In the United States the writer tends to become an entrepreneur, competing with other literary vendors marketing their characters and language, their humor or drama, to a skeptical and distracted public. In Israel, it seems, they order things differently. For a nation perpetually in crisis, with an ancient prophetic tradition behind it, the serious writer remains something of a sage, a wisdom figure who speaks with authority. Amos Oz has been such a presence on the Israeli scene for close to four decades, publishing not only novels and stories but political journalism, literary essays and Op-Ed columns, never wholly disengaging his state of mind from the state of the nation. Yet his public pronouncements, always as beautifully crafted as his fiction, have never laid to rest the inner demons that power his creative work. This is especially evident in his newest novel, The Same Sea. Despite its deceptively light tone, it reads like one of the most personal books he has yet written.
The Same Sea is at once spare and lushly experimental, an unusual mixture of hard, precise prose that drives the story forward and often lyrical, evocative verse that bathes us in the mental glow of each of the characters. The musical qualities of this verse, strong in Hebrew, are largely lost in translation, but its strategic line-breaks and numerous biblical echoes, especially from the Song of Songs, save it from becoming altogether prosaic. The story is so simple that the author can sum it up in his opening lines. It centers on a triangle familiar from some of Oz's earlier books--the mild, practical father; the languid, troubled mother, who has recently died; and their only son, who has fled home in the wake of her death and, in this case, gone off mountaineering in Tibet. It would not seem possible for a writer to build his novel around three characters whom we never see in one another's company: the widowed father, trying half-heartedly to resume his life, the deceased mother, not yet fully accepting her death, and the distant son, surrounded by his mother's palpable presence, sleeping with women who bring her back to him, trying aimlessly to outrun his grief.
Yet this is a book in which the dead are never wholly dead, where memory and meditation are more vibrant than action, while time and distance are seen less as objective facts than as constantly varying states of mind. It's also a book in which the fictional narrator, who resembles the author in every biographical detail, repeatedly emerges from behind the proscenium to sort out his own memories, which are precisely the ones that fed into the story. Just as the characters swarm about him, they inhabit one another's minds as well, communicating across continents with some of the mobility and omniscience an author usually reserves for himself.
In short, this is a book about someone writing a novel, showing us how it lives within him while it is also spilling out onto the page. Yet somehow, even at this remove from direct storytelling, the characters resonate. Amos Oz has written other versions of this father, this mother, this boy, in Hill of Evil Counsel, for example, but never has mingled them so clearly with his own past, which instead of fading has grown more insistent with time. Confronting mortality himself, he feels more impelled to take stock of his own dead. The loss of his parents, especially his mother's suicide when he was 13, still obsesses him as he approaches 60. The narrator even has one of his characters, the son's carefree 26-year-old girlfriend, try to talk him out of his brooding mood. "Your mother killed herself/and left you quite shattered.... But for how long? Your whole life?/The way I see it being in mourning for your mother for forty-five years is/pretty ridiculous." The narrator sees it differently. How can he bail out? "How can you jump from a plane/that's already crashed and rusted or sunk under the waves?" For him the dead continue to haunt the living. Yet what she says has the authentic ring of the younger generation, and the author, with the warm generosity of Chekhov, respects its callow wisdom and healthy insensitivity, which part of him would love to emulate.
The Same Sea is magnanimous toward characters who could just as well be brutally satirized or dismissed--the coarse yuppie always on the lookout for a good deal, the ill-favored film producer, hopelessly unlucky with women, who becomes fixated on a character in a script, the girl who casually sleeps with nearly all the male characters, including (almost) her boyfriend's widowed father. An underlying tenderness softens their hard edges. As in a Renoir film or Chekhov story, they somehow surprise the reader into sympathy and a wistful tolerance. Unexpectedly, too, they begin to nurture one another.
One feature of this enchanting book that I have already mentioned stands out most strikingly. As the story unfolds, the author keeps intervening in it, at first pushing his pad aside and wondering "how on earth/he came to write such a story," but gradually interacting with his characters, commenting on the film script that the girlfriend is trying to sell, offering little scenes from his writing life and recollecting his own parents and childhood. At first it seems he is playing a postmodern game, violating the boundaries of the novel by wantonly mixing poetry and prose, fact and fiction, puncturing our suspension of disbelief. Worse still, we wonder whether the writer is simply losing interest in his own story, taking it over. But it soon becomes clear that, on the contrary, the story is so real to him that the people in it have invaded his life, and not only when he sits composing at his desk.
As he works in the garden, all the people in his head, real and imagined--where to draw the line?--the dead and the living, his children, his grandchildren, the characters from the novel, all his own selves, seem right there with him, tossed up from the same sea, pitching in despite their different views of how the gardener's work should be done. This is a fanciful conceit, often used in the Renaissance for poetic creation, yet something about it rings ingeniously true. This is no symbolic landscape of ideas and images but a scene showing us the writer himself, away from his work but with his mind still abuzz. In this flux, paradoxically, he feels a contentment that allows him to set his demons aside, the dead who will not stay dead, the characters who insist on a life of their own, the fears for the future that poison the present: "Grief fear and shame are as far from me today as one dream is/from another," he says. "Whatever I have lost I forget, whatever has hurt me has faded,/whatever I have given up on I have given up on, whatever I am left with/will do." For the time being, at least, he can dwell in the moment. "Later I'll go back to my desk," he concludes, "and maybe I'll manage to bring back/the young man who went off to the mountains to seek the sea/that was there all the time right outside his own home."
Perhaps Edward Bellamy anticipated the retrospective examinations that would mark our country's culture in this bi-millennial year. Bellamy, long famous for his utopian novel Looking Backward 2000-1887, regarded the year 2000, traditionally enough, as "the closing year of the twentieth century," the ending of the millennium--not, like current political leaders, as the first year of the twenty-first century and the new millennium. In most other respects, however, this nineteenth-century social critic was far more innovative in making his predictions of the twentieth century's material and moral advances. He placed the dateline "Historical Section, Shawmut College, Boston, December 26, 2000" on his novel in 1887, and with the passage of the actual date, we can appraise the accuracy of the vision with which Bellamy himself putatively "looked backward" on it--much as the arrival of 1984 marked the occasion for numerous assessments of George Orwell's anti-utopian novel.
