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Lifelong creativity and PD James’ tips for writers

PD James
PD James

God bless PD James! At the age of 93, she wants to write one more detective novel. Amazing.

Let’s hope it will feature Adam Dalglish, the Scotland Yard detective who has been her hero since her very first novel, Cover Her Face, published in 1962. Last seen in The Private Patient, in 2008, it’s time he showed up again.

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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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Martin Amis on life and Kingsley Amis

Martin_amis_2010
Martin Amis (left) describes seeing his father, Kingsley Amis (below), in a dream in his autobiography, Experience. Published in 2000, five years after his father's death, it's one of the most intimate accounts of a father-and-son relationship that I have ever read.

He writes:

Why should I tell the story of my life?

I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer, and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case — a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son.

Kingsley_amis_2010 He writes about his father explaining the mysteries of sex to him and his elder brother, Philip, when they were schoolboys and the conversations they had when he had grown up.

His father pops up even when he is writing about other things. He recalls the articles he published in the New Statesman following the death of the critic FR Leavis and calling them a "symposium". A symposium originally meant a drinking party, he says and adds: 

And that is what Kingsley liked, above all things. Well, he probably liked adultery even better, in his manly noon, but the symposium was a far more durable and unambivalent pleasure — a love whose month was forever May.

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Try to read: John Updike

I just saw this John Updike interview with Charlie Rose.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?showShareButtons=true&docId=9117403580929163007%3A0%3A390000&hl=en

Updike recalls he grew strawberries to pay his way through college and then became a copy boy for the Reading Eagle newspaper in Pennsylvania.

The copy boy had to carry "copy" — news and stories — from the newspaper's editorial room for the printers to typeset, he recalled in an essay. It was printed in The Times when he died in January this year.

He also advises writers in this video. "Try to read", he says with a smile."It's important to know what turns you on and what has been done in a broad way so you don't go over ground that has already been more than amply covered by the classics."

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Raffles Hotel, Chowringhee and Death In Venice

Singapore's Raffles Hotel and the Bengali writer Sankar (real name Mani Shankar Mukherjee) both feature in Brick Lane author Monica Ali's excellent essay on hotels and writers. The essay in the British magazine Prospect follows the publication of her hotel-based novel, In The Kitchen, which I am dying to read.

Ali praises Sankar's popular Bengali novel, Chowringhee, inspired by the famous Grand Hotel in Calcutta (Kolkata). This videoclip is from the 1968 Bengali hit film, Chowringhee, based on the novel. I loved both the movie and the novel. Seen singing here is the Bengali movie legend Uttam Kumar, who played the hotel receptionist Sata Bose. The song title Boro Eka Lage means "I feel very lonely".

Another hotel-based story Ali discusses in her essay is Death In Venice by Thomas Mann. It was also made into a movie. This videoclip  is from the 1971 Dirk Bogarde starrer directed by Visconti. The slow art film is as beautiful as Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal of Venice.

Ali writes:

Writers have had a long and deep association with hotels. New York’s Algonquin and Chelsea hotels, the Savoy in London, Venice’s Hotel des Bains, the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, and the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental and Raffles in Singapore are just a few of the places in which literary history has been created. And, as witnessed by Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland (both written and partly set in the Chelsea Hotel in New York) and my new novel, In the Kitchen, which tells the story of Gabriel Lightfoot, executive head chef at the fictional Imperial Hotel in London, the hotel continues to exert a fascination for authors, not only as facilitator of the creative endeavour but also as a subject of that creativity.

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Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

John_updike_telegraph

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by "penny-pinching parents," united by "the patriotic cohesion of World War II" and blessed by a "disproportionate share of the world's resources," the postwar, suburban boom of "idealistic careers and early marriages."

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America's many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four "Rabbit" novels that feature Harry "Rabbit Angstrom," a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, "Rabbit is Rich," and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, "Rabbit at Rest."

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike's nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes."

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: "Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike's burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the "wrong" side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike's modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike's father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike's mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters' degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son's great fame, she coolly remarked: "I'd rather it had been me."

'I'm a vanished man'

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post's David Streitfeld back in 1998:

"I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you'd be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there's no Updike there. There's no Updike at all. I'm a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn't used to always be."

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, "frugging", coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the "Bech" and the "Rabbit" books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there'd be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

'But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don't want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can't quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.'

"Wasted" beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best:

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Naipaul’s seven rules for aspiring writers

VS Naipaul advised aspiring writers to practise what he had learnt from his father, says Patrick French in his biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. 

