writing. In this post I’ll take some authors and present their views on the writing process and elaborate on how they look at what they do.

J.D. Salinger in a 1974 telephonic interview given to the New York Times from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

When he gave the interview it was about nine-and-a-half years since he had published his last novella ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965. The interview in 1974 was also his first since 1953, when he gave one to a 16-year-old girl of a high school newspaper in Cornish.

Salinger, who died aged 91 in January this year, blasted his way to literary fame and cult-like devotion with the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” That’s how the frenetic three-day account around Christmas of Holden Caulfield began in the modern epic that is the benchmark against which all coming-of-age novels are measured.

Salinger remained a unique celebrity after the novel in the sense that his absence from public life further fuelled the curiosity around his life and works. Salinger was an extremely private man and after Catcher he devoted himself to creating fiction that centred on religion and ‘exposed the spiritual hollowness’ in American society (from http://www.deadcaulfields.com/; a website dedicated to the life and works of Salinger). To this end he collected characters from his early stories and bound them together into a single family—the Glass family. He described the family of seven children and their parents Les and Bessie Glass as ‘settlers in twentieth century New York.’

Salinger said: “I think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.”

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera discusses graphomania (a mania for writing books). The author recounts his encounter with a garrulous taxi-driver in Paris. The driver has chronic insomnia (Has had it since the war when he was a sailor and his ship sank. He swam three days and three nights before being rescued). In his extra time he writes and is working on a book about his experiences.

‘“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?’

He chuckled bitterly: ‘For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it could help a lot of people.’

That conversation with the taxi driver suddenly made clear to me the essence of the writer’s occupation. We write books because our children aren’t interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).”

This is another quote by Kundera: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words. One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

In the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that unfolds on a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son and becomes ‘a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live’ author Robert M. Pirsig says: “Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail… week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.

There really hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all.”

The last author that I want to consider in order to approach the writing process is the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I discovered Pamuk late and was blown away by My Name is Red. The novel is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman Sultan commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best miniaturists of the day. The novel opens with the murder of one of the artists and the mystery behind it sustains the pace and some of the tension in the plot. However, the murder is the backdrop from where the author enters into a meditation on art, love, artistic devotion and the conflict between East and West.

My Name is Red is a first person narrative; the titles of the chapters tell you who is doing the talking. It works brilliantly as you get to see how the same event is perceived by different people. The novel surgically opens and reveals the entire panorama of human relationship and motive. For instance you get to see the novel’s love story from the perspective of Black as well as Shekure (the man and the woman).

My Name is Red was translated by Erdag M. Goknar. The recent works of Orhan Pamuk are translated by Maureen Freely, a US journalist, translator, author, and professor who grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. In a review for New Statesman Freely said of My Name is Red: “More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul’s past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It’s almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.”

Dick Davis in a review for the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “Heartbreakingly persuasive… This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book’s true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve. It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity.”

Pamuk himself has given less weight to the murder mystery and the East-West question and has called the arduous work of the miniaturist, the artist’s suffering, and his dedication to his work as the central issues of My Name is Red. The stories within the narrative of the old masters of Herat and of the great Bihzad are fascinating. Even towards the end Pamuk makes the reader marvel when Master Osman gets completely lost in admiring the illuminated pages of yesteryears and when the other miniaturists lose themselves while remembering the long days of their apprenticeship in the Sultan’s workshop. Pamuk has the gift of offering the reader any number of diversions to savour even when the tension of the plot is approaching boiling point.

‘Sirin falling in love with Husrev by looking at his picture is the best-known and most frequently illustrated story in Islamic literature’ and Pamuk uses it as a model for many scenes, gatherings, and stances in the novel. In a similar manner Pamuk sketches the character of Shekure so brilliantly that it becomes possible to fall in love with her just by reading.

In Pamuk’s words: “My book really has only one center, one heart: the kitchen! It is the place where Hayriye seeks to influence Esther the clothier with gossip and food; Shekure, too, comes downstairs to the kitchen to advance her intrigues, send off letters and notes, scold her children, and supervise the cooking. The kitchen and all that it contains are the platform on which everything stands.”

Pamuk captures the essence of a writer’s occupation in his book Other Colours: “In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. …To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. …If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page.

…But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.”


