Monday, November 26, 2007

Scandal at school

In The Headmaster’s Dilemma, a student accused of homosexual rape, while defending himself, tells the headmaster: “I was aroused, yes. What man wouldn’t be? I’m only human. I fucked the hell out of the kid. And did he love it!” This statement marks a departure in an otherwise cleanly written novel of manners, populated by the upper class specimens of America....Read more

Monday, November 19, 2007

Review—The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker street sleuth who, along with his sidekick Dr Watson, solved many an intractable mystery. Little is known about other facets of his personality, notably his late-life interest in the occult. Now, Andrew Lycett (pictured below), well regarded for an illuminating biography of Dylan Thomas, expertly resurrects a life that is fascinating for the many contradictions it juggled.

Arthur didn't always harbor writerly ambitions. Born into a modest Irish family in Edinburgh in 1859, Arthur's uncle and grandfather were celebrated caricaturists. Arthur's father Charles, however, was a self-doubting man, prone to frequent bouts of drunkenness. While Charles was an uninspiring figure, his wife, Mary, ran the affairs at home capably. It was her dogged approach to ensuring a better life for her son that brought about a radical departure in Arthur's education vis-à-vis his less-than-salutary home environment. He attended a leading Roman Catholic boarding school, the tony Stonyhurst, before studying medicine at Edinburgh University. Lycett draws a frank portrait of Arthur's childhood, relating incidents of his father's drunkenness and Arthur's lonely jottings in school. Given the kind of personality he inhabited as a boy, it is little wonder that Arthur devoted himself to a life of contemplation when he came into his own.

He trained to be a physician and practiced for a while in Southsea. But his practice, whatever little it was, never brought him professional satisfaction. So, even as he awaited patients, his mind began to shape up the image of a detective who would be well-versed in the tricks of the medical trade. Little wonder then that Holmes is one of the few sleuths in literature who is equally at home with venoms and chemicals as he is with guns and revolvers. Arthur, even as he still continued his practice, began submitting his stories to journals. Soon his work was being published, so much so that after a while, it became financially feasible for him to contemplate a life devoid of medicine. By the late 1880s, Arthur had established his name as a respectable wordsmith, and thus, Sherlock Holmes was born. While Arthur modeled the sleuth on himself, there were notable aspects in Holmes' personality that differed from his own. Psychologically, a creation famous for his restrained, self-assured masculinity must have provided succor to a man with a deeply troubled childhood.

Arthur's unfortunate marital situation is tackled with grace by Lycett. Married to the sister of a patient, Arthur never experienced bliss with Louise Hawkins. In 1893, Louise contracted tuberculosis and was mostly bed-ridden for the remainder of her life. Other accounts of this marriage have tended to be sympathetic with Arthur, especially in his treatment of his wife. Lycett, however, is unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even as he narrates Arthur's growing closeness with Jean Leckie, an attractive young woman he met in 1897, Lycett is loath to indicate, like others have done, that Arthur was committed to his wife during her protracted illness. This is made all the more apparent in the quick marriage between him and Jean that ensued shortly after Louise's death. The affair must have been especially troublesome for a man who liked to think of himself as an upright British gentleman. Perhaps it was a need to reclaim his honor that forced Arthur to champion various causes with a missionary zeal in the aftermath of Louise's death. Prominent among them was the George Edalji case, the story of the injustice perpetrated on a half-Indian solicitor and fictionalized in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George.

