Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

I have always wondered while reading a novel, as to what goes on behind the scenes – the writer’s mind and his thoughts that provide the shape and form to the novel. How does he/she manage to produce such brilliant works time and time again, without any break or reluctance? How is the novel crafted? Is it art imitating life or vice-versa? And my answers were partially (I think) answered by Pamuk’s new non-fiction collection of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, titled, “The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist”.

The title draws from the famous essay by Friedrich Schiller, “Uber naive and sentimentalische Dichtung”, conventionally translated as “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” – even though the principal connotation of “sentimentalisch” in German is different than “sentimental” in English. Schiller posited two types of poets and, following his example, Pamuk refers to two models of novelist and reader.

What the book really consists of are Pamuk’s meditations on the art of the novel, comprising “all the most important things I know and have learned about the novel.” Pamuk sets as his main goal “to explore the effects that novels have on their readers, how novelists work, and how novels are written.” Pamuk certainly is well qualified to speak on that subject (in addition to having won the Nobel, he teaches comparative literature and writing at Columbia). Further, his perspective is rather unusual, being a self-taught novelist from a Turkish culture with a fairly weak tradition of writing and reading books.

There is no coherent theory of the novel in the book. What it does have is the authors’ perspective on writing and reading and that is what makes the book so different and unique. It does not come with a reading list either. The chapter that stayed with me after I had finished reading the book was about The Center of the Novel and how as readers we read novels to search for that center. How as readers we feel that the novel is here to present us with “that something larger meaning” which may be the other art forms don’t live up to and I agree to a large extent with that. No one can take that away from readers or the novelist.

To sum up the book, I loved reading it. Pamuk presents his case engagingly and tautly, in a pleasant mix of autobiographical titbits, reading and writing experiences, and theory. It does not convince as presenting a ‘theory of the novel’, nor does it claim or attempt to. What it does instead is make the reader see things differently and apply them while reading a novel. It talks about how a reader and writer’s thoughts can and may be one day wil merge and the true center will then emerge.

Last Thought: I could not wait to read a novel after I was done with this book. Thank you, Mr. Pamuk.

Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, The; Pamuk, Orhan; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin India; Rs.450

Rescue by Anita Shreve

A born storyteller, Shreve does a beautiful job in her description of a family in distress, a relationship crippled by a tragedy waiting in the wings. When Vermont EMT Peter Webster first sees Sheila Arsenault, she requires emergency assistance at the scene of an accident. Her blood alcohol signals trouble, but what young man in love reads the signs of impending disaster? Without much thought, Webster and Sheila embark on a love affair, for Webster a wonderful and unexpected gift, for Sheila a time out in a chaotic life. Pregnancy leads to marriage, baby Rowan the center of the couple’s lives until the attrition of time and too many sacrifices causes Sheila once again to seek solace in a bottle. A near-tragedy and the course of a Webster’s future is altered. Eighteen years later, a happy, well-adjusted daughter becomes a moody, angry teenager, Webster unable to communicate with the daughter who has become a stranger.

Shreve explores the territory of single parenthood and the loss of what might have been with her usual deft touch, capturing the difficult choices of a man desperate to protect his daughter from her mother’s excesses, his work as an EMT contrasting the dangers in a quiet Vermont town with the previous serenity of his home life. The real villain of the piece is, of course, Sheila’s alcoholism, the reason for the domestic disharmony, the marital arguments and a daughter’s resentment of her mother. Since Webster never really understands Sheila’s drinking, he has no tolerance for Rowan’s experimentation, as though good intentions could keep such a nightmare at bay. Alcoholism is the elephant in the living room, the source of all Webster’s grief and the threat to his confused daughter.

Whether writing historically or of contemporary life, Shreve has a facile touch, her prose fluid and believable as her characters face the unpredictability of choices that deliver hope and pain in equal measure. The responsible Webster, the tragic Sheila and the dangerously rebellious Rowan are vividly portrayed and culturally relevant. No monsters here, only vulnerable humans who stray from the bright promise of youth into the ragged detours that leads to forgiveness.

Rescue; Shreve, Anita; Little, Brown and Company; $26.99

Invitation by Shehryar Fazli

So I was excited upon the book’s release and I read the book (courtesy: Tranquebar Press) and yes there were times I was taken aback and then there were times I didn’t know what to do with the emotions surging within me. Why you ask? Well the book is but like this and there is no hiding from its raw and brutal intensity at times.

The plot is fairly simple: The narrator Shahbaz, a young Pakistani returns to his home city after an exile of 19 years from Paris to settle a family dispute. The setting is: 1970 Karachi. Pakistan was in turmoil as Karachi was preparing for Democracy seething and tearing at the seams with corruption, class tension and political fixation. The power balance is at its pinnacle between West Pakistan and the Bengalis of East Pakistan (which would soon convert to Bangladesh). Property dispute eventually pits Shahbaz against his paternal aunt in the eye of the storm – Mona Phuppi, who is not only strong-willed but also conniving.

Shahbaz on the other hand wants his good life back – the days of being a part of Karachi aristocracy and he will stop at nothing to get it back. That is the parallel story that runs throughout. Shahbaz enters the world of the rich and the famous through his father’s friend who runs a popular cabaret and is now a close associate of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The historical references are plenty throughout the book and I liked how the author stayed true to them (of course partly because he couldn’t distort history) and let the characters react to the events and be a part of the bigger picture than tell their own tales.

Shahbaz then goes through his own moral dilemma when he is asked to betray a friend to remain a part of the circle (he further gets acquainted with fundamentalists). Here what struck me was the way scenes were described – in an almost detached manner and maybe that’s why you can relate to it and read it from a third person perspective.

