Monday, November 20, 2006

Teasing the velvet

What strikes most about Sarah Waters's work is the subject matter. She inverts the gaze and brings sauciness to her writing. The reader is constantly surprised at the way Sarah pushes the boundary further and further as one delves deeper into Tipping the Velvet. Nancy, or Nan, is the most innocuous narrator, if there was one, and it is this innocence that becomes edgy when she speaks about tarts, toms, and rent boys. Nan approaches the world with eager eyes and always finds herself in the thick of lusty settings. Sarah cleverly upturns Victorian notions of propriety while giving her viscously imagined plot details a Dickensian verbosity.

In an interview on her website, she calls Walter's My Secret Life, an all-time favourite. A nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life, according to this website, has over 4000 references to the F-word. Sarah is more controlled on that account, certainly, but Walter is clearly an influence. (Was he the inspiration behind Maud's evil uncle in Fingersmith?)

She is very comfortable with the language, understands its twists and turns and italicised stresses perfectly, and employs them to good effect. One jumps from one page to the next, hungering for the stuff of Nan's life. Always honest, even brutally so, Nan's innate goodness comes across when she decides to start dressing as a boy to escape men's stares. When she starts roaming London streets at nights as a boy, she realizes she still catches the attention of men, only this time, those like that, like her. This is both fascinating and troublesome for Nan. This new gaze, she says, doesn't pester her, rather, it seems like she has been revenged - for minding it in the first instance. She decides to turn into a rent boy.

This other-ended sense of morality informs all of Sarah's work. Her characters are not conventionally nice, yet are capable of life-affirming empathy when one least hopes for it. And therein lies redemption for emotional outcasts who so densely populate her novels.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Still an atheist? Thank God!

Emboldened by the debate on atheism, I hunted down this piece on Einstein that speaks about his views on God:

Refining his views as he went along, he called his religion a ‘cosmic religious sense’. In The World As I See It he wrote: “You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.”

“But,” he said, “the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

I agree. As a student of physics, I often wondered how gravitational force everywhere could be given by a simple formula. How every falling body went down at an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s. How water flowing though a pipe ensures that the product of pressure and volume remains constant. Clearly, all this need not have been so. The world could have several thousand other permutations and still survive, but it doesn't, and one must ask, WHY? Why does the world run on simple equations that can be readily assimilated by the human mind, and exploited to make conditions of living better?

Surely, there is more to it than meets the eye. It can't all be co-incidence, can it now?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Moving, beyond words

I went to a unique place today. The other day, my sister was taken to the residence of a Delhi industrialist by her workplace staff to select books! My sis works in the field of education and her office needs to build a library. It so happens that this industrialist's wife collects books from friends and acquaintances which she then sells at throwaway prices to raise money for charity. My sister was so taken with the range displayed that she immediately called me to visit asap.

So today I went. I was ushered to the back of the house where a dismantled sort of storehouse had packs and packs of books stacked one above the other. It boggled the mind to even imagine going through each one of them. My problem was how to locate that stack which belonged to a reader of literary books rather than pulp fiction. Thankfully, the caretaker understood my dilemma and brought out the more recently availed stocks in which I hoped to find books other than the sea of pulp that I encountered in my vicinity.

One such box turned out to be my savior. It had a lot of recently written contemporary literature, so my final list comprised these. It's not all fiction and some of it may not be literature, but we'll let that pass, won't we?

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee
The Shorter Strachey (I am most looking forward to this)
Falling Off The Map by Pico Iyer
Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem
Collected Short Stories of Kingsley Amis

Quite a collection, you'd agree! I sure hoped for more, and had sneaked in a few extra notes in my wallet, just in case! But the deal was truly a steal, such were the price tags. Overall, like always, a great experience, replete with that very tangible nervous sensation of being in the company of something exquisitely fantastic.