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.’
‘What?’
‘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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Quotes: Puzzles

“… every move the puzzler makes …”

From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before …

— Georges Perec, Preamble to Life: A User’s Manual

“… a maximum of effect from an economy of means …”

An arbitrary multiplication of complications is not the best recipe for a puzzle, as we see it: puzzles and their solutions should rather derive a maximum of effect from an economy of means. Both can then have an aesthetic element—charm, elegance, beauty—which we wish to make apparent …

— T. H. O’ Beirne, Preface to Puzzles and Paradoxes

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Notes on Reading and Literature: Translation

This was first posted on Quora as an answer to the question, “When reading a novel translated into English, are we really experiencing what the author intended, given that their original prose has been lost?”

Do we ever read what authors intend, even when we read their work in the original language? That’s an interestingly labyrinthine question all by itself; my point, however, is this: all readings are interpretations. I feel this is the best way to approach a translated work of fiction too—as a close, but inevitably subjective, reading of the original and, hence, an interpretation.

To the best of my knowledge, the only English translation of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is the one by Gregory Rabassa. I know nothing whatsoever about the original Spanish text. But I do know that Rabassa’s text is magical and a work of literature all by itself. Would my experience of this masterpiece have been the same had I known Spanish and had read the original? I have no way of knowing and, for all I know, it may not have been. I see Rabassa’s text as an interpretative outcome of a collaboration (whether literal or metaphorical shouldn’t be a reader’s concern) between Rabassa himself and Garcia Marquez: distinct from the original and a work of art in its own right. This, in my opinion, holds true for any translation of a work of fiction from one language to another.

P.S. Anyone truly interested in the problem of translation and its nuances and ramifications should read David Bellos’s wonderfully readable Is that a Fish in Your Ear?

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Musings: Art, Insight, Perspective

Brief thoughts about art and its social function that took shape on reading Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art, an article in The New York Times Magazine by Dan Brooks.

Questions of what constitutes good or bad art, whether art is about aesthetics or concept, and the artistic merit of insufficiently developed content are interesting in their own ways. However, in the context of this particular article, I feel the more pertinent, even pressing, question is this: Is providing insights the primary function of art? Or, in other words, is art obliged to be insightful? Here’s Dan Brooks’s description of one of the Dismaland installations:

… one of its most remarked-upon installations is a wreck of Cinderella’s carriage: Her body dangles luridly from the window, lit by the flashes of a paparazzi scrum.

That’s a reference. It’s not exactly ironic, nor is it funny. But it’s built like a joke: Like Cinderella, Diana became a princess by marriage. Also like Cinderella, Diana took a famous ride, but her fairy tale turned gruesome — what if Cinderella’s had ended the same way? That’s not exactly an insight, but it has a certain quality.

What he seems to be taking exception to, with the Cinderella installation, isn’t that it’s kitsch, but that it’s kitsch that doesn’t offer a mind-expanding insight and, therefore, is sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake. And, going by his description of the artwork, he is right. Cinematic depictions of exploitation, however critical their tone, themselves teeter on the edge of being exploitative. So too, works of art critiquing sensationalism, may still end up pandering to sensationalist sensibilities. Having said that, I don’t feel, as Brooks does, that this is an “injustice”. I don’t feel, either, that being pure kitsch disqualifies artwork from being ‘art’. We do, for instance, allow movies to depict exploitation of one kind or another, in one form or another; we wince, we squirm, we walkout disgusted, but we allow it nevertheless. Freedom of expression is practically an endorsement of art’s potential (right, even) to offend, frustrate, irritate, disgust or whatever other emotion it is meant to elicit. But be it profound, moving, offensive, frustrating, irritating, or disgusting, I feel art achieves its purpose when it offers a perspective (and whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, the Cinderella installation does offer a perspective)—one that leads to the articulation of deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and sensibilities. And, in a sense, Dan Brooks’s article itself is a testament to this.

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Notes on Reading and Literature: My Ten

A while ago, readers on Facebook were tagging each other to list out their ten favourite books. I was tagged too. And since I like making lists, I made one. It had over thirty titles. To whittle it down to ten, I decided to pick only those books that had a certain formative influence on me—essentially, those books that made me who I am. I did not annotate the list then. Now I have. Here it is:

  1. The Groaning Shelf by Pradeep Sebastian

My tastes as a reader have largely been shaped by The Hindu Literary Review (formerly a monthly literary supplement and now a weekly feature of The Hindu). Of its many perceptive voices over the years, Pradeep Sebastian’s has been the one that has consistently conveyed, with infectious enthusiasm (through his Endpaper column), the sheer joy of being a reader and a bibliophile.

