Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An Interview with Neel Mukherjee, Author of Past Continuous

I did an email interview with Neel Mukherjee, who won the 2008 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for fiction for his first novel, Past Continuous. Excerpts from this were published in September's Hindu Literary Review.

1. Past Continuous is your first novel and it's obviously deeply felt. Did you worry at any stage about how your candour would be received? For example, did you worry that the scathing treatment Calcutta gets in this book, might offend some of your readers? And now that the book's been out a while, how would you assess the reaction of readers in this respect?

I do not have any memory of worrying about the reception its candour would get but the thought did cross my mind, on several occasions, that Calcuttans and Bengalis might murmur against the book. I was relieved when my anxieties turned out to be unfounded. I do not know why I have been spared the fate (so far, I hasten to add; it might be unleashed with my next book, who knows?) that lies in wait for writers who are critical about Bengalis and Calcutta. I'd like to think it's because I do not write as an 'outsider': I know the place and the period in my blood and my bones. I have lived as a Bengali and a Calcuttan for 22 years of my life, so no one could accuse me of not 'being' a Bengali/Calcuttan, of writing about things I do not know/understand. It may also have something to do with the fact that the book's attitude towards Oxford and London are as scathing and disaffected so it balances out the disenchantment with Calcutta.

2. There have been plenty of books dealing with emigration from India to the West. But the protagonist is rarely as little nostalgic about what he is leaving and as single-mindedly bent on escaping, as Ritwik in Past Continuous. Were you aware, while you wrote this book, that you were treading a different emotional terrain from other 'migrant' novels? Is that something you deliberately set out to do?

Yes, it was a very deliberate move on my part. I was trying to look at exile as choice, as volitional and sought-out. The common or garden variety of nostalgia, which is nothing more than a spurious, confected sentimentality, has ruined the 'migrant' novel. If you must have nostalgia, or longing glances backwards at what you've left behind, there must be new ways of doing it. Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American writer, for example, looks back on his life in Sarajevo all the time, but he reinvents nostalgia for his purposes to the extent that we need to find another word for the feeling that charges his fiction. Nostalgia can be extremely powerful in the right hands: think of the intense longing in the films Andrei Tarkovsky made after he left the USSR. They wring your soul. Alas, no such thing marks Indian 'migrant' literature yet.

3. You chose a gay protagonist for the novel, and yet the fact of his homosexuality didn't seem to me central to any of his predicaments. He might have been heterosexual and had just the same crises- only the details would differ. Do you agree with this reading? Or do you think the novel has something specific to say about Ritwik's sexuality?

It's really wonderful and affirming to hear this. I cannot tell you how much I agree with this reading. Ritwik's homosexuality is a sideshow. The novel is not a 'gay novel' in the sense The Swimming-Pool Library or The Spell are. I'm dismayed to hear it described as a 'coming-out' novel or, worse, a 'coming-of-age' novel. It could then, with equal justification, be called a novel about fruit-picking, or a novel about a posh London hotel. I was once told by a reader, who was disappointed, I think, that the book was not 'about' homosexuality, that I 'didn't do anything with Ritwik's homosexuality, just placed it in the novel without dealing with it'. What's there to deal with? His sexuality is what it is, a given, and I was not interested in mounting an enquiry into it at all. It's a novel 'about' other things.

4. When I finished reading Past Continuous that old line of verse came to me : East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Is there a sense in which you share that sentiment?

Yes, I do, in short. I'm much more attracted to the miscegenation of cultures than to harmony. The vision of, say, Naipaul, of such complicated enmeshments and their intractable nature, excoriating though it is, speaks an undeniable truth that is lacking from the flimsier works written by lesser writers to 'celebrate' multiculturalism or happy fusion of East and West. I'm much more interested in the long-term historical legacies of such (mostly baneful) encounters between worlds than sixteenth-century Turkish and Venetian art that borrowed from each other and married East and West in such harmonious beauty because the worlds came together through trade and commerce and all that rubbish. 

5. I understand that before Picador India got it, the book was considered by many agents and publishers in the U.K. Were there any recurring comments or suggestions that you received from them?

