Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tonio Kroger

These days, I am reading a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann that includes his classic novella, Death in Venice. I liked Death in Venice but I liked another story, Tonio Kroger, even more. Kroger, in the words of his painter friend Lisaveta Ivanovna, is a "bourgeois manque". There is an interesting piece of dialogue between the two which reveals Mann's views on the tragic position of an artist in bourgeois society, or rather, more appropriately, the tragic position of an artist with bourgeois sensibilities. Kroger, the artist, longs to be commonplace. He craves the simplicity that an unexamined life bestows. In a letter to Lisaveta, he writes:

"I stand between two worlds. I am at home in neither and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me ..."

He likens the bourgeois way of living to a "love for the human and the living and the ordinary". He is caught between the charms of narrating others' experiences as a writer on the one hand, and the tragically vicarious living that such a profession entails, on the other.

There is another, magical passage which takes place during Kroger's stopover at Aalsgaard. He is staying at a seaside hotel and on the day described, there is a party in the evening. At the party, he comes across Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm arriving hand in hand. Kroger had loved them both at one time. Hans was his schoolmate and Inge the daughter of a local doctor. Looking at Inge dance at the ball and recollecting his humiliation at being unable to dance quadrille, Kroger thinks to himself:

"Did you laugh at me on that occasion, when I danced the moulinet and made such a miserable fool of myself? And would you still laugh today, even now when I have become, in my own way, a famous man? Yes, you would - and you would be a thousand times right to do so, and even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right...

Mark the line: "even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right." Kroger laments that the two people he has deeply loved, Hans and Inge, were given a chance, the space to have 'that'- that love. Mann introduces an undercurrent of envy via this passage. How can Kroger not be envious when it is the lack of that happiness that he tries to cover up with his fascination for language? It's a lower love clearly, his regard for the literary life; hence the jealousy.

What Mann seems to be saying is that despite its charms and enticements, language cannot replace that sentiment, one which involves the human element. Kroger is all literary, but he looks upon it as a shortcoming, a malady in the blood that he has inherited from his flamboyant mother. He wishes to dispel a sense of being left out, to be accepted into bourgeois society. As people make merry at the ball, laughing, dancing, Kroger feels left out of the loop of back-slapping and "mundane" everyday stuff. He has closed himself from the first step that transforms a personal interaction into love.

Kroger's love for things bookish may have given him reason to somehow overlook this love as a smaller sentiment, which it clearly isn't. Kroger's tragedy is that he realizes this but feels condemned to lead the artist's life. He is at the receiving end of a flagstaff whose pride owners, in spite of their rough, unlettered ways, Hans and Inge are.

It's like being told surreptitiously, insidiously - that the edifice on which he had studiously built his life is so weak it laughs at him for the seriousness and privacy in which he has caged his loneliness.

In the pic, Thomas Mann.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Went to Gurgaon the other day and decided to check out the newly opened Landmark bookstore in the also newly opened Grand mall. What can I say? Landmark is simply excellent with its large and diverse collection and leisurely ambience. I had selected 7 books to buy initially, but budgetary restraints made me settle for three. So, my bookcase now boasts David Mitchell's Number9dream, John Banville's The Untouchable and Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet. I'm still swooning over the experience, and can hardly wait for the World Book Fair that should come calling around Feb.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

An Indian victory?

Why are we lauding Kiran Desai's Booker win as an Indian victory, a friend of mine asked the other day? "She is not even an Indian citizen," he added, as a wry smirk of disapproval settled on his face. First things first. Desai is very much an Indian citizen. She continues to hold her Indian passport, but that's beside the point. I must say I agree with my friend on his basic premise.

Writing, such is the profession, cannot be straitjacketed by defining its wizards in nationalistic terms. Can Sai's sense of loss in Inheritance be termed Indian? Isn't all writing meant to bridge the gap between nations and boundaries to connect the writer and reader in a bond of shared experience? Do I, in any way, lose out on the niggling pathos of Disgrace because its writer is South African?

I can understand the relevance of place in defining the milieu that the writer sets his novel in, but beyond that, it's immaterial. Experience is universal; we might be surprised by the similaity of reactions evoked by a murder in Boston and a robbery in Delhi; by grief in Slovakia and solitude in China. Joy and desperation know not the colour of the skin they seep out of.

So, please withhold calling this year's Booker and Nobel recepients as Oriental winners. They are Oriental, sure, but they are not oriental writers.

Brinkmanship spilleth over

North Korea shocked the international community when it claimed to have detonated a nuclear device in what could be a possible precursor to a fully developed nuclear weapons program. The tests came within months of the dramatic test-launching of seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong, over the Sea of Japan.

Poverty and the ill-gotten gains of long years of communism finally got to the regime which disregarded all notes of caution emanating from the Western world, South Korea and Japan. Such was the measure of disbelief at N Korea's action that even China, otherwise a vocal supporter, termed the nuke test a "brazen act".

One wonders what could have been the immediate provocation of the North's action, which has been threatening with a test for quite some time now? Was it the imminent announcement of South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon as the Secretary General of the UN?

Unlikely. While the post carries tremendous weight in the international arena, claiming that its occupying by the opposing camp would provoke the North to "cross the Rubicon", as it were, would be stretching logic too far.

Likely cause

Another, more likely explanation is doing the rounds of international diplomacy these days. To rein in the North's brinkmanship, the US had looked the other way even as the North involved itself with money laundering and other illegal financial transactions. That seemed to be changing in recent days.

