Saturday, October 31, 2009
On the 27th of August, 1999, on a still, clear morning in County Sligo in West Ireland, Lord Mountbatten was out at sea, boating with his family, when a bomb planted by the IRA exploded and he was dead. Three others died in the blast, including Nicholas, Mountbatten's grandson and Timothy Knatchbull's twin brother. “Our hearts beat in loose synchronicity over seven hundred million times, until he was killed, aged fourteen.” It was the deepest relationship of Timothy's young life: 'to be so completely on the wavelength of another human being... was a gift. I was to realise this only once I had lost it.' 'From A Clear Blue Sky' is the story of how, over the course of the next twenty four years, Knatchbull overcame that loss.
Now of course, grief itself is commonplace. As Knatchbull points out, “we all have a car crash in our lives.' So it is perfectly fair to ask, at the outset: Does his own story rise above the ruck? Is it really deserving of a book? The answer is Yes, and not because of the political turmoil at the back of it, or who Mountbatten was; these details are interesting, but ultimately only incidental. It is obvious that Knatchbull isn't trying to cash in on a famous tragedy. Nor is he merely airing his sorrows. He is not 'using' his writing to get over his brother's death. He has already got over it; he is writing to tell us how. In doing so, he offers an account, always sincere, often moving, of a mourning so courageous and a healing so complete, as few people manage.
A Human Process
Of the many important insights Knatchbull has to offer, one that is crucial is the difference between grief and mourning. In the aftermath of Nicholas' death, he returned quickly to physical strength and an outward ebullience. But “becoming strong again did not mean physical strength alone, it also meant emotional strength. Had I spent more time actively mourning, then I would have healed more quickly and suffered less. Instead, I just let grief float over me on an occasional and passive basis.” There is a suggestion, also, that the stiff upper lip, and the sense of humour- revered British institutions both- can hinder one's facing the facts. So at thirty one, despite a seemingly happy professional and personal life, Knatchbull diagnoses himself afresh. He has mood swings, bouts of misery, the 'sound of the bomb' still plays in his ear. He decides then to take “an almost impossibly difficult but necessary step... to return to Ireland and finally address what had been holding me back for so long.' To engage, as he puts it, 'in a human process.'
From here on we follow him through an exhaustive series of encounters with the world of his childhood and the day of the bombing. He speaks with the staff at Classiebawn Castle, the family's old August retreat, “a place where normal life was suspended and dreams were played out”; with locals in Village Sligo; with his rescuers; doctors and hospital staff; with the security forces assigned to Mountbatten. Through these meetings and interviews, Knatchbull is able to reconstruct the environment at the village and grasp for the first time the complex politics behind his grandfather's assassination. He is able, also, to confront the image of his murdered brother.
Farewell and Forgiveness
During this account, what is particularly striking is the contemporaneousness of Knatchbull's personal healing and his forgiveness of Thomas McMahon, the bomber. It seems clear that his mission to 'say goodbye' to Nick would not have succeeded, had he not made his peace with the murderer. To achieve this takes hard and careful work. While he wants to learn about it, Knatchbull is careful to avoid probing too deep into the conspiracy that led to the bombing; he is not interested in rooting out every last culprit or pointing fingers at local sympathizers (of whom there were plenty). What he aims at is only a sufficient understanding of events to accept, “that if I had been born into a republican stronghold, lived my life as dictated by conditions in Northern Ireland, and been educated through the events of the 1960s and 1970s, my life might well have turned out the way Thomas McMahon's did.” The point here is not that it would have- it doesn't seem likely- nor that McMahon's crime was at all justifiable. The point is that the crime was human. And a book that culminates with a truth like that has told a story worth telling.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
A Critical Failure: Standards of Judgment in Indian English Fiction
(This is an essay I wrote on the state of contemporary literary criticism of Indian English fiction. A slightly altered version was published in today's Hindu Literary Review.)
At first glance, literary criticism seems a purely reactive enterprise; an appraisal of creative output that both logically and chronologically arrives after the fact. But it is much more than that. Just as the gardener's pruning shapes the growth of the plant, criticism gives direction to creativity. A critical culture envelops writers, whispering suggestions of subject and style- and the majority of writers depend on the suggestions. Otherwise they might not know what to say. The same critical culture guides readers too, and helps them comprehend the books they are given. Otherwise they might not know what to think. So if Indian English fiction today seems a disjointed cacophony of voices, with no discernible shared themes or values to lend some shape to its burgeoning mass, the ultimate fault is of our critical imaginations. They have not clarified the standards, by which writers may know their material, and readers may know their books. What standards we have got, are superficial and misleading, and the products of insecurity.
