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.
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.”
- PAGE FROM A JOURNAL
I know a girl who fell in love with a poet who died seventy-six years before she was born. She carried a picture of him in her wallet, and his face was frozen forever on her laptop and mobile wallpapers. This sounds like a teenage infatuation, but the girl was twenty-nine and worked as a senior technical architect. I knew her well. We had been schoolmates for twelve years and now worked for the same company, though in different teams.
She was a technology wizard par excellence. Hardly anyone else in the office knew about this other, eccentric side of her. Whenever I visited her home, she transformed from her corporate avatar into a soft-spoken, traditional, almost stereotypical Tamil Brahmin girl from one of the priestly families in Mylapore. She once confided that she was unmarried as her parents were yet to find a boy whose horoscope matches hers.
In his time, the poet was hailed as ‘the handsomest man in England’ but more than his looks, it was his poetry that charmed her. A young man’s poems, full of the shades of life as perceived by a boy whose life was just beginning, they throbbed with reckless energy. Her voice quivered whenever she mentioned him. She talked about visiting his grave in Skyros on her thirtieth birthday and weeping there for joy that such a sublime spirit had once walked the earth. She once mentioned half in jest that she sometimes wanted to kill herself so that she would never grow older than him, for he had died at twenty-eight.
We lost touch after she was transferred to Singapore. Later I heard that she had moved to Manchester and was working at a client’s place. One Friday soon after I moved to London, she called to ask if we could meet over the weekend. I was beyond surprised when she introduced me to a man she was dating, a musician who looked like a slightly older version of the poet. It seemed unimaginable that a conventional girl like her would take such a step. Given her obsession with the poet, I wondered if she was chasing his shadow.
She still calls me sometimes on the weekends. We discuss work and life as old friends do: common friends, projects, latest software, the office dog, their forthcoming wedding, books, even poetry sometimes, but not once since that day has she mentioned Rupert Brooke.
- SCENE FROM A NOVEL
“It is an unhealthy obsession, Purna,” Vaidehi sounded exasperated. “Why don’t you crush on a living poet, if you have to? Vikram Seth, for example. He may be gay, but he is charming and more importantly, alive. Write a few sonnets to him and throw them away, instead of dreaming of a dead man.”
“Only Mr. Seth is old enough to be my Father,” Purna chuckled. “I do love him too. All poets are meant to be loved by the world. But Rupert, he is special. You won’t understand.”
“Hey, I love poetry as much as you do, poets too. But I don’t think of killing myself, or travelling half way around the world to weep on a grave.”
“Thanks for your concern, dear. Rupert is a peg on which I can hang my emotions. Though I speak of dying for him, it is more like I cling to the lines of his verse to keep myself alive.”
There was not a trace of self-pity in her voice. She continued, “Incidentally, I am not alone. There is a whole Facebook group dedicated to his ardent readers, where we discuss his attraction from beyond the grave.”
“Please, Purna, get married. Your mother was talking the other day about creating a new profile on Bharatmatrimony.com. Shall I help?”
“Not after the recent fiasco – my parents introduced us saying said he was a most eligible Iyer boy but he declined as I wear glasses, not before making the routine visit with his parents and stuffing his face with bajji and sojji. It was a clichéd scene right out of an old Tamil movie, how I laughed. Honestly, Rupert seems more alive than most young men who walk the earth. I am moving to Singapore, I need some quiet time.”
Four years later
Vaidehi sat in Regent’s park, waiting for Purna. She had been surprised when Purna called her, she sounded very different.
“Hey Vaidehi!” She was enveloped in a friendly hug, elegant perfume and a host of memories.
“Meet Sam,” Purna said. “Vaidehi is one of my dearest friends.”
Vaidehi shook hands with the man who might have been Rupert’s elder brother. If she was taken aback, she did not show it.
Later, Purna asked Vaidehi to be her bridesmaid. They still keep in touch occasionally, and talk about everything that friends usually do, everything except Rupert Brooke.
- BEHIND THE LINES OF A POEM
Rupert sat beneath a tree by the side of Byron’s pool, writing a poem.