Agents don't usually send suggestions in this country if they turn you down. The agent who took me on made one very sensitive suggestion and I accepted it instantly because it went 'ping' in my head. I have one very bad experience with a UK publisher, who gave it out to be understood that she wanted to publish my book and made me do a lot of changes, all outside a contract, only to reject it in the end. What was worse was that it was obvious from the outset that she simply hadn't 'got' the book: she wanted me to turn the novel into a fluffy, romantic, weepy Exotica Fest. She wanted the 'smells and colours of India', which she felt were missing, a love-story in Ritwik's narrative, a love-story in the Miss Gilby narrative, something that would 'wrench the heart' ... I'm really, really lucky I wasn't published by her. I think of that experience as something akin to surviving a rail crash.

6. You did a course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. How useful was that experience in shaping you as a writer? Would you recommend a creative writing course to amateur writers?

It was one of the worst years of my life. The UEA Creative Writing MA was in irreversible decline by the time I joined the course: too many students (because it's an easy money-spinner for the university); very mediocre teachers in my year; their craven kowtowing to the illusion that writers can be made out of people who are not readers; the inanity inherent in the 'workshopping model' ... I could go on and on. The anti-intellectualism that so defines the English was nowhere more starkly on show than in that dreadful MA course. Which makes you think: if a writing class is pegged to the lowest common denominator, where are we headed? What it does give you, and I think this is quite useful, is a kind of toughness, a resilience to both the dominant norm in writing produced by the Creative Writing Industry and to useless, content-free, unintelligent criticism. It can build a good filtering system in you, so that you can instantly detect rubbish in comments you get on your work and, equally, the perceptive stuff. It also teaches you to push against the zeitgeisty kind of writing that has taken over publishing and that is invaluable. So, in short, all you learn from a Creative Writing course is to go against it, a kind of walking the via negativa. On a more personal level, I should quit complaining about my time at UEA because it was there that I met the most exciting writer working in the UK today: Ali Smith. Alas, she didn't teach my group.

As for recommending creative writing courses to amateur writers, yes, I suppose I would, very reluctantly, simply because it's getting impossible to have your manuscript seen by agents if you do not have the rubber-stamp of a good writing school.

7. Who are your favourite authors- and what do you like about them?

The list is endless. I'll pick just a few. Gustave Flaubert, because he took realism to its stretching point. Samuel Beckett, because he picked up the pieces after that and created new possibilities for fiction by taking prose back to zero. Mikhail Bulgakov, for that one novel, The Master and Margarita, which shows you what a wild, untramelled imagination is capable of. Penelope Fitzgerald, for her left-field imagination, her left-field prose, her astonishing way with details. R.K. Narayan, because the whole world is there in his gentle, witty, immensely affectionate novels; irony had not become a default position for moral impoverishment yet. Richard Yates, for the glitchless surface of his psychological realism, under which runs a bleak vision of humanity. James Salter, for some of the most extraordinary prose in the Anglo-American world.

Book Review: My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield (Hachette Book Group, 2008)

(First published in September's Hindu Literary Review)

There is one redeeming truth that glimmers at the back of this book: every good artist owes more to life than to letters. The absence of academic laurels can therefore be no impediment to a suitably sensitive youth, looking to be (the next) Shakespeare, provided always that he lives deeply. But just what constitutes living deeply? Jess Winfield's My Name is Will has no good answers. It calls itself a novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare, and that is a fairly exact description. Unfortunately, the implication through the course of the book seems to be that the first two commodities, partaken of in generous quantities, will more or less yield the third. This somewhat thin understanding of creative genius shows also in the novel's stylistic make-up, so much so that it is better treated as a high-spirited academic tract, than a work of fiction.

