Martin Amis, 61 today, on ageing

Martin Amis is 61 today. Happy birthday. Here’s his own take on ageing from his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, published this year. Martin Amis – never amiss with words:

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.

Good old writers

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.

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Amit Chaudhuri, The Immortals

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.

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A Truth Universally Acknowledged: About Jane Austen

Janeites will love A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays by 33 famous writers and critics acknowledging the genius of Jane Austen.

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

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.

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William Golding tried to rape 15-year-old, made schoolboys fight

Will the Lord Of The Flies author William Golding now be remembered as a would-be rapist, asks the Guardian.

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:

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The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

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

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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Le Carre’s Most Wanted Man

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.

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The Widows of Eastwick

The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.

Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.

Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.

The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.

Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.

A gay actor and his black magic

Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.

Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.

She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved. 

Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.

The seduction

Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.

It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.

It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.

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Updike’s Terrorist and adulterers

The Terrorist by John Updike

India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.

It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.

This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.

Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:

We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.

I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.

But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.

Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.

I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.

But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.

And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.

Devils

New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.

Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)

Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…

The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.

But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.

Romance

Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.

Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.

But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.

Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.

Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.

Updike on The Terrorist

The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?

Updike said when the book was published in 2006:

“I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…

“I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”

Jack and Teresa

And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.

And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him. 

Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking:

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Remembering Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died on this day in 1968 at the age of 66, six years after he won the Nobel Prize, which even he himself didn’t expect.

Critical scorn

When asked by a reporter whether he believed he deserved the prize, he responded, “Frankly, no,” says Robert Gottlieb. In a New York Review of Books article published in April this year, he writes about Steinbeck:

When to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he won the 1962 Nobel Prize, the reaction was startlingly hostile. “Without detracting in the least from Mr. Steinbeck’s accomplishments,” ran a New York Times editorial, “we think it interesting that the laurel was not awarded to a writer …whose significance, influence and sheer body of work had already made a more profound impression on the literature of our age.”

Of Mice and Men

But Steinbeck still sells “well over a million copies a year,” says Gottlieb, “with Of Mice and Men accounting for more than half of them. (It’s short, it’s easy to follow, and it’s full of feeling—a perfect assignment for junior high school readers.)”

Note the words Gottlieb puts in brackets. He sounds so dismissive. But he finally has to praise the book.

It begins, as so many Steinbeck novels do, with a loving evocation of its natural setting:

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green…. On the valley side the water is lined with trees—willows fresh and green with every spring.”

And he loves his central characters, too, the pair of itinerant ranch hands—”bindlestiffs”—named George and Lennie. George is the smart one, the leader; Lennie is the massive semi-idiot, worshiping George, dreaming of the little bit of land they might one day own, and—his most powerful fantasy—the rabbits he might one day be able to tend and caress.

We know that this isn’t going to happen, and on some level George knows it too, but he needs to believe in it as strongly as Lennie does: it’s the illusion they live by. And then, catastrophe. Yes, the pathos is laid on thick; yes, everything is foreshadowed and manipulated. (Edmund Wilson called it “contrived with almost too much cleverness.”) But Steinbeck’s sympathy for these decent, forlorn men is so intense that it carries us along with it. Uninfected by moralizing, ingeniously if stagily constructed, and credibly populated, Of Mice and Men—far from Steinbeck’s most ambitious book—is the closest he came to a fully satisfying work of art.

The snapshot here from Google Book Search shows George and Lennie’s first appearance in the book, just after Steinbeck has described the banks of the Salinas River.

Of_mice_and_men

I was moved to tears when I read the book a long time ago. Imagine Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without the wisecracks and the horseplay. Of Mice and Men describes a relationship similar to that except that one man is totally dependent on the other.

Writer for hard times

In my younger days in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Steinbeck was popular with our parents’ generation. The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, they were all popular books. While The Grapes of Wrath was considered a classic – Calcutta has always been a leftist city – East of Eden was apparently a very popular movie, too, though I have not seen it myself.

Steinbeck is relevant again today because of the economic downturn, says the Millions blog:

With Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck embodied the Great Depression in fiction. It would be a small silver lining if this moment produced an epic on the order of Steinbeck…The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.

Steinbeck may suit people who like folk music – songs like This Land is Your Land, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Prison Trilogy…

Maybe I am over-romanticising Steinbeck. I haven’t him read him for a long time.

But I was moved by Of Mice and Men.

And a man has to have his heart in the right place to say, as Steinbeck did:

“Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”