“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
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.”
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.
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction.
She looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
From within the murky depths of the dating sites there emerged a charming Mangalorean with chocolate eyes and long hair, whose photograph evoked an Indian version of Rupert Brooke. A software guy who quoted Rilke and professed to adore Dostoevsky – in the background, Frank Sinatra began to hum a song that referred among other things, to turtle soup. While pondering virtually over the possibilities of walking through Regent’s Park on one of these Saturdays, he asked, ‘By the way, what do you do write?’
I rediscovered the joy of television for a while, thanks to a long, lingering spell of viral flu and found myself hooked to two particular serials on YouTube on the weekends.
The first was Upanyas, an old serial that I vaguely remembered from childhood. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan many years ago. Watching it for the first time, I was delighted to find that it had a metafictional premise. A woman vacationing in a hill station meets her favourite novelist who is semi-retired and requests him to resume writing. The episodes then take parallel tracks, one following the author as he proceeds to create his story, and the other depicting the story which mirrors the author’s life and the characters around him. The author’s own story is far more interesting than the world that he writes into being.
Mohan Vatsal is by no means the perfect author or even a perfect man. There are hints of a shady past linked to his multiple divorces, which comes out when his partner attempts suicide. His condescending attitude towards everyone including his reader and artistic arrogance which comes out through his reflections on the world around him make him a very complex character, though one who is self-assured of his powers of creation. When the reader Yashodhara points out that his novel was less of a plotted story and more a group of incidents loosely connected together, he acknowledges that he had been inspired to write it that way.
The character of the Vatsal’s partner Prabhavati is reminiscent of Mohini in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Party. Both women fall in love with artists on account of their art and later find themselves unwanted, alone, bereft of their identity, perhaps hinting that relationships between authors and readers are best when they stay on either side of the page. A victim of domestic violence, Prabhavati seeks solace from her troubled marriage in Vatsal’s books and gets into a relationship with him. Short flashbacks reveal her own artistic temperament with flashes of inspiration that are comparable, even superior to Vatsal’s imagination. When he becomes uncomfortable with her creative expressions, she is happy to remain in his shadow, cooking and keeping house for him until he tires of her presence, and she grows frustrated and insecure as their relationship does not have a future. Vatsal admits to himself that Prabhavati’s dependence strengthens him as he feeds off her need for him. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Prabhavati makes a dignified exit from Vatsal’s life. In a poignant scene, she tells the writer that she was leaving for a place where all her needs would be met – food, clothing and most importantly, books to read.
A number of literary references and philosophical reflections are woven into the dialogue. To cite just two examples, Vatsal talks about the joys of intertextuality, his admiration of Tolstoy and how he hopes to write a character like Kino from Steinbeck’s The Pearl into one of his novels someday. His character Chalakha writes to her cousin that the ego needs unhappiness to reinforce itself for absolute joy dissolves the sense of the self, which seems to reflect this quote by Greene:
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
The serial is set in a period when time was richer: when people took pleasure in unhurried walks, wrote long letters by hand to each other, and had endless leisurely conversations about life and art.
Just as I thought that it was a pity that no one makes such fine programs anymore, a cousin sent me a link to a relatively recent serial called Upanishad Ganga, a 52 part series which presented the wisdom of the Upanishads in one hour long fictionalised episodes.
I was not surprised to discover that the program had been broadcast by Doordarshan, which remains the gold standard for quality television content in the minds of millions of Indian viewers. Dramatizing stories from the Upanishads which are considered to be the essence of Indian philosophy in the form of short capsules is a huge challenge and the producers have been successful in their vision. The concepts, the settings, the costumes, the actors and above all, the screenplay blend together beautifully. Employing the structure of stories within a story, the series is portrayed as stage dramas presented by a group of artists who question the relevance of Sanskrit and the scriptures in present times. The episodes raise profound philosophical questions, suggest possible answers and leave the watching seeker both enriched and inspired.
How does one determine the genre of a novel? When I finished writing The Reengineers, I mentally categorised it as Literary Fiction. Also, Metafiction which it is, naturally, as it explores the relationship between an author and the main character of his novel. Early readers and reviewers categorised it under Young Adult, Coming of Age, Magic Realism and Inspirational Fiction among others.
The Reengineers could be classified under Young Adult Fiction as it is the coming of age story of a fifteen year old boy, and as it was plotted based on the hero’s journey. It could be placed under Magic Realism for it is the story of a surreal adventure which, though it happens in a parallel universe, is firmly rooted in its own reality. It could also fit into the labels of Inspirational Fiction and Spiritual Fiction, as it talks about the hero’s self-empowerment and the triumph of free will over destiny.
