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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.”

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Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters

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“There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called ‘Sex Is Fun-or Hell.’ She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand. She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.”

The paragraph above is the beginning of J.D. Salinger’s novella ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish,’ published in the 31st January 1948 edition of The New Yorker. It is the first story about the fictional Glass family created by Salinger. The lady mentioned above is Muriel; the wife of Seymour Glass, the eldest in a family of seven brothers and sisters, who in 1948 is 31-years-old and on a vacation in Florida. Seymour meets a six-year-old girl Sybil Carpenter at a beach and there is a conversation that follows. Seymour tells little Sybil a story about ‘bananafish’ and how it is a perfect day to spot them. They wade in the water for a while and then the man returns to the hotel. Below is the last paragraph of the story.

“He got off at the fifth floor, walked down the hall, and let himself into 507. The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover. He glanced at the girl lying asleep on one of the twin beds. Then he went over to one of the pieces of luggage, opened it, and from under a pile of shorts and undershirts he took out an Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic. He released the magazine, looked at it, then reinserted it. He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.”

Salinger’s 1951 book The Catcher In The Rye is by far the work he is most renowned for; both for acclaim and censure. The book is considered as one of the classics of post-war American literature. “A first-person narrative by Holden Caulfield, or rather, a dialogue between Holden and the reader, this novel is unique in literature by the apparent absence of the author.”

On January 1, 2009 Salinger turned 90 and he still remains the celebrity because of his absence from public space. The year 1955 was a very productive one for Salinger. In the beginning of the year he released Franny and by the end of the year gave a novella through which many of his past efforts would converge; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. It was also the first year of his marriage with Claire Alison Douglas on February 17, 1955. The wedding took place twenty miles west of Cornish, in Barnard, Vermont, and it was attended by only the closest of family and friends. Salinger had spent years drawing characters into the Glass family but it was only in 1955, with the publication of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters that the members of Salinger’s ‘settlers’ assembled as a unit. The New Yorker’s editor William Shawn worked the year round with Salinger on this seminal work about the Glass family. In book form it was published with another story called Seymour An Introduction.

I am using an extract from Seymour An Introduction for the one brilliant poetic illustration in it: “It would be absurd to say that most young people’s attraction to poetry is far exceeded by their attraction to those few or many details of a poet’s life that may be defined here, loosely, operationally, as lurid. It’s the sort of absurd notion, though, that I wouldn’t mind taking out for a good academic run someday. I surely think, at any rate, that if I were to ask the sixty odd girls (or, that is, the sixty-odd girls) in my two Writing for Publication courses—most of them seniors, all of them English majors—to quote a line, any line from ‘Ozymandias,’ or even just to tell me roughly what the poem is about, it is doubtful whether ten of them could do either, but I’d bet my unrisen tulips that some fifty of them could tell me that Shelley was all for free love, and had one wife who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and another who drowned herself.

I’m neither shocked nor outraged at the idea, please mind. I don’t think I’m even complaining. For if nobody’s a fool, then neither am I, and I’m entitled to a non-fool’s Sunday awareness that, whoever we are, no matter how like a blast furnace the heat from the candles on our latest birthday cake, and however presumably lofty the intellectual, moral, and spiritual heights we’ve all reached, our gusto for the lurid or partly lurid (which, of course, includes both low and superior gossip) is probably the last of our fleshy appetites to be sated or effectively curbed. (But, my God, why do I rant on? Why am I not going straight to the poet for an illustration? One of Seymour’s hundred and eighty-four poems—a shocker on the first impact only; on the second, as heartening a paean to the living as I’ve read—is about a distinguished old ascetic on his deathbed, surrounded by chanting priests and disciples, who lies straining to hear what the washerwoman in the courtyard is saying about his neighbour’s laundry. The old gentleman, Seymour makes it clear, is faintly wishing the priests would keep their voices down a bit.)

I can see, though, that I’m having a little of the usual trouble entailed in trying to make a very convenient generalization stay still and docile long enough to support a wild specific premise. I don’t relish being sensible about it, but I suppose I must. It seems to me indisputably true that a good many people, the wide world over, of varying ages, cultures, natural endowments, respond with a special impetus, a zing, even, in some cases, to artists and poets who as well as having a reputation for producing great or fine art have something garishly Wrong with them as persons: a spectacular flaw in character or citizenship, a construably romantic affliction or addiction—extreme self-centeredness, marital infidelity, stone-deafness, stone-blindness, a terrible thirst, a mortally bad cough, a soft spot for prostitutes, a partiality for grand-scale adultery or incest, a certified or uncertified weakness for opium or sodomy, and so on, God have mercy on the lonely bastards. If suicide isn’t at the top of the list of compelling infirmities for creative men, the suicide poet or artist, one can’t help noticing, has always been given a very considerable amount of avid attention, not seldom on sentimental grounds almost exclusively, as if he were (to put it much more horribly than I really want to) the floppy-eared runt of the litter. It’s a thought, anyway, finally said, that I’ve lost sleep over many times, and possibly will again.”

