Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Indian Clerk

The Indian Clerk has, as its template, the famed partnership of Cambridge don Godfrey Harold Hardy and an Indian clerk, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was invited by Hardy to Cambridge after receiving a letter from him that illustrated Ramanujan's latent genius. The Hardy-Ramanujan association resulted in many fruitful discoveries in the fields of continued fractions and infinite series.

But at its heart, The Indian Clerk is not about Ramanujan, but his mentor. Until that fateful day in 1913, when Hardy received Ramanujan's letter, he had been collaborating with John Edensor Littlewood on the Riemann hypothesis. Ramanujan's letter contained obscure equations and inexplicable formulas. He had derived without assistance what the greatest mathematicians of Cambridge were working on using the zeta function.

Leavitt expertly brings the spirit of Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology to life with the episode of Hardy explaining a dumbfounded Littlewood the feat Ramanujan had accomplished. All his life, Hardy championed his love for pure math, not the applied kind whose avowed goal is to generate something useful. To him, the uselessness of pure math opened the floodgates of such notions of beauty that were beguiling in their own right.

Hardy believed the mathematical aesthetic is appealing because it allows space to obscure numbers and out-of-turn events. Math allows such inconsistencies to join together in a force of pleasing serendipity, a fact that resonated with Hardy's own life.

Hardy's sister Gertrude never married, but that does not imply she was gay, like Hardy. Nevertheless, she is portrayed as mannish and distant. The close intimacy between the siblings nearly makes for the simulacrum of a love triangle, with Gaye, Hardy's dead lover whose bust adorns their living room, making the third pole.

There is a slender discourse on how everything belonging to Gaye was taken away from Hardy's possession after Gaye's death. Excepting the bust, with its penetrating eyes, looking on with a "gaze so steady and merciless you could have sworn it was seeing." When Eric Neville and his wife Alice (who play a salutary role in convincing a skeptical Ramanujan to move to England) come to visit the brother-sister duo, Gertrude is described as following her brother's movements with her good eye, and looking fixedly at the bust with the glass one.

The really intimate moments of contact happen only between members of the same sex, while marital lives are, at best, fraught with the danger of dilution. When Alice goes to meet Gertrude at her house in London, there is a sudden urgency to her visit. The First World War looming in the horizon and Alice's loneliness during a journey interspersed with reading reports of German brutalities, lend a certain sense of doom that permeates the text as Gertrude opens the door of the rented accommodation. But soon enough, she falls into a sort of compromised amicability with Alice, taking off and showing her her glass eye and later, even inviting her to a visit to the zoo.

Heterosexual relationships end in grief, like the luckless love affair of Littlewood and Anne Chase, a married woman. But it is not ennobling grief, the kind Hardy experiences at Gaye's passing and subsequent returns — a phantom who appears at any and all times, rubbing salt over Hardy's wounds, seeking vengeance for his failed chances by imploring Hardy to live, to seek, to whatever it takes to honor the memory of his suicide. No, it's not that kind of grief; it's the kind that sickens, that binds one to the lashings of fate — unsung, unacknowledged.

It is in the book's second half that we begin to hear Ramanujan's voice, who until then, comes across as a primordial ape bumped into an unknown culture. Weighed down by the demands of his religion that prohibited consumption of meat, Ramanujan faces myriad troubles in adjusting to life in England, not the least of which is the frigid climate.

He is desperate for recognition, going so far as to seek a B.A. in math at Trinity, when his talent far supercedes any such qualification. He is temperamental and has issues with women, from whom he expects a sort of benevolent servitude, which when disrupted, has him erupt in flashes of morbid anger. His declining health exacerbates his terrible loneliness — one might even say his heterosexual loneliness which Hardy fails to glean.

Like Gustav von Aschenbach's doomed love for a teenage boy in Death in Venice, Hardy's feelings for Ramanujan aren't straightforward. He is slyly expectant of Ramanujan's impending death. As Andrew O'Hehir expatiates in his incisive essay "Just how gay is 'Death in Venice'?" in Salon,

Aschenbach almost seems convinced he has created the boy himself, out of "austere and pure will." Perhaps he has. Here and elsewhere, Tadzio is described as a piece of classical statuary, a mythical or godlike figure who is pale and translucent, indeed almost dead. (At two different points Aschenbach imagines that Tadzio will not live long, which he finds a satisfying, even pleasant notion.)