Employing what has become a fairly common story-telling device, My Name is Will proceeds along two parallel narratives. In 1980s California, we follow young Willie Shakespeare Greenberg as he struggles with his Master's thesis on his illustrious namesake. Willie wants to show that the persecution of Catholics in late sixteenth century England was the fire in which Shakespeare's talents were forged. But what he really wants is to sleep with plenty of girls and get high on plenty of mushrooms. His troubles begin when his father, who is wise to his son's predilections, cuts his flow of cash, thus forcing Willie to embark on a dangerous expedition to Berkeley to sell a giant psychedelic mushroom to a drug dealer. Dangerous because Nancy Reagan's war on drugs is underway, and there are informers and enforcers on the prowl. There are also, of course, various high-minded young men and women, vociferously saying Yes to Drugs. So where does Willie figure in the fight? Ostensibly on the side of the latter group, but not really- all that he really wants is to sell his 'stuff' and make a quick buck. The principle of the thing is not so important to him. And somewhat similar is his attitude to Shakespeare. We know that Willie is obsessed by the Bard; he has what looks like the entire Collected Works memorized; but the strongest impression he gives is of a young man in thrall to a name, Shakespeare, and an idea, The Great Artist, but neither particularly capable, nor particularly interested, in comprehending either. Now, in all this, he is a perfectly convincing character; he represents a very real type of affable, feckless young man. But Jess Winfield wants us to believe that he is a modern Shakespeare in the making, and that is a stretch.

Unless you buy his idea of the original. The second, alternating story of the book is of the young William Shakespeare in Stratford on Avon in 1582, flitting from maiden to maiden, and not doing much writing. His own 'war on drugs' is the Queen's war on Catholicism, and his own dangerous expedition is to deliver a relic from the Church to his old schoolmaster, now in hiding from Protestant pursuers. He, too, does not ultimately care for this fight; religious faith, one way or the other, doesn't much interest him. So what does interest him? People, presumably, their lives, their loves, their emotions, their crises? We would expect him to spend long hours scanning his thoughts for what gems he could make of them. But Winfield will have none of that. In a few pages of jejune fictional fancy he attributes Shakespeare's uniquely powerful insight to a particularly strong encounter with narcotics. Meanwhile, back in 1986, a similar 'mind-blowing' overdose gives Willie Greenberg the scoop on his hero and ensures the safe passage of his thesis. Thus the two Shakespeares, old and new, are each set on their way. In Winfield's imagination, it really is that simple.

Save, then, for the one true idea that artists draw from life and not books, My Name is Will is superficial in the extreme. And yet this is not because it is jaded or too tired to try. On the contrary, it is nothing if not enthusiastic. The writing is full of puns and word-play; the author is clearly besotted with his subject. But his enthusiasm is misdirected. The energy Winfield expends on his fictional characters and situations might have been better harnessed had he written an out and out academic treatise. This is no joke; even as it is, My Name is Will frequently reads like a highly imaginative research paper. When telling the story of the modern day Willie, Winfield pauses every now and then to take a potshot at 'New Literary Criticism'- an academic doctrine which holds, apparently, that the personal experiences of an author are irrelevant to appraising his writings. And every chapter about the 'original' William Shakespeare is prefaced by a brief factual note about his life and times- these are interesting, and serve as relevant points of departure for the story to come. The whole of My Name is Will could therefore be treated as an ebullient attack on New Literary Criticism, buttressed with examples, and on that footing it might well succeed. But not as a novel.

Age and The Fiction Writer

(First published in the August Hindu Literary Review)

Literature, Naipaul once remarked, is not really for the young. In the course of his career the man has made many controversial and hotly debated remarks, but this has not been one of them. On the contrary, it is a thesis widely treated as true, that a writer of fiction is green in his youth and gets better with time. Individual proponents of the theory might easily be named, but a thought experiment will better establish its general acceptance. Imagine a critic, reviewing a book, and writing of its author- 'X is a woman, and so we may forgive her lack of insight'; he would lose his job. He would lose it just the same if X, in that sentence, was a North Indian or a Muslim or dark-skinned. But if, instead, our critic forgave X, because 'X is a young man', not only would he keep his job, he might also gain a reputation for wisdom, gentleness and compassion. Is this fair? Must a young writer, to whom 'talent' and 'potential' are so freely accorded, be denied insight- the one attainment that defines the artist- until there is some grey in his hair? I suggest that the answer is No, and the theory is a mistake, and a big one to boot.

