Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nabokov Interviews

"I think like a genius,I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child," thus begins Nabokov's Strong Opinions. It is a book of interviews collected by Nabokov himself--a selection made out of forty interviews in several languages.

Nabokov was very conscious of his speech, which is evident from the opening line. He says in an interview: "I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewritten -- often several times -- every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasures."

Beautiful, isn't it? When I first read these statements, my spine tingled with joy.

Whether it was delivering a lecture, or having a telephonic conversation ("my hemmings or hawings") or chit-chatting with people in a party, Nabokov was never off guard or casual about anything. "At parties, if I attempt to entertain people with a good story," he explains, "I have to go back to every other sentence for oral erasures and inserts. Even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft."

To interview such a man was never a straightforward affair (Imagine Nabokov's discomfort in today's world of letters -- hopping from studio to television studio to promote one of his books, or to speak in a literary festival! Actually, he did once appear in a TV interview in London but that too was rehearsed and Nabokov had his notes in front of him, so he could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner--thus appearing squirming and avoiding the camera). Instead, Nabokov insisted on receiving questions in advance and always carefully composed his responses. Anyone who wanted to interview him had to agree to three conditions: The questions had to be sent in writing, answered by him in writing, and reproduced verbatim.

Come to think of this process in our age of email interviews. It works perfectly well, saving each party the disgrace and heartburn of suffering a misquote, or mixing authentic responses with the artificial colour of human interest.

It was not that Nabokov did not enjoy giving interviews. He rather did. "My fiction allows me so seldom the occasion to air my private views that I rather welcome, now and then, the questions put to me in sudden spates by charming, courteous, intelligent visitors," he says. Or see what he says on another occasion: "The luxury of speaking on one theme--oneself--is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling."

In his first interview, given at the time of Lolita's film premiere, Nabokov describes himself as a person without public appeal (that is, he was boring as a celebrity): "I have never been drunk in my life. I never use school boy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of the social intent."

Nabokov was never interested in literary fashions, movements or schools. He was interested only in the individual artist. So, while Robbe-Grillet was a great French writer to him, he considered the "anti-novel" a banal and phony commercial label.

To him, a work of art was for an individual, and was of no social importance at all. "What makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not social importance but its art, only its art," he says.

Nabokov could not type and wrote everything in longhand, on index cards. He refused to show an interviewer a sample of his rough drafts. "Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts," was his reply. "It is like passing around samples of one's sputum."

Nabokov, who lived in Europe as a Russian immigre and then moved over to America and spent his last days in Europe again, maintained that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance. "The writer's art is his real passport," he says.

Art is never simple

"A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty," he says. "Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the backyard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the crank's message in the marketplace. Art is never simple. Art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex."

Many of us suffer from the disease of forgetability. So did Nabokov. His other failings as a writer included, in his own words, "lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk."

Nabokov had a bleak and "changeless as an old gray oak" political creed, classical to the point of triteness: "Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones or played in theatres." By the way, Nabokov had no ear for music, a shortcoming he deplored bitterly.

Aspects of good reading

To Nabokov, a good reading involved not the heart, but the mind and the spine--yours, not the book's. The heart is a stupid reader, he says. "Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel," he used to tell his students.

And he hated yarns spliced with social comments. "The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas."

He detested the so-called "powerful novels"--full of commonplace obscenities and torrents of dialogue. When a publisher sent him a book to read, he would first check for the amount of dialogue in it. "If it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a bang, and ban it from my bed."

On writers

Nabokov's favourite writers, he once told an interviewer, were Robbe-Grillet and Borges: "How freely and gratefully one breathes in their marvelous labyrinths!I love their lucidity of thought, the purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror."

He once described Dostoevski as a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. He said that Russians who loved Dostoevski venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He disliked intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment. "He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian," he says. "...His sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment --by this reader anyway."

