Umberto Eco (Naturally, a Manuscript)

“… he must, must write a sequel,” wrote Pradeep Sebastian about Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose. Now, alas, he never will. My own enthusiasm for Eco’s work has cooled over the years, yet I couldn’t have been more excited when I first stumbled upon a copy of Eco’s medieval murder mystery. Set in a Benedictine Abbey and featuring a Franciscan Friar named William of Baskerville who plays sleuth assisted by a naive Watsonian narrator (a Benedictine novice named Adso), I had to buy it. Later, naturally, I discovered Foucault’s Pendulum and felt Eco had, as Alec Nevala-Lee puts it, “seemingly managed to weave the entire world into a single book.” Nevertheless, I have to confess that I never managed to finish either book.

Phillip Lopate’s reassessment of Stendhal is a rather apt summing up of my present attitude to Eco:

… one of those writers, like Montaigne or Borges, whose sentences are incurably interesting, regardless of whether the piece they are embedded in comes together.

(The Pursuit of Worldliness, from Rereadings)

Sentences. And ideas. I still find his definition of a moron very useful. (Jacopo Belbo, the world weary book editor from Foucault’s Pendulum, defines it in a conversation with Casaubon, the narrator, about the gradations of foolishness.) Though undeniably interesting and intellectual playful, Eco’s books are so packed with erudition, the esoteric and the arcane, and so cerebral in purveying their erudite esoteric arcana, that they are neither easy nor lively reads, pop-cultural references notwithstanding. As John Updike points out:

Foucault’s Pendulum is a monumental performance, erudite beyond measure, and, insofar as Eco’s brainy presence on the page is enjoyable, enjoyable. But as a tale of human adventure … it totters and sags, and seems spun-out and thin.

The medieval characters of The Name of the Rose had at the least the solidity and colour of their richly evoked fourteenth-century milieu. Those of Foucault’s Pendulum belong to our era, and they seem, rather than creations of the author’s erudition, victims of it.

(In Borges’s Wake, from Odd Jobs)

These days I lean towards a livelier brand of erudition as offered by, for instance, A.S. Byatt.

Yet, Umberto Eco’s books continue to possess an idiosyncratic charm, one that I get a whiff of every time I browse through them. And if it weren’t for my, rather brief, infatuation with The Name of the Rose, I wouldn’t have discovered (Jorge Luis) Borges. (A blind librarian in the novel is named Jorge of Burgos. And the library is, practically, architected from the one in The Library of Babel.) It was, also, an object lesson in the paradigm and techniques of postmodernism and the first overtly literary novel and bibliophilic mystery that I read. It was therefore inevitable that, when I started blogging a few years ago, I would call my first blog Naturally, a Manuscript. For all this and more I will always be grateful.

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“Granite Throated Goblins,” Similes and Metaphors

I’m sure I’ve noticed it before, but this is the first time that I’m taking active note of it: the narrative technique of introducing a certain imagery as a simile and, immediately afterwards, using it as a metaphor. (Metaphor is, perhaps, not the most suitable term, but, for the moment, it will have to do.)

Consider, for instance, this passage from Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night:

There was no escaping the sound of water. It had many voices. The clearest sounded like someone shaking glass beads in a sieve. The waterfall spray beat the leaves with a noise like paper children applauding. From the ravines rose a sound like the chuckle of granite-throated goblins.

The goblins chuckled at Mosca as she scrambled down the slicked roof of Twence the Potter’s hut. She realized that she would never hear the sound of their chuckle again, and to her surprise felt a tiny sting of regret.

Despite being one in a sequence of wonderful and striking images, “the chuckle of granite-throated goblins” is stronger for also being evoked as a metaphor, which, in turn, is doubly effective for having first been introduced as a simile.

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Vivian Ridler, Printer to the Universe!