Hardy too is possessive of Ramanujan and nearly insouciant about his ill health: "While he continued to refer to the impending trip [to India] as 'a visit,' I think I knew, even then, that he was going to die." Yet, there is a crucial difference between The Indian Clerk and Thomas Mann's novella. It is Hardy, the lover, who survives here, while the object of affection succumbs.

So, what about death? The book is interspersed with Hardy's lecture at Harvard in 1936 — the one he did not give, as Leavitt reminds us too often — "all the while writing equations on the board and disquisiting, with his voice, on hypergeometric series." Initially, the lectures give off homoerotic longings and heartache, but later, they make interesting reading on the First World War; how it affected England, and especially Cambridge. Even so, one such account develops into an erotic fantasy, of a wounded Hardy being tended to by handsome doctors on the battlefield. "Somehow I dreamed, even gloried in, the possibility of my own death," he says.

This quest for death (albeit erotically handed), Gaye's visitations — benevolent Gaye, merciless Gaye, a charge of pure emotion, riding roughshod on Hardy's imitation of a life — all these point to a fascination for annihilation. Hardy's solitariness is an outcome of his being gay. There are signs of inversion here. He is nearly thankful for the abnormality because it suits his temperament; in fact, the absence of sexual attraction for the opposite sex has relieved him of the conventional constructs of marriage and domesticity. Death then — ritualistic, metaphorical death — as a more welcoming proposition than life. Not a cry for pity this, but the supreme manifestation of self-importance, to the point of narcissism. Narcissism, another gay trope. There you are!

The Indian Clerk is first-rate social commentary, a novel of manners densely peopled by the finest minds of the Edwardian era, playwrights and littérateurs, philosophers and economists a period too brief to matter, and all the more enticing for it.

David Leavitt

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Two conversations

The Andy Warhol interview (imagined, over-the-top, film, counterfeit, secretive, plastic, materialism, commercial, art, Picasso, Factory, Thomas Mann, voyeur, Hollywood, Marilyn, Elvis, regression, time, eternal, aesthetics, consumption, abstract, ephemeral, dislocation, solitary, sex, unreason, compromise)

The David Mitchell interview (Japan, alienation, raw material, fiction, clash, anti-religious, experimental, linear, words, power, stasis, monologue, multiple personality disorder, futuristic, brutality, ventriloquism)

Photoshopped muscularity

Nicholas Sarkozy's Photoshop improvement in Paris Match is much in the news. Paris Match is owned by Arnaud Lagardere, a close friend of Sarkozy's, and in this season of political leaders going bare, Sarkozy's disappearing love handles are certainly a sight to behold.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Penguin India's new CEO

Now that Thomas Abraham is taking charge of launching Hachette's India division, Penguin is getting Mike Bryan, International Sales and Marketing Director for the company in the UK and US, to head its India operations. As per Penguin's press release, Bryan's team most recently managed the sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a majority of export markets.

My Mother's Lovers

The white man's burden is the dominant theme of My Mother's Lovers. By using the motif of a fearless young woman who adopts a litany of lovers, Hope takes us to a time in African history when "things were quite perfect as they were". The narrator, Alexander, is very nearly obsessed with his mother Kathleen. His mother was an aviator in the best tradition of the white African pilots, hunting game far and wide. He accompanied her on some of her pursuits, but never learned who his father was.

One of the more interesting characters in the book is Koosie, whom Kathleen brings home one day from the airport. An orphan, he ends up staying with her and Alexander, but after the change of guard in South Africa, he rises to become Dr Sithembile Nkosi, Director of the Media Marketing Council. And yet, he contracts Aids. Hope's decision to constuct such a character can best be explained by his response to the Mail & Guardian to allegations that Koosie eerily mirrors the protagonist of Liz McGregor's Khabzela: The Life and Times of a South African. Hope maintains, "It is a matter of fact that various miracle remedies for the cure of Aids have been touted throughout this country for many years: the ingredients range from garlic to various others. This is common knowledge to the point of parody and parody was what I was after in my creation of a politician dying of Aids. I drew on this wide-spread tradition when I invented the death of Koosie."

Then there is Cindy September, a smart, agile colored woman who has made a fortune for herself in real estate. She shares a past with Alexander because she worked in the same shelter for disabled children as Kathleen did at one time. However, she disgusts Alexander when she becomes pious and forgiving towards her son's killers. Cindy's reaction in reminiscent of Lucy's after the brutal attack on her in Disgrace. As Hope writes:

"Cindy, once so irreverent, so deliciously wry, had gone the way of the heart. Some terrifying power had taken Benny from her. How was she to soften her anguish? She would not rail, she would submit. She was reaching out and taking into herself that which had swallowed up her son. She was repositioning herself for her life after Benny; in the house of my mother; in the role – dare I say it – of my mother, setting out to embrace 'Africa'."