The hero of Bellamy's utopian novel, Julian West, awakes in the Boston of 2000 from a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep of 113 years. He gazes out upon an urban landscape and can scarcely recognize it as the same city in which he went to sleep, when he sees the new Boston's size and grandeur:
At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller enclosures...along which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late-afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side. Surely I had never seen this city nor one comparable to it before.... [Then] I looked east--Boston harbor stretched before me within its headlands, not one of its green islets missing.
Even harder for the awakened West to grasp is the changed social order of 2000. West, who had been among the privileged, prosperous few in his city, finds rather that there is universal--and equal--prosperity for all. Each American annually receives a "credit card," and everyone is entitled to receive the identical amount of credit, against which he or she can draw in charging chosen purchases of commodities or services. Bellamy's so-called credit card functioned much as a bank debit card would today, if each year began with the direct deposit by the US Treasury of an identical (and generous) sum into each cardholder's account. Nor did the citizens of 2000 brook any gender discrimination: Bellamy foresaw the entry of women fully into the work force of the twentieth century, and his utopia provided equal pay (or rather equal credit) for equal work. The payment of these annual credits into each account was funded by "the nation," which in turn owned all the means of production and distribution, and so received the fruits of everyone's paid labor.
But no Marxian revolution had brought about that state of equality and common ownership. Rather, it had resulted from the ultimate, logical development of corporate America, arising from a growth pattern much like that of the continuing takeovers, mergers and aggregations of today. As Bellamy described it, writing in "2000":
Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were entrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.
The culminating political action was taken through election of the "national party," comprising a coalition of all classes.
In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred-odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world's history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people's livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.
The shocking thing to Bellamy, were he to awake in 2000, would be the inexplicable increase in economic inequality that has in fact accompanied those very gains in productivity that he believed would result from steadily increasing industrial concentration. Bellamy would be surprised not by the technological progress he would see today but by the want of accompanying moral progress. To him, cooperation was the human ideal, and the unbridled economic competition of the nineteenth century was its antithesis. Probably the book's most famous passage, and imagery, is his comparison of nineteenth-century society to a towed coach:
By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents. These seats on top were very breezy and comfortable.... Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen.... By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were so many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly.
Yet nineteenth-century gentility was not always hardhearted:
Commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured....
If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages, they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach.
Bellamy perhaps would view today's socioeconomic conditions as utopia delayed but not yet denied. We now have the technology available for Bellamy's projected "credit card" society, and are approaching a cashless economy, in which women and men have at least made progress toward equality of political power and economic opportunity. We have placed a safety net on the coach, to prevent people from falling all the way down and off. One emerging twentieth-century economic trend would have been most encouraging to Bellamy: that toward the increase in ownership of corporate equities by workers' retirement funds, whether these are invested in the market through the Social Security system, as Clinton has proposed, or in the individual retirement accounts favored by Bush, or through company pension funds. Each mega-merger of giant corporations may also bring about a mega-merger of their respective pension funds. When and if the growing public and private pension funds, plus equities owned through the Social Security system, attain majority ownership and control of corporate America, some form of Bellamy's utopia might still arrive. The "Great Trust" foreseen by Bellamy may come to be owned ultimately by its workers and retirees.
I first read Looking Backward in about 1947, upon the recommendation of my high school history teacher, close to the sixtieth anniversary of the book's publication. I expect that new readers are less frequent now, half a century later. Yet Looking Backward was a leading bestseller in the generation that witnessed its first publication. In a 1935 survey commissioned by Columbia University, Looking Backward was ranked, both by educational philosopher John Dewey and by leading US historian Charles Beard, as the most influential American book of the previous half-century. (On an international scale, Dewey and Beard ranked its influence second only to that of Marx's Das Kapital.) Julian West's story richly deserves reading or critical rereading--perhaps in an edition that can be purchased with the credit cards of the twenty-first century.
About a year ago, Amit Chaudhuri published in the Times Literary Supplement a panoramic survey of the past century or so of Indian writing and its reception in the West. He observed there that the postcolonial Indian novel tends to be celebrated as a hybrid form in the West, with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children eclipsing all previous Indian writing. Unhappily, critics seem to believe that the postcolonial totality of India can only be articulated by Indian novelists writing in English. Yet the novella, Chaudhuri argued, is an equally important form in the vernaculars (there are around twenty major languages and countless dialects with their individual literary traditions in India), as is the short story, and ellipsis is often more effective than all-inclusiveness in attempting to describe India. The tendency to forget that vernacular Indian literatures existed long before Salman Rushdie's brilliant experiment with magical realism--or Vikram Seth's presentation of India as a mosaic of epic proportions in A Suitable Boy--sets a problematic yardstick for judging Indian writing in English. It leads one to think that the Indian narrative is essentially "lush and overblown," whereas the literary traditions of India are actually much more delicately nuanced. Chaudhuri also suggested that hybridization of language is not the only tool for conveying the otherness of perception: Even the correct English of writers like V.S. Naipaul has otherness implicit in it.
To Chaudhuri, who is Bengali, this otherness takes the form of returning to older regional traditions of India. His literary forebears include the Bengali writers of what is known as the kallol jug--which was roughly around the second quarter of the twentieth century in Bengal--rather than contemporaries like Rushdie or Seth. As such, his novels have strong affinities to a specific movement in Bengali literature that attempted to capture the humdrum and the quotidian, though his audience is more the yuppie Indian who constantly juggles English and the vernacular than the educated Bengali middle-class bhadralok. Even the code-switching between Bengali and English--and the occasional Hindi--in Chaudhuri's novels seems to be an attempt to tell the story of the Westernized but ordinary Bengali, rather than hybridization or what Rushdie calls the pickling of language. It is also the story of polyglot India, where most of the population speaks, and habitually switches among, several languages. And mellifluous as Chaudhuri is at times, no one can accuse him of writing overblown prose.
In writing his fourth novel, A New World, Chaudhuri seems to have remained true to his critical principles: The result is not quite likely to make readers in Calcutta swoon but a novel that is as much an attempt to capture the macrocosm of India in a microcosm as it is an attempt to carry on a particular vernacular tradition in English. And to those who have never been to Calcutta, it offers a refreshingly low-key and intimate insight into the heart of the city.