On the Amazon website, The Reengineers is categorised under Literature & Fiction, Spiritual Fiction and Philosophical fiction, all of which sound good, though the book only contains a dollop of philosophy in Chapter 7. For some reason, it is also shown under History and Religion & Spirituality. My publishers say that these last two categories would be removed shortly. Applying this logic, it could also belong under the umbrella of Self-help as besides the theme of self-empowerment, it also contains an excerpt of a fictional self help-book narrated in the form of corporate fables within Chapter 5.
But if I were to choose a single, specific genre for The Reengineers, I believe that it would be the Coming of age novel with existential overtones. Novels I love in this genre include J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful The Elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Each of these books have touched my heart with their wisdom, they have spoken to me in a way that I hope The Reengineers would speak to each reader.
This post contains mild spoilers about some of the books mentioned.
One type of metafiction is that in which the protagonist seeking to escape the real world, consciously imagines a world into being and lives within this fictional universe of their creation.The real and fictional worlds of the character overlap and blur. The existence of the character is rooted in two distinct and yet reconciled realities.
A prime example of this kind of novel is Atonement by Ian McEwan. As an imaginative fifteen year old. Briony Tallis witnesses an encounter between her sister and a young man which leads her to accuse the latter of a crime that he had never committed. She spends the rest of her life seeking redemption for her impulsive action that had unwittingly destroyed two young lives. Briony comes across as a typical unreliable narrator and we are never completely sure which parts of her narrative are real and which come from within her imagination, as she tries to expiate her sin over the next six decades by writing several alternative happy endings to the tragic love story.
The Poor Relation’s story by Charles Dickens from the collection Christmas Stories has a similar theme. At a Christmas dinner, the guests at the table take turns in telling stories. A timid elderly gentleman who admits that he lives off a small allowance from the host goes on to say that he lives in a comfortable home which he calls his castle. He mentions that though it appears to the world that he had been cheated by his clerk who ruined his business and jilted by the girl he loved, he did neverthless prosper in his trade and went on to marry his girlfriend. He narrates charming scenes of a contented family life, talks about his delight in hearing his wife play on the piano a beloved tune which still reminds him of their courtship and rejoices in his children and grandchildren who visit him often in his beautiful castle. Which he says as he finishes his story, is in the air.
Another example is the unnamed protagonist of The Sensualist by Ruskin Bond. A novella that is very different from Bond’s gentle stories of life in the hills, the sensualist is about the sexual desires of a rich young man who is seduced by his maid as a teenager and grows up into a hedonist, relentlessly seeking the pleasures of the flesh. One day he is trapped by a hill woman who holds him captive and drains him ruthlessly every night. When he escapes from her, he finds that he has become impotent and soon renounces the world. He retreats to a cave, where he continues to seek pleasure of the senses through his imagination.
Yet another example is the richly imagined story of Pi Patel in Yann Martel‘s Life of Pi, on how he survived a shipwreck with a royal bengal tiger for company, contrasted with the stark reality of the alternate version that he offers towards the end with an interesting hypothesis on the concept of God.
This kind of metafiction is then, about using fiction as a drug to ease the aches and pains inflicted by life. In each of the above stories, the protagonists are keenly aware of their failures, sorrows and personal trauma and seek solace in stories, creating for themselves an alternate version of reality that only they can see. They close their eyes to reality and choose to play make-believe through their lives, escaping through their imaginations into fictional worlds which they find far more fulfilling.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
“Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In proving a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.”
Most articles of metafiction analyse the genre from a scholarly perspective. I write this from the perspective of a reader who loves books which have anything to do about books.
Metafiction is commonly associated with postmodern literature, but as wikipedia says it has been around since perhaps the beginning of the written word, with examples of books across various time periods such as Homer’s Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote. The two great epics of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are wrapped in metafictional plots with the poets Valmiki and Vyasa who composed these works appearing within the respective stories as key characters. The collection Kathasaritsagar or the ocean of stories is likewise a labyrinth of fantastic tales within tales, all of which are supposed to be sourced from the ancient epic Brihatkatha which literally means ‘The Great Story’.
As a reader, I find it all the more interesting to read a novel with metafictional elements set in more recent times. Metafiction is more than a book or an author self consciously referring to themselves. In many books it brings out the attachment between the author and her work, a coming together of the art and the artist so deeply that they seem to be one single entity, which extends to the reader who opens the pages and finds themselves to be a part of this absolute union, an intense experience which goes beyond the illusion of the fictional universe.
Some of my favourite books in the genre include Loitering with Intent, Fahrenheit 451, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Name of The Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Thirteenth Tale, Angel’s Game, The Help, The Neverending Story, Sophie’s World, Atonement, The Inkheart trilogy…and more. Sometimes I feel that this genre is the only one worth reading as it (usually) covers everything else.
In the next few weeks, I will write a series of posts analysing metafiction, on what it means to me as a reader, why I turned to it as a writer, and why I believe like many that metafiction is a way of understanding the nature of reality.
