This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties, you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.
As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!… Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.
Who says old geezers can't write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That's certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.
Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can't tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.
There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.
Let's begin with the journalists.
It's been a long time coming. Except that Amit Chaudhuri wouldn't have used those words sung by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The gifted Indian writer,who teaches contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, prefers Indian classical music.
An accomplished singer himself, he pays homage to the music in The Immortals.
Now don't let that turn you off a wonderful novel.
Even though I know nothing about Indian classical music, I was drawn irresistibly into the story.
Her admirers will have the pleasure of discovering their feelings shared by writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Somerset Maugham, CS Lewis, JB Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, David Lodge and critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Kudos to the editor, Susannah Carson, who brought them together in this book.
Martin Amis speaks for us all when he tries to pin down the appeal of Pride and Prejudice:
For example, why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?
Elizabeth, of course, is very attractive. To quote Amis,
Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all else, with looks.
Golding, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983, three years after bagging the Booker for Rites Of Passage, admitted trying to rape a 15-year-old schoolgirl when he was an 18-year-old student at Oxford, according to a forthcoming biography by John Carey.
The schoolgirl put up a fierce resistance. But they had sex two years later, according to Golding, who nevertheless called her "depraved by nature" and "sexy as an ape" in his unpublished memoir, Men, Women & Now. He wrote it for Ann, his wife of 50 years, to explain his “monstrous” character.
He also confessed how, later as a schoolteacher, he got schoolboys to fight among themselves. His first and most famous novel, Lord Of The Flies, is about a group of schoolboys who turn savages when marooned on an island after a plane crash.
Carey, a literary critic and an emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford, had access to the previously unseen archive of Golding, who died in 1993, aged 81. It comprises three unpublished novels, two autobiographical works and a journal of two million words written over 20 years, says the Sunday Times.
Golding, who studied natural science before switching to English literature at Oxford, admitted he used “a certain measure of experimental science” as a schoolteacher to see what happened when boys were given more liberty. “I gave them more and my eyes came out like organ stops as I watched what was happening.”
Once he took a group of schoolboys on a field trip near Salisbury and got them to form two gangs – one to attack a neolithic enclosure and the other to defend it.
The schoolboys in Lord Of The Flies also break up into two warring groups.
Carey's biography throws new light on the novel which was published after many publishers rejected it, says the Sunday Times. It adds:
Anyone who loves Singapore should read The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell. He won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur about the 1857 War of Indian Independence. The Singapore Grip is also a historical novel, describing Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. The book was first published in Britain in 1978 and Farrell died a year later.
The author vividly describes the fighting in what was then Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the burning and the looting, the humiliation of the British, who were outgeneralled and outfought by superior Japanese forces, and the manner in which civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape from the island as the Japanese approached Singapore. The narrative captures the whole spectrum of human behaviour from cowardice and selfishness to selfless courage. There are some stoic heroic figures and a very attractive Eurasian woman who gain your empathy.
But best of all are the descriptions of Singapore before it was devastated by the war – the colonial bungalows at Tanglin, the carnival atmosphere of the Great World, the taxi dancers and the prostitutes, a dying house where the Chinese went or were left by their relatives to die to prevent misfortune at home, the world of the rich colonial businessmen and the relationship between the races. Especially memorable is the description of a plane landing in Singapore. The author gives an aerial view of Singapore as the plane begins its descent – it's marvellous.
I have been reading the book again because I am already beginning to miss Singapore.
I will be away from Singapore for more than a month, returning towards the end of June. This will probably be the last post till then.
So I will end with this – a vivid description of the city I love as it was long ago. These are the opening lines of The Singapore Grip:
The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional
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confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map. "Here," he said to himself, "is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East. Mind you, the Dutch will dislike it and Penang won't be pleased, not to mention Malacca." This man's name was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: before the war his bronze statue used to stand in Empress Place in a stone alcove like a scallop shell ( he has been moved along now and, turned to stone, occupies a shady spot by the river). He was by no means the lantern-jawed individual you might have expected: indeed he was a rather vague-looking man in a frock coat.
A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre
John Le Carre hates the “war on terror” and sympathizes with its victims. But he has let his feelings get the better of his art in A Most Wanted Man, for sympathy alone cannot animate the title character. Issa Karpov doesn’t come to life like George Smiley.
We see and hear Issa, but never get inside his mind. Le Carre presents him as a mystery figure on the run – we never learn whether he is the dreaded Islamic terrorist he is alleged to be or was unfairly imprisoned and tortured in Turkey. It is one thing to leave the readers guessing about his true nature. But to keep the readers guessing, a character has to be more complex like Gatsby or Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. Raving and ranting against injustice, Issa is more like a character out of a propaganda play.
Fortunately, there are more interesting characters in the novel. Like Gunther Bachmann, the German spy who has to keep an eye on Issa when he arrives in Hamburg. And Annabel Richter, the attractive lawyer who helps refugees and shelters Issa. And Tommy Brue, the British banker who is holding the money left by Issa’s father, a crooked Russian army colonel.
Issa, whose mother was a Chechen, wants to donate the money to Muslim charities, keeping only some for himself to study medicine and become a doctor.
But life is never easy for a man on the run. Nor for those prepared to help him. While Anna is questioned by Gunther, Tommy has to contend with British secret agents, who claim the money was really paid by them to Issa’s father. The Americans also appear on the scene, pursuing bigger game.