Category: Favourite Authors

A Song for Late Summer

This poem that popped into my mailbox today suited the season (late summer – early autumn) and the weather.

Song
If space and time, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.

The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
Yet let them be divine.
T.S. Eliot

An Immortal Poet

My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Rupert Brooke

Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.

I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.

In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’

Thank God for immortal poets.

Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
Rupert Brooke

Guru Purnima: The Teacher’s Day

Though the ancient sage Ved Vyas was a virtuoso scholar who compiled the Vedas and who is supposed to have written a number of treatises on philosophy among other things, I like to think of him above all as the world’s first writer of metafiction. In the epic Mahabharata, Vyasa not only narrates the story of himself narrating the story to his divine scribe but also steps in and out of the narrative to advise his characters and even procreates some of them. This labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, the longest epic recorded in the history of humankind, is surely the epitome of metafiction.

Salutations to Vyasa on his birthday which is celebrated by students across India as a day of honouring their Gurus.

A Guru is much more than a mere tutor or instructor. The Sanskrit word Guru means one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. A Guru is one who shows the student the path to know themselves.

While I have been privileged to study from a number of excellent tutors, I have been blessed to learn from as many Gurus including venerable Professors and authors who illuminated my life from the pages of their books, starting from Vyasa to the Bard, the Poet, Nabokov, Barnes, Spark, Salinger, Coover, Barthelme, Gass, Scholes, Waugh… My Pranams to all of them.

Love in the age of postmodernism

“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco

Professor Eco does have a point. But but but… (rhetorical question) would a cultivated woman ever read them, those candy pink paperbacks?

Quote for the day

“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”
― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

In the past few months, more than once I have been filled with regret on not having read Murdoch much earlier in life, on not having read her first before I fell in love with the scintillating wit and wisdom of Muriel Spark as an impressionable teenager.  Still, better late than never.

The Writer in The Library

Just returned after listening to a very enjoyable meta discussion: Four writers in the British Library speaking about writing in the British Library. Tracy Chevalier, Romesh Gunesekera, Stef Penney and Charlotte Mendelson talked among other things, about favourite reading rooms (Rare Books or Hum-1?), Distractions (Cafe, Shop or Treasures) and the question of us vs. them – writers vs. non-writers, readers of fiction vs. others, etc. at various levels. The writers, especially Mendelson were effusive in their support of paper books against e-readers, a comforting sentiment to hear.

I was curious to know if a library setting had crept into their fiction. Except for Gunesekera who spoke about his short stories set in libraries including one called The Library as well as the incident of the burning of the Jaffna Public library, the others said no, they preferred to sit in the libraries, research and imagine themselves in other places where their novels are set. And then Chevalier mentioned her first novel which has a library in France in a period before the digital age, with a handsome librarian. The Virgin Blue is now on my TBR list. Having loved the way Chevalier brings the period settings alive in Burning Bright and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I am quite looking forward to reading about the old-fashioned library in the book. Mendelson recollected an Oxford library setting in one of her novels in which a creepy boy stalked his crush through library index cards, and rounded the discussion saying that ‘Oxford is essentially a large library’.

As I walked out, I remembered my first time visiting the British Library in London – I was so overcome that my mind went pleasantly blank for a while before a Farsi Couplet by Amir Khusro came to mind, a short poem which translates roughly to, ‘If there is a paradise on earth, It is here, it is here, it is here‘. It is.

AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Umberto Eco

“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco

Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.

“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

name-of-the-rose

I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose

“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.

“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Umberto Eco

Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.

In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.

As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.

If you like metafiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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On a Sunny Winter Morning

On a sunny winter morning around five years ago, I listened to a young writer read. He was not conventionally handsome, but had a benign aura about him that few people do, a serene presence which radiated goodness. He spoke poignantly about his book, conveying intense emotions that sounded purer for the directness and lack of sentiment. I read his book soon afterwards with a great deal of pleasure, a meditation on the self in times of trial.

A few weeks ago, I had to look him up for a project and was shocked – His face had weathered a few decades into a collage of wrinkles and dark shadows and messy grey hair. His voice likewise was slower, as though worn with time and life. He could have passed for the father of the bonny lad whom I had seen five years ago. Only the kind expression remained. It sat sweetly on that once-seraphic countenance, which now invoked a crumbling sepulchral cherub in my mind.

