Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why haven't you written?

Ever since I read 'The Pickup', I have been an ardent fan of the South African Nobel laureate author Nadine Gordimer. She has the uncanny ability to portray the misgivings of mind and emotion, to draw many dilemmas and make them seem most natural.
Sometime back when her latest collection of short stories was released (Beethoven was one-sixteenth black), New york times published a review, comparing the collection to one of her earlier stories, Why haven't you written, and it was since then that I had been on a lookout for this earlier collection, as I found the idea behind the story so powerful.

Finally, after a few month's search, I have managed to get a very good second-hand copy of the book - it seems it is already out of print as I was unable to find a fresh copy even on Amazon.
The collection is a gem. I have read only about 4-5 stories yet, but they have been very impressive. Unlike the typical short story there is no build-up to the 'element of surprise' here but a simplistic narration of an individual's adjustments with personal and social demands.

In reality, the book is a compilation of stories from her earlier works - Soft voice of the serpent (a review here) and Livingstone's Companion (which seems to have been largely ignored by the reviewers' circle). All the stories are set in South Africa, and convey its various moods; of neglect, decay, liberalism, materialism and alienation.
I particularly loved the title storyWhy haven't you written, where an engineer who regularly travels on work falls in love with another woman on these travels, and in a drunken reverie writes a letter to his wife telling her about the affair.
Because so long as I accept that you are a good wife, how can I find the guts to do it? I can go on being the same thing - your opposite number, the good husband, hoping for a better position and more money for us all, coming on these bloody dreary trips every winter. But it's through subjecting myself to all this, putting up with what we think of as these partings for the sake of my work, that I have come to understand that they are not partings at all. They are nothing like partings. Do you undertand?
There is so much tentativeness in these words - a longing to have something more passionate than the decorative marriage, and yet a guilt of infidelity to a good wife. Through his return, he regrets the letter, and since there is a snow blizard and a postal strike, he is not sure if the letter has reached his wife. Back at home, he obviously wants to leave things as they are without stirring a storm in his life, and is constantly worried about the arrival of this letter. His dilemma has been well captured in words, with a startling intensity.

From the soft voice of the serpent, I quite liked the two stories: Talisman and The Defeated so far. The former is another variation on the theme of infidelity, where a bored wife starts an affair with an ex boyfriend, walking on the 'tightrope' between the security of the marital and the excitement of the extra-marital, without lending a thought to possible consequences. The latter is a story about an immigrant family, who struggle to give a better life to their daughter. The story describes their colorful and difficult life and gradually a distancing from the daughter who finds comfort in more material pursuits.
Looking forward to devour the rest of it.
A little more details on Gordimer as a short story writer here.

Monday, June 23, 2008


At the end, originally uploaded by Shifting sands.

Had intended this weekend to be a reading and movies weekend after a long time, since next weekend will be again wasted in flying to Sydney.
However, it ended up being a weekend of traveling. Not that I am complaining. The drive to Murud was one of the best I have had in a long time, as a considerable stretch runs along a beautiful and virgin sea.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nabokov's love

After a long time, I have come back to reading Nabokov. I had read him long ago with his Lolita, which I found to be a shocking work expressed beautifully. However, even with that impression, sometime it is easy to forget that Nabokov has written anything other than his ubiquitous Lolita. It is only when you begin to read his other works, the grave folly of this assumption is illuminated.

In this return to Nabokov, quite by accident, I picked up an interesting assortment which is strongly inter-connected, with the themes merging into each other. I picked up first a short story collection from Penguin pocket series - Cloud, castle, lake and then after a short break simultaneously started reading Mary, which was his first work, and Speak, Memory, his autobiography.
Cloud castle lake has a handful of stories, but the best I liked amongst them was the Admiralty Spire, which is all about keeping the past alive in fiction, something Nabokov perhaps did in his many works. Even though in this story he seems to criticize the fictionalization of memories, he is himself guilty of this crime, as I discovered from the three readings. In the story, an anonymous reader writes a letter to the author of a romantic book, accusing the author of kidnapping and distorting the memories of his first love. He then describes his version of the affair. What is interesting is, within a few days of each other, I read the same version of the romantic interlude being described thrice - first in this story, then in Mary, and then again in Speak Memory when Nabokov actually describes his first love affair with a girl called Tamara. It is the same meeting in the country side, days of happiness, the sudden distancing that falls on them in Petersburg and then the ache of separation after a physical distance is super-imposed on the emotional one.

Mary, his first work, was clearly meant to re-live his beautiful memories of Tamara, and lend an outlet to his romanticized impressions of the affair that haunted Nabokov long after he separated from her. What it also expressed in this delicious work is how memories are sometimes far more satisfying than actual meetings or love affairs. For Nabokov, separation from Tamara almost coincided with his departure from his homeland, and thus an ache for one corresponded with the ache for the other forming a beautiful and irresistible mixture.

Speak Memory is an exceptional autobiography laced with many sentiments. Here you meet a rather emotional Nabokov, trying to hold precious pieces of memory like moments with his mother and the childhood of his son, not to mention the memories of his beloved Russian home. And of course Tamara.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Confused: Breaking the Waves

It is confounding to feel touched by and be utterly disgusted with the same person. Perhaps so much innocence is bound to be abominable. It is also confusing to watch a movie which resounds with a surreal beauty and horrifies with its bleakness. The only thing which seemed to make any non-confusing sense was Bess' choice of a personal God over the horrors of some sadistic, un-ringing church.
I think I loved the movie, apart from being completely revolted by it.

Monday, June 02, 2008

On Writing

It would be such an extraordinary help to me if I were lucky enough to find a suitable winding up for this little essay. I had stuck just at a rather difficult point in it, where there ought to be a quite imperceptible transition to something fresh, then a subdued gliding finale, a prolonged murmur, ending at last in a climax as bold and as startling as a shot, or the sound of a mountain avalanche--full stop
-Knut Hamsun (in Hunger)