One of my prized possessions is a 1945 edition of Addison and Steele’s The Spectator (Volume 1 of a four-volume set of pocket-sized hardcovers, published by Everyman’s library). I picked it up for 100 rupees (a little over a dollar) at a used-books shop in Bangalore. This particular volume has the name “K. K. Salkade” inscribed on the inside of the back board. I also found a folded piece of paper marking pages 511 and 512 with the note, “Mr. Salkade is now engaged in the construction work of our new head office building at Worli, Bombay,” scribbled on it.

Some of the many charms of old books are the little meta-tales embedded in their yellowing pages. I happen to possess another couple of pocket-sized hardcovers (acquired at the very same used-books shop where I stumbled upon The Spectator) that I’ve come to prize and adore as much as my Addison and Steele. The “First Series” of English Critical Essays: Twentieth Century, was first published in 1935 and the “Second” in 1958 by Oxford University Press (OUP). Mine are reprints from 1964 and 1968 respectively. As fascinating as the contents of both volumes are, they can’t beat the riddling reference, in a note printed where, typically, “A Note on the Type” would be found, to “VIVIAN RIDLER PRINTER TO THE UNIVERSITY.”


Vivian Ridler, Archetypographicus Academicus, Printer to the University and the Universe!

Unlike the mysterious Mr. Salkade about whom I could glean nothing more than the little that the little note would yield, Vivian Ridler proved to be a titan—a figure of such eminence in his chosen field that an obituary in The Guardian, published a few days after his death on 11th January 2009, described him as “The last great figure in 500 years of Oxford University printing.”

Vivian Ridler, who has died aged 95, was printer to the University of Oxford from 1958 until 1978, and perhaps the outstanding holder of this prestigious post since academic printing began in Oxford in 1478 (two years after William Caxton set up his press). Only 11 years after his retirement, the delegates of the Oxford University Press (of which printing was then a part) decided that they no longer needed their own printing house.

(Source: The Guardian)

When Ridler joined the OUP’s printing house as its works manager, “he earned the respect of the conservative, but very competent, workforce, which then numbered 900.”

It soon recognised Ridler’s qualities. He was experienced, a good designer, had a good war record, was firm and fair and only lost his temper on purpose. And he walked to the shop early each morning. He once gave a brilliant lecture, the Bed-Motion of Letterpress Machines, and quickly showed his feeling for Oxford’s printing history by mounting a fine exhibition to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951.

(Source: The Guardian)

I couldn’t suppress my (Terry) Pratchett-esque glee on reading,

Millions of books bore his imprint “printer to the University of Oxford”, and sometimes he received letters addressed to the “printer to the universe”.

(Source: The Guardian)

Printer to the Universe! Therein lies a Discworld tale Terry Pratchett never wrote and that we, now, alas, will never get to read, of Archetypographicus Academicus, printer to the University and the Universe, who designed elegant books and beautiful documents, and to whom,

What mattered … above all were the author’s ideas, the reader, and the undergraduate on a tight budget.

(Source: The Telegraph)

The undergraduate on a tight budget.

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Down the Rabbit Hole. Again!

I am thirty. Have been for a few months. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, had he decided to live forever, would be hundred and eighty four. Of course, Lewis Carroll is alive, and well, has decided to live forever, and, at the moment, is a great grand old man of hundred and fifty three. (How? Left as an exercise to the interested reader. Clue? Solitude.) It’s been five years since I decisively tumbled into the rabbit hole (Alice, Inception). Yet here I am, at it again.

Hauriant (pronounced \hawr-ee-uh nt\ or, for the phonetic adepts, \ˈhȯrēənt\) is a heraldic attitude that applies to sea creatures. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it thus, “being in pale with the head up as if rising for air.” (Thanks to a fellow aficionado of unusual words for the tip.)

heraldic dolphin No2

A Hauriant Dolphin

In Through the Looking-Glass Lewis Carroll describes one of the White King’s messengers, Haigha (the March Hare), as adopting “Anglo-Saxon attitudes.” Hauriant being one among many heraldic “attitudes,” I took the cue and picked up Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice to explore.