When the Indian website Tehelka asked Naipaul to suggest some rules for aspiring writers, this was the advice he gave:

  1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.
  2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
  3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
  4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
  5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adjectives as well.
  6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
  7. Every day, for six months at least, practise writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

Rules Naipaul picked up from his father

Naipaul was influenced by his father and his suggestions "owed much to (his) Pa's instruction", says French.

Seepersad Naipaul, who inspired his son to write A House For Mr Biswas, was a Trinidad journalist and writer himself. He had published Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales  at his own expense in Trinidad in 1943, when Naipaul was 11 years old. Naipaul thought highly of his father as a writer. French says:

His writing style formed early. At the age of only eleven, he was given his own private epic by his father, and took it as his model; his later achievement came out of this restriction.

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Paul Theroux revisits Asia

Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.

There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American  official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.

Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.

Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.

A writer’s journey

But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.

“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:

“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”

He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.

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A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

A New World by Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the finest but possibly less known Indian authors writing in English. His language can verge on poetry and be as vivid as a movie. But nothing much happens in his stories.

That didn’t matter very much in his early novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song. Both were critically acclaimed. I can think of no better books in English about my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, but there only part of the story is set in Calcutta; most of the action takes place in the Hindi belt.

To get a feel of Calcutta, what it looks like and understand us Bengalis, the natives of Calcutta, A Strange and Sublime Address and Freedom Song are invaluable. They portray our ideas, attitudes and lifestyle. And the writing verges on poetry, which is something we Bengalis love.

A New World unfortunately lacks that poetry. The writing is fluid and flawless. But as I turned from one page to the next, it felt like a lazy summer afternoon. It’s uneventful by deliberate design.

The story

Jayojit, a Bengali economist teaching in America, visits his parents in Calcutta during his college holidays with his seven-year-old son, Bonny. He has recently divorced his wife, also a Bengali from Calcutta, who has left him to live with her lover -– and gynaecologist — in America. The story describes his stay in Calcutta. In the process, we see his interaction with his parents, his parents’ relationship and his own relationship with his parents. There are also flashbacks to his broken marriage and his parents’ abortive attempt to arrange a second marriage for him with a Bengali divorcee. He had met her on his previous visit but they had got nowhere. She had backed out, he now learns from his father, because he had seemed to be looking not so much for a wife as a governess for his son.

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Marquez biographer talks about the author

Even those who have not read Gabriel Garcia Marquez will enjoy listening to The Strand, the BBC World Service arts and culture programme, where Gerald Martin tells Harriett Gilbert how he wrote Marquez's biography. The 1982 Nobel Prize winner for literature emerges as such a fascinating figure that one immediately wants to read him. The biography was supposed to appear in 1994 but has been published in Britain only recently and is yet to be released in America, where Martin teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Click on the link to go to the page and then listen to the interview on your media player. It's almost half an hour long: You have been warned! But Martin has so much to say about Marquez, Latin America and the world that listeners will enjoy every minute of it.

Martin spent 17 years working on the biography, travelling around the world, meeting the peripatetic Marquez and his friends and acquaintances. He had to transcribe more than 300 interviews. But Marquez refused to be interviewed on tape. Martin could only chat with him over a cup of tea or a bottle of whisky and carry it all in his head to be written down later. What made the task more difficult is that Marquez is a born storyteller who likes to spin a yarn, so Martin would end up getting different accounts of the same incident. But Marquez is warm, generous and humorous, says Martin, and he had a wonderful time interviewing him.

Martin talks about Marquez's friendship with Fidel Castro, Salman Rushdie's debt to Marquez, and why Marquez is immensely popular in the Third World. One Hundred of Solitude is a global masterpiece that will be read for generations to come, he says, and adds that Love in the Time of Cholera was one of the most popular novels of the late 20th century.

Marquez is popular in the Third World because he writes about the effect of technical progress on developing societies, which can relate to his brand of magical realism, says Martin. He is right. Salman Rusdhie's Midnight's Children is perhaps the most successful example of magical realism in English fiction — and it is set in India.

It is a pleasure to listen to the interview because Martin is so knowledgeable and appreciative of Marquez. He started with the impression that Marquez was egoistic and narcissistic and ended up enjoying his company. Marquez is deeply intuitive and intuited what was going through his mind faster than he could get insights into the author,  says Martin.

Listen to the BBC interview and read the reviews of Martin's book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, in The Times, the Telegraph and the Independent. The Telegraph review is especially fascinating with colourful details about Marquez. For example, on his honeymoon, he and his wife went to bed with three packets of cigarettes and an ashtray each and he told her the outline of what would become his greatest novel.