In A New World, a quest for solace brings the protagonist to Calcutta to seek the comforts of the familiar rituals of his parents' home. Jayojit Chatterjee, a not-so-young professor of economics at a Midwestern US college, is back for the summer with his son in tow. Normally, his parents would have been overjoyed. But neither Jayojit nor his parents can get over the fact that the family is now broken, that Jayojit's wife has divorced him. Jayojit has recently won partial custody of his young son, Bonny, and the visit to Calcutta promises to become an annual summer retreat, an escape from his adopted country to the land of his birth.
Divorce has familiarized Jayojit with a new world of frozen pizzas and TV dinners. It also seems to have made him acutely attuned to the harmonies and dissonances of lives around him. One of the clichés about storytelling is that plots are essentially of two kinds--either someone undertakes a journey, or a stranger comes to town. In such a schema, this novel would appear to fall into both categories. Jayojit may not be a stranger visiting Calcutta, but he has certainly moved far from the roots to which he has temporarily returned. He stays with his parents, runs across his neighbors, moves around the city and muses on his married life and the attempt at a second, arranged marriage that he had made on his last visit home a year previously. Daily life in Calcutta is familiar, yet no longer quite familiar. Family photos still clutter the drawing-room table, only now there is a gaping hole in this tapestry of faces--all the pictures of Jayojit's ex-wife Amala have been removed. Her absence haunts the family perhaps more than her presence would have. Nothing sensational happens in Calcutta, not even another attempt at arranging a marriage. Jayojit's visit affects no one but his parents--but the details of a humdrum holiday are meticulously captured.
There is something very familiar about this stillness to anyone who has spent any time in Calcutta. I remember this torpor from countless summer holidays spent in the city, so it is no surprise that Jayojit neglects the book he is planning to write. I also remember vendors selling Kwality ice cream--a brief respite from the oppressive heat, which Bonny yearns for--from pushcarts.
Like New York's pushcart hot dogs and Bangkok's curbside satays, Calcutta also has its distinctive street fare--the rolls, jhaalmuri, phuchka and bhelpuri sold by vendors--whose taste simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. Jayojit's brief interaction with a bhelpuri seller brings back to this reviewer many memories of the tangy snack, flavored with spiced tamarind water, sold by a particular vendor near Sunny Park in the city. A New World speaks to the expatriate reader of little, intimate, everyday things in Calcutta, reminiscent of the way that Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines, a novel set partly in that city, did a few years ago.
Chaudhuri's book almost self-consciously tries to be different from the usual Indian writing in English. To put things in perspective, consider Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread, the other novel set in Calcutta that has recently been published in America. An interesting foil to A New World, it is nothing if not sensational in plot and incidents. Its narrator is another not-quite-young man, but one who has a secret to reveal--and has just one night to write it all down. In the bedroom a newborn child lies on a blue bedspread; in the adjacent room, the narrator struggles to give voice to a mosaic of stories from his and his sister's past that can be pieced together to reveal the truth, insofar as truth may be known. The idea is clever but the secret obvious from page five onward. Of course, the ingenious aspect of Jha's plot is the frame that the story needs to be written in a matter of hours--which means that any rough edges and disjunctions in the text are automatically to be excused, the way amateurish camera work was in, say, The Blair Witch Project. This accounts for inconsistencies in the story line, and the series of deliberately unreliable narrative perspectives only helps further the cause. Judging by its reception in the West, however, he pitched his story to the right audience: the Western critic who, by all appearances, has little idea of what Calcutta is like, is willing to give Jha credit for having done for Calcutta what Joyce did for Dublin (as a reviewer wrote in the New York Times). Critics also laud Jha for letting the incestuous cat out of the bag of a repressive India. That particular cat, however, has always roamed at large in Vedic creation myths and vernacular writings. In fact, over a decade ago, Safdar Hashmi, one of India's foremost theater personalities, was assassinated by Hindu fundamentalists for staging one of the earliest mentions of incest in Indian literature: a little-known version of the epic Ramayana in which the hero Rama's queen is also his sister. Jha certainly explores the eternally sensitive issue of incest in contemporary society as his narrator tells overlapping pieces of the story, and he even throws in a bit of sodomy and pederasty for good measure; but his method is a tabloid-ish piling of sensation upon sensation that might, at best, be an unfortunate outcome of his training as a journalist.
Unlike Chaudhuri, who tries to produce a miniaturist's portrait of Calcutta by adding brush stroke upon brush stroke of minutely observed detail, Jha sets out to write the novel that will lay bare the heart of Calcutta but loses his way in the quagmire of sensational revelations. This is a pity, as the novel has its occasional and redeeming moments of brilliance:
Just outside the oil mill, a couple of feet to the right of its entrance, were the birds. In a large cage, more like a coop, the kind you see at the Alipore Zoo, slightly smaller, the size of an average storeroom in an average house...people stopped by to look at these dozen birds in the cage.
Flying round and round, grey and white, grey and white. On certain rainy days, when the sky was dark, it seemed tiny clouds had slipped into the cage each dragging with it just a little bit of the sky. And then one afternoon in 1977, the oil mill closed down. Just like that, all of a sudden.
Too bad the novel does not contain more quiet gems like this passage. On the other hand, India has long been imagined as the land of elephants and tigers, jungles and sadhus, snake-charmers and the vanishing-rope trick, so why blame the author for catering to popular fantasies?
If The Blue Bedspread is a psychological study, then A New World is probably best described as an anthropological exercise. It undoubtedly offers one of the more lyrical descriptions of Bengali life that exists in English fiction. Jayojit's mother is the quintessential Bengali homemaker of a particular generation: She welcomes him home with a fond "You've put on weight, have you" but also reverses herself to "Where--I don't think you've put on weight" when he protests against eating too much. His father, a retired rear admiral and patriot who had sided with the Nationalists against the British, is nonetheless a holdover from the colonial days and eats, brown sahib style, with a fork and spoon. He is the detached head of the family, who still maintains an "inconsequential tyrannical hold over this household, in which usually only he and his wife lived, with part-time servants coming and going each day." Neither parent can quite accept their son's divorce: "they seemed to feel the incompleteness of their family, and that it would not be now complete. Someone was missing. Both mother and father were too hurt to speak of it. In a strange way, they felt abandoned." This feeling of bereftness is perhaps only to be expected. Divorce is still a relatively rare occurrence in India. Not surprisingly, when the parents try to arrange the second marriage for their son, it is to a fellow divorcée. The family doctor gets involved as an intermediary, a situation not unusual in the delicate rituals of matchmaking. She, unlike Jayojit, is childless, a crucial consideration for the still-patriarchal Calcutta society.