This more or less mirrors my own attitude to Dostoevski whom I admire but find some of his books too dense to get through. I want a powerful story but it has to be well told, distilled and condensed. Where is the mot juste in his writing?

He considered Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature, closely followed by The Death of Ivan Illyich. War and Peace, he says, was written for that amorphic and limp creature known as 'the general reader,' and more specifically for the young.

He considered Hemingway and Conrad 'writers of books for boys'. "Hemingway certainly is the better of the two," he says. He loved his "The Killers" and found the famous fish story superb. While I personally love Hemingway, I could never connect with Conrad's prose. "I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches," says Nabokov. "In mentality and emotion, both (Hem and Conrad) are hopelessly juvenile."

What he read between the ages of 10-15: Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Falubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. "By the age of 14 or 15, I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English and all Flubert in French --besides hundreds of other books," he writes. But at another level, his heroes were Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes.

What he read between the ages of 20-40: Houseman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favs, several - Poe, Jules Verne, Orczy, Conan Doylem and Rupert Brooke - lost the glamour and thrill for him in later age.

He read some of his coevals such as "the not quite first rate Eliot" and "definitely second rate Pound" late in life--and remained completely indifferent to them. He could not understand why anybody should bother about them. He hated Freud and called him a charlatan. "Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts," he says. "I really do not care."

Late in his life, he still loved Melville, and liked Hawthorne and Emerson. His feelings towards James were rather complicated.
However, many accepted authors simply did not exist for him: "Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in reading is concerned. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others mean absolutely nothing to me." Same dislike goes for Mann, Dreiser and D H Lawrence.

Nabokov complained against the general attitude in English to pass the word 'genius' around rather generously. In Russian, genius is applied to a very small number of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Pushkin and Tolstoy. Turgenev and Chekhov were mere talents. He felt appalled at seeing genius applied to any important storyteller, such as Maupassant or Maugham. "Genius still means to me ... a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not the talent of Henry James," he says.

Writing for Nabokov was a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime--but he never expected it to be a source of income. Rather he dreamt of a career in lepidoptera.

"If I am told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary," he says in an essay, Reply to my Critics. In these interviews, Nabokov is much more interesting than he claims he is not, and as the book's blurb says, in these interviews, letters and articles, Nabokov is as engaging, challenging and caustic as anything he ever wrote.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Faulkner and the purity of exactitude

In my last post, I wrote about my friend Fang Yih, and in that post I had mentioned him as Pynchonian. When he learned of this description of him on my blog, he said I should have marked him as Faulknerian. In fact, he adores both Pynchon and Faulkner (I am yet to start on Pynchon, as I am still reading works of his teacher, Nabokov) and of course, Naipaul, whom both of us admire. Only last night I was reading some passages from Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur to my daughter and I was loving the comedy of the whole thing: it is always a pleasure to read the early Naipaul.

The year is coming to end and I wanted to write something on Faulkner after having read some of his essays and lectures which are available in a beautiful volume titled William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (edited by James Meriwether, The Modern Library, New York).

The volume opens with Faulkner's essay on Sherwood Anderson, which is in fact an appreciation of one master by another. It is a brilliant sketch and is so evocatively written. You just have to read it to know what I mean by it. I just loved it.

In his later life, Anderson disconnected himself from his family just to focus on his writing--which was sort of an anti-Kafkaesque move.

Faulkner says that Anderson worked so laboriously and tediously and indefatigably at everything he wrote as if he said to himself: This anyway will, shall, must be invulnerable. He writes: "It was as though he wrote not even out of the consuming unsleeping appeaseless thirst for glory for which any normal artist would destroy his aged mother, but for what to him was more important and urgent: not even for mere truth, but for purity, the exactitude of purity."

The exactitude of purity (is it the same is mot jouste?) or the purity of exactitude - I love this expression - it has a sentimental value for me. I first read this phrase in an essay by Carver and he was perhaps referring to this essay by Faulkner which I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon. It was this attempt for exactitude that sometimes made Anderson fumble (often, inviting ridicule). It became his defining style. The writing had to be first rate for him. Nothing else mattered.