Then the First World War intervened. It resulted in grave personal losses for Arthur—the death of his beloved son, Kingsley, and brother, Innes, both of who had bravely participated in the war deeply shook him. To tide over the crisis, Arthur took to spiritualism, a belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted via mediums. The paradox of a rationalist writer giving in to a belief in séances and table-rapping was, in no small measure, detrimental to Arthur's literary reputation, but like in other things, Arthur was resolute in his beliefs. Indeed, he advocated a scientific basis for the possibility of communing with the dead. Andrew Lycett's book is a fascinating study of a man who brought every bit of his vast humanity to bear upon his exploration of life and matters thereafter.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Elling review

Elling is Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen's (pictured below) bestselling novel, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2001. It' the heartwarming story of two mentally disturbed people, Elling and Kjell Bjarne, who have been released from their rehabilitation center and given a flat in Oslo to attempt a life of normalcy. Elling and Bjarne are as different as chalk and cheese. If one is sensitive to the point of abnormality, the other is loud and stocky. The novel is narrated by Elling, the anxious one, who has never quite gotten past his mother's death, with whom he shared a nearly Oedipal connection.

He and Bjarne are admitted to the same rehabilitation center--the Broynes--and come to occupy the same room. Elling regales Bjarne, who has a preternatural tendency for vocal sex, with tales of sexual prowess. When in truth, he can hardly find it within himself to even approach a woman. When the reality comes to the fore, instead of self-righteous posturing, Bjarne, in his inimitable style, asks Elling not to discontinue his randy tales. It is these anticlimactic revelations that bind this tale and supply it its emotional center. A trip to a restaurant becomes a life-affirming exercise in self-rejuvenation. There is also tender comedy lurking behind the scenes, as in Elling's urinary distress when closeted with a stranger. Frank from the Oslo City Council is supposed to watch over them, and the novel finds many instances to contrast his studied fastidiousness with the simpletons' love of life.

And indeed, who else should enter their lives but a damsel in distress? Reidun Nordsletten (Elling has an irritating, though funny propensity to address everyone every time by their full names) is pregnant and stays in the same building as Elling and Bjarne. What starts as a rescue operation turns into an unlikely friendship for Elling and a fulfilling relationship for Bjarne. Ambjorsen is adept at amalgamating the funny and the sublime. Elling, who fancies himself a "faceless, underground artist," offers us interesting and unabashedly personal insights into topics as diverse as Edward Munch and the poetry of a gravid tummy.

More than anything else, Elling offers us a fascinating peek into the minds of the mentally unstable. Are they abnormal people looking into a normal world, or is it the other way around? Who defines normal anyway? Is a man who loses his mind after his mother's death abnormal, or merely a paragon of excessive love? We'd never know.

Were you one of those who fell helplessly in love with the admirable Forrest Gump? Well, Elling is similar territory and if you like your tales simple and touching, pick this one up.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


One crafty move after another

Zugzwang, Ronan Bennett informs us in the beginning, is a German term that in chess, is used to describe a position in which a player "is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse." Something similar can be said of the state Otto Spethmann finds himself in. A psychoanalyst, Spethmann is asked to treat Rozental, a gifted chess player who is to compete in the international tournament to be held in St. Petersburg in 1914, one which really did take place.

Bennett has bravely ventured into historical themes in his earlier fiction. The Catastrophist was set in the Belgian Congo and concerned itself with anti-Communist conspiracy. Havoc, in its Third Year, a grim tale on Catholic insurgency, was set in Yorkshire in the 1630s. It is in Bennett's nature to lend a contemporaneous spin on bygone events. So, in Zugzwang, the fight between Communist terrorists and the Tsar's intrigue-ridden police force is painted in strokes not dissimilar to the current discourse on the War Against Terror.

The novel begins with the murder of O. V. Gulko, a respected newspaper editor. But we learn soon enough that the body of another man, who goes by the moniker of Yastrebov, has also been discovered. Are the two murders connected, and what relation do they have with Spethmann, who is accosted by an eccentric police officer? It turns out that the women in Spethmann's life have a lot to account for. There is his daughter Catherine, a motherless child who harbors an elaborate trove of secrets of her own. And there is the enigmatic Anna, the estranged daughter of a local baron, who wields an inexorable pull on the unsuspecting Spethmann.