‘I only know that you may lie
Day-long and watch the Cambridge sky,
Until the centuries blend and blur’
He had not known how prophetic the words would turn out to be when he wrote that poem, of how he would come to share the dawn-lit waters with His ghostly Lordship. Yet Rupert felt very much alive. He could have moved to other layers of the afterlife, but for now, he was content watching the Cambridge skies and writing a poem to a girl, something that he had often done while he lived there. One of the advantages of being dead was the ability to travel through thought. He liked wandering through the olive groves in Skyros, and the beaches in Tahiti which were so chockful of good memories. But he liked being in Cambridge, best.
“You writing poem to the Indian girl, Pupure?” Taatamata sat down beside him.
“Are you jealous, Mamua?” He asked her.
He looked at her. She was still the same girl that he had described as having wonderful eyes, the walk of a Goddess, and the heart of an angel. He had been a great lover in his time. Ka, Noel, Cathleen, Phyllis, James… so many names, so many faces. He had loved them all with a poet’s passion. He once wrote to Cathleen that he had left some of his hair in Canada, and one skin in Honolulu, and another in Fiji, and a bit of a third in Tahiti, and half a tooth in Samoa, and bits of his heart all over the place. But now he was safe with this unassuming woman whom he had met during his travels in the South Seas.
“You care for her, Pupure.”
“She is my reader, darling. It makes me happy that she sings my songs.”
“She more than reader to you.” Taatamata did not sound jealous, she was smiling.
“The child loved me once. Like I loved many others before I found you, Mamua. He who is with her was meant to be. Just like we were, though we had to first cross over to this side of paradise. I wrote this poem to bless her. Listen.”
Rupert leaned against the tree and began to read.
At that moment, the girl to whom he had addressed the poem was looking up at the clock of Grantchester church. She felt she heard someone call her and looked around.
“Are you alright?” Her boyfriend asked her.
“I’m fine,” she smiled up at him, but she heard the voice just once more, whispering to her through the echoes in the breeze.
One of the many pleasures of reading poetry is to recognise the echo of a poet’s voice in another poet’s work. A reflection of ideas, an influenced style or similar references to things, places or events. It is a joy to discover such connections between books and authors.
Two poems by Rupert Brooke and Elizabeth Jennings, written several decades apart reflect the same thought, in two unique voices.
‘Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.’
From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
‘And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.’
From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones when he says,
‘I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still’
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
Love may have eluded these beloved poets when they penned these lines, but their songs and thereby their thoughts continue to flow across time and space and find responding echoes in many a reader’s mind.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in ‘The Gardener’, evoking a spring morning perhaps a hundred years ago,
‘Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence? I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds. Open your doors and look abroad.From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across a hundred years.’
A poet reaches out to the reader with a greater level of intimacy than any other kind of writer.
Today I am grateful for poets, for the gift of their poetry. For Rupert and Jennings and Seth and Tagore, and also for Bharati and T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden and Tennyson and Pushkin and Rumi and Kabir and Maya Angelou and Gillian Clarke and Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope and many, many other blessed songbirds of language.
Bards who belong to all the world like air, and sunlight, and springtime, and stars in the sky. They belong to all, and they are mine.
In January I had the pleasure of attending the seminar ‘Telling Lives: Theory, Practice and Craft of Writing Biography‘ by Professor A.R.Venkatachalapathy which was part of the Hindu Lit for Life literary festival.
Handing out photocopies of the essay ‘Why South Asians don’t write good biographies, and why they should’ from the book The Last Liberal and Other Essays by Ramachandra Guha, Professor Chalapathy commenced the session with an interesting thought on why the art of biography is yet to mature in India. He suggested that the ancient concept of a soul evolving over several births might have lent the idea to would be Indian biographers that one life is not enough to record the complete story of an individual. He also put forward a theory that the Marxist influence in India might have made people less inclined to project the life history of one specific individual.
The lack of documented information needed to write biographies, the long periods of time that needs to be invested in research and interviewing people related to the subject and the comparatively low returns are some of the reasons which lead writers to prefer other modes of writing, he said and went on to elaborate that the available documentation may not present a true picture of the subject. Even a personal diary may have been self censored and provide a less than clear picture of the subject as a person. For a good biography always shows as much possible of the real person behind the public image.
Every generation wants to translate the classics rendering them with a contemporary flavour of the period. The Ramayana and The Mahabharata have been retold countless times in several flavours, with the threads of its stories being picked up and narrated from the varied perspectives of its many characters. Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted time and again, set in time periods very different from that of the bards, but retaining the complexity of his powerful characters. Similarly, the importance of an individual depends on the number of biographies that are written for them by each generation that follows, who wish to interpret their life story from where they are in time.
For while an autobiography is a person’s view of themselves, a biography is an overview of the person in a larger context with reference to their time, place and position in their respective field. It is not only the story of a specific individual, but a glimpse into the world in which they lived.
A good biography should be colourful, said Professor Chalapathy as he went on to explain what went into writing such a biography.
The first step is to choose the right person, preferably someone whom the biographer admires. This could be tricky, considering the Indian tradition of hagiography and celebrity worship. Poet-saints of ancient Tamil Nadu were literally idolised and even today one can see their images in old temples, relics of a time when they were considered no less than the divine in deference to their art. Very often, such a biographer who admires the subject ends up writing a glorified account of the subject’s life, deifying the subject in their enthusiasm and evoking a halo of words which effectively hides their humanity.This is only too evident in present times, as is evident in many current biographies of personalities in films, sports and politics – last week’s Hindu literary review had yet another article which discussed this with many examples.
It is not possible to record all the happenings in the subject’s life, nor analyse the motivations behind some of their actions such as say, extra marital affairs. Questioning the subject on sensitive issues may lead to offending them and even if it gets written and printed, it would be at the cost of offending the admirers of the subject, especially if the person happens to be a celebrated icon.
He mentioned how the biography of MS Subbulakshmi, MS: A Life in music by T.J.S George focused rather a lot on the appendix which consisted of a number of passionate letters written by the legendary musician to another musical maestro G.N. Balasubramaniam. Similarly the biography of the classical dancer Balasaraswati by Douglas M. Knight attracted a lot of attention due to a studio photograph of a very young Balasaraswati and MS Subbulakshmi, dressed daringly for the time in night suits and posing with cigars. The example drew immediate flak from some of the audience who said that the photograph disturbed the pure, saintly image that MS invokes in her admirers. Personally I loved that photograph which showed a glimpse of the girl behind the maestro and was testimony to the human side of musician who is hailed as divine by millions of her fans.
However, all these constraints can be quite enabling if the biographers are creative and professional, said Professor Chalapathy and cited the example of how Srinivasa Ramanujam’s biography The Man who knew infinity by Robert Kanigel was completed within three years from the time it was commissioned.
Some tips on writing a good biography:
- The biographer should be emotionally attached to the subject and this should reflect in the narrative.
- A biography should have a catchy title. An example is The Devadasi and The Saint by V.Sriram on the life of the dancer Bangalore Nagarathnamma.
- There are many ways a biography can be structured besides in a straightforward chronological manner – a subject’s life may be examined through social, political, psycho-analytical or intellectual views. An example is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, the curious history of a French peasant who lived in the sixteenth century which is narrated in the form of a detective story set in rural France of the period.
- Focus on interesting aspects of the subject’s life, bringing out the human element that is of utmost importance while telling a life story
- The biographer should ideally acquire some amount of competence in the area of expertise of the subject
- The biographer should evoke the subject’s thoughts and moods towards their work and life
- Get as many sources as possible to relate stories about the subject’s life
Answering my question about the relevance of a fictional biography as against a straightforward narrative composed only of facts and figures, Professor Chalapathy said that a fictional biography can even be stronger and get to the truth of the subject’s life through careful use of the biographer’s artistic liberties and evocative language. Examples include The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham which paints an intense view into the life of the post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin and The Great Lover by Jill Dawson which very effectively brought out the confused, vulnerable side of Rupert Brooke even as it celebrated the young poet’s charisma and zest for life and art.
Professor Chalapathy interspersed the session with references to a number of biographies, especially those by and about Indians, an impressive though short list which was added to by the audience, a motley group which included renowned biographers, writers and artists.
Some of the recommended biographies discussed or named in the session:
1) Savaging the Civilized; Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India by Ramachandra Guha, about the life of the anthropologist who was called one of the most interesting Englishmen to have worked in India in the twentieth century
2) Kalam ka Sipahi, the celebrated Hindi novelist Premchand’s biography by his son Amrit Rai (The English Translation)
3) The biography of Chennai’s mayor V. Chakkarai Chettiar, which tells us as much about the biographer as the subject
4) The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide by Ayesha Jalal about the Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto
5) His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle against Empire by Sugata Bose
6) A poet’s poet : life of Meenakshisundaram Pillai by U. V. Swaminathan Iyer.
7) A Princely Imposter? The Kumar Of Bhawal And The Secret History Of Indian Nationalism by Partha Chatterjee
8) Heart to Heart: Remembering Nainaji by Vidya Rao
9) An unheard melody: Annapurna Devi by Swapan Kumar Bondyopadhya
10) My Name is Gauhar Jaan by Vikram Sampath
11) The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, part memoir and part biography of the musician Dhondutai Kulkarni
12) Biographies by Rajmohan Gandhi (On Mahatma Gandhi, Rajaji, Sardar Patel among others)
13) The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
14) C. V. Raman : A Biography by Uma Parameswaran
15) Voice of The Veena: S Balachander by Vikram Sampath
16) In an antique land by Amitav Ghosh
The session was interactive and energetic from the beginning to the end. I came away charged and inspired, with a long reading list and a strengthened conviction on my project of writing the life of a beloved musician between the lines of whose esoteric songs lie not one but many fascinating stories of a lost civilisation.
As this session was predominantly about Indian biographies, I have only listed the books about Indians or those set in India above. Quite a few other biographies with fascinating premises such as Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds, John Eidinow, and Bobby Fischer were mentioned in between the session. Please feel free to share your favourite biographies set in India or otherwise in the comments section and I will add it to the list.
Will post further on my studies on writing biographies ( I am currently reading How to do biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton) and my experiences in collecting material and writing the book, as I go.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
At the onset of spring, here is a suitable poem for the season by Rupert Brooke.
“Oh! Love,” they said, “is King of Kings,
And Triumph is his crown.
Earth fades in flame before his wings,
And Sun and Moon bow down.” —
But that, I knew, would never do;
And Heaven is all too high.
So whenever I meet a Queen, I said,
I will not catch her eye.
“Oh! Love,” they said, and “Love,” they said,
“The gift of Love is this;
A crown of thorns about thy head,
And vinegar to thy kiss!” —
But Tragedy is not for me;
And I’m content to be gay.
So whenever I spied a Tragic Lady,
I went another way.
And so I never feared to see
You wander down the street,
Or come across the fields to me
On ordinary feet.
For what they’d never told me of,
And what I never knew;
It was that all the time, my love,
Love would be merely you.
I like Rupert Brooke’s regular poems, a young man’s poems full of ardent emotions and ideals and dreams such as only a young man can have, poems that are as full of life as their author. (Brooke’s oeuvre of verse composed over his short lifetime of twenty eight years still make him sound more alive than many young men who walk the earth today).
But it is his satirical poems that I love – poems like A Channel passage, Wagner, Menelaus and Helen, all of which hold a mirror to the grim realities of the world. And Sonnet reversed, what a heartbreaking, cynical ode to life.
Poems that reveal how Rupert Brooke was aware of the truth behind the illusions of the world, even as he celebrated those very illusions in his verse.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
Come December, and I wonder once again if The Telegraph will publish the next series of Corduroy Mansions, the delightful serial novel by Alexander McCall Smith. Most of his books leave one wanting to read more, and Corduroy Mansions three was no exception. I wrote this review soon after reading the last chapter of book three which was published online, a chapter a day, in 2010.
“Follow your heart. It’s the only thing to do…the only advice that I think should be taken seriously – taken as unconditionally true – is this: follow your heart. I know it sounds trite, but it’s the only thing to do. Because at the end of the day your heart will stop beating and it will be too late to regret that you didn’t go where it prompted you to go.”
~ Alexander McCall Smith, Corduroy Mansions Book Three
There were many wonderful moments in the book (mild spoilers ahead) such as Eddie’s finding work that he finally enjoys, Barbara’s hilarious conversation with the Yeti, Terence’s decision to visit India armed with good karma in lieu of a visa and best of all, the transformation of the creepy Oedipus which was at the same time hilarious and thought-provoking.
The concluding chapter left too many questions open and hanging unresolved. William has always thought of Marcia as a good friend and nothing more. It was hard to believe that his feelings for her changed when she revealed that she read Iris Murdoch. It would have been nicer to see him with someone like Berthea who is his equal in intellect and sensitivity. Maggie’s declaration of love for William came as a shock and a surprise, and William acted just as one would have expected that decent, kind gentleman to do. I almost expected that the conspiracy in the title referred to a conspiracy between Maggie and Marcia, to get William to finally propose to the latter. The sub-plot with Freddie de la hay lost and Freddie found again did not really gel into the rest of the plot, but then scenes involving Freddie are so poignant and full of joy.
Caroline seems to have finally found her soulmate in Ronald. In spite of their smug, interfering mothers, it is wonderful that they have got together. I wish that they get to cook risotto together for a lifetime. Will Caroline patch up with James as a friend? James was an interesting character in his own way. As sad and strange as Hugh’s backstory was, it was sadder that it has affected his relationship with Barbara. Will they get together again?
One did not really miss Dee with her obsession on colonic irrigation, or Jo. But it would have been good to see more of Jenny, the Yeti, Basil, Berthea’s biography of Snark and a reformed Eddie working hard at his new job.
Above all I missed the verse that usually concludes the Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions books, but the good Professor more than made it up with this marvellous vignette of Scotland Street.
I have said it before and I say it again, I sincerely hope that Professor McCall Smith gets the Nobel prizes for literature and peace. The world needs more of his books that make one aware of the fragility, the little weaknesses, the strengths, the joys and the pains, the agony and the ecstasy of being human. Books that help one see the rest of humanity in a clearer light, that help us all to understand each other a little better. Books that help one to retain the faith that goodness, decency and morality will continue to prevail in the world. That there is still hope for the world.
Though I love almost every book of fiction by Alexander McCall Smith, I like his Von Igelfeld stories best and after that, the many views of life on Scotland Street. Omar Khayyam defined his paradise as a jug of wine and his lady by his side. Someone else wanted a certain newspaper and a cup of tea. Or it might have been filter coffee. I forget which writer said that, and whether he had mentioned coffee or tea. For me it is hot chocolate, good music and a Scotland Street book on a quiet evening at the end of a hard day’s work. That is one kind of paradise.
The poets were not always right. In spite of what Rupert Brooke said, there is a lot of comfort to be had in the wise.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
Often one comes across the influence of one writer in another’s book. I am not referring to the likes of the uncanny resemblance of a key paragraph in a certain Indian pop novel to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Rather to the way in which one writer’s work unconsciously reflects the influence of another. This can be a reflection of ideas, the writing style or references to specific things, places or events. It is a pleasure to discover such innate connections between books and authors.
One example is the idea of how love reaches the intended person many years later which is beautifully portrayed by Elizabeth Jennings and Rupert Brooke in their respective poems Delay and Fafaia that were written several decades apart.
Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.
~ From Delay, Elizabeth Jennings
And yonder star that burns so white,
May have died to dust and night
Ten, or maybe, fifteen year,
Before it shines upon my dear.
~ From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
Vikram Seth conveys a similar thought in his poem Time Zones.
“I dreamed of her but she could not alas humour my will;
it struck me suddenly that where she was was daylight still”
~ From Time Zones by Vikram Seth
Though all three poems are unique and charming in their own way, I like Rupert Brooke’s version best –
“Heart from heart is all as far,
Fafaia, as star from star.”