My project done, I might never see him anymore, not even in Cyberspace. But I will read his book once more, those lines of achingly beautiful prose and reflect on his words about the changing seasons, the passing of time, and the meaning of life, and perhaps I will weep when I read, in a moment of shared humanity that I will sense across the printed page.

A Song for the Spring

He had a point, Rupert did. Notwithstanding the sentimental drivel about lost love, heart pain, etc., autumn and winter are months that lend themselves naturally to reflection and meditation. I’ll pass spring, and summer too, for the stillness of the mellower months any day.

“ALL suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.

My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.

But Winter’s broken and earth has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.”

Rupert Brooke

If you like literary fiction with a dash of nostalgia, you will love The Reengineers:
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AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Tan

‘the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true.’
― Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses

Amy Tan is well known for her novels about mother-daughter relationships. I had not read about this when I first picked up The Hundred Secret Senses a few years ago and so did not have a preconceived notion of what to expect from the book.  However, I was so enchanted when I finished it that I ordered all her other novels the very next day, and read through them in the next few weeks with a great deal of pleasure. I remember writing a short review stating that THSS reminded me all over again as to why some of us call literature our religion.

‘I know what love is. It’s a trick on the brain, the adrenal glands releasing endorphins. It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.’
The Hundred Secret Senses

The Hundred Secret senses remains my favourite novel by Tan. A compelling book that pulls the reader in from the very first page, it narrates the story of Olivia and her Chinese born half sister Kwan who has yin eyes that help her to see ghosts. Olivia is half affectionate, half condescending to Kwan – she tolerates her endless questions and finds her stories about
ghosts and past lives mildly entertaining. But when Olivia, her estranged husband Simon and Kwan take a trip to Kwan’s village in China and get lost while exploring the ruins outside the village, the real stories connecting Olivia and Kwan across lifetimes are revealed in a chain of events from the past and the present that culminate in a gripping, haunting climax. The reader comes away with the feeling of having used a hundred secret senses to assimilate the ideas and stories within the novel.

“It was a distorted form of inverse logic: If hopes never come true, then hope for what you don’t want.”
The Hundred Secret Senses

Said to be among the most popular of her books, The Joy Luck Club interconnects stories of four Chinese women immigrants in San Francisco and their struggles to keep their culture and their stories alive in their children. I found it less compelling than Tan’s full-length novels. As in most of her other work, the position of women in Chinese society of that period and intense mother-daughter relationships of tiger mothers who wield absolute control over their daughters are some of the major themes that go into building the plot structure.

“’Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’”
― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

The Bonesetter’s Daughter returns to the mother-daughter theme across generations and evokes the importance of names and the need to preserve stories, and the significance of writing and its links to memory, between the characters of Ruth Young, her widowed mother LuLing and LuLing’s mysterious past with Precious Auntie. One can almost imagine the ink flowing from the author’s pen in a ceaseless stream as the stories flow back and forth across the present and the past, connecting a contemporary narrative with fragments of history, of the characters as well as the period. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a similar novel but one which I found difficult to read for the graphic scenes and extreme situations of abuse and domestic violence.

“That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”
― Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter

Saving Fish from Drowning is perhaps my least favourite among the lot. Though it had an intriguing opening and setting of the literal adventure of a jungle trek as well as an omniscient ghostly narrator, the novel somehow did not quite hold together, maybe due to the large number of characters whose voices kept jarring against each other. Likewise I did not enjoy The Valley of Amazement, both the story as well as its premise of a courtesan in Shanghai in the beginning of the twentieth century. It is painful and disturbing to read about the blatant commodification of women, in any period.

“I wanted to capture what language ability tests could never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life

My favourite of all among Tan’s books is her memoir The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life which provides a fascinating glimpse into her early life as the child of Chinese immigrants in the United States, her love of literature and growth as a writer.

“In the hands of a different reader, the same story can be a different story.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life

Tan’s novels are page-turners which hold layers of wisdom between their lines. They belong to that elusive genre that many authors spend a lifetime trying to reach – of literary fiction that is equally accessible to readers and critics. I deeply admire her as a writer.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
Click to Buy