*spoiler alert – review may contain mild spoilers*
In the first few pages, The Riders by Tim Winton comes across as a simple story of a family migrating from Australia to Ireland. Scully, a young Australian is working hard to restore an ancient cottage in rural Ireland, transforming it into a home for his pregnant wife Jennifer and daughter Billie who are soon to join him. He strikes up a friendship with the postman Pete and through their conversations, it is revealed that Jennifer had made the impulsive decision to sell their home in Australia and relocate to this remote village. Jennifer emerges as an enigmatic figure through these conversations, an educated woman with artistic aspirations who flits across countries and art-forms in search of self-actualization. Scully is the loving husband who believes in her, supports her and follows her.
When the cottage is finally ready, Scully drives to the airport to receive his family and finds that his daughter has arrived alone, traumatised and unable to speak. Father and daughter soon set off on a journey across Europe in search of the absconding mother encountering scary dogs, would have been artists, old friends who sound like they are withholding information and strange women. All along, fresh insights are revealed in fleeting glimpses, subtle hints in the settings, reactions of minor characters and in between the lines of dialogue. Was Scully, whose thoughts project him as a calm, kind and positive man, really a good husband? What appear to be plot-holes – Why wouldn’t Scully report his wife as missing to the police? Why was Billie silent about what she knows about her mother? The questions fall away as the novel moves towards its surreal conclusion.
The references to the myth of the wild hunt are unclear and open-ended like Scully’s journey in search of Jennifer. There is much inter-textuality in the narrative, with repeated references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Billie thinks that her father is like Quasimodo and loves re-reading her old comic version of the novel, while her mother dismisses it as ‘that old thing’. The device of multiple narrators with the points of view shifting rapidly from Scully to Billie to the omniscient narrator to Pete to Irma to even an unknown voice that may or may not have been Jennifer’s, allows the reader to see just a little further into the minds of the flawed characters. Despite the harsh realism, the book is a gripping read and the open conclusion with a touch of fantasy is not unsatisfactory. This is another of those novels that fall into the rare genre of the literary page-turner.
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.
Writer as therapist, and fiction, more specifically the novel as therapy.
Stumbled upon this lecture by Professor Patricia Waugh, the author of Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.
Video Link Source: The British Academy Channel on YouTube
“The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.”
“The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature: only then can he see clearly.”
― Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
I have read only one book of Flaubert’s until now, and yet he seeped into my consciousness not through the disturbing sense of realism that comes through the characters of Madame Bovary but the tribute ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ by Julian Barnes, which is one of the most delightful works of literary fiction I have ever read.
The narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite reflects upon literary criticism, writing and writers as he takes a pilgrimage across places related to Flaubert, and tries to reconstruct the reality of author even as he tries to locate the genuine stuffed parrot that Flaubert had on his desk when he wrote ‘Trois Contes’ (Three Tales). Carefully interwoven into this literary quest is the story of the narrator’s personal life, which is explored and finally left as ambiguous, and nearly as realistic as that of the author’s.
“Everything in art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander. You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang. When a line is good it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry.”
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
“Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books.”
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
I read this book at least once every year, since I first read it five years ago. Flaubert’s Parrot is a homage and celebration of writing, reading, literary criticism and in general the literary life and of literature as a way of life, as much as it is a celebration of Flaubert.
“Life … is a bit like reading. … If all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it’s yours. Similarly, why live your life? Because it’s yours. But what if such an answer becomes less and less convincing?”
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
Here is my little tribute to Flaubert in The Reengineers.
“I have often thought that Walter Mitty had it in him to be more than a hen-pecked loser. Instead of living it up as a flamboyant daredevil in his dreams, he could have chosen to be a responsible man in real life, going about his work with dignity, and people may just have treated him with respect. Did his failures in life lead him to seek solace in daydreams or did his wandering mind stand in the way of his potential success? One must have triggered the other, and then it would have been both working together. An empty life drives you to fantasies of fulfilment, which then form a deadly, vicious circle which can turn you into a cartoon, as it did poor Mitty. Or lead you to ruin like Madame Bovary.”
― Indu Muralidharan, The Reengineers
How relevant is art when it is indulged in for its own sake? The common sentiment is that books must be written for their own sake, without the writer having to look over their shoulder, without thinking about the invisible critic or reader. But what if the work of art thus created does not reach out to most readers? On the wide spectrum of all fiction, if one extreme corresponds to pulp novels, the modern equivalent of penny dreadfuls which serve no purpose other than a few short hours of distraction, experiments in high art must be at other end, which are too focused on their technique, style or concept that they are unable to transmit the author’s thoughts to the reader. I suspect Ulysses would fall in this range, while The Portrait of an artist as a young man moves further this side, reaching out to the reader and Dubliners would be still further, much more accessible. The Distance between us by Fiona Sampson is a close contender for the extreme range of high art.
