Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Posts Tagged ‘nobel laureate’

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 3, 2009

Cover of Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee

Click to look inside

The primary joy of reading J. M. Coetzee is his appeal to the subvocaliser within me. To subvocalise is to read by saying it aloud in your head, and I invariably do it in voices. One joy of Coetzee is how effectively he varies his narrator’s voice. The other, principal, joy is the use of a voice which is used by a lot of younger writers, but which I feel only he has mastered completely; I mean a slow voice, where the speaker is dragging out his words without actually drawling, not because of the accent but because of the meticulous way he thinks. This voice has a sort of coldness coupled with clinicality. I’m in no way saying he originated it; I can find an example from around the time he was born: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot. A lot of Eliot’s poetry has this voice, but this one is my favourite. When I first read his Waiting for the Barbarians in June ’08, this voice touched a deep, deep chord with me. I widely tout this book as the book which catapulted me into the world of serious literature. True, I had been heading there for a while, but this was the last straw.

One of the ideas behind Coetzee’s 2007 book Diary of a Bad Year is an examination of this voice when the writer’s powers are declining. It has, as a story, the writer Juan C. who wants to write a contribution to a German book called Strong Opinions. He sees a young, ethereal beauty Anya and asks her to be his typist; his motor control is going, and all he can do is scribble and speak into a dictaphone. She’s living with an older man called Alan, who acts as a foil to JC.

JC, like Coetzee, was born and brought up in South Africa and has just recently moved into Australia. He, in fact, has also written a book called Waiting for the Barbarians. So, the question arises: is JC in fact JMC? I don’t think so, principally because Coetzee’s powers are not failing. That, however, is nothing more than a brilliant dodge; it ignores the real question of whether the opinions are Coetzee’s. Again, I think no, and it’s due to the last essay in the book, coupled with the fact that Coetzee is a significantly more intelligent essayist than JC.

Each page of the book is divided into three parts. The top is JC’s contribution to the book, the middle is JC’s narration of his relationship with Anya, and the bottom (which first appears only at page twenty-five) is Anya’s narration of her relationships with JC and Alan, not to mention Alan’s relationship with JC. This results in us reading first a bit of an essay, then a bit of JC’s narration, then a bit of Anya’s, then some more of that essay, and so on. Coetzee, of course, often takes the opportunity to break a bit in the page mid-sentence. This structure plays with us in mysterious, as well as not so mysterious, ways, but to mention a couple of them, I will have to describe the characters for a bit.

JC is an old novelist who used to think of himself as a novelist who taught to fill his pockets, but is now thought of as “a pedant who dabbled in writing novels”. Through the course of the book, it becomes clearer and clearer that this one’s more of a poet than an essayist. His first few essays – which are so short that they rarely, if ever, have proper conclusions – make plausible points, but don’t argue them out too well. He just states them as fact. Of course, this is a problem later when he’s just plain wrong. When his essays really shine is when they speak of literature. And then there are times when he completely takes of the mask of the essay:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.
One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care what ballet audiences think of them.

And there are times when his poetry comes through in his essays, despite his efforts to suppress them, like the title, which actually makes some sort of sense in context. But, down below, in his diary, we see the cracks showing in his writing. At one point,

Are you new? I said, meaning was she knew to Sydenham Towers, though other meanings were possible too, Are you new on this earth? for example.

The real Coetzee often takes a question and does this sort of thing to it, but nitpicking of this scale is nothing more than a parody, or – since JC’s powers are failing – a tragedy. The first time I read this sentence, in November last year (this is the second time I’m reading this book), I thought JC was surely an overgrown kid. Later, the idea that he’s just a poet becomes stronger, when in the ‘Second Diary’ (Coetzee’s book is divided into ‘Strong Opinions’, 12 September 2005 to 31 May 2006 and ‘Second Diary’, undated), after he’s done with his strong opinions, he starts writing what Anya calls his ‘soft opinions’, where we see a sharp increase in plain quality, not to mention his near-absence in the middle bit which is now filled with things Anya are saying to him or just plain nothing; I think the idea here is that as long as he was writing his pure essays, we need his real voice, but later we don’t, because its already there above.

Anya is a beautiful Filipina, whose first appearance elicits this response in JC’s diary (note the substandard writing):

Startling because the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the red shift she wore was so startling in its brevity.

Surprisingly, she’s actually pretty intelligent, though not concerned enough to be an ‘intellectual’. I’m surprised because if you’re writing about the relationship between an intellectual and a commoner, it’s rather common to make the commoner a stubborn, though streetwise, ox. Notice, for example, the insight and sensitivity to the sound of words in her description of her relationship with JC:

At first I was supposed to be his segretaria, his secret aria, his scary fairy, in fact not even that, just his typist, his tipitista, his clackadackia.

Later, we will see bits from her that sound like they’ve come from JC (this last quote, unlike the ones I’m referring to, is rather female in its composition). She is, all in all, a rather well-rounded character. So well-rounded, in fact, that I think it’s a plausible interpretation that the book is about her.