In spite of regime changes, the ineluctable misery of the African situation continues to haunt the land. At several points in the novel, stark, unreal headlines jump from the page for your attention:

Crowds Stone Suspect
Uncle Rapes 6-yr-old
SA Tops Travel Poll
Eleven Cows Hacked with Pangas…

And you wonder where the distinction between fact and fiction blurs, as you imagine reading these headlines in Johannesburg and thinking to yourself, "Do they give me pointers to this nation's psyche?" Hope is a saucy writer, combining thrill and mysticism to pen a tale that does true service to the vastness of the continent.


From Washington Times

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Self-Help by Edward Docx

One of the surprise nominess on this year's Booker longlist is Self-Help by Edward Docx, to be released as Pravda by Houghton Mifflin in America. He spoke to Telegraph about his Booker nomination and how a personal shock paved the way for his literary leanings:

"Writing is a stamina game," he says. "Talent only accounts for two per cent; the rest is keeping your eyes and ears open so you can learn from people better than yourself."

Despite this show of modesty, he stops short of describing himself as unworthy because he has worked at his writing in a way that most of those "who say they have a book inside them" have not. Does he ever suffer self-doubt? He thinks for a minute: "I suffer from not knowing that I'm doing the best I can."

The apparently awesome confidence is aided, of course, by good looks. I could describe him but he does the job himself when introducing Gabriel, the son of a Russian mother in Self Help, a man with a Mediterranean complexion who wears jeans with a fine shirt "as though he has not been able to make up his mind who he really is", has "liquid dark eyes" and black hair "kicked and kinked at the ends, not so much a style as a lack of one, stylishly passing itself off".

After only a few minutes of Docx's erudite literary small talk, it could also be said that, like Gabriel, he has "the figure of someone thin through restlessness, through exercise of the mind rather than the body".

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

David Leavitt

David Leavitt, author of the upcoming The Indian Clerk (look out for my review, which will be published here soon), speaks to Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation about the book, writing and Subtropics.

I'm not one of those writers from whose pens prose flows effortlessly, and who rarely change a word. Instead I hurl something down, print it out, look at it, wince, try to clean it up, print it out again, look at it, see a vague possibility of something decent, work on it some more, print it out again, smile in pleasure, take a break to have a coffee, come back, read it again, cry out in horror that I could think something so hideous was any good, work on it some more, print it out yet again…and so on, until…well, until it's as good as I think I can get it. And even then I'm usually not satisfied.

Thanks to Critical Mass for the link.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The power of stories in time of war

The recently announced long list for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, one of the world's foremost literary awards, includes several first-timers and seldom-heard-of names. One of them is Lloyd Jones, a writer in New Zealand whose work is little known outside his country. But with Mister Pip, he has been the recipient of much international success, and the Man Booker longlisting is the latest feather in his cap.

The novel is set during the civil war on the island of Bougainville, which ensued in the late 1980s following a blockade by the government of Papua New Guinea. At a time when most people have fled the island, a small community, all black, still exists amidst uncertain living conditions. There is, however, one couple that does not fit the traditional mold. They are the white Mr. Watts and his black wife, Grace Watts, a mysterious woman who left the island on a scholarship, met her husband in New Zealand and brought him back to her native Bougainville.

After the local school is left with no teachers, Mr. Watts takes it upon himself to teach the kids. The trouble is he does not have any material with him, save a battered copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. He begins reading chapters from the nineteenth century classic in class every day.

The story is narrated by Matilda, one of Mr. Watts' students, a precocious girl living with her mother on the island. Matilda's father has left the family to make a future for himself in Australia after a gang of local rebels disrupted the Panguna mine. This spawned the heavy-handed reprisal by Papua New Guinea and the formation of a rebel army.

The war is a perpetual noise in the background in this uplifting tale about the power of literature. As gunfire "merged with the background chorus of the grunting pigs and shrieking birds," the children sat in stunned silence, absorbing the adventures of Pip. To Matilda, Pip is the embodiment of her feelings and a friend she has never known. "I had learnt to enter the soul of another," she says. Enchanted by the fictional Pip, she carves his name in sand at the beach.