“I always hope the readers of my novels are of good quality. I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.”
~ Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent.
I was delighted to read about Muriel Spark’s new collection of essays ‘The Informed Air’. Spark is one of my favourite novelists of all time, and this is a review of my favourite book of hers.
“I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more”, says Fleur Talbot, the fiesty heroine of Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark’s semi-autobiographical gem of a novel. One of Fleur’s most delightful traits is how she views the people around her with amused detachment, analysing them as characters to be written in future books. And then, characters from her first novel start to come alive around her.
Lauded by many as one of the finest of Spark’s works and indeed one of the finest books ever, Loitering with Intent takes the reader on a pleasurable journey through London in 1949 through the recollections of Fleur who is writing her first novel at the time and is surviving on her job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to Sir Quentin’s Autobiographical Association. Sir Quentin’s group consists of an eccentric mix of snooty aristocrats who have led tediously plain lives, and Fleur amuses herself by embellishing their memoirs with spicy details as she types and tidies their manuscripts. All her thoughts and energy are focused around the manuscript of her novel Warrender Chase which she holds in higher regard than her part time job, employers, friends and boyfriends.
As the members of the autobiographical association begin to get depressed, hysterical and eventually killed, Fleur suspects that the snobbish Sir Quentin may have been blackmailing his flock, exerting his power over them not unlike the protagonist of her novel. When Quentin steals her manuscript in order to plagiarise from it, she finds herself drawn into the plot of her book. As she manages to retrieve her book from his clutches, she watches scenes from her book play out in real life even as she loiters happily around London all the while, rejoicing in her art and her life.
This is a quintessential work of metafiction, one in which the narrator as novelist is writing a book, creating a world of words which manifests around her as she had imagined it. Questions on the relationship between art and the artist, how art is created, the nature of faith, friendship and love are raised and explored through the effervescent narrative voice. The characters are remarkably sketched and memorable, from the manipulative Sir Quentin, his geriatric mother Lady Edwina (a ninety year old incontinent woman wearing pearl and chiffon, who makes for some wonderful comic scenes in her interactions with her son and with Fleur, with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship), the assorted members of the autobiographical association who fall into Sir Quentin’s trap, the housekeeper Beryl Tims and Fleur’s ‘English rose’ friend Dottie, a weak woman who is easily led by Sir Quentin into supporting his malevolent plans.
Fleur Talbot remains to me one of the most likeable and strongest protagonists in literature, a woman after my own heart. She knows her place in the world as an artist, her priorities in life and is so much in tune with them that the minor frictions caused by interactions with lesser beings around her do not affect her as much as amuse her, as she quotes her beloved Benvenuto Cellini and ”by the grace of God, goes on her way rejoicing.”
Shades of Loitering… can be found in Curriculum Vitae, Spark’s autobiography that provides glimpses into her brilliant, enigmatic mind. I love the way she looks at the world and muses on it both critically and objectively without a scrap of superfluous sentiment. Spark sounds like a spirited woman who rejoiced in her life and her art, considered happiness to be a natural birthright and after all her struggles, actually found it.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
The blurb proclaiming it to be the other side of Gone with the Wind sounded like too much hype but on reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I found that I liked it even more than Gone with the Wind. A book set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, it portrays a vivid picture of the lives and struggles of the black maids who are employed as domestic helps by the rich and middle class white women.
The book has a wonderful meta-fictional plot structure with the stories of the three main protagonists woven around the story of one of them who is writing a book that narrates the stories of the coloured maids. Many of the characters live and breathe out of the pages, and the descriptions of life and society in the nineteen sixties are sometimes so lifelike that the reader feels transported to the scene.
The most interesting of the three protagonists is Aibileen, a middle aged black woman who is raising her seventeenth white child with a great deal of affection even as she mourns for her young son who was recently killed. The other two are Minny, a bold and independent woman who often gets fired from her post or talking back to her employers and Skeeter, the young white woman who is a misfit among her group of friends and finds solace in writing.
Aibileen works for Elizabeth Leefolt, a housewife whose life revolves around friends, outfits and parties. Aibileen is one of the most well sketched out characters in the book – she reflects dispassionately that the White children whom she raised love her like a mother until one morning when they grow up and learn about the invisible walls between the black and the white people, walls that do not exist in a child’s world. She bears no grudges against this state of things and finds solace in writing down her prayers every night. Though she is non-judgmental of the pettiness, prejudice and evil around her, she is also an observer of people. Aibileen for example notices that while the vacuous Elizabeth is too empty headed to be evil, she does not have strong feelings of any kind either and regards her children as nuisances to be tolerated, while the vicious Hilly who relentlessly battles to keep the black maids down is a good mother to her own children. This keen sense of observation combined with her natural penchant for storytelling makes her a fine writer and in the open ending, it seems likely that she would go on to write much more than Miss Myrna’s domestic advice columns.