Alan, as I’ve already said, is a foil to JC, and, like the best foils, is actually very similar in a fundamental way to him; JC is a socialistic anarchistic dreamer whereas he is a yuppie realist, but each is about as stubborn as the other. Anya is stuck in between these two. Both these characters are equally caricatured, and Anya is the well-rounded middle ground.

I realise I promised a mention of a couple of tricks the structure plays with us, but it turns out I ended up mentioning them above, like the last couple of sentences in my description of JC. Well, let me tell you that in the Second Diary, when I said that the middle part is taken up by Anya talking to JC, there’s a memorable sequence where the page is actually JC’s essay | Anya | Alan. On the whole, however, this structure has an effect of rushing the proceedings along. We read faster because we have two threads hanging at any one point in time.

I personally think Diary of a Bad Year is Coetzee’s most interesting book of the ones that I’ve read (in the order of my reading, Waiting for the Barbarians, Dusklands, Diary of a Bad Year, Life & Times of Michael K, Disgrace, In the Heart of the Country), but not his best. Well, just not his most effective; there’s always the question of how effective Coetzee wants it to be. After all, in keeping with the fact that the essays have barely any conclusion, JC doesn’t sign off so much as is cut-off. Anya does sign off. Anya has the time to finish with the book, but old JC doesn’t: it’s like life. And, after all, how effective is life as a book?

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“The clamour of voices filled the air, each one impossible to distinguish, like the waves on a raging ocean, leaving no trace except an awesome, all-encompassing uproar.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 29, 2009

The cover

It's not as ugly as this; the colours are actually pretty toned down due to the texture of the cover, giving it a very nice look

When I read this sentence both times I started Rhadopis of Nubia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank), it sounded exactly like an excited crowd. I don’t suppose you felt any such thing while reading it, apart from maybe thinking that it was a pretty poetic line. Mahfouz’s writing, like Wodehouse’s, consistently shows this quality where the value of each sentence is strongly enhanced by the passage it is in. Just like Wodehouse’s writing is consistently fresh so that you are going to start laughing at some random word-gag, Mahfouz’s writing is consistently beautiful in a way that you are likely to feel something completely during some random burst of beauty. For me, it was the above sentence. For another reader, it would be something else.

Another thing that surprised me about the writing of this book was my discovery of the best sort of superfluousness there is. Time after time came a metaphor that was new when it was introduced, but so completely natural that I knew what he was going to say next. Unfortunately, I can’t find any examples of this now, and so can’t quote any of these (brilliant) bits.

The book is the story of how the love between a courtesan Rhadopis renown in all of Egypt as the most beautiful woman ever and the Pharaoh Merenra II causes their eventual downfall. It is, in almost every way, a Greek tragedy, where the character has a major flaw, and that flaw eventually causes his/her death. In this case, the flaw is Pharaoh’s: his pride.

I can say that despite the fact that it has a varied cast of major characters – the king’s counsellors a priest Sofkhatep and a commander Tahu, his wife Nitocris, and Rhadopis and Pharaoh – who’s characterisations are all solid, with me only confusing the source of a dialogue once, that once being my own mistake. It is a formidable achievement of the book that I was able to write down these (for me) alien names without thinking about their spellings.

The story is that Pharaoh takes away most of the lands of the priesthood, an unpopular move, to increase the splendour of Egypt, then falls in love with Rhadopis and starts showering his wealth on her, making everyone think that the latter is the cause for the former. The exact details of the downfall I won’t reveal here, except to note that for a Greek tragedy, it is remarkably surprising. Another remarkable thing is that we are given no way of knowing whether most of the insults flung by people at each other are true or not. Further to its credit, we are given indications.

And now, the most interesting thing: the eponymous Rhadopis (who I’m pretty sure is mentioned to have come from some place other than Nubia). She, as I’ve already said, is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of how being that affects a person, and for good reason: beauty is subjective, rendering this question meaningless. You could think of one of the most beautiful women, which is a meaningful question, but it is not the same as one person obviously towering over all the others. In the beginning, Rhadopis has a frozen inside. She has given up the thought of loving, instead drowning in meaningless sex and (other) intellectual pursuits, regularly holding court – and bed – with the top political, philosophical and artistic minds of the region (Mahfouz uses one of them , the philosopher, to take a jab at Keats: “Do not be surprised, for beauty is just as convincing as the truth.”). That is why her meeting with Pharaoh is such an important event: she completely melts, not knowing how to deal with this newfound nervousness. Needless to say, hers is the most interesting character arc in the book.

Somehow, halfway through the book, I was convinced that in some complicated way Rhadopis was a symbol for Egypt itself. Not so much a good, respectable feeling as a guess. This was the only problem I had with the book: the fact that I was out of context had an effect on how I looked at the book. Though I am sure that the book had a significance in 1930s Egypt when it was written, I found that, in the end, it has no significance at all for me. In the end, for me, it was just a beautifully written book, nothing more.