~ From Fafaia, by Rupert Brooke
I do not know what the word Fafaia means, do you? Google for once has not been able to answer this. It is perhaps an archaic exclamation, like ‘prithee’ or ‘fie’. Whatever it means, it sounds nice.
About writing styles, the gentle influence of Wodehouse comes through in the prose of too many authors. I have come across quite a few pale imitations of Wodehouse in random short stories in magazines and journals. Have also felt a subtle influence of Wodehouse in some well known literary novels but the finest tribute to the maestro that I have ever come across is in Srividya Natarajan’s hilarious satire No Onions nor Garlic. The setting and the characters in this book are are quintessentially South Indian and there is a wonderful sense of place of Madras, but the seemingly effortless style of writing and the pure humour that spills over from every page gives one the feeling of having read an author is who is as good as Wodehouse at his best.
Another book that has been a strong influence on a contemporary bestseller is The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson. When asked about the similarity between her book and the first Harry Potter, Mrs. Ibbotson is said to have observed that she would ‘like to shake her (Rowling) by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers’. What a lovely thing to say.
There is indeed a subtle influence of The Secret of Platform 13 that can be felt in the Harry Potter books, especially the Philosopher’s Stone. There are several similarities between the two books. The protagonist is separated from his parents and brought up in a different household by indifferent, even abusive guardians. The
couple who adopt the boy hero have a child of their own who is a pampered, selfish brat, while the hero is treated like a servant and turns out to be a sensible, sensitive child who is finally restored to his rightful place.
But other than this basic, classic plot, there are other aspects like the character of Raymond Trottle in The Secret of Platform 13 who is definitely an early inspiration for Dudley Dursley right from his pudgy appearance to his tantrums over a knickerbocker glory, the triplet nurses of Prince Ben who are named after flowers one of them being Lily, a mysterious opening in a railway platform, the magical creatures who pass back and forth through it between the real world and the magical world to which it opens and the ghosts who interact with the human characters including a grey lady. The scene where Raymond’s whereabouts are traced through the sewers reminds one of the haunts of moaning Myrtle and the realms of the mer-people in the Goblet of Fire.
However, none of the above similarities can be considered as plagiarism – rather it is a subtle overlapping of the imaginations of two very talented authors. Which in turn gives a delicious sense of deja vu to the reader – like a traveller coming across something vaguely familiar while visiting an entirely new place.
I was so enthralled by Flaubert’s Parrot that I immediately ordered some more of Julian Barnes’ books and am slowly working my way through the rest of his oeuvre. I started on The Sense of an Ending with some caution, for very few Booker winning novels that I have read have lived up to the hype. (The Finkler Question sat half read on my desk for many months before it was moved to the back of the bookshelf. Sooner or later, it will be given away.)
The Sense of an Ending was a joy to read, though the subject was anything but delightful. After finishing the book, I googled my way into the Booker forums where readers avidly discussed the whodunnit with several theories of their own, and read some of the comments with almost as much pleasure as the book itself.
Spoilers ahead – discussions abound on whether Junior Adrian was Veronica’s child or Sarah’s, was Adrian Veronica’s long lost brother, why did Adrian kill himself, was it merely out of guilt for having had an affair with his girlfriend’s mother or was it the impact of something darker, like the stigma of incest committed unknowingly. The algebraic equations explaining the complicated relationships between the main characters and the vague conclusion do not take away the depth of the philosophical questions examined in the book, nor do they diminish the consistent beauty of the prose.
The conclusion was not so much affecting as the last few pages of the first part, which lays bare the stark realities of existence, transforming the protagonist from a precocious teenager into a bored middle aged man who can only reflect on the days of his early youth, having sleepwalked through the rest of his less than remarkable life.
This is one of the more disturbing hypotheses on the meaning of life. Philip Larkin said as much in This be the Verse. Rupert Brooke wrote it in Sonnet Reversed. And perhaps this is what Vikram Seth meant when he wrote that ‘That this is all there is, that this is so’. Only this moment can be claimed as one’s own.