Minny, the spirited young woman with a flair for cooking and housework is the second pivot of the novel. Unlike the gentle, contemplative Aibileen, Minny fiercely stands up for herself against her oppressors and is perpetually angry with the unfairness of the world. Through her interactions with Celia – her employer with a white trash background, and her work with Skeeter on the book, Minny finds the courage to also stand up against her abusive husband.
Skeeter, the young White woman whose book is at the core of the novel is the third protagonist. Skeeter dislikes life in Jackson where she has not many emotional connections and that offers her nothing in way of intellectual stimulation. Her interviews with Aibileen, Minny and the other maids bring out the stories of small town life in Mississippi in the nineteen sixties – where a black man is blinded for using a White bathroom, where the lives of black maids can be destroyed by one word from their ex-employers, but also where deep and intense friendships exist between the black and white people. The entire book revolves around how Skeeter manages to collect the stories from the maids, and how all their lives are redeemed and transformed by means of storytelling. In the process of writing the book, Skeeter finds out about her beloved maid’s whereabouts and in another open ending, finally moves to a potentially more interesting life in the big city where the writers live.
The main antagonist of the book who almost personifies the prejudiced system is Skeeter’s friend Hilly who collects donations for the poor people in Africa while treating the black maids around her as less than human, and feverishly takes on projects such as constructing separate bathrooms for the coloured helps partly out of her own prejudice and partly to further her husband’s political ambitions.
Several scenes that remain with the reader long after the book is finished, like Aibileen’s reassurances to the child May Mobeley that she was ‘smart, kind and important’ and her poignant farewell from the child as she retires from being a domestic help and makes a fresh start in life. Though there are external references such as the Vietnam war and the Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, the book’s focus is less on history and more on the intimate world of home and the neighbourhood and the relationships between people, that makes it no less important. A brilliant and riveting read.
Though film based on the book is a very good adaptation and one that I enjoyed watching, somehow it does not make the same impact as the book. Which is hardly surprising, as very few movie adaptations live up to the promise of the original book, one of the few exceptions being Gone with the wind.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
Today is Diwali, the festival of lights in India. Light is often used as a metaphor for life. Today I want to reflect for a while on the darkness that descends upon the mind, for it is while we are in the dark that we learn the real value of light.
The cold and the dark. These are two metaphors that my protagonists use euphemistically to describe depression. It is not easy to describe depression. The exact reason why depression occurs is not known. It can descend upon anyone like a cloak of darkness, trapping them in a state of inert limbo, leaving them incapacitated of even feeling grief at their condition. For depression is not simply a feeling of intense sorrow, rather it is a total lack of feeling and the resulting helplessness. As Barbara Kingsolver said in her wonderful debut novel The Bean Trees, “Sadness is more or less like a head cold – with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer”
Sylvia Plath who is almost a poster girl for depression wrote an elegant semi-biographical account of her experiences with the disease, called The Bell Jar. Plath likens the world of a depressed person to a dead dream when she says that ‘“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
Though she described a hopeful ending for her protagonist in the book, Plath died of the dreadful disease, succumbing to the darkness that threatened to take over her brilliant mind about two weeks after it was published.
The Scottish author Muriel Spark whom I greatly admire was another genius who was affected by depression. She describes this chillingly in ‘The Driver’s Seat’, a short book about a young woman alienated from life, which is so intensely written that Spark is said to have been hospitalised when she finished writing it.
J K Rowling gave one of the most apt metaphors for this ugly condition when she created the dementors – faceless, rotting beings that spread a deathly chill in their vicinity and suck out every happy memory and eventually the souls of their victims.
Today depression is no longer restricted to artists and authors, it affects almost anyone and is as one of the many banes of modern life. More often than not, a person realises the condition and yet is unable to do anything about it, which makes them even more vulnerable, setting forth an avalanche of pain and darkness.
I was deeply touched to come across this poem in the author Alana Munro’s blog:
She writes, “They say – ‘what could possibly be making her depressed? She has everything. She needs to wake up and smell the roses. …Don’t you know that this illness warps reality? All I can see are the thorns.”
Again, “I wish I didn’t feel so brittle, so painfully sensitive. Where every idle comment thrown my way could break me.”
This is just how a depressed person feels. How then, does a person cope with this terrible afflication in a competitive, fast paced world where one has to keep running even to stay in one’s position?
This is the place where my hero Sid finds himself, struggling to survive in a hostile world while trying to cope with the darkness that is slowly closing over him.
Sid survives, and makes the leap from the darkness to the light, passing through a boundary which stretches between reality and fiction. This is the theme at the heart of my novel The Reengineers.
To all my readers who celebrate the festival, Happy Diwali. I will write more in future posts about Sid’s journey from the darkness to the light.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality