I docked a star towards the end, after the disappointment with the final twist and the rather melancholy ending. Perhaps I cannot get into these thingI docked a star towards the end, after the disappointment with the final twist and the rather melancholy ending. Perhaps I cannot get into these things fully without spoiling them for others, but suffice it to say I am not convinced of the smartness of the British counter-espionage operation that is the plot of this novel. I suspect its after-effects might be reverse of what was desired.
Cryptic spoiler: No one eventually comes in from the cold....more
I like Smith's reworking of the Iphis myth better than Chaudhuri's attempts with the Odysseus story. Smith gives us movement, energy, chutzpah, and shI like Smith's reworking of the Iphis myth better than Chaudhuri's attempts with the Odysseus story. Smith gives us movement, energy, chutzpah, and shows that the retelling of a myth in the modern context does not necessarily have to emphasize the mundane and the mundane only. Not everyone has to be plotless like Joyce. And, on plot or on syntactical innovation or on something else, Smith knows that it is important to get a tick in the 'radical' column, like Joyce knew very well. It's something that Chaudhuri doesn't consider important....more
I feel both: sure and unsure. Sure of having encountered Art. Unsure of what it may mean.
Ali Smith’s latest novel works better when it is telling us tI feel both: sure and unsure. Sure of having encountered Art. Unsure of what it may mean.
Ali Smith’s latest novel works better when it is telling us the contemporary story, that of George, a sixteen year old girl grappling with the loss of her mother. Her name is Georgia actually, not George, but in Smith’s world a deliberate and subtle play with gender conventions is a constant. George’s meetings with her therapist Mrs Rock, her episodes of watching child porn in the garden of her house (she justifies watching it to her emotionally absent father), her burgeoning relationship (almost sexual) with a girl at school, her playful and caring relationship with her younger brother, memories of a vacation with her mother to Italy, her mother’s own possibly lesbian relationship with another woman – all these form a delightful tapestry of grief and recovery, remembrance and forgetting. We are both here – involved in the story we are provided, and delighted by its many contemplative pauses. George’s mother’s thoughts on 'being seen', and how it changes things, come at just the right moment for us to understand this innate desire of being appreciated as a work of art.
Perhaps, it is to extend this dialectic of seeing that the other story we are told by Smith is that of a painter. A 15th century painter, it is, whose frescoes George and her mother saw during their visit to Italy. He is the protagonist of the other half of the novel. As a ghost, he watches George today, and as a narrator, he tells us his own (haphazardly remembered) journey of becoming and being a painter. Note that a painter here is someone who produces works to be seen, and to that extent further complicates the theorems we have been working with. He is not really a 'he' by the way, but that shouldn't surprise us now. The painter’s story is, however, supported only by craftiness and has no real substance to hold us for long. The novels fails, and the failure is, I posit, inevitable because Smith’s juxtaposition of the picaresque story, one filled with anecdotes that reaffirm whatever is known about the painter pronto, with the coming-of-age-getting-out-of-grief story, full of impressionistic episodes that accrete the George’s character – might not be meant to work. The reader’s demand for curiosity and its quelling is met only with George’s story. Smith’s attempt to make them both work together must be lauded. But it is also true that in the end, the reader is not equally appreciate of both. ...more
Parts of the review first appeared in The New Indian Express
Straight to the point: Zia Haider Rehman’s voluminous first novel,The World is Not Enough
Parts of the review first appeared in The New Indian Express
Straight to the point: Zia Haider Rehman’s voluminous first novel, In The Light of What We Know, is a masterpiece. This is not to say that the book is without its flaws, but if a masterpiece is a novel that emotionally overwhelms the reader & gives them the feeling of having approached a truth crucial to their own lives, Rahman's book is just that.
It begins thus: In London, an investment banker of privileged Pakistani origins is caught between a flailing marriage and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. As one of the early innovators of credit default swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) -- the much-maligned financial instruments that were blamed for the recession -- the banker is due some special cornering after the coming of bad times. One day, he opens his door to a long-lost friend Zafar. Zafar, like the novelist Rahman, was born in Bangladesh. He had studied with the narrator in Oxford; the two had also worked together in Wall Street for some time. Zafars starts to narrate his life's story, and apart from continuously stoking the narrator’s curiosity, also provides him welcome distraction. The two thus set about the process of peeling the past’s layers.
Although the narrator is not as relegated to Zafar as Carraway was to Gatsby (Rahman hints strongly at the comparison inside the novel), Zafar is still the give-or-take hero we have. And we do root for him. He had a severely underprivileged childhood, from which he grew up to earn a standing in the world through sheer genius and hard work. Yet the gulfs of class and race could not be overcome, and manifest as they were in Zafar's relationship with a thoroughly privileged and thoroughly British woman named Emily, continuously pushed him toward a state of rage from where his only outlet could be an act of violence.
It is in all the jumpy reminiscences into the narrator's and Zafar's lives that Rehman grants the novel its exhilarating scope, not only in the places where the action takes us, not only in the decades and events it traverses—from the sub-prime crisis of 2008 to war-time Afghanistan in 2002 to the Indo-Pak War of 1971 —but also in its desire to inform the reader with varieties of knowledge in an essayistic fashion—the class structure in Britain, T S Eliot’s poetry, the immigrant-savvy spirit of America, Godel’s Incompletness Theorem, Orientalism, carpentry, the narrative choices of Scott Fitzgerald, Green and Maugham, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, CDOs, the dual nature of particles in quantum physics, so on. Throughout all this, the novel remains skeptical of the act of knowing and its relationship with micro and macro power structures.
The two friends are connected to Pakistan and Bangladesh; India is often talked of as an important regional power, thereby having an impact on the whole subcontinent’s consciousness; and the most important events in the novel take place in Afghanistan. This trans-subcontinental tendency was last approximated in a novel this good in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. However, Rushdie’s view could still be called Indo-centric. Moreover, if Rushdie was said to derive his charm from magical realism, the only moniker possible for Rehman’s realism is erudite realism. But unlike Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, where essayistic knowledge of miniature paintings and the threats faced by the art form—threats faced because of growing Western hegemony—served a more direct purpose in the plot itself, in Rehman’s novel, knowledge and its acquisition aren’t pegged to any particular area. Zafar’s indiscriminate erudition is itself a counter against discrimination. It is also contributive to the idea of shunning an untested life, which Zafar has decided to do.
It must, however, be noted that Rahman's little essays are all deftly dramatized, and do not appear to exist for their own sake. Rahman's true achievement with the novel form is to make these discussions appear to be contributing -- in fact, they are essential -- to the plot that he works with. And Rahman is going for breadth, not depth. No topic is dug deeper than it needs to. If you happen to have knowledge of any one of these, you might even find Rahman's explanations / usage bordering on cliche. Rahman uses what could be called local cliches - where you can make out if one passage is a cliche only if you have some specific knowledge of that specific field. The range of subjects ensures that most local cliches retain their original flavor - that of carrying extraordinary insights.
It is commonly agreed that the most important historical events of this fledgling century are 9/11 and the financial crisis. The complications that need to be traversed to gain any meaningful understanding of these events make it extremely difficult for any novelist to tackle them in a dramatic way. Rehman’s novel operates with a world-historical-consciousness that clarifies just who faces the brunt of History, of all that is wrong in the world. The idea of ‘The Age of Knowledge’ doesn’t work for those who cannot acquire it. But those who equate its acquisition with wisdom are also committing a desperate error. ...more
Knottily plotted. The story hurtles forward only when a special narrative device is used. Otherwise the omniscient narrator is almost always a markerKnottily plotted. The story hurtles forward only when a special narrative device is used. Otherwise the omniscient narrator is almost always a marker of description and stasis. The novel feels uneven; there are sharp edges, there are mellow troughs. These qualities are somewhat soaked by our eponymous hero as well. His heroism, although meant to be vain, can also be just damp at times.
