My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
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.
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.
“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.
Many of my favourite authors have surnames starting with S, not even considering The Bard, who of course, is so much more than just a favourite author. I was halfway through a post on Shaw when I decided to write one instead, on Vikram Seth whose poetry was a great influence during a period of my life, albeit a past life, once upon a time.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another. Like how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Seth’s ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
While Hamlet dreads ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, Seth’s poetic narrator has no such fears for he ‘To one who knows this life is all there is’ and yet chooses to live in the hope of happiness, for objective curiosity and out of filial attachments. (Mappings)
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain”
John Keats, From Ode to a Nightingale
“To cease upon
The midnight under the live-oak
Seems too derisory a joke.
The bottle lies on the ground.
He sleeps. His sleep is sound.”
Vikram Seth, From Ceasing Upon Midnight
Which is better, to cease upon the midnight, or to raise a toast to the moon and fall asleep, laughing at the joke called life? Seth’s translation of Heinrich Heine perhaps has the best answer – “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”.
“All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
An emptiness above–
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all your years.”
― Vikram Seth
These lines evoke R.K. Narayan’s quote, “A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”, and are characteristic of Seth’s early poetry that is poignant, reflective and elegant. I must have read his collected poems (Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight and Three Chinese Poets (Translations from Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei) about twenty times, if not more, during a period of my life which was literally darkened by depression. Above all, I read and re-read the book that many consider as his magnum opus – The Golden Gate.
It is not easy to write about depression even after being cured for years, less easier still to read about the condition when one is depressed. Trying to connect with writing on the subject, I had sought out Sylvia Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar, The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen…their words only rattled my mind that had been rendered fragile and trembling in the darkness. But The Golden Gate saved my life. A few pages into the book and I was laughing aloud for the first time in years. The humour had less to do with it, than relief in the knowledge that everyone shared the feeling of loneliness, universal truth of life. I had very little in common with the protagonists in the book but could relate to their ambitions, idealism, dreams, despair, disillusionment and especially their sense of alienation. I clung tightly to the book as I cried myself to sleep during several of those long, dark years.The verse was a source of comfort, solace, even fleeting moments of happiness.
On his other work, I loved From Heaven Lake and found parts of A Suitable Boy a joy to read. An Equal Music was rather too sentimental (I kept wanting to give the character Michael two tight slaps and ask him to get a life) and Two Lives really needed an editor. The Rivered Earth was so disappointing that it put me off from reading Summer Requiem. I am not even sure if I will pre-order A Suitable Girl. But I remain grateful for what The Golden Gate once did for me, so much that I dedicated my first novel The Reengineers to the poet who wrote it.
A related excerpt from The Reengineers in which I pay my respects:
“The darkness had almost got me for good one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now
think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.
There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out.
Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life…His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.”
I didn’t realise how far I had moved away from the past until last Hilary term when I chose to do a critique of The Golden Gate. I found myself nodding wholeheartedly as my Professor explained how the rhymes in the sonnets were was rather clumsy and how the verse was far clunkier than, for example, Byron. My avant-garde poet classmates had strong views on the book – ‘It was horrible!’ ‘Hated it!’ they said, cheerfully. I surprised myself by agreeing with some, if not all of their critique. For now, I see the book as it is. But I remain grateful for the verse and to the poet who along with many others inspired, consoled, energized and sustained me with words through those years of literal and metaphorical exile.
This series of posts which I began mid-April last year has taken so long but I am determined to finish the series before end of March and do a proper challenge in April, doing a post per day.
The Brain Pickings website is a treasure trove of wonderful articles, brimming with delightful, intense and thought provoking excerpts hand-picked from the works of some of the greatest writers and artists of the world, and shared with the readers so lovingly that each post reads like a personal gift to the reader.
I greatly enjoyed this article by Maria Popova which collated the wisdom of Joseph Campbell’s writing on how to find your bliss.
“Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss“, says Campbell.
“We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.”
Campbell explains how he arrived at this philosophy. “I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda. The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture.”