Obama And The Balance Of Expectations

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On November 6, US President Barack Obama will pay a tribute to the victims of 26/11 from the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai—the place where massive destruction and bloodshed took place for the longest duration during the siege in Mumbai in end-November 2008. That’s where his trip begins and that is where we will know what he feels about the fact that almost two years down the line there has been no effective progress on bringing the perpetrators of that massacre to justice.

Then again it is naïve to expect the U.S. to help us in bringing Pakistan to book when the United States is itself incessantly-struggling in trying to make Pakistan follow a completely dollar-funded War on Terror. The contrast of the Pakistan, United States, and India triumvirate can be seen in the light of the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey released in July end for Pakistan and late October for India.

Looking at the survey and the recent congressional polls in the U.S., Obama may now have the distinction of being more popular in India than he is in his own country. The numbers also say that the US has a positive image in India. The good news for India is that its citizens are upbeat about their economy and have confidence in their leadership. Incredibly, “more than eight-in-ten (83%) say the U.S. takes the interests of countries like India into account when it makes foreign policy decisions—the highest percentage among the 21 nations surveyed outside the U.S.” I am with the minority and open to consider my views again after President Obama leaves.

Right next door in Pakistan America’s overall image remains negative despite the fact that it is spending $7.5 billion in civilian aid. And just two weeks or so before Obama’s India visit the United States approved a further $2 billion military package to Pakistan. Irrefutable proof that money can’t buy you love.

While President Obama is hugely popular in India he is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 8 per cent of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations surveyed.

“The Pakistan Army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as ‘helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan,’” wrote the editorial director of India Today MJ Akbar.

This isn’t an entirely new thing as it began when Zia-ul-Haq started milking Washington for all he could when the Afghan jihad began. “He turned down Jimmy Carter’s initial offer of $400 million in aid, dismissing it as ‘peanuts,’ and was rewarded with a $3.2 billion proposal from the Reagan administration plus permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, previously available only to NATO allies and Japan.” (1)

The scale of skimming by the ISI officers was baffling. “In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 300 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad. The scheme was discovered—the bullets were still marked ‘POF,’ for ‘Pakistan Ordinance Factory.’ ISI had to pay to scrub the Pakistani bullets of their markings, so if they were used in Afghanistan and picked up by the Soviets, they couldn’t be exploited by the communists as evidence of Pakistani support for the mujahedin.” (2)

Any doubts that money is now being used for its intended purpose were cleared by a New York Times story roughly a year before the Mumbai attacks. The NYT had reported that US aid for the War on Terror had been diverted by Pakistan to shore up its capabilities against India.

Terrorism and the complexities of dealing with the ever-dangerous and deteriorating situation in Pakistan would expectedly be at the heart of discussions between Obama and the Indian leadership but whether there would be some tectonic change in the equation remains to be seen. The main aim of the Obama visit will remain economic as he faces harsher realities back home. Obama is coming with 200 CEOs of American firms and he hopes to encourage business deals to reinvigorate the US economy and thereby also improve his re-election chances for 2012.

As far as the expectations of India are concerned the early signs are not too encouraging as there hasn’t been a clear positive sign either on India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or on dual technology transfer. There have also been American concerns over outsourcing. Surely the Obama contingent must have thought about the fact that the visit is not all about what America wants.

According to another NYT story, “corporate America mainly hopes the visit by the president can help better define the common economic interests of the United States and India and build on the trade and investment foundations the business community has already laid.

Harold McGraw 3rd, the chairman of McGraw Hill and one of the executives in the Obama entourage, said the visit was ‘all about economic and job growth for both the U.S. and India.’ India is America’s 14th-largest trade partner, he noted, but ‘should be a lot higher.’”

Obama comes to India as a well-regarded leader of a country that is well-liked, going by the Pew survey, and between his increasingly-growing home concerns and what he can take from India he must also ensure that what he leaves behind, at the very least, keeps that popularity in place.

Sources: For 1 and 2 from the writings of Steve Coll. Others New York Times and Pew Research Center.

No Dessert For Samantha Stosur

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Samantha Stosur forgot to save her best for the last. On the all important Saturday it was Italy’s Francesca Schiavone who stole the thunder and left very little for the Australian to work with. Stosur has been the star of Roland Garros this year with her taut and imposing physique and, more importantly, her steely nerves that served her so well in matches against higher-ranked and more-experienced opponents.