Judged by the number of international literary awards it has won, and the pace at which it has won them, Indian English fiction must be among the world's finest. The list of winners is impressive- Rushdie, Roy, Lahiri, Desai, Adiga. And it seems only natural that we should accept these victories as aids to our judgment. Surely it is safe to say that a book by an Indian author, so successful on the world stage, is an exemplar of Indian writing in English? But truthfully, not at all, because fiction writing is not a sport. An Indian cricket team winning the World Cup is almost certainly a greater achievement than the same team winning domestically, since at the international level the rules are the same and the competition is likely much tougher. But in fiction, there are no rules, and the 'competition' is incommensurable. All there is, at the back of every book, is a certain sensibility, the writer's mind, expressed for better or worse. And the act of reading is a meeting of minds. So when a book by an Indian writer wins a foreign prize, it makes more sense to be suspicious than thrilled. It may well be that the book is not really Indian writing, not really an Indian mind on paper, but a more or less foreign one. Perhaps that is why it won. At any rate, the inquiry must be made, and to shirk the inquiry, to focus on the fact of the prize, and to declare on its basis a triumph for Indian writing in English, is to leave the critical job undone. It is to continue to accept other people's opinions, without looking for one's own.
Kiran Nagarkar once observed: “Research is not fiction. Very often it is passed off as fiction, especially in this country.” These are insightful words. Non-fiction continually outperforms fiction in our English language market, perhaps because its utility is clear on the face of it, while the case for fiction is less easily grasped. It needs to be made, clearly and effectively, but it hasn't been, and so a strange and pervasive theory has come to hold sway, that the best fiction is really just non-fiction with a storyline. According to this theory, the internal crises of characters, the play of their thoughts, the analysis of their emotions, do not suffice: 'hard facts' are needed, politics, history and sociology must be dropped as paperweights to prevent the frail fictional edifice from fluttering away. Many literary heavyweights adhere to this theory, and with seeming impunity. But the greater the emphasis on reportage the greater the disconnect between the writer and his characters, and the less the human insight. Then why the great emphasis? Perhaps, as Amitava Kumar has written, “the painstaking attempt at verisimilitude... betrays the anxiety about authenticity.” A writer “concerned about losing touch with the society he took as his subject...[might] invest in an aesthetic of observation and reportage... to build banks against the rising tide of that worry.”
Nowadays, it is usual to read and hear that middle class India is growing ever more self-confident and ever more globally powerful. All too often, however, the hallmarks of this way of thinking are an uncritical celebration of money, personal aggrandizement and faux liberalism. Businessmen and industrialists are the heroes of the movement, but artists are welcome to join- provided they toe the line. And therefore a new breed of Indian English fiction has come to be published and lauded, not because it is good, but because it is the fashion. A book that is 'light' and 'breezy', doesn't have much to say but says it glibly, pats its chosen establishment on the back, and takes aim at nothing but good taste, will fit the bill. The operating tyranny here is that one mustn't be a spoilsport- you cannot seriously criticize a 'fun' book. A great deal of 'chick-lit', for example, is thus allowed to fly under the radar. But this is literary criticism at its most superficial; it is almost literally judging a book by its cover, as though the only important story on offer is the writer's 'success story.' Naturally, it provides no means of judgement, only adds to the prevailing peer pressure.
Interior Honesty: The True Standard
The extent of foreign acclaim, non-fictional content, and trendiness- what do these spurious standards of criticism have in common? They are each proof of a cultural insecurity. We resort to other people's verdicts, hide behind detail, and pile onto bandwagons, because we are shy of accepting that we have minds of our own. The literature of other Indian languages suffers from no such crises of identity; but as to Indian writing in English, Naipaul has rightly diagnosed, “India has no means of judging.... India's poverty and colonial past, the riddle of the two civilizations, continue to stand in the way of identity and strength and intellectual growth.”