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. “I see somebody now!” she exclaimed at last. “But he’s coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into!” (For the Messenger kept skipping up and down, wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

“Not at all,” said the King. “He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes.”

Gardner annotates,

In his references to Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Carroll is spoofing Anglo-Saxon scholarship of his day. Harry Morgan Ayres, in his book Carroll’s Alice, reproduces some drawings of Anglo-Saxons in various costumes and attitudes, from the Caedmon Manuscript of the Julian Codex, and suggests that they may have been used as a source by both Carroll and Tenniel [John Tenniel, the illustrator of the Alice books].

And adds,

Just why Carroll disguised the Hatter [“Hatta,” the other messenger] and the Hare as Anglo-Saxon messengers (and Tenniel under-scored this whimsy by dressing them as Anglo-Saxons and giving them “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” ) continues to be puzzling.

These are the Tenniel drawings Gardner is referring to:

Haigha by Himself


Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Haigha and Hatta, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes”

It’s curious that in the second illustration, if you squint, both Haigha and Hatta seem to be practically hauriant in their attitudes.

Haigha Hatta Hauriant

Haigha and Hatta. Hauriant?

I would love to hear more about this from my loyal readers. (I know you’re there!) In the meanwhile, I’ve discovered Morton N. Cohen’s monumental biography Lewis Carroll, a veritable rabbit-hole all in itself and, also, Martin Gardner’s annotated edition of The Hunting of the Snark. The latter is worth the price of admission just for this one wonderland-of-a-gloss:

Carroll’s quite different rule-of-three plays a central role in the plot of a bizzare science fiction story, “Chaos, Coordinated,” by John MacDougal (pseudonym of Robert Lowndes and James Blish). The earth is at war with a distant galaxy, where the various races are coordinated by a gigantic computer. An earthman manages to disguise The Hunting of the Snark as an “observational report” and feed it to the giant brain. The brain accepts literally the order “What I tell you three times is true.” All it had been told once or twice in the past is regarded as unverified, and new observational reports are not accepted because they are made only once. As a result, the entire galaxy becomes, so to speak, snarked.

Snarked! Now, read on …

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Of Notes, Notebooks, and Beautiful Friendships

I’ve always had a notebook into which I would scribble occasional thoughts and musings, copy out favourite passages from books, and even outline arguments for longer pieces of writing. Such a motley bunch of scribblings between the covers of a single notebook irked my sensitive, super-systematic brain no end. And so, a few months ago, I decided to systematise my rather unruly note-taking routine without, of course, robbing myself of the delight of putting pen to paper and filling pages and pages of physical paper with ink. A separate notebook for each of the different kinds of writing I did was the heroic way forward!

Pierre Cardin Jeune, are a collection of notebooks (they’re marketed as “journals,” and I suppose they are) that combine the essential old-fashioned charm of a notebook (yellow tinted off-white pages!) with a cool hipness of design (hence, jeune). These, I told myself, would henceforth be the receptacles of my learned outpourings, my frenzied note-taking, and my obsessive quote-copying. Four books. Four Colours. The Black Book of Quotes! The Blue Book of Notes! The Red Book of Writings! And … The Green Book of Concise Condensed Literary Wisdom!

The Green Book didn’t quite happen the way I intended it to. (The others did.) For one, it’s not Pierre Cardin Jeune; it’s a much smaller pocket journal. And for another, it’s decidedly not The Green Book of Condensed Literary Wisdom; that’s what it was meant to be, but I re-purposed it. It’s now the little green journal into which I’ve willed and disciplined myself into writing a page or two every day: the green book, therefore, of my literary journalism!

At the moment the little green book’s index looks like this:


And the, as yet, lone entry for today (hinting at what I think is the beginning of a beautiful friendship) reads,

I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to read A Suitable Boy. War and Peace can wait!