The New York Times reported: ‘Stosur, 26, had beaten Schiavone four of the previous five times they played, including in the first round of the 2009 French Open. Stosur was seeded 32nd and Schiavone was unseeded, demonstrating just how much their fortunes have changed in one year.

For most of two weeks, Stosur looked like the best player in the tournament. She plowed through the draw, beating four-time French Open champion Justine Henin, current No. 1 Serena Williams, and No. 4 Jelena Jankovic in the semifinal.’

“I kind of expected her to be aggressive because in the other times that we played recently she probably wasn’t (aggressive) enough and I totally dictated what had happened and I won them,” Stosur said.

“She went for it today and everything came off. It takes guts to do that and she did it. I don’t think I can really say I did anything wrong. It was just well done to her.”

It was the powerful serve of Stosur and her accurate and lethal forehand that made it possible for her to come out alive from the death draw that she had. She was a set down against Henin and saved a match point against Serena to emerge as the winner in two three-set battles. She so completely destroyed Jankovic in the semis that the former World No. 1 paid her a huge compliment by saying that ‘Stosur has the game of a man’. In any match of power against power, it was Stosur who came out victorious.

Schiavone, though, drowned her with guile and defense. The Italian was more enterprising and alive to the situation and being the underdog she got the crowd going for her. Stosur couldn’t respond as well to being the favourite as she had to being the unfancied.

In two big battles previously it was the third set that saw Stosur come out and dominate proceedings but the final proved to be like quicksand for her. The entry was quick and sudden and extrication became impossible. Stosur had her chances in the second set when she was up 4-1, but Schiavone displayed great variety to draw level. The Italian’s net play, in defiance of clay court logic, rewarded her and Stosur failed to take the battle to the third set where the Italian may have found it hard to hang in with the powerful Aussie.

The odds were stacked against the Italian as Stosur was the hot favourite; perhaps the best indicator of it was that Schiavone’s camp wore T-shirts saying ‘Nothing is Impossible’. The Italian showed that she believed in the leitmotif.

Greg Baum of The Age reported: “Stosur leaves a little hollow-hearted, perhaps, but not empty-handed. She has her biggest cheque, her highest ranking—No. 7—and the scalps of No. 1s Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic as souvenirs. Coach Dave Taylor dared to suggest before the final that she was playing as one of the top three players in the world. The memory will abide; Wimbledon is just a fortnight away.

From the beginning, Stosur did not play with abandon of her epic, successive victories over Henin, Williams and Jankovic. Schiavone was the aggressor, also tactically more astute, worrying away at Stosur’s more brittle backhand. Stosur’s own weapons—her forehand and her high, kicking serve—were blunted. They were evenly enough matched; there was no break point until they stood 4-4. Stosur conceded it with a double fault, and it was enough to forfeit the set.

Schiavone was the first winner of the French Open from outside the top 10 since 1933. Even by the standards of the French Open, which regularly throws up results as eccentric as the French themselves, this was a curio. Beforehand, the world did not know what to make of this one. The US media ignored it. The English, in one instance, sneered at it. ‘Is this the worst grand slam final ever?’ asked the Daily Telegraph.

From a British publication, still pining for Virginia Wade, this was snippy. These perhaps were journeywomen, who met last year in the first round of this tournament, but they came this year as reborn players, both defeating a string of eminent players. That is how tournaments are played. That is how major championships are won.”

The Telegraph came up with another gem which said that last year they were both playing in one of the side courts to reach the last 64 of the French Open with just some people who drift in and then go away for lunch as the audience.

“Today, Paris is being asked to care about Stosur and Schiavone, to make some emotional investment in the Australian and the Italian.

Stosur and Schiavone are to appear on Court Philippe Chatrier, in front of a crowd of 15,000, and in front of whatever television audience this match attracts, as they will be playing for the French Open title, for La Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

“You have to wonder what Lenglen, the original tennis diva and celebrity, would make of this final. Since all the name players of the modern women’s game have been knocked out of the tournament, it is a couple of girls from the chorus line, Australia’s world No. 7 and Italy’s world No. 17, who are left. Only in Milan and on Australia’s Gold Coast, where they will be watching in the middle of the night, is this meeting of two Grand Slam final debutants guaranteed to make an impact.”