There are beautiful long sentences that make you go tsk-tsk regarding the state of all, even literary, writing today. But the novel's placement among the top 100 of the last century is a dubious one....more
The stories here are from Conrad's early period, in the last decade of 19th century. Given below are my ratings for each of them, along with the settiThe stories here are from Conrad's early period, in the last decade of 19th century. Given below are my ratings for each of them, along with the setting.
Karain: a memory - 4 (Malaya) The Idiots - 4.5 (Rural France) An Outpost of Progress - 5 (Congo) The Return - 4.5 (London) The Lagoon - 3 (Malaya)
Of these, An Outpost of Progress stands out, and can be read as a sort of precursor to Heart of Darkness. In a way, we see not what happens when white men take a boat toward an outpost in dark dark Africa, but what happens when white men stay in an outpost in dark dark Africa.
The general degeneration toward some sort of hysteria / insanity remains a common theme in all the stories. And except the Congo story, the Woman remains an enigmatic locus, at once the object of desire and the agency of deception and folly.
As far as writing goes, it is top notch, if one focuses on the turn of phrases and the metaphors more than the statis that Conrad forces on his scenes. Let me give some sentences from the story 'The Return'
The inner circle train from the City rushed impetuously out of a black hole and pulled up with a discordant, grinding racket in the smirched twilight of a West-End station.
She strode like a grenadier, was strong and upright like an obelisk, had a beautiful face, a candid brow, pure eyes, and not a thought of her own in her head.
There are in life events, contacts, glimpses, that seem brutally to bring all the past to a close. There is a shock and a crash, as of a gate flung to behind one by the perfidious hand of fate. Go and seek another paradise, fool or sage. There is a moment of dumb dismay, and the wanderings must begin again; the painful explaining away of facts, the feverish raking up of illusions, the cultivation of a fresh crop of lies in the sweat of one's brow, to sustain life, to make it supportable, to make it fair, so as to hand intact to another generation of blind wanderers the charming legend of a heartless country, of a promised land, all flowers and blessings . . .
He stood in the revealing night—in the darkness that tries the hearts, in the night useless for the work of men, but in which their gaze, undazzled by the sunshine of covetous days, wanders sometimes as far as the stars.
Reading Conrad is perhaps acknowledging two things - (1) The necessary abstinence from venturing into that which is impossible to know, and the necessity of still making peace with that impossibility, whether that be the mores and customs of another race or the absurdity of women (Conrad's idea, not mine) (2) The old notion that a lot of work needs to go into making a descriptive sentence, and that it has to be long.
All in all, depending on your attention levels in various paragraphs, your reactions will vary. You'll feel subject to sublime art in some places, and skim over many others. The essence of the stories won't be missed though - promise.
Netherland is one of the most reviewed novels in recent time. This is because of various reasons.
1> It appears to be a post-colonial novel, almostNetherland is one of the most reviewed novels in recent time. This is because of various reasons.
1> It appears to be a post-colonial novel, almost like a benign Naipaul looking to kick-start his literary career in the post 9/11 world
2> It marks a schism with the post-modern trend, in as much as it takes us back to the pleasures of the modern novel. It is Realism at its lyrical best.
I provide here two comments to substantiate my view
Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books -
"For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait."
James Wood in The New Yorker -
"The simplicity of the writing here and the choosing of a frozen racial emblem echo V. S. Naipaul, that Trinidadian Indian, and, if “Netherland” pays homage to “The Great Gatsby,” it is also in some kind of knowing relationship with “A House for Mr. Biswas.” These are large interlocutors, but “Netherland” has an ideological intricacy, a deep human wisdom, and prose grand enough to dare the comparison. Less desperately than Biswas, less comically, too, Chuck is searching for a house, a home, and so is Hans, adrift in a New York at once fascinating and a little estranging. O’Neill has Naipaul’s gift for creating unforced novelistic connections in a world of forced ideological connections.