Tendulkar And The Zen Masters

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The Master, in most of the mystic religious sects around the world is a man that can be described as the finite form of the infinite. The word is used in most of the religions of the East; like in Japan, where an ‘enlightened’ Zen monk is referred to as a Master. The 20th Century American writer J.D. Salinger, known largely for his ‘unusually brilliant’ and ‘controversial’ book The Catcher In The Rye used a Japanese ‘haiku’ (poem) in his book Franny and Zooey, first published as a story in two parts in The New Yorker magazine as Franny in 1955 and Zooey in 1957. The haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) translated in English goes:

O Snail,
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

There are many interpretations of the haiku and one way of looking at it is that man can reach the summit by having the endurance to overcome adversity. Forgive me for digressing but this is the closest that I can come to describing the mastery of the man who is popularly known as the Little Master around the cricketing world. An old Japanese proverb says that a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life and only a fool climbs it again; the implied meaning for the fool here is that it is so tough and has such inclement weather that only the really-daring would go again.

If Mount Fuji had a cricketing equivalent then Tendulkar is the man who has been living at the summit for just a few days less than 20 years now. There is no typhoon greater than the one he can still generate and there is no one from his time who has survived the hostile weather of international cricket with such elegance that even the violence that flows from his blade looks like the serene poise of a Zen monk.

On the eve of the fifth game in Hyderabad, the Indian captain MS Dhoni said, “Top order batsmen need to bat well and not rely on the lower order. If you are playing with seven batsmen, it’s better to get a big score from six of them rather than use the seventh, who we call as a backup batsman, especially when you are chasing. If one among the top order gets a big score it becomes easy for us as the others can rotate around him.”

The man on top of everything heeded the captain’s call and apart from another one at number six, no one else found it easy to rotate around him. Australia had belted 350, riding on the momentum they had picked when India had dropped it in the second-half of the ODI in Mohali.

For Australia just the top order came out to bat and everyone scored above a run a ball. Shaun Marsh and Watson scored 112 and 97 respectively. Ponting made a run-a-ball 45 and White and Hussey gave the finishing kick.

No matter what the conditions and the trueness of the wicket, chasing 350 is the cricketing equivalent of climbing Mount Fuji; and it was too stiff a climb for one man to pull the weight of 9 others. Apart from Tendulkar—who made a sparkling 175 in 141 balls studded with 19 square jewels and four large-sized pearls—the other significant contribution in the chase came in the form of a 59 from Raina at number 6. The 38 from Sehwag and the 23 from Jadeja had the possibility of becoming significant but Sehwag played one shot too many and Jadeja for the second time in the series ran as if his run out was essential to India’s victory.

If I look at the top 5 then it was just one man who made it possible that the game came down to holding one’s nerve in the end. At the stage where 19 runs were needed in 18 balls with four wickets in hand and a set Tendulkar batting as good as he ever had; the match was India’s to lose.

Tendulkar single-handedly kept India in the hunt; he played the booming drives, the lofted on the rise strokes clearing the inner circle, the delicate and the furious square cuts. He used the pace of the bowlers, when his deft touch was needed to place the ball behind the wicket on either side. Tendulkar danced down the wicket to hit the spinners out of the attack. He played perfect chip shots and the pulls that went along the ground. The Master bisected the boundary raiders using his wrists as if they were meant to solve a geometric problem. He dusted his cupboard to bring out a pull shot that sailed for a six over midwicket. He played with a fearless flamboyance so that the newcomers could adjust to the wicket without worrying about the run-rate.

Earlier, as Australia had preserved wickets, their late charge added 90 runs in 48 balls for the team. The way the Little Master had calculated and scored from the beginning and then in a big partnership with Raina; his team needed just 52 runs in the last 48 balls. The Aussie bowling had been thrashed, mainly by Tendulkar and to an extent by Sehwag and Raina. Two overs changed the game after Tendulkar and Raina had put India completely in front. The first of the two overs was the 43rd and the second was the 48th. In the 43rd over bowled by Watson, one run came for the loss of Raina and Harbhajan.

It has been such a series for Australia that it would not be surprising if an Aussie tourist is picked and brought to the ground in case Ponting suddenly finds that he is left with only 10 fit men for a game. The score-line says 3-2 in Australia’s favour and that is a massive achievement by an inexperienced as well as an injury-hit team that Ponting leads. I don’t think I’ll see a headline that says ‘India out to hit injury-hit Australia’ again in this series at least.

In the 48th over again two wickets fell for 3 runs. A crestfallen Tendulkar departed to a rising ovation off the first ball of the over. From the beginning he knew how to climb this summit; he created and shaped the reply knowing exactly where and how to take a risk and to keep his companions steady. There was nothing that could stop him in Hyderabad and even after the dismissal of Raina and Harbhajan; 32 more runs were added between Jadeja and Tendulkar.

And then the Master came down from the peak and made an error of judgement; as in that form no bowler could have taken his wicket had he kept his shot selection on the cautious side. After the dismissal he saw his work of art falling short just like it did in Chennai 1999. He had been phenomenal in Hyderabad but in the presentation ceremony he looked the most-disappointed and the-most forlorn man. Tendulkar knows it very well that the infinite is expected of the Master. And he knows that people forgive everyone but they never forgive a genius.

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