On the lighter side, Bengali idiosyncrasies like the obsession with traveling are gleefully dwelt upon. The Admiral's ire against Bangladesh Biman remains unclear till he sardonically observes, "Every week tens of middle-class Bengalis who've been saving up all their lives queue up in the airport to travel by Bangladesh Biman--to visit their son or daughter in England, or to travel: you know the Bengali weakness for 'bhraman'?" referring to the well-known Bengali obsession with globetrotting. His own projected trip to visit Jayojit had been derailed by his son's divorce. The thankless but socially necessary habit of keeping track of obscure relationships gets some ribbing--"Jayojit's mother's late brother-in-law's niece had a husband whose sister had married Bijon, who himself had no children." And Dr. Sen, the neighbor and friend of the Chatterjees, chuckles over how Bengalis "only come out during the Pujas. Then you'll see them--heh, heh--bowing before Ma Durga!" No believer dares run the risk of offending the goddess who once saved the very gods from calamity.
Chaudhuri's nuanced ear for language is likewise directed at readers familiar with Bengali. Jayojit's mother greets her grandson with a "Esho shona.... Come to thamma." Bonny, who speaks little Bengali, cannot pronounce the hard th. "All right, tamma," he says. Unfortunately, not every attempt to transliterate words is equally happy. The phrase "How much" might have been better transcribed as "koto" than "kato," which suggests the Bengali imperative "cut"; and the "Hay" in "Hay bhelpuri" sounds more like the lofty address "O" than "yes." What jars more is Chaudhuri's tendency to italicize words in an attempt to convey Bengali speech rhythms--it becomes wearisome. (Unlike English, word stress in Bengali is not predetermined but changes with the speaker.)
While this novel remains a bold attempt to transfer to Indian writing in English some of the characteristics of vernacular literatures, it is not without other, deeper problems. One can, after all, read of beads of moisture condensing on the outside of glasses of cold water and heads of dead fish only so many times before wondering where such aestheticized details lead. Also, given that Dhaka is a half-hour ahead of Calcutta, it's a pity that Chaudhuri's chronological error in claiming that "although they'd [Jayojit and Bonny] left Calcutta at half-past seven, it was still seven-thirty in Bangladesh" was not rectified in the editorial process. On a lesser note, one would also like to quibble over Chaudhuri's referring to phuchkas as golgappas, a term that is common in Bombay, where Chaudhuri grew up, but which many Calcuttans might not recognize.
Good translations of vernacular Indian writing are scarce in English, but there are several collections of Rabindranath Tagore's fiction available here, the best of which perhaps are those by William Radice and Ketaki Kushari Dyson; Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) offers three tales about tribal women--the most marginalized among the marginal--of a significantly different flavor; and the two-volume Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by K. Lalita and Susie J. Tharu, is a good anthology for a historical overview, albeit with a gender bias. Nitpicking aside, A New World is definitely worth reading. Nowhere close to the best writing available in India's regional languages, it is still a creditable endeavor and should be appreciated as such.
William Trevor is in some ways the last Edwardian. The shabby-genteel elegance is always there, the archaic turns of speech, the fraying tweeds and musty old homes full of knickknacks, the family heirlooms dusting over in cupboards and attic closets, on window sills. Trevor's characters often have something anachronistic about them; even if tolerably comfortable in their skins, they are seldom so in their times. And yet few story writers are so timely. Trevor, who has been publishing story collections for more than thirty years (The Hill Bachelors is his ninth; The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, his first, was published in 1967), somehow knows the world of urban down-and-outs, the contemporary Britain to which US Anglophiles are blind: the greasy curry houses, tattered news agents and rundown off-licenses of the high street; the sour industrial hinterlands of Felicia's Journey; the drab cavernous railway and tube stations of Death in Summer; the blaring pop music that is the city's perennial soundtrack. Trevor has written stories of Northern Ireland's Troubles that are contemporary and unutterably poignant, like "Lost Ground" in his previous collection, After Rain; and "The Mourning," in The Hill Bachelors; also "Against the Odds," with its hint of the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement, its mention of Drumcree and Omagh.
The modern world is bearing down relentlessly on Trevor's characters, and most are overwhelmed. To recoil from sex, any intimacy, is an instinctive move against annihilation. When it happens at all, it takes on an unusually decorous edge. In "Lovers of Their Time," from the 1978 volume of that name, illicit sex loses all sense of sweat or fear or reckless abandonment; the prevailing image is of a sumptuous hotel bathroom with "delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two," with the Beatles playing "Eleanor Rigby" and Union Jack-bedecked mods sauntering down Carnaby Street. Lacking eroticism of any flavor, it is vaguely unreal; it seems mistaken.
Yet this story is the exception. For Trevor, a paralyzing detachment coupled with the terrors of sexual yearning is more usual. A classic story of his is "In Isfahan," from Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975), where a lone English traveler falters at a very real romantic possibility he has surrendered for no good reason other than his fear:
It was a story no better than hers, certainly as unpleasant. Yet he hadn't had the courage to tell it because it cast him in a certain light. He travelled easily, moving over surfaces and revealing only surfaces himself. He was acceptable as a stranger: in two marriages he had not been forgiven for turning out to be different from what he seemed.
Still he has his chance: He can dress, chase the woman down at the bus station, persuade her to stay, travel with her to Shiraz, "city of wine and roses and nightingales." None of that; he hasn't the courage. The story ends: "He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none."
Trevor has been rewriting the same story ever since. It is the avoidance of confrontation, the concealment of true feeling, the traveling in surfaces, mistaken for privacy. The difference now is that his characters have attained quality, the "stuff of fantasy" dissipating with the times.