  1. Rereadings by Anne Fadiman (editor)

These days, I’m as much a re-reader as a reader. This is quite possibly all thanks to Anne Fadiman’s Rereadings. I also, ritually, reread Rereadings. It’s got, without doubt, the greatest essay on rereading ever committed to paper (Fadiman’s) and, perhaps, the greatest essay ever written about The Charterhouse of Parma (Philip Lopate’s). Enough. Said.

  1. Strange Beauty by George Johnson

(This is drawn, verbatim, from another post on the blog about science writing and writers.)

The best science writers do not write science; they write cultural histories. With the single-minded obsession of an auteur meticulously putting together a motion picture, they tease out the narratives underlying the human efforts to make sense of the Universe. And just like the most accomplished writers of fiction they have their overarching themes.

George Johnson is interested in the influences that shape the mind of a polymath, and the social and cultural conditions which provoke and nurture it, in Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in 20th-Century Physics, arguably one of the finest scientific biographies ever written. The complex Murray Gell-Mann is both the subject and the grand unifying principle of Johnson’s masterwork, allowing him to pick up and then weave multiple intellectual narrative strands into one unified tableau.

  1. Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino

Calvino has a way of making the classics sound like they’re the spiciest new bestsellers around. Just sample the opening sentences of his essay on Xenephon’s “Anabasis”: “Reading Xenephon’s Anabasis today is the nearest thing to watching an old documentary which is repeated every so often on television or on video. The same fascination that we experience when watching the black and white of a faded film, with its rather crude contrasts of light and shade and speeded-up movements, emerges almost spontaneously …”

And here he is on Voltaire’s Candide: “Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.”

Why Read the Classics? taught me two things: One: The text is what the reader makes of it. A classic could be as thrilling as a thriller and a thriller as coldly austere as a classic; how you read them makes all the difference. Two: Alongside Borges’s essays, it made me realise that writers of fiction are, perhaps, at their lively best in their non-fiction.

  1. Collected Fiction & Selected Non-Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges is a reader’s writer. He writes as a reader and he writes for readers. His works of fiction read like essays. And his essays possess the narrative dazzle of the best of fiction. Intellectually playful, erudite and drawing on esoteric and arcane stores of knowledge and philosophy, Borges never fails to surprise or inspire.

  1. Little, Big by John Crowley

Little, Big is everything they (Michael Dirda, Harold Bloom, and others) say it is: an exceptional fairy tale, a magnificent fantasia of ideas, a poetic and magical tale of love and marriage, and, perhaps, as a Washington Post reviewer once wrote, “the greatest fantasy ever written by an American.”

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is Borges’s stories made flesh and blood. It is also far more than just that. It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s infinity between the covers of a single book. It’s a superlatives-exhausting marvel. What shall I highlight? The wistful sense of the irresistible passage of time? The lighthouse-like chunks of wisdom that stand anchored and glowing amidst the churning tumult of individual human lives? The mythic game of combinatorics that fate plays with the Buendia family? The goose bumps inducing rush and narrative momentum of the last one hundred pages? None of that would do justice to this magical novel. The wisest advice I can offer at the moment is this: Read it.

  1. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Any superficial description of Fifth Business is likely to make it sound seriously boring and boringly serious. Yet, it’s title—a term from theatre that, according to Davies refers to “Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement”—hints at mystery (Recognition! Denouement!), if not magic. And—make no mistake!—it is magical; a moral novel with a Freudian heart and a Jungian beat. John Updike gave “the mundane its beautiful due.” In Fifth Business, Davies imbues prosaic lives with a mythical glow.

  1. A Book of English Essays (Penguin)

I had bought this robust collection of some of the best essays in the English language on a whim; it turned out to be one of the most important books I ever bought. It came into my life at the right time: I was just discovering my abilities as a writer. It was here that I discovered the possibilities of non-fiction writing in English: as personal essay, as criticism, as commentary, as annotation, as argument, and as a means both of thinking and of articulating thought. If I now take great pleasure in placing one word next to another, in constructing thoughts, and in structuring sentences and paragraphs, it is certainly because of A Book of English Essays.

  1. I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s memoir was the first among his books that I read. It’s his only book that I continue to re-read. Asimov was a prolific writer. (He authored over 400 books, both fiction and non-fiction.) He was also a fiendish reader with a monstrous memory. I. Asimov: A Memoir is many things: a glowing account of a childhood spent reading, a first-person biographical history of the SF golden age, a glimpse into the writerly life and its idiosyncrasies. However, at heart, it’s an account of the life of a reader as writer. And therein lies its value. Reading it the first time around I felt a glow of pride in being a reader. It’s a glow that has never diminished since.

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