It is a coincidence that both these publications are New York based. New Yorkers are bound to love love this novel, as are players and followers of cricket....more
1) A novel written from the perspective, or in the voice, of an adolescent boy is nothing new.
2) A novel concentrating on the development of characte1) A novel written from the perspective, or in the voice, of an adolescent boy is nothing new.
2) A novel concentrating on the development of character through formative experiences, some of which are representative of the time he or she lives in, is nothing new. It is called a Bildungsroman.
3) A novel that highlights, or hints at, the fragility of family, or the frailty of marriage, is nothing new.
Mitchell trods on these, and other, well-beaten paths, striving all the time to deliver us something fresh on each page.
Does he succeed?
The answer, it seems, will depend on how revelatory Mitchell's novel ends up being. This would require a deeper analysis. One needs to note the total effect a reading of 'Black Sean Green' has; and one needs, definitely, also to note the mechanics by which that effect is created. Let us approach the problem in the reverse.
Let us start again with the three points I opened this review with and see how Mitchell presents them in this novel
1) Jason Taylor, the 12-13 year old protagonist, is a stammerer. His quest, as is revealed pretty early in the novel, is to become a non-stammerting stammerer, one who is able to evade or hide his defect, work around it, so to say. If one stops and ponder, this quest is not Taylor's alone. It is a universal quest. Life is - no question about it - about discovering the defects that you cannot do anything about, and working around them. But anyways...
Mitchell provides details of Taylor's speech defect, presents to us his fears and struggles regarding it, and even uses it as a mood-setting tool in most conversations (Taylor stammers when he is nervous - the stammer makes him nervous). But what exactly is achieved from all of that?
We can argue, with a cynicism I attibute to critics and find utterly loathsome, that by making the protagonist a stammerer Mitchell provides an easy justification for the excellent articulation which Taylor's voice assumes in the first-person narrative. But this is not the complete picture. The effort is directed elsewhere.
Through the stammer, it is the innocence of the stammerrer, his inclination for simplicity, his dread of the emotionally engaging, that is established as the motif for the novel. Just as Taylor dreads some words that may incite his stammer, just as he dreads situations where his defect may be exposed, the novel steers clear, consistently, of facing the dreadful, horrible, undeniably painful confrontation with sad realities.
Taylor's defect, then, is not a petty ruse to justify the language. It is the constraint Mitchell imposes on the protagonist, a constraint that actually becomes a shield for his innocence.
Black Swan Green is a novel of aching innocence; innocence that becomes progressively aware of everything that threatens it, and protects itself; innocent not lost, but one the verge of getting lost, and fighting its last battles. How? By avoiding, by NOT TALKING of those things. Why? Well, if the veneer of innocence is lost, we are all exposed, aren't we?
2) Bildungsroman (and the subset called Kunstlerroman)is a different animal. The plot here is often not the gestalt of characters and surrounding and events and politics and history and philosophy and time (most importantly!) and the text (for Post-modernists!) that is present in many, in fact most, complex novels. One may imagine the plot of a Bildungsroman not as a complex yarn of a Nabokov novel, from which no threads can be pulled out, but as a rope that binds all elements together, taking strength from each thread and elongating itself, simply and easily, on the onward axis of time.
Critical experiences happen to us arbitrarily. Therefore, it is neither uncommon, nor unnatural, for a Bildungsroman to unfold in episodes, short snippets of time where a major event of character-forming impact takes place. There is the question of epiphanies, too - a rapid change internalized in a short burst.
That said, a Bildungsroman builds character layer by layer. What is learned in chapter 4 is added to Chapter 5. Incident upon incident the crust around the self of the protagonist hardens and he prepares to face the world.
Now Mitchell is known to approach the novel in a staccato fashion. His unit of deliberation is most often the 'chapter' - as evinced in his earlier novel Cloud Atlas. The consequential ability of his chapters to stand independent from each other leaves him a distinct advantage for a Bildungsroman. What he manages exceptionally well is (A) The connections between the chapters, which stay strong yet underplayed, and (B) The absence of epiphany.