Sam Stosur was better known as a doubles player till about 2007 when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease and was out of action for 10 months. A lot of people involved with the game of Stosur have said that it was her fight with the disease that brought out her tough steely side to the fore. Regardless of the indifferent coverage by the British media, Samantha Stosur has got everything to be the next tennis superstar. She has already made a huge impact in Paris, in front of television audience around the world, and London should wait for her with bated breath.

On Friday night, the eve of the final, Stosur and Schiavone found themselves just a few metres away from each other as they dined with their coaches and friends at Ristorante Napoletano, a small Italian restaurant in the back streets of Paris that had become a favourite of both the players.

For about two hours, Stosur and Schiavone dined on Italian fare and chatted with their entourage, neither acknowledging the other’s presence. Stosur dined on calamari, tomato and mozzarella and pasta while Schiavone had spaghetti carbonara. Schiavone, who had a small tiramisu, was the only one to order some dessert.

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 6, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Three Cheers For Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan took on India on Saturday at the World T20 championship American novelist Marvin Cohen’s words came to my mind: “Life is an elaborate metaphor for cricket.”

War-ravaged Afghanistan’s journey from refugee camps to the elite league of cricket is nothing short of heroic and they played extremely-well considering the context. One Afghan player got to a fifty faster than a run a ball and another bowled sharply and with purpose. There was no hesitancy in running between the wickets and everyone noticed that the players were not overawed. Why would they be? South African captain Graeme Smith was quoted by the New York Times, when told that an Afghan batsman had declared himself unafraid of Dale Steyn—one of the world’s fastest bowlers—as saying: “I wouldn’t be either, if I had grown up in a war zone.”

The great Australian all-rounder and World War II fighter pilot Keith Miller had a very relaxed attitude on the playing field that enchanted spectators and made him a favourite of the English public. He attributed this to the fact that sport was trivial in comparison to war. When asked many years later about pressure on the cricket field Miller responded with the famous quote: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt (German fighter plane) up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Richard Downey, the Archbishop of Liverpool from 1928 to his death in 1953, made a curious observation about cricket when he said: “If Stalin had learned to play cricket, the world might now be a better place.” That gives us the context as the Cold War’s last and most poignant battle was fought in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan.

Is cricket really trivial compared to war? For help I turn to Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera and to his amazing novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the background of the over-familiar banality of private life.

Since there is no single historic event we can count on being commonly known, I must speak of events that took place a few years ago as if they were a thousand years old: In 1939, the German army entered Bohemia, and the Czech state ceased to exist. In 1945, the Russian army entered Bohemia, and the country once again was called an independent republic.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a study of variations. ‘The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.’ Mirek says in the opening chapter of the novel: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The chapter that brings out the thought behind this piece is the second chapter that contains an orgy of pleasure taking place under the larger canvas of pain.

“Karel shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Marketa was right: Mama had really changed. She was pleased with everything, grateful for everything. Karel had been expecting in vain a quarrel over some little thing.
On a walk a day or two before, she had gazed into the distance and asked: ‘What is that pretty little white village over there?’ It wasn’t a village, just boundary stones. Karel took pity on his mother, whose sight was dimming. But her faulty vision seemed to express something more basic: what appeared large to them, she found small; what they took for boundary stones, for her were distant houses.

To tell the truth, that was not an entirely new trait of hers. The difference was that at one time it had annoyed them. One night, for instance, their country was invaded by the tanks of a gigantic neighbouring country. That had been such a shock and brought such terror that for a long time no one could think of anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were ripe. A week earlier, Mama had invited the pharmacist to come and pick them. But the pharmacist neither came nor even apologized. Mama was unable to forgive him, which infuriated Karel and Marketa. They reproached her: Everyone else is thinking about tanks, and you’re thinking about pears. Then they moved out, taking the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, Karel realized that the answer to this question was not as obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”

“Ulysses”: An Endlessly Open Book Of Utopian Epiphanies

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Today Random House is one of the leading publishing houses of the world. Its origin, though, can be traced to the Modern Library that was founded in 1917 by Boni and Liveright. It was reborn when Liveright, needing the money (he had bought off Albert Boni), sold the Modern Library to one of his employees, a 27-year-old vice-president who wanted to go into business for himself. The new publisher was Bennett Cerf.

Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer set up the Modern Library, Inc., on August 1, 1925. Two years later, finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, “at random,” other books that interested them. It soon was a publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.
Ever since the “100 Best” story first broke in The New York Times on Monday, July 20, 1998, all kinds of opinions about the list—and theories about the Modern Library’s purpose in concocting such a contest of sorts—emerged.

The Modern Library says on its website that the purpose was to get people talking about great books. The readers’ poll for the best novels published in the English language since 1900 opened on July 20, 1998 and closed on October 20, 1998, with 217,520 votes cast. The difference between the choice of the Board and the readers makes for an interesting comparison that can be accessed in detail on the Modern Library website.

Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce were the top three novels decided by the Board. The readers went for Ayn Rand and four of her books found a place in the top ten. She stayed on top of the non-fiction pile as well in the readers’ choice. The Fountainhead was at number two and Atlas Shrugged claimed the number one slot according to reader votes. Ayn Rand could not find a place in the top 100 novels decided by the board. I would take The Fountainhead in the next post and the choice of the Board here.

Declan Kiberd says in his introduction to the standard Random House/Bodley text that first appeared in 1960: Ulysses is ‘an endlessly open book of utopian epiphanies. It holds a mirror up to the colonial capital that was Dublin on 16 June 1904, but it also offers redemptive glimpses of a future world which might be made over in terms of those utopian moments.’

The Sheila Variations is a storehouse of information on the works of Joyce; her being Irish adds to the intimate way in which she has discussed the book. Joyce said: “[Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses always fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing it as a short story for Dubliners, fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book—blast it!”

“The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book—or worse they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it,” Joyce said. The publishing history of the Ulysses is fascinating and can be accessed through this link.

Joyce never felt he was writing about ‘the extraordinary’—he didn’t believe writers/novelists should focus on that—“that is for the journalist”. He wanted to focus on “the significance of trivial things”—thoughts, stream-of-consciousness, sensory reality, dream-spaces, the way the world looks through a particular set of eyeballs … to be INSIDE the character rather than outside. This is why much of Ulysses can be quite challenging to read. There is no narrator. No one interjects himself and tells you, “Here is what is happening here.” It is a purely subjective book—and we are inside Stephen Dedalus and we are inside Leopold Bloom. We see and hear only what they see and hear.

The statement about the mundane affairs of daily life is the art of the novel. If a writer wrote just for his time then it is not literature. Literature is not dated in any essential sense and its beauty springs from exploring the timeless human condition with all its daily joys, sorrows, conflicts and miseries. Joyce wrote the book between 1914 and 1921; when he was here and there during the raging war in Europe. “Ulysses” has survived bowdlerization, legal action, bitter controversy and the test of time. It is an undisputed modern classic.

Sheila, my guide, says that the story of Ulysses could not be simpler. Stephen Dedalus, our hero from Portrait is now a college student. His father is kind of useless. So he, unconsciously, is looking for a father figure. Leopold Bloom, a Jew in Ireland, married to Molly—who is having an affair—is at a loss how to keep his wife happy. He feels Irish, but he’s also Jewish … which makes things complicated. Through the long meandering course of one day—Dedalus and Bloom keep missing each other through the streets of Ireland … but you get the sense that they need to meet. Leopold Bloom will be the father figure for Stephen. Finally, near the end of the day, they meet. They go to a brothel. They go out for a meal late at night. They walk home to Bloom’s house. They talk. Dedalus staggers home. Bloom wonders if his wife upstairs is awake. The book ends (of course) with the 40 page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed. All roads lead to the female. The female ends the book.

Joyce said, “With me, the thought is always simple.” The structure is complex, but the thought behind it is simple. “Once you get that… the whole thing is not only quite easy, but a ton of fun. To treat it like a big serious tome is to completely miss the point of the book—which is rather silly, most of the time … and has to do with what people eat, and how they chew, and what it’s like in a brothel, and the people you meet on any given day: windbags, sirens, patriotic nimrods, pious righteous folks, old tired teachers … whatever.

“It’s a cornucopia of personality. And I think Joyce was onto something when he said there’s not a serious line in it. ..It’s an important book—yes. Its place in literary history and the history of the 20th century is pre-eminent. Nobody tops him. But the book itself is a rollicking jaunt through one day—June 16, 1904—Joyce wrote it as a tribute to his wife Nora.

