Books

Getting back to reading

“We like lists because we don’t want to die”, says Umberto Eco.

Not sure if that’s the reason I am writing this post but then the apocalypticaly tagged 2012 is also hanging close, so who knows what the subconscious mind may be cooking.

Anyhow, coming back to the title of the post, I actually didn’t read the whole year, save for the last two or three months. Part reason was the miserable business of life and also i didn’t much look beyond the few good writers I had read some years ago. A small opening, reading one or two previously unread but only heard voices led to a resurgence of sorts and am pretty glad for that. So without much further ado I’ll just list(Yeah, Mr Eco must be grinning now) some of the good titles.

Solo – Rana Dasgupta

Coincidence is what comes to my mind as I think of this book now. Though i read it now, I had in fact brought a copy some two to three years ago, when it was yet to be the winner of prestigious commonwealth prize. Going back home as I stayed over at a dear friend’s place, a book on his shelf caught my attention with its title and I decided to read a few pages. It was The Case of Exploding Mangoes and after having read some I decided to trade the book for Solo, with the intention of taking it back while coming back from home, though it never happened. Incidentally The Case of Exploding Mangoes later that year won the Commonwealth First book prize and Solo won the Commonwealth Best book prize the next year.

Solo is a story narrated by a hundred year old blind Bulgarian, Ulrich, who reminisces over his past and often daydreams. Overtly ambitious in its scope it tries to capture the life of a common man, an everyman, torn through the upheavels of the last century, which forms the 1st part of the novel, named – First Moment : Life. The second part, named- Second Moment : Day Dreams, takes few characters, with certain similarities to the cast of the 1st part, through the much changed landscape in the later part of the century, though the fate of these characters remains overpowered by the sociocultural and political forces of historical magnitude. A brilliant read.

Tokyo Canceled – Rana Dasgupta

It was imminent that after having read Solo one would seek his other novel, which is a collection of short stories, narrated by passengers stranded on an airport after their flight got canceled.  Though the tone and character of these stories remains the same through out, for which the author was pointed out by numerous critics, but nevertheless the inventiveness and imagination behind them sails the book through many a miles. The stories are often surreal imbued with elements of magical realism. A highly recommended read.

The NewYork Trilogy –  Paul Auster

The books contains three stories City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. All three are one of the initial works of Auster and were published individually, though they have been clubbed now as the Trilogy. Told in the form of detective fiction they are essentially existential tales of certain individual in search of certain identities, which often merge with their own identities blurring the lines of reality. I had some time ago read the Travels in the Scriptorium by the same author but it didn’t enthuse me enough to explore him further. I guess now I’l read few more of his works.

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

This book was another highlight of the year.I had never much liked detective fiction before, but after reading about Murakami’s inherent indulgence in his works, I was tempted to see what was being offered there and that check proved to be a rewarding experience. Its now easy to see from where the stylistic influence in Murakami’s fiction comes from.

The protagonist, Marlowe is the perfect hardboiled detective. He’s a tough, clever, contemplative chap who’s always ready with a wisecrack up his sleeve. Effortless in holding his own in any tough situation. A literary influence on many a crime fiction writers after Chandler. Another of the best thing about Chandler’s writing style is how beautifully things, places, faces or people are described.  A delight to read. Quite a savoury experience.

Lady in the lake by Chandler is what am reading now.

Will you be quite, please? – Raymond Caver

The obsession to check the writing influences of Murakami made me read Raymond Caver too. Will you be quite, please? is a shot story collection. These are stories of common people, of their everyday mundane encounters, bordering on some quirky, eccentric upheaval, though mostly the tension is built but never released. The stories end usually with a tantalizing feel.

One Last Story and that’s it – Keret Etger

After having read Caver and Dasgupta’s short stories, reading some article about contemporary short story writers got me to check out Keret Etger and what a delightful experience it turned out to be. Etgar writes in a playful, mundane manner. The stories are often 2-3 pages long. All starting with everyday people or situations that are ready to take sinister tragic turns. There’s a tragicomic hint to every situation. At times things have their dreadful fated ends, though on others times events unfold to leave a smile on your face.

While Mortal’s Sleep – Kurt Vonnegut

While on that short story reading spree I also tried this. A great Humanist as Kurt was, these stories too mostly serve the purpose of telling a moral or driving home some point, though this implicit push robs the stories of their sheen. These stories are from his early times and were published posthumously this year.

Open – Biography of Andre Agassi

Whatever was seen over the years on and off the court was filled by this book with a heart wrenching as well as uplifting story of a great human. If Tennis is music to some, then he’s the Jim Morrison who’s survived through. These stories are once lived and then only told afterwards.

Also read some literary essays from Stranger Shores by J M Coetzee.

Read some in poetry too. Currently half through Rumi’s Selected Poems, Penguin edition. Also got hold of The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtormer and Charles Bukowski’s The pleasure of the Damned.

There were few currently half read, ready to be finished ones also. Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist and Coetzee’s Elisabeth Costello top that list. Though there were few other’s too but i don’t see my self completing them except these two.

Currently reading Murakami’s 1Q84,  apart from few mentioned above.

Lets see what 2012 has in store.

Setting men apart.

Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning towards dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes like air, and every deep drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in your brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all his life in the gray, and the land and the trees of him dark and somber. The events, even important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then-the glory-so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and the number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates to us in the world. It is the mother of all creativness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.

– From East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Murakami on Writing

So what do you do when you have a sudden urge to read Murakami, knowing pretty well that the urge is because of the date, of his latest magnum opus 1Q84‘s english release coming closer?

Well, if you are one of a character from his world, ironing clothes will be a good idea. Or may be cooking spaghetti will do the trick. Or may one should consider listening to some Beatles tune or some Mozart’s piece. Or just check the road outside for some cat to follow. Or may be do nothing and just wait for the phone to ring, hoping for some strange women to call.

Anyhow, I decided to read his interviews. There were many out there and he’s quite candid about his ways and reasons of writing. Below are few excerpts from his interviews.

I write weird stories. I don’t know why I like weirdness so much. Myself, I’m a very realistic person. I don’t trust anything New Age — or reincarnation, dreams, Tarot, horoscopes. I don’t trust anything like that at all. I wake up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at 10, jogging every day and swimming, eating healthy food. I’m very realistic. But when I write, I write weird. That’s very strange. When I’m getting more and more serious, I’m getting more and more weird. When I want to write about the reality of society and the world, it gets weird. Many people ask me why, and I can’t answer that. But I recognized when I was interviewing those 63 ordinary people — they were very straightforward, very simple, very ordinary, but their stories were sometimes very weird. That was interesting.

[..]

..subconscious is very important to me as a writer. I don’t read much Jung, but what he writes has some similarity with my writing. To me the subconscious is terra incognita. I don’t want to analyze it, but Jung and those people, psychiatrists, are always analyzing dreams and the significance of everything. I don’t want to do that. I just take it as a whole. Maybe that’s kind of weird, but I’m feeling like I can do the right thing with that weirdness. Sometimes it’s very dangerous to handle that. You remember that scene in the mysterious hotel? I like the story of Orpheus, his descending, and this is based on that. The world of death and you enter there at your own risk. I think that I am a writer, and I can do that. I am taking my own risk. I have confidence that I can do it.

But it takes time. When I started to write this book and I was writing and writing every day, then when that darkness came, I was ready to enter it. It took time before that, to reach that stage. You can’t do that by starting to write today and then tomorrow entering that kind of world. You have to endure and labor every day. You have to have the ability to concentrate. I think that’s the most important ingredient to the writer. For that I was training every day. Physical power is essential. Many authors don’t respect that. [Laughs] They drink too much and smoke too much. I don’t criticize them, but to me, strength is critical. People don’t believe that I’m a writer because I’m jogging and swimming every day. They say, “He’s not a writer.”

– From The Salon, a 1997 interview titled The Outsider.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

[..]

When I make up the characters in my books, I like to observe the real people in my life. I don’t like to talk much; I like to listen to other people’s stories. I don’t decide what kind of people they are; I just try to think about what they feel, where they are going. I gather some factors from him, some factors from her. I don’t know if this is “realistic” or “unrealistic,” but for me, my characters are more real than real people. In those six or seven months that I’m writing, those people are inside me. It’s a kind of cosmos.

[..]

Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us—the other one—was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA, we are the same, but our environment has been different. So our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?

– From The Paris Review, from a 2004 interview.

Few other intervews – When I Run I Am in a Peaceful Place, Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why & this page has a collection of other articles and interviews on Murakami.

And yeah, I forgot to mention, that urge that I talked about in the begining, was fueled further after reading his new short story The Town of Cats in The New Yorker, which apparently is a part of 1Q84.

Existentialism is a Humanism | Sartre

One of the plights that existentialism as a philosophy has endured over time is multiple interpretations as well as multiple meanings. One of the main reason is that though the term was coined in 20th century, it was then pinned on the works of some previous philosophers who wrote about some questions and problems that it sought to answer.No one really knows how much those philosophers would have ascribed to it. One pretty apparent example is Camus, who many a times is associated with existentialism, owing to certain similar problems that he sought to address, but never really propagated it. So much so that he even openly refused the connection.

Existentialism is a Humanism was one of the early works of Sartre and was written soon after the term was coined and was starting to become popular. The essay is more of a reply to some of the arguments put against it at that time; also it’s an attempt of rescuing it from multitude of different easy-as-per-convenience definitions, as associating with existentialism became a kind of cool things that time. The main intent of the essay, as evident from the title is the Humanism connection which Sartre puts but committing that when a man chooses an action or performs a deed he’s not only responsible for himself but also of everyone else. Few snippets:

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

[….]

But the subjectivity which we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one’s own self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too. Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He recognises that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which one says one is spiritual, or that one is wicked or jealous) unless others recognise him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself. Under these conditions, the intimate discovery of myself is at the same time the revelation of the other as a freedom which confronts mine, and which cannot think or will without doing so either for or against me. Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity”. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are.

Sartre in the essay ends up talking about this individual-humanity connection in two aspects. First one is more of a moral binding, which I don’t know how many of the other existentialists would aggree to. Second one is more interesting as it has some hues of phemenology, but still it seems distant from the any humanism what so ever. but going strictly by the defination of Humanism it ideally has to be moralistic. Well, existentialism though looks pretty plain in a general understanding it certainly does have lot more beneath it. I have a copy of Being and Nothingness with me now, but it looks pretty daunting.  Here the link of Lev Shestov’s Kierkegaard & the Existential Philosophy. Looks to be an interesting read, though Shestov’s writing is said to be paradoxical at places.

1Q84

Yeah, the title looks interesting and one can only imagine how interesting a book by the same title is going to be, as it is the latest offering by Haruki Murakami. Yup, the master’s done with his new book and it is due for release in Japan this May. It will take some time for the English translation to come and also for the fact that its going to be his longest book till date so some more translation time I guess, but nevertheless how can one complain, it’s Murakami. Title actually means 1984, n its a homage to Orwell. Orwell wrote it looking into the future, whereas Murakami will plumb the depths of the past.

Few links: Here, here, n here .