One of the more celebrated Irish novels of recent years, John McGahern's Amongst Women, ends with a country funeral; the title story of The Hill Bachelors begins with one. The cast is nearly the same as McGahern's: The family tyrant is dead, leaving a widow; the children, a looked-down-upon son among them, return from their far-flung livings (Dublin, other parts of Ireland, Boston) and just as quickly take off again, having sorted out their mother with a little help around the farm and arranged for a neighbor to look in from time to time. For years they have known there is no life for them there. The outcast son stays behind, however. For his mother, who has never really known him, it is a pleasant surprise, and she is complimented on her good fortune by the parish priest. "Isn't he the good boy to you?" remarks Father Kinally. "Isn't it grand the way it's turned out for you?" Yet the son knows otherwise: "Guilt was misplaced, goodness hardly came into it." He has become one of the hill bachelors, forever unmarrying--no woman will have him now. "Enduring, unchanging, the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own."
This is the significant departure from McGahern (author of a novel called The Pornographer), who writes with the hair-raising frisson of the erotic, whose characters are carnal in their desires and attainments. One should count sometime how many sexually forlorn characters there are in a volume of Trevor stories, by way of contrast: the virginal, the celibate, the asexual--the men or women, it is clear, who will never marry, never couple; the ones for whom the carnal urge has forever left, even if at one time they had it. In The Hill Bachelors seven of its dozen stories prominently feature such characters. These people are not always priests, although, of course, some are. There is Michingthorpe, the eponymous "A Friend in the Trade," who might in his late middle age still be a virgin; the celibate Protestant clergyman Grattan Fitzmaurice in "Of the Cloth," keeping company with Father Leahy, whose joint affirmation that they have never left Ireland ("I have never been outside it") might speak equally for other deprivations in their lives; Vera in "Three People," whose elderly father knows she "will be alone for the rest of her days." Sexual frustration might be one of the reasons driving the laborer Liam Pat Brogan back to Ireland from the London building sites at which he toils in "The Mourning." When he opens his Irish mouth, girls turn away. His mourning, which is of several kinds, all "lonely and private," will never leave him, it is implied; this too might speak for another loneliness and isolation that is the peculiar sexual geography of William Trevor.
Irish writers are usually more red-blooded, even lusty. One thinks not only of McGahern but also of Joyce, O'Casey, Edna O'Brien. But Trevor is unlike other Irish writers: a Protestant, for starters, and a long-term émigré, living in England for over forty years. Other Irish writers who are exiles have tended to flee the smothering influence of the British Isles; Trevor rather bravely has embraced it, becoming something in between Irish and British. Among prominent English-language writers it is a territory inhabited only by himself, and his most deeply felt fiction reflects its author's aloneness. The man is standing still, but still reaching out.
In The Hill Bachelors bravery takes on a certain passivity and becomes nobility. In "Death of a Professor," a scholarly victim of a prank (Trevor has been here before with his academic hoaxes: Witness "Two More Gallants" in The News From Ireland) carefully reviews his life, wondering how he has become hated: "He is not arrogant that he's aware of, or aloof among his students; he does not seek to put them in their place." A proud Ulster widower, victim of a more serious treachery from a Belfast woman in "Against the Odds," feels himself a fool ("His resistance had been there, he had let it slip away") but nevertheless puts on his suit on the day of their rendezvous: "He waited for an hour in their corner of the bar, believing that against the odds there might somehow be an explanation."
What redeems the men is kindliness or patience or some similar quality; for the widower it is "a flicker of optimism, although he did not know where it came from or even if what it promised was sensible. He did not dwell upon his mood; it was simply there." For the professor, in the eyes of his wife, it is not brains or skill or knowing a lot but wisdom, "almost indefinable, what a roadworker might have, a cinema usher or a clergyman, or a child." This voice is that of an old-fashioned moralist: humble, rather shy, uninterested in success and accomplishment and fulfillment as we perceive it nowadays. Dignity instead emerges from within and remains private, known only to loved ones or, if there are none, to the self. A good part of life is keeping secrets: Vera's in "Three People," the laborer Liam Pat's in "The Mourning" and (a rare foreign protagonist) the Frenchman Guy's in "Le Visiteur." Retreating from an awkward encounter with a married woman traveling with her stone-drunk husband, Guy sits down among the rocks, wondering if he would tell anyone, and if he did, how exactly he would put it. It was how they lived, he might say; it was how they belonged to one another, not that he understood. In the cold moonlight he felt his solitude a comfort.
The oddest story in The Hill Bachelors is "The Virgin's Gift," an allegory set in Ireland's premechanical, possibly medieval past, where the gift of the Virgin's first visitation to a young man named Michael is solitude. First he is sent to an abbey, which means breaking with his love, a girl named Fódla; then to an island off Ireland's coast, where he will be truly alone. He is happy there, loving his solitude, and resents the Virgin's final visitation when instructed that he must leave it. There is a purpose, of course: a return home to his elderly parents, his father now blind, the farm fallen to pieces. The moment--"the gift of a son given again"--is quiet, not sensational: "No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendour, only limbs racked by toil in a smoky hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air." It makes perfect sense for Trevor--homecoming is a triumph allowed even the defeated, as we know from Robert Frost: "the place where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in." Frost's was a sexless creature, too, the old hired hand coming home to die, without a past that implies at all the intimate mark of other people.
The Hill Bachelors is mostly, too, a book of homecomings. Paulie in the title story comes home in the literal sense; so too Liam Pat. The happily married couple of "A Friend in the Trade" sell their London home in which they have raised three children; yet the home to which they will retire--an oast-house in rural Sussex--will, it seems, be a more private and intimate place for the two of them than their city home has ever been, with its frequent visitor and interloper Michingthorpe.
