Eye Browse

1. Reading now, two books. Stein on Writing [A brief sampling on Amazon] during the morning commute, and The Sands

Looking under the hood

Looking under the hood

of Ammon, the second volume of Valerio Manfredi’s Alexander trilogy [earlier post here; and on historical fiction generally, here].

Great reads, both of them. I would have thought the former was of more interest to those in the

Alex in Persia

Alex in Persia

business of words, but my other half was browsing through it the other day, and her take is that Sol Stein [wiki], by highlighting examples of good and bad writing and by illustrating how bad writing could be improved, had helped her understand her own frustration when, as a reader, she comes across some specimen of bad writing. “I know instinctively it’s bad,” she told me, “but don’t know why. Reading Stein is like having a trained mechanic show you what’s under the hood.”

As for Alexander-II, early days, early chapters yet, but it promises to be even more outstanding than the first book. A recent post by Jai Arjun Singh articulated the perennial fascination of historical fiction:

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character – in conjunction with those of the others around him – came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.

It is at this level — as a story of real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas and prejudices of their own — that Manfredi is brilliant: the historical facts of Alexander’s odyssey forms the backdrop to a vivid fly on the wall narrative of the workings of the Greek king’s mind, his relationships with his tutor Aristotle and the ‘band of brothers’, including best friend and lover Hephaestion, who were his mates in Aristotle’s ‘school’ in Meiza and who grow up into his most loyal generals and ‘Companions’ and most particularly the strategic and tactical thinking that underpin his saga of conquest.

2. An earlier post had looked at the upcoming publication of Vladimir Nabakov’s last work. Following on, a Wall Street Journal article on that book and a spate of similar posthumous publications, and the often ticklish debates that surround them.

Some of the posthumous releases claim to offer truer versions of the authors’ original intent. This month, Vintage published a new edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”—158 years after her death—that for the first time presents the original text without the editing of her husband, Percy Shelley. This version aims to resolve a long festering debate over whether Mary Shelley or her husband actually wrote the book. Publicity materials for what Vintage has titled “The Original Frankenstein” claim that Percy Shelley wrote just 5,000 words out of 72,000. The more familiar, edited version will appear alongside the original.

Editors who exhume the work of iconic authors can face charges that their tinkering fundamentally alters literary artifacts.

3. The Maharashtra assembly election is turning into Animal Farm. If the choice is between a frog and a rat, why should anyone bother to turn out to vote? Also read, on related lines, Amit Varma on Uddhav Thackeray.

4. From Vanity Fair, this eminently readable — and typically long — inside story of the collapse of AIG.

5. Pakistan is pissed off with the Americans fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamabad thinks this is a better way to deal with them? In passing, the trial of the Mumbai 26/11 accused has been postponed. Again.

6. Responses to my earlier post on the “right” and “wrong” light in which to show historical figures apparently struck a nerve — besides the comments below the post, a stream of friends in email recount amusing [of the laugh that you may not weep kind] instances from their own school/college days. One such, closely relating to mine, was sent in by Karun, who was kind enough to compile my Bhimsen into one complete work. From his mail:

This happened in my college where we (too) had Julius Caesar. A question in the exam was “What was the turning point of the story?” Common wisdom was that it was the funeral speech of Antony, because it turned the crowd against the conspirators. I argued, however, that it was Antony’s soliloquy in front of Caesar’s corpse. This is when we get an insight into Antony’s psyche for the first time, which is startlingly different from the audience’s impression of him till then. His speech, I argued, portends the fall of the conspirators and shows his true colours.

The professor, while not denying the merit of the argument, told me that it was graded down as it was not conventional. I told him that was precisely the point. Our relationship kind of went downhill from then on.

Typical. The ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ oration is a classic example of the demagogue’s art: pitch-perfect rabble-rousing, where the speaker sets out to prepare the wick, carefully adds the fuel, and then deliberately sets the crowd on fire. The earlier one, delivered when Mark Antony finds himself finally alone with the body of his friend, is raw, unadulterated passion: a moment of sadness for the one who is no more, followed by a fierce cry for bloody, brutal vengeance. How dense do you have to be to not get the point of Karun’s argument?

7. As we count down to the Booker and Nobel prizes, Nilanjana Roy looks at the state of English writing in India. The money quote:

The real question is not why we haven’t produced more Rushdies, but why we haven’t produced more Chetan Bhagats. The answer might lie in the fact that we’re not just a post-colonial market—we are an evolving, under-developed literary market, where the supporting infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary magazines, demanding editorial standards) is only just coming into being.

We don’t control the international literary markets; we haven’t yet evolved a robust domestic market of our own. Until one or the other of these comes to pass, our writers will continue to write for export, or for a very small, patient audience. And we’ll continue to need the ratification of the odd Booker win and the occasional nod from the Nobel.

8. Thanks to a review on my friend Chandrahas’ blog, I just added Tzvetan Todorov’s Torture and the War on Terror to my reading list. Bonus: a great collection of links to quality commentary on the subject of torture, embedded within the review.

9. The Daily Beast, a daily stop on my surfing tour, turned one today — here’s editor Tina Brown on what the year has been like.

10. In case you haven’t checked out Vanity Fair’s rhyming round up of the news of the week: Here.

11. The Atlantic’s much-awarded correspondent James Fallows, documentary filmmaker Bob Schapiro and video reporter Emily Chang have a series of web-episodes [don’t you just hate these newfangled constructions, like ‘webisodes’?] on doing business in China. Catch them here.

12. Reading now: From Foreign Policy, an essay on how America’s image in the world impacts on its foreign policy.

Random clips here.


2 thoughts on “Eye Browse

  1. Hi PP
    Talking of historical fiction, have you read William Napier’s Attila series? Its pretty good.
    And you will find “Anthology of Historical Detective Fiction” and “Anthology of Historical Whodunits” worth a try. The settings in these stories range from Pre-historic to Victorian period and most of them are very interesting reads.
    Oh , and Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold and Kushwant Singh’s Delhi are also best in the Indian context. You will probably find Cuckold even more interesting since you have read Moghuls:raiders from the North. The period and characters depicted in Cuckold are contemporaries of Babur and at some point their paths cross.

  2. One more anecdote to the ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’ dogma. It comes from my biology class in high school. We had to draw a picture of the Amoeba in our biology journals. Amoeba, for those who may not know, is an unicellular organism which constantly changes form and shape. So, due to time constraints, instead of replicating the text book diagram, I improvised and drew my own version of the Amoeba, but ensured that all the key elements were appropriately represented. I received not only a very low score for that submission, but also a public admonishment by the teacher because it wasn’t the “right” way to draw the Amoeba. All my shouting that how can the text book version of the Amoeba be the only right one, falling on deaf ears.

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