Before and since Harry Potter

Book lovers will enjoy this trip down memory lane with Robert McCrum (left), who stepped down as literary editor of the Observer this month after 10 years on the job. McCrum, who has written about the English language (The Story of English) and a biography of PG Wodehouse (PG Wodehouse: A Life), writes about the changes in the publishing world. He joined the Observer in 1996, when publishing was still “a world of ink and paper; of cigarettes, coffee and strong drink”, and he is bowing out after seeing in the Kindle.

McCrum writes about how book blogs are growing in importance as newspapers shrink or altogether eliminate book reviews. And, of course, he notes the changing of the guard on the literary landscape: Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Iris Murdoch, Thom Gunn, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Hughes were very much alive when he came in; now they are gone, replaced by a generation of writers: Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru, Monica Ali and Kiran Desai are among the writers he mentions. A host of writers from non-English-speaking countries are among the most acclaimed writers in English today.

Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point

McCrum’s article offers valuable insights into the changes in the market. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for example, was “almost a flop”, says McCrum, published to mixed reviews in 2000 but “saved by word of mouth”. McCrum writes:

After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip’. Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. This was one of those pivotal moments that illustrates the story of this decade.

Personally, I was rather disappointed with the book, which no doubt marks me as an old fogey. The book seemed too plain, without any intellectual excitement, to me, brought up on generations of wordsmiths from GK Chesterton (with whom McCrum starts the article) to Tom Wolfe. With advancing age, I now prefer the prose of Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri, though I still appreciate the stylistic feats of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie; but Gladwell, even for a New Yorker writer, is too understated for me. But The Tipping Point reflects this dot-com society, I guess, when things catch on suddenly out of the blue.

JK Rowling and Harry Potter

JK Rowling is a case in point. McCrum recalls Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been published with a tiny first printing of 500 in 1997 to modest but enthusiastic reviews, swiftly followed by Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but such was the word-of-mouth success of the series that when Bloomsbury released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at 6am on a Saturday morning in July 2000, people queued overnight for a copy of the book. McCrum says:


The poetry of Amit Chaudhuri

Three Novels by Amit Chaudhuri: A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song

Amit Chaudhuri is like no other Indian writer I have read recently. He writes about ordinary day-to-day life like RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond, but in a language so vivid and evocative it sometimes rises to poetry.

His novels are not sweeping sagas or rich in symbolism, nor do they carry any messages. Their pleasure lies entirely in their language. Chaudhuri, who graduated from University College, London, and then went to Oxford, makes music and paints pictures with words.

Take the first page of Afternoon Raag, where he describes Oxford:

“On the first day of Michaelmas, men and women in black gowns walk to matriculation ceremonies, and at the end of the year they wear these gowns again, unhappily, to take exams; then, after the exams, the town is nearly empty, and the days, because of that peculiar English enchantment called Summer Time, last one hour longer; and Oxford, in the evening, resembles what an English town must have looked like in wartime, the small shops open but unfrequented, an endangered, dolorous, but perfectly vivid peace in the lanes, as the eye is both surprised by, and takes pleasure in, a couple linked arm in arm, or a young man conversing with a woman on a polished doorstep, and then the early goodbyes. It is like what I imagine a wartime township to have been, because all the young people, with their whistling, their pavement to pavement chatter, their beer-breathed, elbow-nudging polemics are suddenly gone, leaving the persistent habits of an old way of life, the opening and shutting of shops, intact, a quiet, empty bastion of civilisation and citizenry. It is because of its smallness, repetition, and the evanescence of its populace, that Oxford is dreamlike.”

Chaudhuri writes beautifully about Calcutta (Kolkata) too.

No Indian writing in English has described Bengali middle class life more faithfully. If anyone wants to know what we Bengalis are like — our love of gossip, arts and culture, our gentility, our modest ambitions and the closeness of our family ties — Chaudhuri is the author to read.

His privileged background shows through in his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. I was surprised to read someone owning a car in Calcutta in the late 1980s or early 1990s could have been considered hard-up. True, it’s a battered old car, but a car — any car — in Calcutta then would have been a symbol of wealth.

Chaudhuri, who was born in Calcutta, clearly grew up in more affluent circles in Bombay (Mumbai).

But the last novel, A Freedom Song, captures the Calcutta I know beautifully. He could have been writing about people I know. And no one has described them better, not in English.