One of the great things Faulkner learned from Anderson, besides the exactitude of purity, is that - to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born. "You had only to remember what you were," he writes.

"You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn," Anderson told Faulkner. "It don't matter where it was, just so you remember it and aint ashamed of it."

"... Watch and listen and try to understand; and, even if you can't understand, believe."

That I think turned out to be a great advice for Faulkner as he brought his own country, his patch of land in the vast America, Mississippi, to life on the pages of his fiction. It is another matter that Nabokov dismisses Faulkner's works as corncobian.

Freedom and privacy

Among other things, Faulkner championed freedom and privacy. "Man's hope is in man's freedom," he said once addressing the youth of Japan. These two ideals--freedom for all and privacy for each individual--are still our ideals and seem in greater danger of disappearing today than ever before. He believed that liberty and freedom (which is necessary to exist for a writer to practice his craft) are not given to man as a free gift but as a right and a responsibility to be earned if he deserves it, is worthy of it, and is willing to work for it by means of courage and sacrifice , and to defend it always.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke against the malaise of fear--fear that can kill freedom, fear that can undeniably kill a writer. If a writer wants to write of the heart, not of the glands, he must teach himself "that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and hounor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours under a curse."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Moveable Feast

One of my favorite reads this year has been Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. This book has been on my work desk for several weeks now and every time my colleague and friend Fang Yih sees it, he throws it into the dustbin. He is one of those Hemingway haters. "If he had to write such condensed and pared down prose, why didn't he try poetry?" That's his main grouse against Hemingway. I understand the nature of his complaint and smile away while retrieving the copy from the dustbin. "Perhaps, this is the only good book he ever wrote," Fang Yih admits grudgingly. He is a Pynchonian.

I had read some of Hemingway's stories earlier in the year: I had liked his Nick Adam stories. I haven't paid any serious attention to his novels yet. I had loved The Old Man and the Sea when I had read it some years ago. Nabokov liked his story, The Killers, more than anything else he ever wrote.

Yet, there are many who don't like Hemingway. One of my editor friends, after reading some of my stories that I wrote this year, said one or two stories in my collection read like journalism. Hemingway, in this book, says the same about some of Chekov's stories. So, in hindsight, I take my friend's comment as a compliment. Every story one writes can't be great. Some stories do get shaped up like journalism, even though the attempt is to avoid that effect.

Hemingway in Paris

Hemingway had started writing this book in 1957 and the book was published posthumously in 1964. The book records Hemingway's years in Paris during the 1920s. Then, he was starting up as a young and struggling writer; to begin with, he was stationed in Paris as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. At that time, Braque, Picasso, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald were the shining stars in Paris. Hemingway got to meet and befriend some of these legendary figures. Some chapters in this book tell stories of these legends.

One of the funniest chapters in the book is about Hemingway's travel with Fitzgerald. It is an amazing story in itself, and reveals the character of both the personalities.

In the beginning of the book, when Hemingway meets Gertrude Stein, he comes back with the feeling that he had to be cured of two things: his youth and his love for his wife. He believed work could cure anything and he worked hard to cure himself of these two things. Stein also advised him to buy pictures instead of clothes (to put the money to better use).

Hemingway was poor but he and his wife never thought of themselves as poor. They never accepted it ("We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other). But he knew in his heart that "the one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers."

During their meetings, Stein and Hemingway often discussed writers and writing. Stein advised him not to read Huxley. "Huxley is a dead man. Can't you see he is dead?" she told him. "You should only read what is truly good and what is frankly bad." Huxley wrote inflated trash, she said.

Hemingway said he liked D H Lawrence, especially his short story, The Prussian Officer. Stein said she couldn't read his novels. "He's impossible, pathetic, and preposterous"--that was her judgment. "He writes like a sick man." She admired Sherwood Andersen, never as a writer, but as a person--a warm and kind person.

