Bitty Ruminations 71

There are many canonical authors you’re meant to like, and you pick up one of their books as a means of putting a toe into their literary waters, but after 100 pages or so, you’re still waiting for that epiphany. Some of those with whose books I’ve had that epiphany are Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Nabokov (yes, liking Lolita is a cliché, but, really, what’s not to like?), and John Updike — though the latter hasn’t yet been inducted into the canon. (Or has he?) The four Rabbit novels are among the greatest contemporary fiction I’ve read, and despite David Foster Wallace’s famous assessment of Updike as a literary phallocrat, I find almost no page devoid of a resonant life statement, or at least a resonant sentence. A penis with a thesaurus? Perhaps. But a writer curious about every aspect of life, even the underside of the foreskin, and determined to fossilise every one of those aspects in lapidary language, so that future generations can know what a certain kind of American male looked like, walked like, talked like, made love like, is a no-brainer inductee into my personal canon.

PS: This piece here prompted the above. “… a Sabbath gleam in the dappled sunshine suggested a day apart.” Why do the rest of us even bother to write?

PPS: And it’s an odd coincidence that this piece was published soon after I read this review of an Updike work in The New York Times, from which I stole the word “accretionary.” The stolen word appears in a story that will be up in a few hours.

21 thoughts on “Bitty Ruminations 71

  1. Havent read any Updike but i extremely disliked the David Foster Wallace article. Its as if what was once considered to be a medium of artistic self-expression and individuality has precipitously dwindled down to merely being politically correct. The most ridiculous part of the article has got to be when he tallies up the number of pages as though it would prove his point. I mean, when there is a whole slew of great literature out there that is plain erotica, why complain only about this. And being a literary phallocrat does never come in my way of appreciating good literature just as overtly feminist stuff doesnt.

    Admittedly, i am not the greatest fan of David Foster Wallace and he being talked about in tandem with the likes of Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad drives me mad to say the least. Infinite Jest was a big letdown for me, didnt quite match up to the hyperbole of the critics. I had way too many problems with what he wrote and how he wrote it. For a start, it was obvious that he put in too much effort to sound writerly. Some may call it masterful, but there’s a fine line between sounding writerly and being masterful with the language and IMO he doesnt qualify. At best, it was the one-note and banal Ken Follet kind of voice rehashing some wannabe GEB complex bullshit with the arcane thoughts of a troubled nut case that he was.

    Someone like Don Delillo is a worthy candidate to be inducted into the canon. White Noise especially moved the crap out of me. Ive been wanting to check out Updike and Toni Morrison for quite some time and maybe its good to just go out and read the stuff rather than fretting over whether the literary critics deem the writer great or not.

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  2. Why dont you try doing something more detailed on literature rather than spurning it to a tiny bitty ruminations column? If anything, it would be a nice redemption for to have stopped writing part of the picture, unless ofcourse you are keen on attracting huge mainstream audience so as to attract adulations akin to movie stars, rock stars, politicians and some of our prestiged movie critics :p

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  3. >>>Why do the rest of us even bother to write?
    Really ? I think this little piece of “driven” writing appealed more to me than the link you quoted , of course the “Sabbath gleam in the dappled sunshine suggested a different day” bit notwithstanding :) . Deep sigh and lost in imagination… ,
    I had my epiphanies with George Orwell and Nabokov , but Ms Austen ,Mr Dickens and to a certain extent Mr Roth … tough luck .
    And I agree , I too would love to read more detailed writing on literature from you , but of course , its your decision.

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  4. Oh wow, have never read Updike (among others). Must get my hands on his book(s). Any recommendations? (The ‘dazzling dapple’ did it for me… two simple words, and what powerful imagery they’ve set off, in my head!)

    Also, these lines punched me, full, in the face – brilliant stuff, and I’ve never so much as thought of all this! Very instructive, and I suppose it can, in some ways, extend to beyond art appreciation.