Labelled as a verse novel, the book is more verse than novel. Little of the plot or characters comes through the seven chapters. The experimentation with language, the varied sequencing of words on the page, the changing syntax and the surreal images which come through each of the chapters gives the overall impression of a modern art painting. Art for its own sake that rejoices in being itself, irrespective of what, and whether, it communicates. The lines of verse fold within themselves, obscuring the meaning they hold within their layers, or dance to a music that the reader cannot comprehend. I tried reading this three times before I put it away, thinking that it would have been a rewarding experience had it been slightly more accessible, my thoughts echoing the book’s title – there is just too much of a distance between the book and the reader.
Recently I had occasion to read out a piece of writing that I admired for its usage of language. I made a long long-list of extracts from both prose and verse, followed by several shortlists before deciding at the last moment to read the opening paragraph of Lolita.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
I shared how I had stayed away from the book for many years due to the disturbing nature of its premise. As an empath, I am easily disturbed by references of cruelty to animals or children, indeed reading about any form of hurt to the safety, dignity or respect of any vulnerable being affects me. Hence I stayed away from Lolita throughout my otherwise precocious reading life in my childhood and teens. But when I finally read the book, I was filled with regret on not having read it earlier. So enthralled was I by Nabokov’s rich prose, so mesmerised by the word play and use of language that I carried the book physically with me everywhere for the next few weeks, loathe to part with it.
A scholarly essay on the writerly techniques of Nabokov suggests that he matched the voice and tone of each of his books to its theme and as Lolita is about seduction, he styled the narrative in flowery, alluring language that would captivate his readers as they turned the pages. And how splendidly he does it. With these opening lines, he had me on the very first page.
I had been to the Chennai book club meets at the Pasta Bar Veneto, Burkit Road earlier and enjoyed the intellectually charged discussions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit the event as an author for the first time, earlier this month and talk about The Reengineers.
It was a most enjoyable evening spent discussing modernism, surrealism, postmodernism, the relevance of genre to a reader and the significance of book covers among other things. I was especially delighted by a set of intelligent questions that a reader had for me.
He referred to a paragraph in The Reengineers (one of my favourites) which talks about a chain of writers inspiring each other across centuries, their words transcending time, space and even language. Thus Shelley inspired the Tamil poet Bharati to write under the name ‘Shelley-dasan’ (Shelley’s devotee), who in turn inspired the poet Bharati-dasan and so on. This gentleman wanted to know if I had a particular author whom I could relate to, as my inspiration.
While there is no single author whom I relate to completely, I told him about the four writers who have been my biggest inspirations – Nabokov, Salinger, Julian Barnes and my beloved Muriel Spark. I am a devotee of all of them, worshipping at multiple shrines of literature.
Last month I read from The Reengineers for the first time in public, to a most distinguished audience. More on that later. The day before, I had an interesting assignment to read a paragraph from an author who had inspired me the most at the Albion Beatnik bookshop.
Based on what I had heard and read about it, I had imagined a large bookstore like Starmark where hordes of people thronged in and out, and wandered into the separate cafe section which had gleaming chairs, deep carpets and soft background music, where poets and writers read.
It was nothing like that.
The Albion Beatnik is a small bookshop, which seems smaller than it really is, packed as it is from floor to ceiling with carefully chosen books. Small wooden tables and chairs are scattered around a colourful teacup rack, one side of which is fashioned roughly to look like a vertical pile of books, with more real books piled here and there around the place. The whole effect is rather warm and cosy, a place where one feels immediately at home – especially so after seeing the selection of books.
It was like being in a blissful dream, sitting huddled in groups around the little tables on that cold September evening, listening to a small group of like-minded people read or recite from the authors who meant the most to them. There was a hush as each person read, the kind of quietude that can only be found in a library or a bookstore. One reading was interrupted by one of our group leaning into a side rack, only to have a heap of books come crashing down – causing a smile to spread all around. It made the place feel more authentic, and more likeable. The sound of books falling down was engulfed by the silence that surrounded the place even during the readings.
There was W.H.Auden, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, John Green and James Joyce among others. And there was Muriel Spark.
This is the excerpt that I read. Earlier I had practised to read the first page of the novel, but chose to read these lines a few minutes before the reading. The sentences resonate strongly with me, just as most of the other sentences in the book.