Point B requires more deliberation from me.
It is not that a 12-13 year old cannot be expected to have an epiphany, but the textual nature of that epiphany is bound to be lower than for a man at 20. By textual nature, I mean the thoughts in words. In Joyce's Portrait, the initial chapters concentrate more on Stephan's emotions rather than what theories he makes from his experiences. As we proceed we see more and more epiphanies.
For a 12 year old experience leads to emotion, to thumb rules, but not to streams of thought that can be convereted to paragraph upon paragraph. It is, thus, the absence of a distended interior monologue, that adds credence to the novel.
I approached the novel with tentativeness, enticed by its easy length and haunted by the previous experience with the author. I guarded myself againstI approached the novel with tentativeness, enticed by its easy length and haunted by the previous experience with the author. I guarded myself against the smoothness of Ian McEwan's prose (Yes, I know, I've called it 'belaboured' before), letting the tension work on me instead - tension which was, surprisingly, potent and consistent. This tension is the thing, I now understand, that was totally absent from my earlier McEwan: 'Amsterdam'
Perhaps I should rectify myself after having had greater experience with the author: McEwan's prose is not belaboured; it is his restraint that sometimes fails to conclude in an adequate level of tension - the level that he aims at, or the level at which the success or failure of his novels rests.
In 'On Chesil Beach' the above deformity is aptly hidden. The length, perhaps, does not allow for the contortions in plot that McEwan is both praised and parried for. Short and precise, the novella has an overall feeling of tightness that works really well....more
McEwan belabored prose and over-engineered plot -- an overall swindling the reader into aceepting the final farce -- come up short ratherAverage Read.
McEwan belabored prose and over-engineered plot -- an overall swindling the reader into aceepting the final farce -- come up short rather pathetically. Each sentence carries a certain beauty, but as a whole the novel is colossally unconvincing. Never once does the reader care, think about, or even believe in, what McEwan is driving him into. I understand now why McEwan has been panned for his 'construction'. 'Amsterdam' - not too kindly for its author - seems to be a novel thought of by a master, but brought into the realm of words by a much lesser mortal. The whole work, the whole construciton behind it, exists for the end and the end alone - an end that the reader really doesn't give a fuck about.
I wonder how Coetzee must have felt winning the Booker a year after 'Amsterdam'. Its a pity that 'Disgrace' and 'Amsterdam' will stand side-by-side in the Booker list.
'Amsterdam' is a wholly avoidable piece of literature. Please read 'Atonement' again if you really have to read McEwan....more
While Naipaul may seem to be copying the modality of the nineteenth century novel, his main intention her'The world is what it is,' and so is Trinidad
While Naipaul may seem to be copying the modality of the nineteenth century novel, his main intention here is to construct a self-propagating comic system (in a post-colonial set-up). And he succeeds marvelously in that. The Naipaul system: layered through family, religion, poverty, national identity issues, third-world-ism, third-world journalism and, last but not the least, third-world individuality, is a triumph of twentieth century literature. Incident after incident, Naipaul delivers jokes that seem driven by their own causes at first; but become signifiers of some monumental tragedy by the time they end -- tragedy is, in fact, always surreptitiously at work in the novel. There is a lot of repetition, but even that seems to only add to the stifling nature of Naipaul's realism. A time comes, maybe when around a third of the novel is read, that the reader comes to be completely dissolved in the all-so-real tribulations of Mr. Biswas's world. And from there on, the journey to Mr. Biswas's house becomes his own.
The house is built in the end, not without a joke, and not without the tragedy of a trailing joke.
P.S. Part of this novel was read during a two week vacation in Bali, and its appreciation may have something to do with the beautiful tropical forest and the beaches around me then, that I as a reader must have imagined (wrongly, Naipaul would argue) in Trinidad....more