There is no sense that William Trevor, who is 72, is about to give up writing; yet in nearly every tale in this collection there is a hint of his valediction: that his characters, whether they live or die, are alone or intimately involved, have come home to rest and so too has their author. A fine and careful writer, master of the perfectly oblique sentence, the sly and compassionate aside, rarely arouses himself to something approaching a speech, a pronouncement on the times. More common is the terse peroration, as in the finale of "Of the Cloth": "Small gestures mattered now, and statements in the dark were a way to keep the faith." And yet in "Against the Odds" we have epiphany presented newsreel-style, the March of Time, the broad, wet stroke of the brush from the exacting miniaturist:
The troubles had returned since Mrs Kincaid had travelled back to Belfast. There had been murder and punishment, the burning of churches, the barricades at Drumcree, the destruction of the town of Omagh. Yet belief in the fragile peace persisted, too precious after so long to abandon. Stubbornly the people of the troubles honoured the hope that had spread among them, fierce in their clamour that it should not go away. In spite of the quiet made noisy again, its benign infection had reached out for Blakely; it did so for Mrs Kincaid also, even though her trouble was her own. Weary at last of making entries in a notebook, she wrote her letter.
It is not Trevor's finest writing: too general, too rushed, too naïve, perhaps, even untrue; a writer who has visited with pinpoint precision his character's deepest fears and isolation is not likely to seem so hopeful about the fate of nations. Yet in its generosity, its kindness, its making the general personal, domestic ("Weary at last...she wrote her letter"), its final ambiguousness, it is unambiguously William Trevor's, a landmark in the terrain he has mapped out for us in thirty years of telling stories. In anticipation of when he will finally leave us, we have the words from another story in this collection: "The long acquaintanceship seems already over, the geography of their lives no longer able to contain it."
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood's tenth novel, has just won Britain's prestigious Booker prize, leading one to wonder whether the Canadian author with the impressive oeuvre (fifteen works of fiction, including three novels already shortlisted for the Booker, five collections of nonfiction, thirteen editions of poetry and four children's books) has departed in some measurable way from her signature style or whether she has perfected it. Neither, quite. Satiric and brooding, The Blind Assassin presents a typical Atwood predicament: Women taught self-effacement, obedience, modesty and quiescence resolve to tell their stories, trusting that someone, somewhere will listen. "Because I am telling you this story I will your existence," says the narrator of the futuristic parable, The Handmaid's Tale (1985). "I tell, therefore you are."
The storyteller of Blind Assassin is an 82-year-old woman, Iris Chase, with an ailing heart who lives alone in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, where she and her younger sister Laura grew up, the well-starched granddaughters of a wealthy button manufacturer. But the era of cozy Victorian gazebos and twelve-course dinners has long since passed. Their mother died in 1925 after a bloody miscarriage, and their father, a shell-shocked World War I veteran, alternately distracts himself with alcohol or soirees with radically chic artists come to eat his food and criticize his politics. When noblesse oblige gives way to layoffs, shutdowns and outside agitators, to save his business Iris's father arranges her marriage to Richard Griffen, a ruthless industrialist from Toronto, but Griffen swindles Mr. Chase, brutalizes Iris and locks up her sister in a loony bin. Laura escapes, disappears and then, just after the end of World War II, drives her car off a bridge.
Now it's 1998. Iris prowls her own small house at night, finger in the peanut-butter jar, taking inventory of her life's rubble--saucerless cups and monogrammed spoons and the tortoise-shell comb with missing teeth. By day, she writes about that life with a new black plastic pen, hands shaking as she tries to get the story straight and figure out, at the same time, why she's writing it at all. No longer consecrated to the ladylike regimen of silence and complicity, she determines to speak the truth. "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read...," Iris declares and pauses. "Impossible, of course."
Iris's saga is the linchpin of Atwood's Dos Passos-like mélange of newspaper clippings, interior monologues and social history, all interspersed with yet another tale, a sci-fi cult classic called "The Blind Assassin" and said to have been written by Laura. Published posthumously, "The Blind Assassin" is the story of Sakiel-Norn, a city on the planet Zycron, where enslaved children weave carpets until, blinded by their work, they graduate as hired killers. Meantime, the Sakiel-Norn business is itself a product of a romance into which it's folded: A nameless couple cooks up the fable during secret trysts that take place in two-bit hotels and fetid rooms borrowed for the occasion.
Sound complicated? Not really. Best-known of Canada's living novelists, Atwood writes with the precision of crack short-story writers Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and the wit of the late, prolific Robertson Davies; but most often one hears an echo of Margaret Laurence's cranky women in Atwood's narrators. With a cool confidence all her own, Atwood expertly shuffles among her various plots, historical periods, locales and characters. There's no mistaking Port Ticonderoga for Sakiel-Norn, and anyway the features of the anonymous lovers turn recognizable pretty quickly. During the Depression, when Iris was 18 and Laura 14, the Chase girls attended the annual button-factory company picnic and met the former divinity student and career proletarian who, it happens, supports himself by writing pulp fiction. For most of the novel, however, Alex Thomas is on the lam, having become chief suspect in the factory fire that lays waste the dwindling Chase fortune.
Both Laura and Iris find the hard-boiled Thomas appealing, if for different reasons. Laura, an idealist with "the infuriating iron-clad confidence of the true believer," hides Thomas in the mansion's cellar. (There's a radical in the woodpile of every family estate, it seems.) Not to be outdone, Iris joins the Thomas relief effort, as much to rob her quixotic sister of her moral and emotional superiority as to protect Thomas. "Laura touches people," Iris says, toting up their differences. "I do not."
Competition supplies the necessary psychological heft to the novel's otherwise spurious mysteries. (Who really wrote "The Blind Assassin"? Who are its unnamed lovers?) After their mother's death, a 9-year-old Iris resentfully takes charge of Laura, and when Laura one day plummets into the Louveteau River (obvious harbinger of her later death), Iris hauls her out. "I couldn't get out of my mind the images of Laura, in the icy black water of the Louveteau--how her hair had spread out like smoke in a swirling wind, how her wet face had gleamed silvery, how she had glared at me when I'd grabbed her by the coat. How hard it had been to hold on to her. How close I had come to letting go."