“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.
In a discourse on drama it was observed by someone famous that action is not merely fisticuffs, meaning of course that the dialogue and the sense are action, too. Similarly, the action of my life-story in 1949 included the work I was doting when I put my best brains into my Warrender Chase most nights and most of Saturdays. My Warrender Chase was action just as much as when I was arguing with Dottie over Leslie, persuading her not to get him with child, as she came round the next night to tell me she was determined to do. My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better.”
From Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
While intertextuality in literature is always fascinating, it is even more so a pleasure to come across writing that is influenced by other writers, and writers who pays homage to the books and authors who inspired them. To contemplate the interconnectedness of writers, books and thereby the readers, a connection of thoughts and ideas that spans continents and centuries, is such a blissful experience.
A related quote from The Reengineers.
“Did you know that Bharatiyar used the pen name “Shelley-dasan”? He admired the poems of Shelley so deeply that he wrote under the name “Shelley’s servant”. Wasn’t that a wonderful gesture of humility by someone who was such a great poet himself? And later, Bharatiyar had his own dasan, the poet Subburathinam, who took the pen name Bharathidasan. Subburathinam’s poetry inspired yet another poet who wrote as Surada, short for Subburathina-dasan. And to think this long chain of inspiration spans centuries, going back to the poets who inspired Wordsworth, who inspired Shelley, who inspired our own Bharati.”
The Reengineers, Chapter 7
I first met Gita Aravamudan at the Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai in 2011. As we waited for the inaugural session to begin, I started talking with the elegant lady seated on my right and was surprised and delighted to find that she was Gita Aravamudan, a name that was very familiar to me through her bylines in various magazines and newspapers. I especially remembered reading her articles in Aside, a fortnightly magazine that celebrated the Madras in which I grew up. Gita is an award winning author and journalist who has published important non fiction books such as Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide, Unbound: Indian Women @ Work as well as fiction. Over the years, I have been in touch with Gita over Facebook and literary festivals. It is a privilege to know a person like her. She is warm, friendly, gracious, a down to earth intellectual. My respect and regards for her have no way biased this review of her latest novel.
Set in the gold mines of Kolar which was once counted among the richest goldmines in the world, The Color of Gold flits back and forth between three different time periods in its narrative spanning a hundred years, and through the characters who live in each of these times weaves together a story that blends literary and historic fiction in the form of a cozy whodunnit mystery. Seen mainly through the eyes of three female protagonists – Shiela, Arati and Ponni who live in the sprawling house in KGF at different periods in time, the Colour of Gold is the story of a town which was once a charming haven and now a ghost of its past, stripped of the sheen of gold that had pervaded it once upon a time.
At the heart of the novel lies the town of KGF where gold was mined from ancient times dating back to the first millennium, which was an idyllic place in the 1950s with sprawling bungalows lines with trees and gardens and a close knit community that rejoiced in the colonial customs left behind in the town which once called itself ‘Little England’. The novel depicts how KGF changed over hundred years through the stories of the people who lived in the place – English officers who held court in KGF during the days of the British Raj, the Indian officers who took over the place after independence and the poor native miners who struggled to make a living under both of these even as they brought forth gold from the heart of the earth.
Between the history of the place that is narrated with a tinge of nostalgia lies the mystery of a genial Anglo Indian who is mysteriously killed soon after he receives a letter from a hundred year old Englishman, the romance between a young Indian woman Arati and an Anglo Indian which is taboo in the period and the passion of an Englishman for his Indian mistress Ponni who has borne him a white child with ‘a touch of the tar brush’. Descriptions of the ore being smelted into golden bricks which are then carried away to England, the claustrophobic atmosphere underground in which even longtime miners feel suffocated, the lure of the shining metal that leads mining expeditions to the their deaths beneath the glittering rocks, the vibrant Christmas balls celebrated in the town in the old English traditions and the changing attitudes to class and race differences across a century, all of these take the reader on a journey across KGF through the different time periods described in the book.
The plot goes from one story to the other without the reader losing interest and ties up the threads neatly in the end, with a twist worthy of classic murder mysteries. I loved the many references to gold in the narrative, such as the dead man being remembered as ‘a solid rock of gold’, Ponni bemoaning her fate of being stuck with Robert Flanagan like ‘a nugget of gold within a rock’, and so on.
The book is action-packed, with lyrical descriptions in places. It is both a gripping page turner as well as a lovely old photo-album with beautiful black and white pictures of a lost golden world.