The case in its favour is simple and, from the looks of it, strong. First and most fundamental, it seems obvious that if one wishes to say something of 'life', one must have lived a little. Lacking experience, one lacks knowledge. Second, writing is a craft and the more one does it the better one gets at it. There are techniques to be learned, and that takes time. Finally, writing is not the pastime of a few months or years. It is the vocation of a lifetime. Given the scale of the task, surely it is logical to assume a period of apprenticeship that extends (at least) through one's twenties, and then a period of consolidation and refinement ever after? To date, the youngest Nobel Laureate in Literature is Kipling, and he was 42, no spring chicken. So is Naipaul right?

Before we turn to the analytical reasons why not, let us consider the cases of three great authors, each of whom started young. Charles Dickens was 24 when The Pickwick Papers was published. It was his first novel, a hilarious, rollicking jaunt of a novel, which G.K. Chesterton has called “the great example of everything that made Dickens great.” Rudyard Kipling was 23 when Plain Tales from the Hills appeared; sharp, witty accounts of English lives in India; “he terrifies us with his truth”, wrote Oscar Wilde. And of all Kipling's work, it was this book that Naipaul picked out for a dose of (rare) praise. Before F. Scott Fitzgerald was 30 he had published three of his four finished novels, including The Great Gatsby, his romantic masterpiece.

Were these men aberrations? Were they, by some quirk of nature, granted middle-aged maturity at a prematurely early age? No, because these books are so youthful. There is nothing in the least middle-aged about them. Dickens never wrote another novel like Pickwick Papers, with it's unfettered, formless vitality; at the end of his days he was writing the highly structured Edwin Drood. The tender gravitas of the elder Kipling of If and the Just So Stories is a far cry from the frankly gossipy Plain Tales from the Hills. Even Fitzgerald, for whom the ways of youth were a way of life, lost to a great extent the lyrical penchant for 'fine writing' that made his early work so beautiful. In its stead he developed the pithiness and wit that marks his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and more clearly his last several short stories.

The point is not that these writers grew worse with time. Or better. The point is, they grew different with time. Their abilities changed with time. They remained great in middle-age and beyond- for one set of reasons- but they started great in their youth- for another set of reasons. And this is the clue to our mystery.

Yes, writing is a lifetime's vocation. Which is why a forty five year old writer is no more 'superior' to a twenty five year old, than forty five years of life are 'superior' to twenty five. The common mistake is to assume that at the later age you have all that you did at the earlier- plus twenty years experience. The truth is people forget. At twenty it seems scarcely conceivable that we were once six years old- a child is a stranger- and similarly, at forty the young person is a stranger. His or her way of thinking and feeling is irretrievably lost- it shows in the clash of the generations, and it shows in the writing. 'Experience' is not a commodity that keeps increasing quantitatively; it only keeps changing qualitatively; and so, incredible though it may seem, the twenty five year old writer possesses as many passionately felt thoughts, and as many means of expressing them, as he or she ever will. Looked at another way, it is worth noting that there comes an age beyond which one word fits all: the word is 'adult', and if you are not one by twenty five, you probably won't be one by seventy five.

All this is important for a single, outstanding reason: that the preponderance of Naipaul's sentiment can, and no doubt has, waylaid many a career. It is very easy, and very deadly, for young writers to put off their work on the theory that they are too young, and can't possibly have anything 'really great' to say just yet. Their every instinct may be crying out against the theory, but such is the power of suggestion and the brittleness of psychology, and the fragility of confidence, that we don't always trust our instincts. Discouragement is cheap and easy, but what is always wanted- now more than ever for Indian writing in English- is enthusiasm. So it needs to be said, that age is a number, and literature for the young.

The Dangerous Demarcation of Literary and Commercial Fiction

(This was published under the title 'Dangerous Demarcations' in July's Hindu Literary Review)

A product must have a description, and nowhere is this requirement more acute than in the business of fiction. Mention a new book and 'What's it about?', is the first and inevitable question. It is a perfectly serious, perfectly reasonable question. Everybody asks it, and it deserves to be answered. The artist's protest that his art is ineffable is not a good answer. In steps the tough-bitten marketeer. He has made a career out of bombarding the public with masses of information they never wanted to know. Now they do want to know, and he finds he hasn't a clue. But unlike the writer he is never short of words. He dips into his bag of cliches, categories and comparisons and what should come to hand, at the very top, but those old faithfuls: literary fiction, commercial fiction.