However, to Matilda's mother, Dolores, who has already lost a husband to "white ways," this subtle change in the daughter rings alarm bells. She decries the agnostic tenor of Mr. Watts' teachings and proclaims Pip to be the devil in disguise. Little are they aware that this name, written on the beach, is to irrevocably change their lives and destinies.

Mister Pip is an assured tribute to the remarkable ability of literature to see us through a lifetime of adversities and tribulations. If Lloyd Jones goes on win the Man Booker Prize, it would be a happy event indeed.


From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Salaciousness obscures story of India's independence

Who was Edwina Mountbatten? This is the question you can seek an answer to when you pick up Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer. For this book's title is a misplaced attempt at reaching the glorious past of the British in India. If Von Tunzelmann's 416-page narrative on the end of the Raj accomplishes anything, it is to awaken readers to the salacious details of the failure of the Mountbatten matrimony.

Do we really need another account of how Partition tore India into two nations whose birth was midwifed by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah?

Nehru was always a moderate, and must be credited for his secular credentials, but does that mean we must look askance at his sins of omission and commission? True, he evolved from being a stiff-upper-lip Englishman into a vigorous grass-roots leader of Indian independence, but this change went unaccompanied by any real empathy for the Indian way.

And what about Gandhi? He was the Mahatma, the noble soul who could do no wrong. But he was also much beholden to his affection for Nehru and this blinded him to the machinations for power that ultimately resulted in bloody conflict.

In Von Tunzelmann's account, there is no mystery unsolved, only a bland rendering of facts and figures. The saga of Indian independence is explained largely by the fraught relationships among the dramatis personae.

Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten was sympathetic, but only when he was not battling his wife's many dalliances. Edwina was all ears, but she had her husband's bisexuality to contend with. Vallabhbhai Patel was mercurial, but he beat the Guptas and the Mauryas in uniting India.

Nehru's relationship with Edwina supposedly created such a bond between Dickie and him that "he appeared to sag at the sight of the alabaster head of Jawaharlal." Is this history, seriously, or am I reading People's list of the 50 sexiest men of the Independence movement?

It would have been eminently better for Von Tunzelmann to have made this into a biography of the Mountbattens because it is in the parts about the couple that the book occasionally picks up. Von Tunzelmann demonstrates an uncomfortably prurient interest in Dickie's sexuality. Sample this:

"In contrast to her intense jealousy toward women, Edwina never showed any sign of the least resentment toward the men in her husband's life. There were quite a number of them; and there have been persistent rumors that he was homosexual. Several of his closest friends were gay ... The fact that Mountbatten was not threatened by gay men does not automatically imply that he himself was gay; it could be taken to signify the opposite. His reaction on being told that one of his servants was gay was characteristically unflustered. 'Of course,' he replied. 'All the best valets are.' "

What Von Tunzelmann falls for is a well-worn trap for Western writers reminiscing on the Gilded Age of the Raj; their out-of-hand dismissal of any non-Congress, non-Gandhi, non-Nehru contributions. Thankfully, Patel gets an honorable mention, if only cursorily.

In the end, the question of what this book aims to achieve must be broached. Surely Von Tunzelmann has an abiding fascination with India, its past and perhaps also its future. This book, though, does no justice to her vision, assuming there is one. What we have here is a shabbily written unengaging portrait of sexual peccadilloes.


From Chicago Sun-Times

Update: Cookie Maini on Romance as historical puzzle

Author offers a fascinating survey of Europe past

Geert Mak, a distinguished Dutch writer, spent the year 1999 crisscrossing Europe and writing daily reports for NRC Handelsblad, which the paper dutifully carried on the first page. Mak's brief: to revisit the sites of the major events of the 20th century and file dispatches on what became of these places; whether the passage of time was as charitable to them as history. This book, a compilation of Mak's dispatches, along with additional material, is a fascinating study of the continent's captivating past.

This is no tedious academic exercise; it's first-rate journalism combined with a love for history. Mak divides his book into twelve chapters, each covering a significant period of 20th century European history. So we begin by dissecting the three great scandals that rocked Europe as the 19th century drew to a close: Oscar Wilde's perversity trial, Philipp zu Eulenburg's intimacy with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and most notably, the Dreyfus affair.

From here to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mak's book broaches nearly all the major events of the last century, including the Dresden bombing, the Chernobyl mishap and the Srebrenica massacre. The best part of the journalistic approach is that we come across interviews and private observations that lend a personal touch to the ungraspable force of the past.

