Monday, October 10, 2005

Rushdie and Zadie

"The great silliness in the name of quality fiction"

Salman Rushdie, being what he is, is still being reviewed on the pages of lit mags. People are reviewing not only Shalimar The Clown but also judging and reassessing Rushdie as a storyteller, and what kind of road he (his pen) has taken since he became famous after the fatwa. Since his novel is out of the Booker race, it has become easier for the critics to rip apart the master. Surprisingly, I have not seen as many reviews of Coetzee's The Slow Man as of Rushdie's Shalimar The Clown. I don't understand why.

In the London Review of Books, Theo Tait writes about Rushdie's novel where he devotes the first three paragraphs discussing magic realism and how irrelevant it has become today:

With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable (especially when British writers imitated South Americans, as they often used to do in the 1980s and 1990s).

The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cosy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale. Again, this is especially true of its anglophone variants: see the tedious fables of Jeanette Winterson, or the eccentric but warm-hearted villagers of Louis de Bernières.

These days, magic realism is deservedly out of fashion. But it’s worth remembering that it has been one of the great styles of the last fifty years...

He concludes by saying this: Shalimar the Clown will tell many readers that the recent history of Kashmir is a both a terrible tragedy and a fault-line in the modern world, which we ought to know about. This must be a good thing. But it is also a powerful testament to something completely different: the great sillinesses that are perpetrated in the name of quality fiction.

A thing of beauty

The opposite has happened in the case of Zadie Smith. With her On Beauty's inclusion in the Booker longlist, she has been winning rave reviews all over (I'm not saying it is because of that nomination). I am not going to discuss the merits of her latest novel here but it seems that the Booker nomination has done her book a lot of good. Remember, her novel was released later and had already got longlisted before it appeared in the market. In Rushdie's case, the book had come weeks before the nomination and many had already trashed it in the media.

Anyway, Frank Kermode has given her novel a balanced thumbs up in the same issue of LRB. He says:

What makes this novel a bit unusual is that it is conceived as an act of homage to E.M. Forster, ‘to whom’, the author writes, ‘all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other’. The acknowledgment is obscure and ‘one way or the other’ could, but probably doesn’t, mean ‘both by attraction and repulsion’. To take as a model Howards End, a novel published in 1910, need not be a mere game or stunt, but it does tend to steal the limelight of critical attention.

Read the full review here.

Changing hands

I recently read in a London newspaper that the ownership of Granta has changed hands, and so has that of the Times Educational Supplement. One of the rumours is about the folding up of the Times Literary Supplement. It has about 30,000 subscribers only. It will either die or will undergo some changes. Only time will tell but they say change is the unchangeable law of nature.


bibliobibuli said...

Very interesting statment about magical realism being out of fashion! What do you think?

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharon. I think that the statement is largely true. Magic realism was in vogue when Latin American literature was hot. But even now, some writers have kept the tradition alive. Rushdie is one of them. Last year, Sidhharth D Shanghvi's novel, Last Song of the Dusk, also had magic realist elements. I am sure there are many more writers doing it.

bibliobibuli said...

Writer's should use whatever tools they have at their disposal ... who can help the fickleness of the reading public? On the other hand what appealed about Rushdie's early work was the freshness and audacity of it which is perhaps harder to recapture now because we've grown so used to his style. I am not at all sure I can cope with Shalimar ...

Fads and fashions? I got fed up reading in reviews (when Tash's book came out) how the "unreliable narrator" was passe. I really don't agree (and one of these days will have a rant on the topic).