They had gone on their first “date” (a walk thru Dublin—with probably a sexual encounter in a back alley) on June 16, 1904. He wrote to her later that on that day she “made him a man”. And so Ulysses was a tribute to her. And to that first day they shared together. Damn. Imagine someone writing a tribute to you and then having it turn out to be the greatest book of the 20th century.”

My guide has encouraged me with her simple explanation and after years I have finally mustered the courage to get past ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…’ and hopefully would reach the 40-page run-on sentence of Molly Bloom, lying in bed.

In Focus: ‘‘The Mumbai Meat Market’’

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“Say that cricket has nothing to do with politics and you say that cricket has nothing to do with life,” wrote journalist and cricket commentator John Arlott. It is a statement that can be appreciated by anyone who is aware of—or has even remotely tried to understand—how the game is run in his part of the world.

Let me say at the onset that just like millions around the world I enjoy watching the mercurial talent of Pakistan cricket and I admire the quality of players they have produced over the years. Sport, though, is not played in a vacuum and cricket at the international level, especially, is a game that has always carried the undertones of the social fabric between the opponents.

Last year it was the Pakistan Cricket Board that did not allow their cricketers to play in the IPL as a measure taken after the November attacks in Mumbai. India’s tour to Pakistan was never a possibility after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and the worst nightmare of cricket unravelled in broad daylight in Lahore on the 3rd of March; when the bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers was ambushed on its way to the Gaddafi Stadium.

This year, at the last moment, the players have not been picked. May be the owners were concerned about the availability but Rameez Raza had a point when he wrote that ‘the assurances of selection and the clearances given to them by the Pakistan government to participate in the tournament gave rise to false hopes among the fans and the media. The subsequent process of elimination was seen by the public as political and undignified.’

That is about all that Pakistan can be legitimately offended by because specific permissions should not have been sought if there was even a modicum of doubt in the minds of the franchise-owners. The franchise-owners could have easily done this a bit more graciously and taken the business decision early rather than at the last moment when, for instance, the name of a player like Shahid Afridi was announced and there were no takers; in a format where he is more than just handy.

This is what Harsha Bhogle had to say: “We live in times of violence and hatred; there are many people who seek peace but equally some who seek to deny us what we thought was given. Sport cannot exist in isolation, cannot fly free from this cage of reality. We would love the two to be separated but that has never happened. In times of peace, or relative peace, we could produce the path-breaking tours of 2004 and 2006. Now we are all pawns in the drama our subcontinent is enacting and the cricketers are merely more visible pawns. The conspiracy that Abdul Razzaq talks about is the reality of our times. The IPL will be poorer for the absence of some extraordinarily gifted cricketers, but this is just another victory for those that infect us with hatred. To believe there is a conspiracy against cricketers from Pakistan is wrong. It is the times we live in.”

“Make way for the Mumbai Meat Market” was a captivating headline when the players went under the hammer in the first edition of the IPL. Many cricketers expressed disbelief at the amount of money that changed hands on that eventful day where players were traded like commodity futures minus the presence of any visible rationale that governs the various commodities exchanges.

Things changed after that first year, on every front, and we were told that team owners had learned more about how to spend their money while buying ‘their livestock’. On the political front the dynamics changed so much that the second edition of the Indian Premier League was possible only outside India, and was hosted in South Africa. This was also about time when cricket fans and cricket writers were finding it difficult to digest the nauseating speed of the shorter version (A topic for another post, perhaps).

The Pakistan cricketers would tell you, in less than a minute, that they are heroes in India. That wherever they go, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam, Afridi, Rameez Raza, and Imran Khan and Javed Miandad—in their cricketing avatar—can be mobbed for autographs or they may find themselves in the company of youngsters seeking some advice on any eternal cricketing problem. And I’ve just taken those few big names for we associate more with legends but the fact is that the team is respected, loved, and surprisingly even cheered and supported. We know how Umar Gul ran riot against New Zealand and Gul’s 19th over against South Africa at the World T20 semi-final, when South Africa needed 29 runs from 12 balls with Duminy and Morkel at the crease, has gone down in cricketing legends. I got a message from a friend in Mumbai saying ‘That Gul over was the best bowling at death I have seen since Ambrose and Walsh used to operate.’ We know your cricket; the news of Umar Akmal batting on any turf becomes a buzzword in India. So the reasons, of course, have not been cricketing because we love your cricket. In a way, though, they can be called reasons that make ‘sense’ if not ‘cricketing sense’.