Invitation is a complex book on many levels – from creation of a democratic country to a country that is still stuck in ages gone by. One of the novel’s clear strengths is its evocation of the personalities he gets close to, from Ghulam Hussain, his Bengali chauffeur, to Mona Phuppi, his aunt, to Brigadier Alamgir, an old contact of his father’s who now runs the Agra Hotel, to Malika, a cabaret dancer from Cairo who performs nightly at the Agra. The character of Shahbaz himself is a curious mix: on the one hand, a self-questioning innocent who’s far from worldly-wise, and on the other, one who seeks out drugs and whores with equal avidity.

Invitation is a book full of colour and incidents. The prose is confident, unrestrained and deals with situations in a manner that is sleek – almost like a sleight of hand. The overall narrative of the book makes it a taut debut read – the one that I would recommend to almost everyone.

Invitation; Fazli, Shehryar; Tranquebar Press; Rs. 495

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Now I am a great fan of historical fiction but have been a bit averse to the genre because most tell the stories of kings, princesses, and prostitutes with very campy romantic plots that have been recycled and overused to the point of it being absolutely unbearable to those who are looking for a bit more variety in their historical fictions.

Well with Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars, I’ve at last found a book that I simply cannot recommend highly enough.

This novel is completely driven by enigmatic and likable characters (enough with the prostitute with the heart of gold bit!). Needless to say, nobody gets embroiled in a passionate and forbidden love affair, nor are there prostitutes to be delivered into the arms of merry monarchs after a life of misery and suffering. Instead, readers are transported to 14th century England to the time of the Black Plague as nine desperate strangers attempt to escape death as it inexorably surrounds them. We follow this group of strangers across their travels throughout countrysides and villages as the readers truly get a sense of the time and period as lived by people gripped by the plague (Ain’t that refreshing? A historical period not described through the eyes of a princess or prostitute but just ordinary, simple folk). Truly, what made this book a true gem are the characters. We have nine strangers with distinct and believable personas (yes there is a young girl who can seemingly predict the future but this trait only adds to the unexpected ‘creepy’ factor in this novel as she is not your average ‘helpless, young, blonde peasant’) and the mix of the bunch as the plot twists and turns is what makes this a real page-turner.

Additionally, it was hard to say where the story was gonna go. All we are given at the beginning is that this rag-tag group is trying to escape the plague…. and as you read on you genuinely do start to care about each character (even the horrid, nasty one(s)). As one gets absorbed with the struggles that the group of travellers face, readers also become familiar with each character bit by bit. A process that I truly relished and enjoyed as Maitland writes ever so vividly but without exaggeration. The dialogue between characters and description of settings are very readable- Maitland is very straight-forward with her words without feeling the need to romanticize every paragraph.

However you do have to ask yourself why you would want to read a book set in this time period? Is it to learn more about the plague? Or is it to get absorbed in a wonderful fictional story contained in such a setting. Some reviewers did not like this book because of a historical factual slip or two but really it is the characters and their story within the backdrop of the plague that makes this book a winner. Who cares if one little event mentioned in passing by the author didn’t actually happen when the author said it did? It had zero consequences on the plot and lives of the characters. There are more exciting and unsettling things going on with the story to be bothered by an inconsequential slip.

However a word of caution: As one settles into the story, the reader must not forget what this book is called: COMPANY OF LIARS…. yes, and when a story is this good with characters so well written- I almost forgot that there is plenty of deception going on, but what about and why? For the most part we have the leader of the group doing most of the narration- a very likable central figure… and as he tells the story and others in the group tell theirs as well, it is a little bit unnerving and quite the psychological delight to try and guess what the lies being told are and for what purpose? As soon as you decide which characters you like and which you don’t…. and the creepy little girl starts to give hints as to what may be going on…. and a single sentence gives you a hint that a character you adore may not be what he seems…. it’s this VERY SUBTLE and yet ensnaring mind-game that makes this book a must-read and a page-turner in every sense of the word.

Company of Liars; Maitland, Karen; Penguin UK; £7.99

Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman

I had not read Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman before I started reading this one. I had heard a lot about the former title; hence this one piqued my interest and I can happily say that I was not disappointed by this one. Though a lot of reviewers on various sites have thrashed it beyond belief, I for one thought that it was penned well. It is a normal story (or is it?) about a man and a woman meeting at a New York party and how they meet over the next seven snowy nights (Dostoevskian? But of course) at the cinema.

She is very different from him – Clara is bold, whimsical, complicated, and tricky, can be mean, darts with her words and takes them back again. He on the other hand – a fan of Rohmer, over-observes, and over-thinks even though things could be simple enough and bare in front of him. He but obviously falls madly in love with him and the rest of the book is the waiting – the waiting for the words to be uttered. Over eight magically snowy nights between Christmas Eve and New Years, their romance plays out, like the day in that Ethan Hawke movie Before Sunset, only way longer.

The characters transform while reading the book, they find their moments and layers of intimacy within the stagnation of the prose (sometimes). Aciman no doubt has written some beautiful passages in the book. The characters come to life with their eccentricities but only for the writing. Yes there were times when the writing was getting tedious and I was almost about to give up reading the book, but Thank God I did not, because I loved it.

The pangs of love, the madness of a new relationship were evident throughout. The dizzying almost giddy steps of a new love were apparent and this will speak to almost everyone who reads this book. It is universal in its concept of love and madness. It is real life but after all. Doesn’t art imitate life at some point?

Eight White Nights; Aciman, Andre; Picador; $15.00