Oddly enough, Bennett uses well-worn tropes of the thriller genre—deceit, spy rings, propaganda—but his atmospheric evocation of pre-Revolution Russia, and the clever melding of chess moves with political subterfuge lend genuineness to his treatment. Zugzwang was serialized weekly in London's Observer in 2006, and one can see why. The book is composed of bite-sized nuggets, riveting in their own right, even as they merge into a satisfying whole.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Review—Hold Everything Dear

John Berger, the writer of such acclaimed works as "G." (which won the 1972 Booker) and "Ways of Seeing", an insightful collection of art criticism which was adapted into a BBC series, has been voicing his protest against the prevalent global order for some time now. He donated part of the Booker money for "G." to the Black Panther Party in Britain, and converted the ceremony into a cry against the capitalist excesses of its sponsors.

He now returns to familiar territory with a collection of essays that he penned while roaming occupied territories, from Palestine to Iraq. While Berger is always forthright, he does tend to suffer from a bias for the so-called victim, which he proudly displays in an unabashed love for Marxism. His writing is filled with the voice of death. When he travels Ramallah, he moans the breakdown of a city since the Nakbah of 1948 when "ten thousand Palestinians were killed and 700,000 were forced to leave their country." He speaks about the "stance of undefeated despair," which compels young Palestinians to "sacrifice themselves in suicidal counter-attacks." There is a willful ignorance of the other side of the story, which drapes Berger's linguistic flourishes with a plastered sense of reality.

Berger falls for the convenient myth about terrorism: that it breeds in the despair wrought by the excesses of the Superpower. So, links between disparate events are sought out and parlayed when none exist. "Bin Laden was certainly planing his attacks against the West before the Iraqi war, but that war and what was and is happening there, is supplying Al-Qaeda with a steady flow of new recruits," says Berger, in a reference to the attacks on the London and Madrid train networks.

This argument is fallacious. Must the civilized world keep seeking justifications for acts of terror in past and present historical wrongs? Do Berger and his ilk really believe that Al-Qaeda's nefarious designs would be tossed aside if the US mended its ways, as it were? Terror is now an international industry, working with the latest inventions and methods of the globalized world, and too sophisticated an enterprise to be obliged to history and politics. Thankfully, Europe has begun to see that traditional criminal processes of trial and punishment will not suffice in dealing with terror.

Berger's knowledge of poetry and art is exemplary, and he weaves a passionate dialogue for reclaiming the power of language, but perhaps he should stick to fiction and not indulge in rhetoric. For that is what "Hold Everything Dear" ends up being.

Review—The Gathering

Irish literature is reinventing itself in the 21st century, with robust writers like Colm Toibin and John Banville achieving both critical and commercial success. Curiously, these writers, along with Anne Enright, also share the way they treat their narratives. Be it the solitary protagonists of Banville’s The Sea and The Untouchable, or the haunting wretchedness of Toibin’s The Master, there is silent grimness to their tales, which gives off the odor of death. Enright tackles this issue head on, in The Gathering. Veronica Hegarty is passing through the aftermath of her beloved brother Liam’s death by suicide. Liam, a struggling alcoholic, walked into sea at Brighton with rocks in his pockets (strangely reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s death). But that is not the point of the story, neither is it the “gathering” of the large Hegarty family for the funeral, though they are important events in the timeline.

Rather, it is the personal, the intimate, the shattering revelations of love and betrayal that form the backdrop here. The book encapsulates very little by way of plot, yet the sights and sounds within Veronica’s mind create a smorgasbord of emotions, whose template is brilliantly woven by Enright. Liam, the enigmatic: merciless in love, magnanimous in doling largesse. Indeed, he comes across as a stock left-liberal, gone to waste against an incompatible world. It’s interesting how Enright looks through the glass into many of our times’ preoccupations: materialism, denunciation, the battle of good and evil, and offers a uniquely inverted view on each. Like where Veronica sounds out her dissatisfaction with the hint of pride that Liam showed in his encompassing of the poor and the lonely: “I know I sound bitter, and Christ I wish I wasn’t such a hard bitch sometimes, but my brother blamed me for twenty years or more. He blamed me for my nice house, with the nice white paint on the walls, and the nice daughters in their bedrooms of nice lilac and nicer pink.”