The Bush administration was increasingly bringing pressure to bear upon US banks to stop illegal transfer of money. There were reports that the US government might impose sanctions against banks that transact with N Korean firms and thus, unwittingly perhaps, aid in the floating of fake US banknotes, known as super dollars.

This is widely held to be the immediate provocation for the tests. Behind closed doors, US officials admit that Kim Jong-il's reclusive regime would not have upped the ante had it not been for the shrill voices emanating out of Washington.

President Bush, on his part, shot down the military route for the time being. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice made all the right noises about approaching the UN, where non-military sanctions against the North have been imposed.

At best, the US attitude appears like the perfect dress rehearsal for the military option ultimately. Till then, it won't be a bad idea to buy time by humouring the UN.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just wanted to butt in to say that am in the middle of Arthur & George. The novel discusses the Great Wyrley Outrages (that involved mutilations of farm animals), which resulted in the conviction of half-Indian George Edalji who was innocent of the crimes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took personal interst in his case and ensured the clearing of Edalji's name.

Two things: Julian Barnes, the author, has a great sense of dialogue and Arthur's voice is saturated with Sherlock Holmes's, Doyle's creation. The chemistry between Doyle and Wood, his assistant is reminiscent of Holmes and Dr. Watson's. This makes the investigative bits a great pleasure to devour.

What I find appealing about such dialogue is that it is tempered despite being thick with content and a great mind working behind it. It is almost technical in its precision, so damned clinical, yet suffused with just the right bits of emotion and empathy. Restraint – that's the word – restraint is what it evokes, which is impressive considering intellect is so often drowned out in the boastful depths of bombast.

Also, the novel fictionalizes Arthur's relationship with Jean Leckie and its effect on his marital life with Touie. Did you know that Touie knew of Arthur's liasions and had indicated so to her daughter on her death bed? Tragic, since Arthur tried all those ten years that she was unwell, to protect her of this knowledge.

Read an interview that Barnes gave to the Telegraph about the book.

PS: On the night that the Booker is to be announced, it's instructive to note that Arthur & George was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker but lost out to The Sea.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Puritanical linguists have been deriding the growing SMS culture for killing the grammar and syntax that are the essential ingredients of a conversation. They watch in horror as scores of youngsters message each other in text that would make a grammarian squirm. "C U TOM 4 LNCH," is supposedly meant to say, "See you tomorrow for lunch." So pervasive has this culture of instant messaging become that we were recently witness to an SMS-ized version of one of Shakespeare's most well-known lines: "2 B OR NOT 2 B." Need one translate that?

So, what is happening to language as we know it? Is the mass media, which has insidiously taken over every sphere of our waking lives (and sleeping too, if you consider technicolor dreams in surround sound), sounding the death knell of written and spoken communication? How seriously should we take assertions of language losing its importance in the 21st century?

Relax, it's not that bad. Every new technological innovation is shot down by luddites who bemoan the changing rules of the game. This is not to suggest that every linguistic alarmist is a dinosaur from the ancient past, but we need to understand that equating changing mores with the death of language would be, to say the least, extreme.

When the internet first came around, it was feared that the penetrating tentacles of the World Wide Web would finish off the publishing industry. Who would want to buy books, cynics pointed out, when one could simply log on and read off the Net? But twenty years after its genesis, the Web has proved these fears were unfounded.

For one, copyright laws ensure that very few books are actually available online. Sure, you can catch a Woolf or a Lawrence on the Web, but you don’t stand a chance with Rushdie or Coetzee. Secondly, how many people do you know who actually like to read online? I, for one, hate it; simple detest it. There is no greater pleasure than reading a hard-bound Alan Hollinghurst, its pages wafting that rich aroma that only freshly published books give, a cup of coffee nestled on the study. Who in the world wants to read off an unromantic screen blinking databytes at your increasingly sprained neck? Count me out, for sure.

If anything, new technologies have engendered a revival in the book trade. The success of Amazon attests to the growing demand for books worldwide. The new age tool of blogging has further ensured that bibliophiles stay connected in a community which is vocally exhibiting its passion for literature. Interest in subaltern and postmodernist studies has guaranteed that a worldwide network is coming into place, nudged by the rise in new technologies.

That said, it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Standards of language have been declining over the past decade, not just in India, but across the English speaking world. If America is exporting nuclear power and free trade abroad, its influence is also assuring that one is as likely to hear, "Wassup, dude?" on the streets of Delhi as one will in the alleys of Boston. Changing times call for a less didactical approach to teaching English in classrooms. Instructors need to keep their ear to the ground and devise innovative techniques to instill a love of the language among students. They need to plug the richness of classical texts and the contemporaneity of modern ones to enable young adults to look at language not just as a conversational tool, but as a template to reach a deeper understanding of life. Only then can they contribute their bit to the survival of language.

The new century calls for looking at language differently. The global preponderance of English has invoked an unfortunate decline in the relevance of regional languages. While this may be an irreversible phenomenon, publishing houses need to gird up their loins and ensure that more translations make it to the market. India boasts a rich tradition of regional literature that is waiting to be tapped. Publishing house Katha is already doing yeoman's work in this field. Others need to follow suit. Not only will it bring about more writing in regional languages, it will also introduce English readers to a whole new world of wonder and joy.

So apocalypse hunters, chill out! Language is a unique gift to humans. A civilizational necessity, it might be tweaked, altered, juggled, thrown around, played with, mutilated, but those very acts also ensure that it can never go out of fashion. And if you are still brooding the prostituting of the Bard's famous lines, don't! It might just get some lazy teenagers to pick up Hamlet.