PS: the form of the title was copied from Pechorin’s Journal, written by Max Cairnduff.
Rhadopis of Nubia

(written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank),

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Mahfouz, Naguib | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Outsider by Albert Camus

Posted by Ronak M Soni on September 27, 2009

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know”, starts Albert Camus’s The Outsider, as translated by Joseph Laredo. You know that. It’s one of the most famous first lines in books. When I first read it, I thought it was supposed to show the apathy of the narrator, Meursault. However, the next few lines make it clear that it is merely a lack of information; he has got a telegram telling him only that his mother’s funeral is the next day. The next hundred or so pages make it clear that Camus put that line in to show that Meursault does not bother himself with such trifling details and probably didn’t realize that it could be explained in as simple a way as lack of information. Or, maybe he did, and didn’t care. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what’s wrong with this novel.

Meursault has no idea of his mother’s age, but he can tell you most of the advice his mother gave him as a child. This is what makes him an outsider. He has ‘nothing more to say to mother’- presumably having learnt everything she has to teach him -, so he sends her to an old age home; an act frowned upon by his neighbours. At the old age home she spends a presumably happy three years, having struck up a relationship with a man the inmates – that is how they are referred to in the book – call her fiancé. He goes to her funeral, and isn’t particularly sad. He comes back home and realises that “after all, nothing had changed.”

The next day, he strikes up a relationship of his own with a woman whom he knows from long before. We also meet two of his next-door neighbours – these aren’t the ones who frowned upon his sending his mother away – the shady Raymond and the old Salamano with his dog. Salamano loses his dog, Raymond has all sorts of trouble. . . Meursault just keeps on helping simply because he is a genial chap and sees no reason not to. He goes with Raymond to a beach where there’s a face-off at a spring between a pair of Arabs and Meursault, Raymond and their host. Meursault and Raymond go back and there’s the palpable lack of a (physical) face-off in which Meursault ends up with a gun. When they are about to go back to the host’s chateau, Meursault figures that the effort it’s going to take to climb up the stairs in the glaring sun is not any more than going back to the spring, or something like that. In other words, he’s probably got a minor stroke.

So, Part I of the book ends with him killing one of the Arabs, after he, pretty clearly, sees the other draw his knife, firing one shot and then four more, “like giving four sharp knocks at the door of unhappiness.” This whole part, he seems to have written each chapter just before going to bed that day (in the case of the first chapter, the next day, because he doesn’t actually go to bed the first day of the narrative), which gives us an idea of his state of mind after having done it.

The second part is his life in prison and his trial. As far as I can tell, this part is narrated from after the trial, just before the execution (spoiler alert?).

He starts off saying that he used to not like to talk about it, but he doesn’t see the point anymore. First, he finds it hard because he keeps on thinking like a free man. Soon, however, he comes to the conclusion that

even if I’d been made to live in a hollow tree trunk, with nothing to do but look at the sky overhead, I’d gradually have got used to it. I’d have looked forward to seeing birds fly past or clouds run together just as here I looked forward to my lawyer’s curious ties and just as, in another world, I used to wait for Sundays to embrace Marie’s body.

The Dalai Lama has said, years after this was written, that no matter what happens to you, in the end you return to an average level of happiness. Meursault is someone he might refer to as the truly happy man.

Then, there’s an extended courtroom set of scenes, which is the whole problem with the novel. He’s being persecuted for not crying at his mother’s funeral as much as for the murder: he is a criminal who felt no sadness at his mother’s death and no regret for his crime. Around thirty years before this novel is set, Freud’s ideas had come into acceptance; bottled-up emotion, among many others. For the whole part, I was wondering how out of league with the times Camus was, or whether he didn’t care enough to make a better, more plausible, case – in a set of scenes which take up nearly a fifth of the book. The second problem is that of the Arab’s knife; in the killing scene Meursault clearly recorded ‘the knife in front of me’, but it never appears again in the book. If he had just told them about the knife, it would have been a case of self-defence, but Camus obviously doesn’t want that. So why was the knife there in the first place? To justify, in the moment, the killing to the reader.

After this seriously idiotic bit comes the good chapter, where we get under the skin of Meursault. I refuse to spoil this part, except to say that Meursault is shown to be good in every way Ayn Rand’s characters are, but without any of the irritatingly extreme hate for the rest of the human race. Just this chapter would make a great short story, and without all the ‘philosophy’ which is supposed to be there in the book.

Camus’s reputation is the thing that baffled me most about the book. The Outsider was nothing like Nausea – the other ‘existentialist’ book that I’ve read -, except that in the courtroom scene, Meursault imagines the room to be a train and Nausea’s hero has his seminal ‘realisation’ in a train. It compares more closely to Ayn Rand, and only in terms of characters. Point 2: this didn’t seem a statement of philosophy like Ayn Rand’s books or Nausea are. It seems to be mainly a critique of society.

A critique of a society that persecutes, for having come to terms with the ideas of life and mortality, one of the best of men. A man who understands that it is okay to die if you die at the right time, a man who understands that it doesn’t matter who you marry as long as you like her enough, a man who is virtually guaranteed to never divorce after marrying on that principle because he’s so amiable in the face of trouble, a man who is so at peace with his own death, and lust for life, that he doesn’t need religion to provide him with it, a man who – for both himself and his voice – is the only reason I like this book.

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