Books, hunger, writing

In those days, Hemingway had no money to buy books. He borrowed books from Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore of Sylvia Beach. Some of the books he mentions borrowing from her are Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches, D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (perhaps), and Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky.

In "Hunger was good discipline", Hemingway says all the paintings (in a museum) were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. "Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it," he writes.

When Hemingway quit journalism, getting money was a problem. "When I stopped doing newspaper work I was sure the stories were going to be published. But every one I sent out came back."

One day Hemingway tells his woes to Sylvia. He feels ashamed about talking over this matter. "Don't you know all writers ever talk about is their troubles?" Sylvia tells him to comfort him.

Hemingway talks about his stories, Up in Michigan (Stein thought it was inaccrochable), and Out of Season. The real end of the latter story was that the old man in it hangs himself. Hemingway had omitted that ending based on his new theory, that "you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and that the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood".

In a chapter on Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway does not portray a rosy picture of the writer (he had been through very bad domestic troubles). The two are drinking and a poet named Belloc passes by. Ford cuts him. "Tell me why one cuts people," Hemingway asks. "A gentleman," Ford explained,"will always cut a cad."

Ezra Pound

"Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people," Hemingway writes. He associated with Pound's movement called Bel Esprit to raise money to free T S Eliot from his bank job so that he could write poetry. Eliot got freed but the movement died soon after.

Pound and Hemingway naturally liked to discuss writers. Hemingway had read Gogol, Tungenev, Tolstoi and Chekov. He had been advised to read Katherine Mansfield in Toronto but after reading Chekov, he felt her writing to be artificial and near-beer. "It was better to drink water. But Chekov was not water except for the clarity." Hemingway was puzzled by Dostoyevsky who wrote so "unbelievably badly" and yet made you feel so deeply. Dostoyevsky seemed to be anti- mot juste. Ezra said he never read the "Rooshians". "Keep to the French," he advised. "You've plenty to learn there."

The next chapter that follows is how he broke up his friendship with Stein. The rift led him to conclude that "there is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is even less future with truly ambitious women writers." The break left him so shaken that he could not make friends again truly, neither in his heart nor in his head. "When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst," he says.

The last chapters are on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They are full of insight. But I would like to close this review with a quote from Hem's poet friend, Evan Shipman, who truly did not care if his poems were ever published--he felt that it should remain a mystery.

"We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem," he once told Hemingway. "The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance."

It sounds so true even hundred years later--now in our time when we are living almost naked lives. If the multitude of talentless poets and writers heeded this advice, we would be spared the unbearable trash that is thrown at us each year. It forces us to look back and reach for the gems of the past to survive the brazen assaults. The only difference, between then and now, is not that of the problem of sustenance but of vanity.

Monday, December 05, 2011

And after that there is only travel...

(Warning: Content not suitable for minors)

Perhaps I had mentioned Roberto Bolano's book The Insufferable Gaucho in one of my previous posts. Apart from the story, Alvaro Rousselot's Journey, that I loved, there is an essay in this book that had many marvelous thoughts in it. The essay is called Literature + Illness = Illness. It is dedicated to Bolano's friend the hepatologist, Dr. Victor Vargas. The essay has many sub-topics such as Illness and public speaking, Illness and freedom, Illness and height and so on. The most facilitating sub-chapter is one entitled, Illness and French poetry.

He quotes one of Mallarme's poems from Brise marine:

The flesh is sad--and I've read every book.
O to esacpe--to get away. Birds look
as though they're drunk for unknown spray and skies.

Then Bolano goes on to analyse the poem. "What did Mallarme mean when he said that the flesh was sad and that he'd read all the books? That he'd had his fill of reading and of having sex? That beyond a certain point, every book we read and every act of carnal knowledge is a repetition? And after that there is only travel? That f...g and reading are boring in the end, and that travel is the only way out?"