To suggest that there has been any conspiracy is like listening to the ridiculous Hamid Gul and the entertaining Zaid Hamid; both good at using the spinning jenny to churn out preposterous conspiracy theories out of a non-existent yarn. Someone from India needs to apologise for the ‘corporate inelegance’ in which the matter was handled and it should end there.

I’ll touch on the politics now despite the fact that I don’t relish it as much as Test cricket; but in extraordinary circumstances the King becomes a subject and has to be dealt like one. The effigies being burnt in Pakistan and the matter being taken up with the ICC is just plain overreaction and carries no meaning; what carries meaning is again what Rameez Raza said ‘that India should have been large’. Pakistan also needs to be large and look within as the Indian government has observed and this is one of those few things with which the nation may agree with the government.

At the centre of all this is Mumbai; and the still raw, complicated and bleeding ‘Mumbai Meat Market’. The effigy burning only reminds me of the column Thomas Friedman did for The New York Times after the Mumbai attacks. This is an edited extract from Friedman’s December 2, 2008 article: “On Feb. 6, 2006, three Pakistanis died in Peshawar and Lahore during violent street protests against Danish cartoons that had satirized the Prophet Muhammad. More such mass protests followed weeks later. When Pakistanis and other Muslims are willing to take to the streets, even suffer death, to protest an insulting cartoon published in Denmark, is it fair to ask: Who in the Muslim world, who in Pakistan, is ready to take to the streets to protest the mass murders of real people, not cartoon characters, right next door in Mumbai?

After all, if 10 young Indians from a splinter wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party travelled by boat to Pakistan, shot up two hotels in Karachi and the central train station, killed at least 173 people, and then, for good measure, murdered the imam and his wife at a Saudi-financed mosque while they were cradling their 2-year-old son—purely because they were Sunni Muslims—where would we be today? The entire Muslim world would be aflame and in the streets.

We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here. Because, I repeat, this kind of murderous violence only stops when the village—all the good people in Pakistan, including the community elders and spiritual leaders who want a decent future for their country—declares, as a collective, that those who carry out such murders are shameful unbelievers who will not dance with virgins in heaven but burn in hell. And they do it with the same vehemence with which they denounce Danish cartoons.”

Janet Malcolm: ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’

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It has taken me a few days—as I have been wandering in the national capital in search of a new house; a task that was to be achieved towards the end of last year but has dragged on to the new one—to pick a subject for the first piece of the year. In this transition phase I discovered a beautiful article ‘Justice to J.D. Salinger’ by Janet Malcolm and then a great one on her. That set the twin search processes in motion that I completed today.

Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, a 1990 book that first appeared as a two-part article in the New Yorker in 1989. As I started following the links—whenever I got respite from the tedious house hunt—betrayal and justice were the two themes that resonated clearly and loudly in my ears. “Freud said nothing is coincidence.”

The Journalist and the Murderer opens with this stunning line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

In a February 2000 piece for Salon Craig Seligman did justice to Janet Malcolm just as Janet later did to Salinger in her 2001 essay. Craig was aware of the background as he had worked as a fact checker in the New Yorker under William Shawn, a decade before his Salon piece and had even checked some of the facts for Malcolm’s photography pieces. In his article on Janet Malcolm—and the conflicts she got embroiled in—Craig lays bare a stunning story of the inherent contradictions of narrative as Janet sees it and dissects the work of a virtuoso stylist in Malcolm with a refined and amazing style of his own. Craig has not pulled punches while writing about Malcolm but he has given, for lack of a better metaphor, ‘the devil his due’. He shows with precision and clarity that The Journalist and the Murderer is not an attack or a question mark on the ethics of journalists—Malcolm’s point is ‘the canker that lies at the heart of the rose; the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism.’ Which is, as he proves effectively, the case with Malcolm’s writing about biography, psychoanalysis, and judiciary.

Malcolm was born in pre-World War II Prague and moved with her family to New York in 1939, when she was 5 years old; just in time when anti-Semitism was rising in Europe. Janet’s father, not surprisingly, was a psychiatrist. She is an author of eight books and has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963.

“The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.

Yet I can’t deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness—the mellifluous harshness—of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; ‘putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities’ is, in her arid and damning formulation, a ‘journalistic solecism’. Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the ‘vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.’ Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles,” wrote Craig.

Click on the headline to read the full story.

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