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Notes on Literature: Children’s Books, a Conversation and Some Thoughts

Last week, a friend and I had a pretty incisive conversation about what we, each, found fascinating about children’s literature as adult readers. She was drawn to the possibility, which children’s fiction affords an adult, of seeing the world from a child’s point of view and the magic and wonder inherent in it. I have always been drawn to the presence, alongside magic and wonder, of darker, even adult, themes, concerns, and questions. (I pointed to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as an instance of this; it’s spectrum of virtually adult themes ranges from religion and science to violence and megalomania to adult and adolescent identity and sexuality, all coloured by a sophisticated sense of moral ambiguity. Thinking back, though, Pullman’s work isn’t perhaps the best of candidates to make as general a point as I did. I’ll get back to that a little later.)

Dark or not, adult or not, the best of children’s fiction (British?), we agreed, is characterised by strands of both subversiveness and moral ambiguity. They brim with dubious and unconventional characters, places, experiences, and events that adults would typically warn children against, but, in this instance, don’t. Rather, they gleefully read such incendiary entertainment to their kids, urge their older children to read them, and, at times, read them themselves! It’s “a means of breaking the rules without breaking them,” as my friend put it.

And right there, we’d hit upon a trinity of paradoxes: adults writing for children; children being sanctioned, by adults, to read morally ambiguous and subversive fiction; and adults reading children’s literature. What kind of adult writes for children? There are theories, I said, of arrested development; that writers of children’s books are big children themselves. There are theories of a darker, Freudian, nature too. (Of which the less said the better, charming though they certainly must be to a psychoanalyst.) We agreed that there does seem to be something of the child, or at least the untainted curiosity and wonder of one, in most writers and illustrators of children’s books. Perhaps just a hint of a twisted mind too; I mentioned Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are. (There’s even a The Simpsons episode, The Girl Who Slept Too Little, that parodies it.)

Are adult questions, themes, and concerns expressed subtly in children’s literature? I used to think so and had stated so during our conversation. However, in retrospect, having given it more thought, I don’t think so. They are, I feel expressed not so much subtly as matter-of-fact-ly. (Consider, for instance, the casual jokes about death in the Alice books and the darker shades of sibling rivalry in Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life.) Fiction for adults is unlikely to treat such questions this way. And that I’ve come to believe is the essential difference, if there is one, between literature broadly meant for children and that meant for adults. And that, too, is the reason Pullman’s His Dark Materials is unsuitable as an illustration of the way adult themes are handled in children’s fiction. It could even be argued that, despite being filled with a profound sense of mystery and wonder, Pullman’s work is anti-children’s literature in that it rallies against the idealising and romanticising of children and childhood and argues for embracing adulthood in all its colours. And yet, it continues to fascinate me and us that even when shaded by darkness, the darker themes, frequently if not always, coexist with a sense of magic, mystery, and wonder. Sometimes I wonder if they feed into each other and cannot exist one without the other.

(Musings: Could this relationship between the inherent darkness of the world and its undeniable capacity for magic and wonder be described as sublime? That is, could what is unquestionably beautiful also be inevitably terrifying or frightening?)

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Notes on Literature: Chance, Fundamental Laws, and Narratives

Despite being a talk by no less an intellectual personage than Murray Gell-Mann himself, Beauty, truth and … physics? is a warm, charming, clear, no-nonsense, and non-technical exposition of the aesthetic framework underlying the laws of fundamental physics. Yet, that’s not why I’m writing about it. I’m doing so because Gell-Mann provides a clear, matter-of-fact statement of a fundamental truth about the universe that is so obvious, and yet so subtle and profound, that most scientists don’t even bother stating it in black and white: That the universe is a consequence of the laws that govern its fundamental phenomena plus chance occurrences (accidents).

So what that means is that the history of the universe is not determined just by the fundamental law. It’s the fundamental law and this incredibly long series of accidents, or chance outcomes, that are there in addition.

And the fundamental theory doesn’t include those chance outcomes; they are in addition. So it’s not a theory of everything.

