Thursday, September 30, 2004

The moral backbone of literature

"The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago."


Writing, elaboration, paranoia?

"I think that's pretty much how it is. You can't always see, I think, the reality of what we're doing in the pathological variant, because all—most—behavior has a pathological bearing. And writing and creating something is about elaboration. You have a few elements. You build something. You elaborate until you have something that looks like something. And elaboration is, of course, the device of paranoia. If you read texts written by paranoiacs, they're syntactically correct, the orthography is all right, but the content is insane, because they start on a series of axioms that are out of synch. And the elaboration is absolutely fantastic. It goes on and on and on. You can see from that that the degree of elaboration is not a measure of the truth. And that is exactly the same problem, certainly, in prose fiction: you have to elaborate. You have one image, and you have to make something of it—half a page, or three-quarters, or one and a half—and it only works through linguistic or imaginative elaboration. Of course, you might well think during the course of this process that you are directing some form of sham reality."

W G Sebald

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Dogville: Avoid it

Tried to see this experimental film, Dogville, with Nicole Kidman. The film is on a stage, and everything happens there only! It is so frustrating.

I stopped watching the film afer chapter 2. Ah, how I miss my Kill Bill kinda stuff.

The Last Samurai

Recently saw this Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai. Had the writer and director worked a little harder, the film would have become a classic. Thankfully, they put in some ideas also into the film other than action and emotion.

I was really charmed and impressed by the Samurai way of life and their philosophy of Boshida. I began to think and saw a connection between a Samurai and a Muslim. It is all about discipline, truth, committment, and honor. The film says that a Samurai need not make a promise. Whatever he speaks is a promise, truthful and honorable. A Muslim too is supposed to speak only the truth and have a disciplined life. A Muslim cannot break a promise (but how many such Muslims exits anymore, I wonder). I imagined the Muslim fundamentalists (MFs) having a similar life of simplicity, discipline and determination. The samurai did it for their feudal patrons. The MFs do it for their faith. There is blindness in both the acts. Acts of faith, right or wrong for us, are acts of faith! The common people feared the samurais. For 1100 hundred years they served their masters. Then with the modernization of Japan, they became obsolete. They perished.

Tom is splendid in the movie. Good job!

Said on Naipaul

Really liked Said's comment on Naipaul and others in the essay "Writing to the moment" (Tom Paulin in The Guardian, September 25, 2004):

"Macaulay admitted he had "no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic", but went on to assert: "The intrinsic superiority of the western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education ... It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England."

As Said remarks, this is no "mere expression" of an opinion, because Macaulay has an ethnocentric opinion with ascertainable results: speaking from a position of power he was able to make an entire subcontinent submit to studying in a language not its own. It was reading Said on Macaulay and then reading the complete minute that made me realise that the beautiful standard English RK Narayan employs in his subtle novels is pitched at such a perfect level - a level with no vernacular resonance - that it reads, with a deliberate irony, as though it is translated from Narayan's native Tamil. Narayan, I remember, was attacked by VS Naipaul, and from time to time Said criticises Naipaul as a writer who tells western power what it wants to hear about its former colonies. He is "a sensibility on tour". For Said, the yeast of culture, as Louis MacNeice phrased it, is debate and argument - his address as a lecturer was never shrill or monologic, and the same is true of his written prose."

So Naipaul as "a sensibility on tour!" Makes sense to me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Iris: Dream of a Silence

The writerly life fascinates me. There is a certain charm and sadness about it. And I keep looking for nuggets on writers’ lives, hoping for moments of epiphany for my own benefit.

Recently saw the film “Iris” (2001) based on Iris Murdoch’s life. The film has apparently been adapted from John Bayley’s book, Elegy for Iris, his memoir on her famous wife. Richard Eyre's film stars Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet.

The film opens with an old Iris (Judi Dench) reminiscing, then follows an underwater swimming shot, and cuts to a young Iris (Kate Winslet). The entire film is narrated in that manner, cutting back and forth.

Iris loved swimming. She was almost crazy about it.

"All artists dream of a silence which they must enter, as some creatures return to the sea to spawns,” said Iris.

The film basically focuses on Iris’ relationship with John. It ignores episodes such as her great love for Czech Jewish poet and polymath Franz Steiner, who died of a heart attack in 1952 - in her arms, as per his friend Elias Canetti. Iris had an affair with Canetti but, in 1956, she married John Bayley, who was six years younger and still a virgin at 29. The scene where a bumbling Bayley is first asked to make love by Iris is more tragicomic than passionate.

Bayley was a professor of English at Oxford and also published fiction. They lived more than thirty years at Steeple Ashton in an old house called Cedar Lodge. Later, they moved into the academic suburb of North Oxford.

Iris never took any interest in children; she had some affairs, which Bayley tolerated. However, towards the end of the film, Bayley vents out his anger in a stuttering monologue on the sick, old dame.

Iris was sharp with her remarks.

On being asked how long she took off between books, she is said to have quipped "about half an hour".

In the last years of her life she descended into Alzheimer's. At first she thought it was simply writer's block, which she described while still lucid as "being in a very, very bad quiet place, a dark place".

During the last years of her life, Murdoch became like "a very nice 3-year-old," her husband said. She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir Bayley has portrayed his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. "She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had."

The film has beautifully and rather poignantly captured her fall into Alzheimer's. The director has charmingly created a chiaroscuro-like contrast between an aging, Alzheimer's-ridden Iris and a passionate and energetic Iris.

The film eschews any forays into the creative process that a writer’s mind goes through. Neither does it try to portray why was Iris interested in religious and sometimes gothic themes. These were the greatest disappointments for me in the film. You don’t feel a great sadness when Iris dies. The film failed to touch my soul.

Judy and Jim have acted marvelously.

Writer in Black

Don’t know why but was struck with this note in my diary today. It’s from an interview of Alice Munro in the New Yorker:

“Yeats, when he was a young man, a young poet in Dublin, used to go around in this outrageous outfit: a long black cape, a black sombrero, trailing black trousers, and you know just looking purely poetic. And people, even in Dublin, were a bit sick of this. And Trevor says maybe its because the effort to make art leaves the person so exhausted that all that is left for people to find is a disappointing ordinariness.”

The disappointing ordinariness of a writer! What to do with that?

Winter in Singapore

Evening. It had just ceased raining. Walking back to the office, I saw a semi-bald man at the bus stop. I could only see his back. He seemed to blow vapours from his mouth.

As if on reflex action, I too exhaled through my mouth. No vapours. Nothing.

Alas, there is no winter in Singapore, I realised.

The semi-bald man was smoking a cig.



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