In fact, just three pages into the novel, a newspaper headline announces that the precipitate death of Laura Chase, 25, sister of Mrs. Richard Griffen, has been ruled an accident. But dutiful Atwood readers understand that there are no accidents in her novels, and so ironic auguries topple over one another with a kind of slick inevitability. We read a 1937 society page in Mayfair magazine that some of Toronto's elite will travel to France and Italy this season, "Mussolini permitting." We learn from another headline that Iris's oily husband, Richard, praises the Munich accord. We discover that Iris and Laura's grandmother was one of those wistful women who "went in for Culture," believing it made you a better person. "They hadn't yet seen Hitler at the opera house," Iris tartly observes. This same grandmother christened the Gothic-turreted family mansion Avilion, after Tennyson's utopian "island-valley" in Idylls of the King--but Avilion, as we might have guessed, suffers the slings and arrows of change and neglect, its splendor turned food for silverfish. After it's sold, it's renamed Valhalla and run as an old-age home. O tempora! O mores!
All this historical canniness begins to sound a bit smug. Partly, of course, the problem lies with Iris, who recollects trauma from the relative tranquillity of hindsight. She's also a woman without affect who nightly accedes to her husband's savagery, insulates herself from her sister's suffering and refuses to see the incest and adultery and suicide committed before her eyes. Yes, yes, she is a kind of blind assassin, cutthroat and complex, herself a wounded child impassively doing what she has to do.
But we learn little about Laura Chase, whom we desperately need to know. "It was ill will, the ill will of the universe, that distressed her," Iris glibly portrays her. "Laura believed words meant what they said, but she carried it to extremes," Iris says in another of Atwood's foreshadowings. "You couldn't say Get lost or Go jump in the lake and expect no consequences." Similarly, Iris's buccaneering husband is a villain without a cause, committing all the usual atrocities: fraud, physical abuse, child molestation. His sister, a camp version of the social arriviste, brandishes a mean Waldorf salad, organizes theme-obsessed charity balls (Xanadu is the pick for 1936) and wears alligator pumps the color of chlorophyll chewing gum: amusing but arch.
Actually, all these characters succumb to Atwood's deadpan style, her penchant for static tableaux, her anxiety-ridden refusal to feel. "I can see people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and closing but no real words coming out," comments the narrator of Cat's Eye. "I can look at their shapes and sizes, their colors, without feeling anything else about them." There's much good prose here and much wit, but one wants more than that. Winking at the reader familiar with Coleridge and Dickinson and T.S. Eliot and Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin, Atwood structures her novel with the cerebral precision of a gymnast performing flips for the cognoscenti. Even the novel's organizing images--fire and water and gardens made of rock--occur in diagrammatic, self-satisfied fashion.
More successful is Atwood when she plies her own stock in trade, those prodigal similes ("over the trenches God had burst like a balloon"), merciless descriptions ("I look sick, my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water") and recurrent props, like the graffiti in bathrooms or photographs that commemorate our lives in their weird and flattened way. Laura steals the picture of herself, Iris and Alex Thomas taken at the factory picnic. She makes two prints, one for Iris and one for herself, and in each, cuts one of the sisters out, leaving only a hand. It's the novel's talisman.
Distance is Atwood's forte and her nemesis. Though her trademark understatement often contributes to the sharp humor of her work, at times it seems crudely facile. "The war takes place in black and white," Iris informs us in one particularly grating paragraph. "For those on the sidelines that is. For those who are actually in it there are many colours, excessive colours, too bright, too red and orange, too liquid and incandescent, but for the others the war is like a newsreel--grainy, smeared, with bursts of staccato noise and large numbers of grey-skinned people rushing or plodding or falling down, everything elsewhere." During the Great War, Iris's father writes chillingly from France, "I cannot describe what is happening here, and so I will not attempt it." One suspects that for Atwood, scenes of emotional carnage take place at a remove, as in newsreels, and therefore remain indescribably unreal--not exactly a virtue in a novel with history its tacit subject.
At her best, though, Atwood's suppressed women of precocious sensibility tell their stories with prickly precision, sparing neither themselves nor anyone else. They hold on; they let go. Such is the Scylla and Charybdis of Iris's life, not just in relation to her sister but to the past and to herself. "But what is a memorial, when you come right down to it," Iris speculates, "but a commemoration of wounds endured? Endured, and resented."
For Atwood, however, one also memorializes oneself to stave off atrophy and despair. "The temptation is to stay inside," Iris acknowledges, "to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and weeds grow up, to allow the doors to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and allow my hair to lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout into claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet. But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism."
So too Atwood. She chooses not to plunge inside, preferring instead the cool, hard, protective edge of classicism to the deeper, often sloppier emotions. Nonetheless, she confers a certain dignity on her female outcasts and artists and the solitary, aging everywoman who smells of kitty litter. "I'll tell you this story," Iris offers. "What is that I'll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn't yours to bestow. Only a listener." It's not a bad trade. Atwood writes an entertaining and bracing tale, fun to read, forgettable when finished.
The quiet grace of Ring Lardner Jr., who died the other week at 85, seemed at odds with these noisy, thumping times. I cannot imagine Ring playing Oprah or composing one of those terribly earnest essays, "writers on writing," that keep bubbling to the surface of the New York Times. He was rightly celebrated
for personal and political courage but underestimated, it seems to me, as a protean writer who was incapable of composing an awkward sentence. It ran against Ring's nature to raise his voice. Lesser writers, who shouted, drew more acclaim, or anyway more attention.
The obituaries celebrated his two Academy Awards but made less of other achievements. Ring's novel,The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, begun in 1950 while he was serving his now-famous prison sentence for contempt of Congress, drew a transatlantic fan letter from Sean O'Casey. Ring felt sufficiently pleased to have the longhand note framed under glass, which he then slipped into a shirt drawer. He was not about advertisements for himself. In 1976 he published The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Garson Kanin commented, "In the American aristocracy of achievement, the Lardners are among the bluest of blue bloods. In Ring Lardner, Jr. they have found a chronicler worthy of his subject. The Lardners is a moving, comical, patriotic book."
The progenitor was, of course, Ring Lardner Sr., the great short-story writer, who sired four sons, each of whom wrote exceedingly well. James Lardner was killed during the Spanish Civil War; David died covering the siege of Aachen during World War II; a heart attack killed John in 1960, when he was 47. Add Ring's prison term to the necrology and you would not have what immediately looks to be the makings of a "moving, comical" book. But The Lardners was that and more because of Ring Jr.'s touch and slant and his overview of what E.E. Cummings called "this busy monster, manunkind."