And yet, there is the contradiction in defending her prim life versus her own exasperation with the mawkishness that wraps her at home. Her husband is fine, but he is just another person in the long litany of her acquaintances. So are her daughters. There is nothing special about their presence in her life, as there has been nothing special about her elongated string of siblings and her mother and her dead father. But with Liam, it was different. A sort of violence existed between them, Liam and Veronica, a sort of love. Something that she cannot hope to replicate in her marital situation. For Liam was generous, he was great, but above all, he was broken. He was so attractively broken. Why did he fall over the abyss and not she? And why, in spite of the presence of every known comfort, does his absence keep hurting?

Veronica darts back and forth between memories and recollections and nobody wins out at the end. In Enright’s world, lives are too mixed up in the equations of love to be vindicated, even in death. There is a raucousness to the writing. It gives one the impression that Enright may have recorded her voice before transcribing it on paper. This is brought especially to light in descriptions of sex, which invariably include references to animal flesh. In Enright’s hands, sex is not something to celebrate, but a demeaning act that leaves vague impressions on the soul: “...I felt like meat that had been recently butchered, even as he felt terribly moved. If that is what he felt. He was very gasping and juddery, at any rate, like his nerves were all alight...So I lie there, side by side with him, and I contemplate the spreading bruise of my private parts.”

There is also a convoluted though strangely satisfying coda about the grandmother, Ada, who makes recurring appearances right from the start. She is to blame for something, the reader gathers, but what exactly? Then, short of the finish, Enright brings it on, in another nuanced reflection of culpability and the truths and semi-truths our lives are encumbered by. The Gathering is a well-deserved addition to Anne Enright’s redoubtable oeuvre, and indeed, to the Irish canon.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Height of duplicity

Sis and I watched Heights last night. It's the story of Isabel, Jonathan and Alec. Isabel, a wedding photographer, and Jonathan, an attorney, are to get married in a few weeks. Unknown to her, Jonathan is having an affair with Alec, an actor, who lives on the fifth floor of the same apartment building. The movie follows a day in the lives of the three and ends with Isabel discovering the truth about her fiancé.

Elizabeth Banks as Isabel gives a mellow performance. Vulnerable and credulous, she is mildly disparaging of the open relationship that her mother -- played by an exquisite Glen Close -- and father share. She believes her love with Jonathan to be life-affirming, and is willing to sacrifice great job prospects and the promise of a torrid affair with an ex for the sake of her upcoming wedding.

Jonathan is, of course, a closeted gay guy, who had a brief passionate fling with a world-renowned photographer Benjamin Stone. Stone has a reputation of sleeping with his muses, and when his current lover, a journalist, sets out to meet all his exes for a Vanity Fair cover on Benjamin, the skeletons in Jonathan's closet threaten to tumble out.

James Marsden, as the despicable, double-faced Jonathan, is quite good, though perhaps, the director could have done more with a sinister-looking man, which Marsden is not. Even so, it is impossible to feel sympathy for a man who has the nerve of ruining so many lives because "I was ashamed." Likewise for Alec, played by Jesse Bradford. Is it really so difficult still to live the life of an openly gay man in America, that too Manhattan? I don't think so. But what do I know?

So, here is to all closeted gay men who imagine they can convert themselves by sleeping with women. Just grow up already! Accept that you like man-on-man action, and stop living a lie.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Shashi Deshpande...

...on the gendered reader:

To say that all women’s writing is sentimental, emotional, light-weight and about small issues is to imply that all male writing is large in scope, intellectual, tough and about important issues. Absurd, perhaps, but negative ideas about women’s writing are so pervasive, that women have looked for ways out: using a male pseudonym (popular once), not disclosing first names (A.S. Byatt, P.D. James), keeping their gender strictly out of their writing, sticking to male protagonists and so on. At times women may even have felt the need to ask themselves: if men are so averse to reading us, is there something wrong with our writing?