The last two evenings have been magnificent. It starts around 5, 5.30, when the cloud cover intensifies and ‘magic light’ kicks in. And then, whoosh — a windstorm of epic proportions, followed shortly thereafter by one heck of a downpour.
Brilliant if you are out for a jog [Monday evening], even better when ensconced in the study with a view like the one above, wine close to hand and books/to-read printouts piled beside you.
The Lost Symbol: read, and promptly forgotten. The exercise merely confirmed all the problems I have with the author: he telegraphs his punches so much, you know the identity of the villain within a few pages of the author introducing him to you in all his tattooed splendor; his use of italics, ellipses and other devices is merely indicative of an author who needs all the artificial aids he can get to ratchet the excitement quotient up; the story-telling is formulaic to an extreme degree; syntax suffers under his repeated assaults…
The Daily Beast decodes Dan Brown critics. I agree with author and television personality John Humphrys, who at the height of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon dismissed the book as “the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can’t even stay within the lines”. On the other hand, John Grisham’s faint praise seems even more damning, somehow. The money quote is right upfront:
“I know that what I do is not literature,” says Grisham, who has sold more than 250 million copies of his legal thrillers such as The Pelican Brief and The Firm.
The Trial of the Century: In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik in an extended essay on Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. A taste:
The Dreyfus affair matters not because of the parallel with our time but because it was one of the first tests of modern pluralist liberalism and its institutions—a test that those institutions somehow managed to pass and fail at the same time. In France a century ago, the system finally worked, as they used to say after Watergate. The good guys rallied around, the courts did their job, Dreyfus was vindicated and came home to his family. Yet what the system exposed as it worked was, in a way, worse than the injustice it remedied. It showed that a huge number of Europeans, in a time largely smiling and prosperous, liked engaging in raw, animal religious hatred, and only felt fully alive when they did. Hatred and bigotry were not a vestige of the superstitious past but a living fire—just what comes, and burns, naturally.
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India: In an essay for FT.com, William Dalrymple on one of the oddest book-promotional tours of our time:
At the end of this week I will be setting off on a bus full of ganja-smoking tantric madmen from rural Bengal. Also on board will be a Keralan dancer and part-time prison warder who is widely believed to be the human incarnation of the god Vishnu; five fakir monks from the badlands of Pakistan who sing in a sort of castrati falsetto; a smoky-voiced Tamil diva who has helped to keep alive an ancient but dying sacred song tradition from the temples of southern India; and an anthropologist of Sufi mysticism who does amazing Jimi Hendrix-ish things with his guitar. It’s going to be an interesting few months: Spinal Tap on a potentially fatal collision course with the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage.
In passing, Dalrymple mentions a Salman Rushdie letter to the Guardian: here it is; I had at the time saved it as an exemplar of the petty issues big-name authors appear to get preoccupied with. And while on the literary festivals that Dalrymple talks about, here’s an archival piece from Granta, by Anita Sethi.
In Outlook, a brief interview with author Ruchir Joshi on his recently launched collection of erotic stories. While on this book, Nilanjana has a mini-review on her blog; the bonus is this extensive, very readable excerpt from Joshi’s introduction to the book. A clip:
One senior Indian writer, who writes brilliant erotics, disdained to even answer my email. Three others did variations of spluttering into their beer, ‘Me write porn for you!?! No fucking way!’ and promptly crossed their legs, all three. One star of the firmament smiled very sweetly and said, ‘If I find the time, I’ll certainly think about it.’ If I had such a thing as a Wall of Rejections, and if there had been a way to collect that smile, it would certainly have had pride of place. Another writer couched his refusal in the form of a tough question: if it wasn’t to be porn, surely a passage about sex and desire had to be an organic part of a larger narrative about something else? In setting out this model wasn’t I, in fact, inviting sex writing for the sake of sex writing, i.e. that highly undesirable substance called ‘bad sex writing’?
While the putting together of this book, I’ve kept that question firmly in mind because it is a very good question.
When I got the tough question, I had several arguments crowding my head:
What’s wrong with a piece of writing that’s written primarily or solely to excite sexual desire? Surely, as in the eating of puddings and the making of love, the proof lies in the actual experience of the act rather than any a priori idea or theory? Surely, if the writing was good enough, it could transcend grosser examples of whichever genre? Some of our greatest miniature paintings are the porn comic-strips of their day; Anais Nin wrote The Delta of Venus to pay the rent, at the rate of so many francs per page, and it’s a fulcrum
work of twentieth-century literature; one of the best film directors working today, Pedro Almodovar, cut his teeth in the Spanish porn film industry and imported many of the industry’s tropes into his mainstream films; and so on and so forth.
And to round off this post on reading in the room with a view — I finally got down to starting Valerio Manfredi’s [wiki] series of three novels on the life and times of Alexander of Macedon. I’m some 200 pages into the first, Alexander: Child of a Dream, and from its opening passages that involve a mysterious wind, and real or imagined coitus with a giant snake, its an enchanting, evocative time machine ride into a storied past. A couple of comments, and several emails, in response to an earlier post on historical fiction had asked for additional recommendations. So here you go — Manfredi is a superb read.