Then he tries to answer the question posed by Mallarme: "I think Mallarme is taking about illness, about the battle between illness and health: two totalitarian states, or powers if you prefer. I think he is talking about illness tricked out in the rags of boredom."

Under Illness and travel, Bolano writes: "...But it all catches up with you. Children. Books. Illness. The voyage comes to an end."

He then goes over to Baudelaire and quotes some of his lines: Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge/to Hell or Heaven--any abyss will do--/deep in the Unknown to find the new!

Bolano says: "Rimbaud clearly understood, since he plunged with equal ferver into reading, sex, and travel, only to discover and accept, with a diamond-like lucidity, that writing doesn't matter at all."

Reading, writing, sex, travel--Bolano understands--resemble each other, and all that, is a mirage: there is only the desert and from time to time the remote, degrading lights of oasis.

Even though we feel tired of all the above acts, we have no choice but to go on. Bolano says: "We have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote (to the illness of boredom) can be found."

Dev Anand

I got the news of Dev Anand Saheb's passing away on Facebook yesterday. I saw a friend's status on FB and it contained that dreadful news. It was a grey afternoon and I had taken my daughter out for swimming. The pool was closed because of the rains and the static due to the thunders. We waited for close to two hours and then headed back home.

En route, we decided to stop by for coffee and that's when I told my wife about Dev Saheb's death. He lived a great and respectable life and passed away in peace, she said. How many people get to lead that kind of life? Indeed. Dev Saheb was a lucky man. He enjoyed a lifetime of stardom, being showered with love from lovers of Hindi cinema. He died in his sleep. He was in London for medical check up. He was 88.

I awoke late to the chrisma of Dev Saheb. As a kid, I grew up worshiping the angry young man persona of Amitabh Bachchan. Those were the pre-television days and even to get to watch a Bachchan movie standing up in a hot, jam-packed, and dilapidated cinema hall was a ticket to the heaven. In those days, names like those of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kumar sounded boring. For me, they were stars who had faded away. I had difficulty believing that young Indian women found them worthy of swooning over!

Once, one of my uncles took me to watch one of Dev Saheb's hit movies. It was Johny Mera Naam. Hmm, not bad, I thought. Later on, I watched Guide. I liked it, more so because it was based on R K Narayan's story. Narayan had many complaints against Dev Saheb but that is another story. I also liked Dev Saheb's work in Kala Bazaar and Taxi Driver. I saw many of these gems while researching for a documentary with my friend and mentor Amir Ullah Khan and Professor Bibek Debroy (Indian Economic Transition through Bollywood Eyes).

As I watched more of his movies, I realised what had happened with him. His performance in some of his earlier films were great because he had not developed his trade mark Dev Anand Style. Later on, he had become a caricature of himself. This happened to many other good actors of Hindi cinema--they got trapped in their trade mark styles: names like Raaj Kumar, Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha, even Bachchan Saheb, come to my mind.

Though I had great respect for him, Dev Saheb seemed to have wasted his talent on films unworthy of his attention. He could have been like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, even at 81, directs excellent films (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, to name a few). In his later career, Dev Saheb produced and directed many films, but not a single one is memorable (such as Awwal Number, Main Solah Baras Ki, Love at Times Square). Someone should have stopped him.

However, this does not make him any less great. Long before, he had earned his place in people's heart. I love him for his energy, for his capacity to go on, no matter what. And I will always remember him for the song, Har fikr to dhuyen me udata chala gaya. This is one of my favorite songs, besides the one from Gurudutt Saheb's Pyaasa: Yeh Duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai.

Dev Saheb, whenever fikr and taraddud surround me, I reach out for that stick and take a drag and sing along with you: Maein Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya/Har Fikar Ko Dhuen Mein Udata Chala Gaya

Dev Saheb, wherever you are, rest in peace. We will always love you.