And yet we cannot accept the air of finality about that assertion, because after all, it is the writer's very job- and pride and joy- to solve such riddles. The fact is, that the lives of English-speaking Indians, their specific social situations, their emotional crises and predicaments, are as real as anybody's, and as fertile a ground for literature, as anybody's. The test of the worth of Indian English fiction must, therefore, be the same as the test of any fiction. It is the test of interior honesty, which is achieved only by accepting your material and making something of it- and with candour, not a nervous laugh or a running apology. What is more, we do have writers who have attempted this task, and some of them have even tasted great domestic success. Unfortunately, their success has perhaps been mis-analyzed. I would suggest, for example, that the popularity of Chetan Bhagat's books is not because they are written so 'simply' or imagined so crudely; it is because, in spite of their many glaring artistic and other shortcomings, they honestly have something to say. There are others, also, who have things to say, and the only fair way of judging them is on the merits of what they have said and how well they have said it. That way lies literary criticism, and a little further on, maybe, a new national literature.
(A modified version of this was published in today's Hindu Literary Review)
The Quickening Maze, shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, is a graceful, vivid, beautifully written book, about fascinating characters in an otherworldly setting, whose achievement is nevertheless limited by a serious absence of narrative unity.
Drawing upon the lives of real people, in real situations, the book is ostensibly the story of the 19th Century English poet John Clare, and his incarceration in Dr Matthew Allen's High Beach Asylum, in Epping Forest in Essex. The 'nature' poet, whose mad hallucinations centre around his first, dead love, Mary, and his own identity- sometimes he is the poet Lord Byron, sometimes the boxer Jack Randall- is denied the company of his muse, the forest, and his wives, the real Patty and the imagined Mary. We follow his descent into madness. But although The Quickening Maze is so described, and although it starts and ends with John Clare, it is not particularly about him. A host of characters make up the tableau at High Beach Asylum. There is Dr. Allen, a seemingly wise and self-possessed medical man who launches into an ill-fated enterprise to sell wood-carving machines and prove to his skeptical family that he is an entrepreneurial genius. There is a young, as yet un-lauded Alfred Tennyson, living in the vicinity while his brother takes treatment, nursing grouses against literary critics, and investing in Allen's doomed project in a bid to get rich quick. There is Hannah, Allen's daughter, smitten by Tennyson, and trying touchingly to reel her man in. There are others too, the gypsies in the forest, the patients in the asylum, an aristocrat's love-lorn son, a business magnate, Dr. Allen's brutish colleague.
Now, to varying degrees, these various storylines are each engaging. The book abounds in apposite descriptions of people's emotions. The unwavering stubbornness of a lunatic receiving treatment; 'she could hear that he [the doctor] was exasperated, as with an awkward child, whereas it was his understanding that was childish'; Allen's fatal attraction to 'risk'; 'there was a pent force in having things at stake that seemed to charge one's limbs with energy and made eventual triumph more intense than could be imagined'; Hannah's curious relief at knowing finally that she can't have Tennyson;, because now 'the failure was outside of her body. It was already there, in the green and sunlit day', are high quality pieces of thought, with writing to match. The setting too, is precisely evoked; Epping Forest, dark and lovely and teeming with interior life, stays with the reader as an abiding presence. Where the novel loses steam, though, is in the big picture. Its various parts never really coalesce, either thematically or structurally. Aside from their co-existence in place and time, John Clare has little to do with Tennyson, or Hannah, or Allen's wood-carving scheme. And though it is possible for the enthusiastic reader to hunt out commonalities of meaning, running through the different stories- Imagination's battle with Reality, for example, or simply the 'quickening maze' that each character navigates- one feels that the novel should have done more of this work.
Partly, perhaps, this lack of unity stems from the inherent difficulties of transmuting non-fictional material into a single work of fiction. John Clare's story is both true and interesting. So is Matthew Allen's. Foulds is thus naturally keen to include both in his book, but the question remains, do they reveal any greater truth, when examined side by side? The other culprit, maybe, is the narrative style that Foulds adopts- one that is becoming increasingly fashionable in contemporary literature. The book unfolds scene by scene, flitting from place to place as a camera would. This allows for vivid images and a sense of compacted meaning, but it is, quintessentially, the style of a movie. It is a transplant, therefore, from a different mode of imagining. Not only does it somewhat distance the author from his characters, to have a metaphorical camera installed in between, but it might also waylay him into pursuing parallel, unconnected storylines, where the more traditional literary narrative, that cuts the whole book from one cloth, would have imposed a desirable unity. So it is in the thick of individual scenes that Foulds' brilliance shines through; not in the transitions, nor in the whole. That still leaves enough brilliance, however, to make this book well worth your while.