What makes the book interesting are Mak's sharp, coruscating statements that deflate the hype of grand ideologies with a studied lack of emotion, all the more triumphant for what they seek to turn to rubble. A case in point: When Mak visits Razliv where Lenin hid after the failed rebellion of July 1917, he is amazed to see that a glass box had been erected around the communist leader's hiding place, "the kind one sees more often at sacred sites. Through it we can view the interior: a table, a bed, a samovar, a chair at the window, a teacup with four dead flies in it, a stable with space for one cow. Lenin's stable at Bethlehem." Touché !

In the Acknowledgments, Mak regrets: All of Europe cannot fit in a single book. True, but with a writer this accomplished, most of it certainly does.


From St. Petersburg Times

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Year of the Nigerian

Helon Habila on why the Nigerians are in the publishing spotlight.

A home for Booker

NY Mag pokes American publishers to wake up and get rights for this year's Booker longlisted titles.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Booker longlist... in:

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker (4th Estate)
  • Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador)
  • The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
  • The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
  • Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (Viking)
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
  • What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (Tindal Street)
  • Consolation by Michael Redhill (William Heinemann)
  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
  • Winnie & Wolf by A.N.Wilson (Hutchinson)
The names within the parentheses are British publishers of the titles, not much use to us. The Americans are all different, as you shall see in the upcoming days.

The Man Booker website

Read my review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Booker Longlist Day

Woke up this morning and went over to the Man Booker website for any peek into the longlisting process. Not much, it seems, though the website is new and spruced up. Here is an interview with Kiran Desai.

In your acceptance speech you thanked your mother for her support and help with your writing. Have the dynamics altered since winning the prize?

No, I think they go too deep to be altered. I’m responding to these questions from her house. We were talking of what she’d recently written about Primo Levi and his translating Kafka, of the holocaust that was anticipated by Kafka, experienced by Levi. What this did to an intelligence (Levi’s) writing about people on the other side of the world, writing about how one tribe fails another. Very different from other Europeans observing the colonial world at that time. When I walk into her home, it is almost as if another dimension opens up, a magic space in which I can work and think like nowhere else. It is the peace of it, the stillness of the light, the flavour of exile that seems essential to writing, the fact that everything seems to bend to the fact of it being a writer’s home. It’s the rhythm of a writing life that comes from 50 years of working, and from that older time of being a writer in India when you wrote for writing’s sake alone, not for the cocktail samosas.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Out Stealing Horses

Not much happens (by way of plot, that is) in Per Petterson's multiple award-winning fourth novel, Out Stealing Horses, except the memory of a long-ago summer. Its protagonist, Trond, is a man who has moved into a house near the forest after the death of his wife and who considers himself fortunate for having finally discovered a place of solitude, even though he fears becoming "a shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except in his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence".

But Trond's solitary bliss is disturbed by the intrusion of a neighbor on a day when the latter is looking for his lost dog. This neighbor, it so happens, has a certain connection with Trond's boyhood, and the chance meeting brings forth a cascade of emotions and feelings in Trond.

As it turns out, the neighbor, Lars, is the younger brother of Jon, Trond's quicksilver pal during a summer in 1948 when Trond and his father went up to live in a cabin in eastern Norway. The title is taken from an offer that Jon makes Trond on the fateful July day when their lives intersect in an unknowable miasma of fate and circumstance.

A tragedy befalls Jon's family which resonates with the characters' lives for long afterwards. However, the suddenness of adversity is not the only lesson the 15-year-old Trond learns. He discovers a far more pernicious truth about his father.

Per Petterson writes with sympathy and an eye for detail. The outback of Trond's old-age stay is a Norway that sucks the reader in with its cinematic beauty. At times, the daily motions of Trond's life of reminiscence do get tedious but Petterson is, more often than not, successful in amalgamating these with the delicate weight of his text.

But other than that, Out Stealing Horses hurt me deeply for a different reason. I don't intend to sound sexist even though I may, but there is something altogether troubling about an old man speaking to the reader of his life's lost chances.

This is not to say that a woman narrator would not have won my empathy, but the sight of a man juggling domestic life with a typical masculine ineptitude at running it; looking back on frayed, intense memories; and forcing himself to believe his best intentions about mortality, does break the heart in unexpected ways.

A quiet, engrossing work uplifted by rigorous translation, Out Stealing Horses deserves every accolade coming its way.


This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Update: Read Frank Wilson's review from Sunday's Inquirer here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Booker longlist

The indefatigable Eric Forbes selects his favourites for the Booker longlist, to be announced on August 7.