Monday, August 08, 2005

Indian Literature Weekend Roundup

1. Novelist Mukul Kesavan has an essay on the rise of the Muslim League in the 1940s (via India Uncut). He argues that Muslim politics only really consolidated between 1937 and 1942. Key incidents include the Congress' decision to participate in elections in 1935, and the changes in the political landscape that occurred with the beginning of World War II.

2. Kitabkhana links to Kamila Shamsie's review of Tariq Ali's latest novel A Sultan in Palermo (the fourth of five in Ali's "Islam Quintet"), in The Guardian. If you weren't aware that Palermo (i.e., in Sicily) had Sultans, you might want to read this review, and perhaps Ali's novel as well.

3. Hurree also links to Amitava Kumar's long critique of Salman Rushdie at Tehelka. The article at Tehelka isn't accessible to the public, so Kumar has posted the article for us at his personal website. Kumar isn't just dismissing one of Rushdie's books, or even a group of them -- he's going after Rushdie as a whole.

Though I generally admire Amitava Kumar, here I have to disagree with him, especially the central thesis of this essay -- the idea that what Rushdie has been writing about all along is himself. There is undoubtedly narcissism there (in the recent books), but there is also a real feel for the subject matter (in the earlier books). Not to mention brilliant wordplay, compelling storytelling, and verve. And Rushdie's narcissism, especially since it is checked by self-consciousness about the same, need not be a mortal sin. In the right hands, it can also be revelatory.

(Incidentally, isn't it a little bit odd that Kumar marks Rushdie's narcissism in a review that is largely structured as a personal essay?)

It's strange to me that Kumar praises the recent Naipaul (Magic Seeds) while digging into Rushdie. Kumar has mentioned his own debt to Naipaul's prose style before, in Bombay, London, New York (which I reviewed informally here), and I can fully see how important Naipaul's dispassionate, methodical eye might have been to someone like Kumar.

The truth is, both Rushdie and Naipaul do have significant fallibilities. Naipaul has an ugly, sneering side, scarcely controlled in early books like India: An Area of Darkenss, or the early African narratives he wrote. He also has a hatred for things Islamic that he has expressed and expressed and expressed -- writing three long, mean-spirited books about the Islamic world, and giving his blessing, before last year's elections, to the ideology of India's Hindu right.

Rushdie is still in my good graces, though he's slipping. He may have many of the weaknesses Kumar cites -- chief among them narcissism and a tendency to the academic -- but all in all his voice has done a lot more good for Indian literature than bad. That said, I have no trouble at all accepting Kumar's dismissive verdict on the forthcoming Shalimar the Clown. With each bad book, people remember the brilliant, compelling, original Rushdie a little less, and think of the smug, "celebrity" Rushdie a little more. That's a substantial loss.

4. Speaking of Naipaul, I'm surprised that no one has been discussing the long essay on him in the New York Times, the product of an interview conducted by Rachel Donadio. Naipaul here reproduces many of the comments about the state of contemporary literature that he's made elsewhere, though he now seems to be reaching a new, completely unprecedented level of transcendent crankiness. The zinger I can't believe he gets away with is his straight-faced claim that the novel is dead:

Yet the fact that Naipaul has continued to write novels does not undercut his acute awareness of the form's limitations; indeed, it amplifies it. His is the lament of a writer who, through a life devoted to his craft, has discovered that the tools at his disposal are no longer adequate. "If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative. And it's O.K., but it's of no account," Naipaul said. "If you're a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc., give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no account."

This is just one of many things in the interview that one can't take seriously. (Another is Naipaul's claim that he's a better travel writer than Joseph Conrad.)

Another bizarre moment is this paragraph:

In conversation, another dynamic becomes apparent, in which the more dismissive Naipaul is of a writer, the more likely it is that he has engaged deeply with that writer's work. Sitting a few feet away from a bookshelf of French novels, Naipaul called Proust "tedious," "repetitive," "self-indulgent," concerned only with a character's social status. "What is missing in Proust is this idea of a moral center," he said. Naipaul also had little respect for Joyce's "Ulysses" -- "the Irish book," he sniffily called it -- and other works "that have to lean on borrowed stories." Lately, he has found Stendhal "repetitive, tedious, infuriating," while "the greatest disappointment was Flaubert."

Here, it seems as if Donadio knows that what Naipaul is saying is incoherent and absurd. But she poses it completely seriously -- as if it makes perfect sense. With the first sentence of the above paragraph, Donadio gives Naipaul's literary nihilism a free pass.


ModelMinority said...

I wonder about Naipaul's interviews. Its best to ignore what he says and just read what he writes. They are (usually) as deep and insightful as his interviews are annoying. "Beyond Belief" and "A Million Mutinies" especially.

1:05 PM  
Amardeep said...

The Mutinies book has some interesting bits, but I must say I don't think very highly of "Beyond Belief."

And even in Mutinies Naipaul seems hell-bent on tearing all of his interlocutors apart in one way or another.

But yes, he's especially bad in interviews. It's really odd that he's speaking poorly of people like Conrad and Graham Greene in this interview, since he owes more to those two than anyone else.

2:19 PM  

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