Sunday, 7 August 2011

Unfaithful Reader| The Hindu, 7 August 2011

During a recent conversation I had with a Frenchwoman she posed the “what is your favourite book” question in relation to French writers. The only name I could come up with, racking my brains and trying to distract her by asking if she wanted tea, was Michel Houellebecq's Atomised, of which I can't remember a thing except that it had a lot of sex and the sex was minus love because the whole point of the book was that we are all unlinked atoms, incapable of connection, rattling about in the sterile tin that is the cosmos. The Frenchwoman gave me a helpful nudge. “Proust, perhaps?” she suggested, “Would you say you like Remembrance of Things Past?” After that, having no access to madeleines, we ordered pineapple pastries and changed the subject.

One afternoon, creaking up a Ranikhet hillside, I came to a stop when I realised I have no favourite authors or even a favourite book. Worse, there is no author, even among the ones I love, whose every work I have read; not unless forced to by an exam or tutorial. I might love an author but not with the adoration that makes me a devotee. I am an Unfaithful Reader. My tastes change often and I can be immersed to the point of drowning in a book whose name I will fail to summon up a year or two later.

Despite my cavalier lack of devotion to individual authors, it makes me disproportionately happy when one author I like (at the time) turns out to be devoted to another author I like (at the time). Such a thrill to discover, for example, the link between Haruki Murakami and Raymond Carver. Reading one Carver story made Murakami swear he would translate everything Carver had written. He kept his promise. What more selfless act of literary love could there be? Murakami's own first novel came out the year after Carver's death in 1988 so, while they did once meet, Carver never read the work of his devotee. And although I read them both years after the Carver stories and Murakami's first novel came out, and may be years after the Japanese translations were published, I felt somewhat proprietorial, as if they were the bride and groom and I the go-between.

Raymond Carver in turn loved Chekhov, another hero of mine, as did Virginia Woolf. This seemed to place them in a nice love triangle, which I, in love with the trio, felt was a good way for them to be. While Carver wrote of “the awesome frequency with which (Chekhov) produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish”, Woolf remarked on the “unfinishedness” of Chekov's stories: “(In reading) Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”

When trying to make sense of my own first book for a post-publication article, I found that Satyajit Ray, whose films were a great influence on that book, had said in an interview almost exactly what I wanted to say: “I am interested in a way of life that is passing and the representatives of that way of life. You can find the same thing in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and it fascinates me.”

Everyone was so tangled up now that I could hardly untwist the limbs any longer, and the world of my reading felt like a jalebi: strands spiralling and twisting into others, each contributing to the taste and character of the jalebi, which could not be a homogenous ball like a gulab jamun if it tried. The very jalebiness of the jalebi resides in its fragile, delicate, unexpected twists and, where the strands intersect, those fatter pockets that burst with extra syrup.

Further down this spiral I found Geoff Dyer listing Ryszard Kapuscinski as one of his most revered writers. Kapuscinski's combination of story-telling, ideas, and great prose can make you charge through 300 pages on disintegrating Soviet Russia even if you had only a polite interest in Ukraine and Armenia before you came upon the book. Once I knew how Dyer felt about him, it appeared obvious that one reason why Dyer wrote on Varanasi was Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuscinski wanders through India. Discovering that one loved writer likes another loved writer feels like a vindication and creates a sense of companionship for the reader who is the link in a chain.

It can work the other way too. When I came upon a New York Times review by Geoff Dyer of Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk about Running I rejoiced in advance because “Ah! My two good friends have met!” Dyer was scathing, however. “Is this low-maintenance, attention-deficit prose part of Murakami's attraction, especially among the young?” he asked.

I am happily submerged right now in Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, his furious, funny, iconoclastic book that grew sideways: out of his paralysis with the book on D.H. Lawrence that he intended writing. So I can see very clearly why he and the Murakami of What I Talk About would not get along. Listening to Murakami's own voice in the autobiographical What I Talk About, you wonder how this humourless model of determination — with a regime allowing few friends, no late nights, and no alcohol or overeating — could have produced one novel after another filled with whimsicality, mystery, playfulness, and eroticism. Utterly the opposite in his writerly habits, Dyer revels in his adopted persona of a layabout: a confused, laidback, anarchic and often stoned guy who has no idea what he wants to do.

Yet Dyer produces book after original, bestselling book. Which means he is just-can't-help-it brilliant, which means he's contemptuous of Murakami's rigorous discipline in relation to both running and writing: “Nothing about the book under review suggests that Murakami will (like Mishima) disembowel himself and get a friend to cut off his head. Even so, aspects of his training involve such extremes of self-torture that even the most tolerant reader will find them questionable…” I would understand Murakami slipping some cyanide into a cocktail if Dyer turned up at his jazz bar; Murakami used to run a jazz bar in the days when he still drank; perhaps that period overlapped with Dyer's time writing But Beautiful, his book on jazz; I haven't checked.

The other similarity between the two is that both maintain the exact same voice in each of their books. Dyer's mix of deadpan humour, cynicism, fizzing intelligence, and plain craziness is as much his voice in Out of Sheer Rage or Jeff in Venice as in his essays. Murakami too has that one voice in all his novels, and though the novels all have bewitching women and the eternal chase — alongside other clich├ęs and lazy writing — their simplicity is deceptive and the books are endlessly intriguing. With both writers it doesn't matter that they sound the same everywhere. I think of Anthony Bourdain saying to them, as he did in Kitchen Confidential: when you order your regular dish at your favourite restaurant you want nothing other than the taste that made it your favourite. You don't want the chef of the day to have experimented with cooking it a whole new way.

May be Dyer and Murakami have the kind of kinship that repels. Not all relatives get along, very often they don't. At times writers who live harmoniously in your head don't get along in life; or their books don't get along and you love one book by them and are bored to tears by another. Yet their words settle in, layer upon layer, and turn into a rich compost in which your own writing sometimes sprouts.

In my head, no writer leads an atomised existence: they are joined with each other through their books and their cosmos is a bit of my consciousness. Often they squabble, they wander off and are forgotten, and then years later one of them pops back in because someone I am reading has mentioned in her book someone else I once read — but then forgot all about. And it starts again: the restless searching through the shelves for that tatty paperback you were sure you had, the re-reading of the old, the abandoning of the new, the entwining of limbs, the unfaithfulness.

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c. Anuradha Roy