Perhaps you will say this is being unfair. After all, just instinctively, one feels there is something to the distinction. James Joyce is not Jeffrey Archer. Chetan Bhagat is no Chekhov. True enough, and important too; differences in depth and stylistic ability ought to be recognized. That is how the great writers are separated from the good, and the good from the mediocre. And if this is what publishers were trying to do, when they called one of their books literary and another commercial, it would be a welcome dose of honesty. If they were really saying, these books are works of art (but we don't really care if you buy them), and these books are not much good (but we think there's money in them), it would be half the job done for the critics.

But of course- they hasten to assure us- that is the one thing they are not saying. The marketing labels contain no judgments. They are meant only to be descriptive. In what sense, we shall consider. But already we have a glimpse of how dangerous they are. In belying our intuition that 'literary' connotes well crafted and 'commercial', a quick buck, they covertly mislead us.

Overtly they do nothing for us. Overtly, they are meaningless. Look and you'll see, that in practice, it is the mood of the story that determines the moniker. Imagine a novel that begins with the murder of a wife and ends with the revelation that her husband was the killer, and jealousy the motive- like every Agatha Christie, it is bound to be labelled 'commercial.' Why? Because the mood of the book is suspense; because the story unfolds by twilight. But change the order of events, push the murder to the end, and bring the husband to the centre, and draw out by the full light of noon his simmering emotion, and you have- Othello. A 'literary' classic. Both stories may be just as effectively written, and contain just as true psychology, but the demarcation will not be deterred.

And it's emptiness should now be evident. A thunderstorm is more thrilling than a sunset, which is more nostalgic. Certainly, they evoke different moods, and if we were to describe them, we would use different concepts. But not these concepts. Does it mean anything to associate 'commercial', with one phenomenon and 'literary' with the other? Is there not as much art in the storm as in the sunset? Are they not equally popular? The truth is that the same artist has fashioned them both and, very likely, the same audience will admire them both- unless waylaid by the labels.

So much for the general malaise (because the labels are everywhere). Closer home, they have an added danger, a peculiarly Indian corruption that discriminates between books, not merely according to their mood, but also their subject. Conventional wisdom has it that English fiction in India was chiefly 'literary' until about a decade ago, and is now satisfyingly 'commercial'. I suggest that this is a myth. What has really been changing is the profile of the author, and the subjects that interest him or her. The last generation of our writers were almost entirely a part of our disapora, published and feted by the Western literary establishment, and examining India, quite self-consciously, from the outside. Now, there exists a younger generation, with a different standpoint. More firmly rooted within the country, it is not natural for them to write 'about' it; except indirectly, and subtly. Their subject is not India, nor even especially the 'people of India': it is simply people.

It does not sound a frivolous subject. It does not suggest a less important fiction. But those who believe that some lives are less real than others, and that private introspection is the privilege of the West, are bound to raise their eyebrows. An unseemly rush ensues, to label without looking stories of love, 'chick-lit'; stories of crime, 'pulp'; the coming of age novel, a 'campus novel', and the whole output 'commercial'- that the old guard, safely and exclusively literary, may retain pride of place.

That this attitude is condescending, is obvious. But it is worse, because it sows the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy. To believe that new fiction must necessarily be trivial is to all but ensure that it will be: that bad books are encouraged and good ones overlooked. Most dangerous of all, if young Indian writers are always being assured that their fiction, no matter how painstakingly crafted and how emotionally alive, can never be 'literary', they may really start to believe it. Instinctively- remember, these categories have an instinctive meaning- they may feel themselves second-rate. Not 'real writers', like the ones abroad. Tell someone enough times that he or she is only an amateur and soon you might be right.

There's a lot in a name. We may pretend they mean nothing and resolve to ignore them, but all the same, they reflect and create mentalities. 'Literary' and 'commercial' are sloppy labels that mislead readers, and slander writers. We would all do better without them.