Life can emerge from physics and chemistry, plus a lot of accidents. The human mind can arise from neurobiology and a lot of accidents, the way the chemical bond arises from physics and certain accidents. It doesn’t diminish the importance of these subjects to know that they follow from more fundamental things, plus accidents. That’s a general rule, and it’s critically important to realize that.

(Transcript of “Beauty, truth and … physics?”)

Why is this a “note on literature”? Because, be it the humanities or the sciences, there are theories (Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy; Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) and then there are narratives (“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go …”; “A few tens of billions of years ago the Universe was a uber-dense singularity …”) and the relationship between the two isn’t always obvious. But apply Gell-Mann’s “rule,” and it becomes abundantly clear that narratives do not spring from theories alone, but from theories and a sequence of accidents (or choices, in the case of literature). While the fundamental theory is an integral component of a narrative, it’s the accidents and choices that set it on its course. In the end, it’s the story that matters.

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Quotes: Life According to “Little, Big”

The things that make us happy make us wise.

‘Love is a myth.’
‘Love is a myth,’ Grandfather Trout said. ‘Like summer.’
‘In winter,’Grandfather Trout said, ‘summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in. Get it? Love is a myth. So is summer.’

Learning to decipher words had only added to the pleasures of holding spines and turning pages, measuring the journey to the end with a thumb-riffle, poring over frontispieces. Books! Opening with a crackle of old glue, releasing perfume; closing with a solid thump.

Stories last longer: but only by becoming only stories.”

There was after all no mystery in the end of love, no mystery but the mystery of love itself, which was large certainly but as real as grass, as natural and unaccountable as bloom and branch and their growth.

The universe is Time’s body.

The tears of those who never cry, the calm, the levelheaded ones, are terrible to see.

But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising.

(Little, Big by John Crowley)

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Notes on Writing: Thoughts

I always write a thing first and think about it afterwards … because the easiest way to have consecutive thoughts is to start putting them down.

— E. B. White

Like everything else in life, articulating thoughts by writing them down is an activity that benefits hugely from sheer practice and experience. And, as White observes, the more you attempt to put thoughts down, the more structured they become—writing is an inherently self-reflexive process. Hence, perhaps unique among human activities, writing your thoughts down doesn’t just offer you writing experience; it does one better, and feeds back into your mind to sequence and structure the very thoughts you wish to write down.

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Notes from the Bookshop 6: Ira Levin

I’m sure readers everywhere have their fair share of experiences involving books they’ve been after for a long while turning up when they least expect them to. I have too; for instance: One evening (aeons ago), walking out of a restaurant, I found amongst the books on display on the pavement, the exact book—Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas—I was looking for at that point of time. And amazingly it wasn’t a cheap photocopy, but a not-so-easy-to-come-by, original, Vintage paperback edition! These days, though, with book buying having become an almost exclusively online affair, experiences of this kind are a precious few, and far far between. (Sigh.) However, over the last weekend, I was reminded that “physical” bookshops still possess the power to surprise.

I was at the Phoenix mall in Chennai to catch the new James Bond movie (it’s silly, if not downright stupid, by the way) and, with more than an hour to spare, sauntered into the bookshop there. Browsing at the Mystery section, what should I come upon but a bunch of books by Ira Levin! I’ve watched Polanski’s adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby and read the book itself in parts, but have been looking for Levin’s other books for a long time. And here they were!


And only the day before, I was rereading Pradeep Sebastian’s essay on Levin:

Levin’s thrillers are not about “whodunit” but “who-will-do-it”. Suspense, not shock, is what Levin is after. He is more interested in the process of suspense, its nuances. And he builds it with small, sure nudges and stifled shrieks. His misdirection is subtle, even comic, never obvious or guessable. He sets up cunning red herrings to heighten our sense of paranoia: characters and situations remain eerily ambiguous till the end. Most suspense novelists are content with a single layer of suspense in their plots. Levin’s genius is to shade the plot with several layers of suspense that can leave you (pleasurably) in knots.

Talk about coincidence.

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