“I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.”
The bliss that Joseph Campbell talks about exudes from each of his books. I can sense it whenever I turn the pages of ‘The Power of Myth‘ or ‘The Hero with a thousand faces‘. I could re-read his books any number of times, and each time feel the same sense of rapture fill me, making me aware of my consciousness and my being. It is a blessing to read such writers.
On November 12th, I suddenly remembered that it was exactly three years since the momentous Hay Festival. So grateful for the blessings of books and poetry and the vibrant, beautiful memories.
Last night your faded memory came to me
As in the wilderness spring comes quietly,
As, slowly, in the desert moves the breeze,
As to a sick man, without cause, comes peace
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated by Vikram Seth
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
The fifth and final entry in this series is like the first one, a joint note of thanks to two authors, Nick Hornby and Kathryn Stockett.
Dear Mr.Hornby, Dear Ms.Stockett,
It is often said that books are of one of the many ways in which the universe speaks to us. Two of your respective books spoke to me and gave me a message at a time that I needed it most.
I read Juliet,Naked and The Help around the same time about two years ago, when I was in a confused, desperate place and was surprised to find directions to my answers in the books. Like me, the protagonists in both books were living in remote places to which to they had no connection, places which offered them nothing much in terms of work or friendships or intellectual stimulation.
I found it heartening that instead of cutesy happy endings, both these characters found the strength and confidence to move on to the cities and lives of their choice, and I believe that that their decisions influenced my own life decision to move back to my city and my life.
I thank you for the inspiration, the sense of connection and guidance that I found in your books. Someday I hope that my own books reach out in the same way to my readers.
A note of thanks to Alexander McCall Smith.
Dear Professor McCall Smith,
Your books have provided me with a tremendous amount of pleasure with good stories, wise observations and insights into the subtle nuances of human character, interesting anecdotes and facts about art, literature, history, science, philosophy and life. They have reassured me more than once that goodness and decency is natural to most human beings. They have often restored my faith in the world. Thank you for that.
Above all, I thank you for being such a wonderful role model. Like a traveller looking at the stars above, as I walk towards my writing career, I am grateful to have your example to look up to as a guiding light.
Thank you, Sir.
As a writer who grew up in Chennai in a Tamil speaking family, it is almost a cliche to say that your poems have influenced me. I was taught to sing your songs almost as soon as I began to speak and I grew up hearing them sung and quoted almost everywhere – on the television and radio, in school functions and in social events. When I was a child, you were so much a part of my life that I took your verse for granted just like the sun, the moon, the stars and the skies.
It was much later in life when I started to read poetry seriously that I began to realise the greatness of your work. While enjoying the crow poems of Ted Hughes, I was exhilarated to think of your verse that related the dark wings of the crow not to the apparent references of death and destruction, but to the divine presence.
Your complete works have been on my desk since I was nineteen years old. I have dipped into your poems frequently, savouring not only the beauty of your verse but also the way in which you present profound philosophy in simple language, your futuristic vision, the humanity that shines through your words and above all, the bliss of being a poet that permeates your work.
I find myself quoting you in my writing sometimes, as naturally as I write, for your words are a part of my language and my life.
It has been over ninety years since you passed. Your songs are still read, cherished, sung and loved by both the finest classical musicians as well as the semi literate peasants – like all great artists, you belong to everyone. I admire the way you continue to live and breathe through your verse.
Thank you for being as much of an inspiration in my life as the stars and the skies.
A note of thanks to Dame Muriel Spark.
I have reread your books over the years with increasing delight, marveling at your insights into the depth of human nature, your wicked sense of humour and your views of the world through many dimensions. Above all, I admire how easily you transcended labels of identity and came across as a consummate artist who joyously and naturally lived her art.
Many aspects of your books have inspired me, the most fascinating being how the boundary between fiction and reality overlaps in your novels, a concept which greatly influenced my first novel.
I admire you greatly, as a writer and as a strong, independent person who lived life on your own terms.
Thank you for inspiring me as an artist and as an individual.