From time to time, Ring published splendid essays. The one form he avoided was the short story. He wrote, "I did not want to undertake any enterprise that bore the risk of inviting comparison with my father or the appearance of trading on his reputation."
We became close in the days following the death of John Lardner, who was, quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read. I set about preparing a collection, The World of John Lardner, and Ring, my volunteer collaborator, found an unfinished serio-humorous "History of Drinking in America." He organized random pages with great skill. Reading them I learned that the favorite drink of the Continentals, shivering at Valley Forge, was a Pennsylvania rye called Old Monongahela. George Washington called it "stinking stuff." At headquarters the general sipped Madeira wine.
A year or so later, with the blacklist still raging, I picked up Ring for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, an unusual apartment hotel on Sunset Boulevard near Hollywood. Outside the building, a fifty-foot statue of a cowgirl, clad in boots and a bikini, rotated on the ball of one foot, advertising a Las Vegas hotel. I asked the room clerk for Mr. Robert Leonard. Ring was writing some forgotten movie, but could not then work under his own name. "Robert Leonard" matched the initials on his briefcase.
This was a pleasant November day, but the blinds above Ring's portable typewriter were drawn. When I asked why, he opened them. His desk sat facing the bikinied cowgirl, bust-high. Every eighteen seconds those giant breasts came spinning round. "Makes it hard to work," Ring said and closed the blinds.
The Saturday Evening Post was reinventing itself during the 1960s, on the way to dying quite a glorious death, and with my weighty title there, editor at large, I urged Clay Blair, who ran things, to solicit a piece from Ring about the blacklist. Ring responded with a touching, sometimes very funny story that he called "The Great American Brain Robbery." He explained, "With all these pseudonyms, I work as much as ever. But the producers now pay me about a tenth of what they did when I was allowed to write under my own name."
Clay Blair lived far right of center, but Ring's story conquered him, and he said, "Marvelous. Just one thing. He doesn't say whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Ask him to put that in the story."
"I won't do that, Clay."
"He chose jail, rather than answer that question."
"Then, if he still won't, will he tell us why he won't?"
Ring composed a powerful passage.
The impulse to resist assaults on freedom of thought has motivated witnesses who could have answered no to the Communist question as well as many, like myself, whose factual response would have been yes. I was at that time a member of the Communist party, in whose ranks I found some of the most thoughtful, witty and generally stimulating men and women in Hollywood, I also encountered a number of bores and unstable characters.... My political activity had already begun to dwindle at the time [Congressman J. Parnell] Thomas popped the question, and his only effect on my affiliation was to prolong it until the case was finally lost. At that point I could and did terminate my membership without confusing the act, in my own or anyone else's head, with the quite distinct struggle for the right to embrace any belief or set of beliefs to which my mind and conscience directed me.
These words drove a silver stake into the black heart of the blacklist.
Ring won his first Oscar for Woman of the Year in 1942, and when he won his second, for M*A*S*H in 1970, numbers of his friends responded with cheering and tears of joy. The ceremony took place early in 1971, and Ring accepted the statuette with a brief speech. "At long last a pattern has been established in my life. At the end of every twenty-eight years I get one of these. So I will see you all again in 1999."
Indeed. Early in the 1990s I lobbied a producer who had bought film rights to my book The Boys of Summer, to engage Ring for the screenplay. Ring, close to 80, worked tirelessly. A screenplay is a fictive work, and Ring moved a few days and episodes about for dramatic purposes. His scenario ended with the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series from the Yankees and my account of that ballgame landing my byline on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. The sports editor is congratulating me on a coherent piece when the telephone rings: My father has fallen dead on a street in Brooklyn; I am to proceed to Kings County Hospital and identify his body.
As I, or the character bearing my name, move toward the morgue, I bump into two beer-drunk Dodgers fans. One says, "What's the matter with him?" The other says, "He's sober. That's the matter with him." The body is there. It is my father's body. Beer drunks behind us, my mother and I embrace. Fin.
I can only begin to suggest all that Ring's scene implies. I would start with the point that winning the World Series is not the most important thing on earth, or even in Brooklyn. I was always careful not to embarrass Ring with praise, but here I blurted out, "This is the best bleeping screenplay I've ever read, Ringgold. Oscar III may come true in '99."
"Curious," Ring said. "I seem to have had the same thought myself."
The blacklisting bounders were now dead, but a new generation of Hollywood hounds refused to shoot Ring Lardner's scenario. The grounds: "a father-son angle" was not commercial. "It worked in Hamlet," Ring said, but to unhearing ears. And then we were talking about Ring writing a screenplay for a book I published in 1999 about Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. "Have to cut it back a bit," Ring said. "Following your text would give us the first billion-dollar picture."
Years ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman wrote that Ring Lardner Sr. was an unconscious artist and that his power proceeded from his hatred of the characters he created. Ring told me: "If my father hated anyone or anything, it was a critic like Fadiman. Unconscious artist? My father knew perfectly well how good he was and--better than anyone else--how hard it was to be that good."
Ring Jr. knew the very same thing about himself. Or so I believe. Yeats writes, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work." As well as anyone in our time, my suddenly late friend Ring Lardner came pretty damn close to achieving perfection in both.
You may find reading Akhil Sharma's debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma's An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, "Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia." The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: "As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri's sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon." What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter's thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan's voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator's voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, the confessions of Sharma's antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov's H.H.: "I had possessed her--and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.")
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma's great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan's abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book's most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi's dictatorial "emergency," imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn't tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma's novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: "Money would make everything negotiable.... The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government's aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged."
If Kafka's K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan's confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: "I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her."
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma's novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he's 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi's GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book's pages. Even the evocation of Karan's childhood in a village before India's independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love.... Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi's emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: "Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men."
We learn early about Karan's death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel's end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan's death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita's own desires. (Nabokov's H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: "I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.")
I tried to think again about one of Karan's earlier statements: "All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people." Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. "Do that, Jawaharlal," he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don't think I've thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.
"This is a story about a spy," writes Millicent Dillon in Harry Gold: A Novel.
A revealing question: Why has V.S. Naipaul come to be much better known in the West than the great African writer Chinua Achebe?