    “writers of fiction understand how to enliven sections dense with fact”. “Obsessed with detail, poets and novelists notice what is transpiring everywhere in a painting” “Most important, novelists and poets have had practice using language to describe not only how something looks but the experience of seeing it.”

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  5. One of my favourite Updike lines is this relatively less colourful but strangely more insightful line from one of the Henry Bech stories: “Puzzled by the intensity of her blush, Bech saw that for this excited convert to liberalism anthropology was as titillating as pornography. He saw that even in an age of science and unbelief our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions, mere animal noises intended to repel or attract.”

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  6. I am still not sure why, but I like this piece of yours. You should do more when you get the time. I have always wondered what would be if you tried your hand at literature.
    Totally agree about Hardy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy and Woolf too in my case. Have yet to crystallize my opinion of Updike or Joyce for that matter.
    Agree with Adarsh about Foster Wallace. It feels like there is so much cultural noise around him. I can’t decide if I am unimpressed because of some sort of reactionary impulse or because I can see the effort in his writing and am put off by it.
    I agree about the excessive political correctness surrounding the work of Updike and many other writers for that matter. However, I do think a certain degree of p.c.ness protects the legacy of writers who may be written off as “crazy.” Many writers were “troubled nut cases” and I don’t think this takes away from the truly cathartic experience that reading them can provide.

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  7. Adarsh Radhakrishnan: I gave Toni Morrison a shot a long time ago. Didn’t quite do it for me. I know that sometimes it’s all a question of the place you are in life and I should probably try her again, but with all the new things, you somehow don’t get around to second chances.

    “Why dont you try doing something more detailed on literature rather than spurning it to a tiny bitty ruminations column?” — Because, in this field, I cannot compete with this young chap, that’s why.

    Prashila: It’s also that at least some things you love you shouldn’t write about professionally. Just keep it to yourself, you know?

    Aparna: I’d recommend the Rabbit series because they’re so quintessential Updike. Though they’d probably take up a big chunk of your time, and you may want to begin with something smaller, like “Couples.”

    Surendran: So glad to find a fellow Updike lover. Here’s one of my favourite lines, from “Rabbit at Rest.” I love people who write long sentences well, and this is one of the best examples of the art (it takes off on Harry’s feeling his way to the bathroom in the dark):

    “Each touch, it occurs to him every night, leaves a little deposit of skin and oil from his fingertips; eventually it will darken the varnished bureau edge as the hems of his golf-pants have been rendered grimy by his reaching in and out for tees and ball markers, round after round, over the years; and that accumulated deposit of his groping touch, he sometimes thinks when the safety of the bathroom and its luminescent light switch has been attained, will still be there, a shadow on the varnish, a microscopic cloud of his body oils, when he is gone.”

    Just look at how it ends. Not “long after he is gone” (as one might expect) but just “when he is gone.” Brutal. Matter-of-fact. The emotion, instead is reserved for the objects — like the bureau edge doomed to be “rendered grimy.”

    I usually flinch from whatever I write, but this (somewhat) long sentence from this piece makes me at least pause before flinching :-)

    “All these years of air travel after, there’s still the suggestion of science fiction about being in Chennai one Wednesday afternoon, struggling to squeeze everything into hand baggage while remembering to empty the refrigerator, and finding yourself, a day later, strolling beside Lake Zurich, as turquoise-headed ducks steer clear of brightly bobbing boats. ”

    soniajoseph: I like David Foster Wallace’s magazine writing, though. About “I can see the effort in his writing,” why do you say this is a bad thing? Are you saying you see the “strain” (of wanting to be great), or that you can sense him striving for goodness/greatness? The latter, as per me, isn’t a problem. In fact, I like writers who do this more than the colourless, clause-less folks who always want the subject to precede predicate and object :-)

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  8. Well ofcourse, colour is a good thing and the pattern of sounds that emerge out of the words adds more to the greatness of a book than do the sloppy cinder blocks that carry the story forward. But then you can always choose to be an extreme stylist like Herman Melville and add your own twinge to the prose or behave like an impish little 14-year old who has found some new words/phrases having read the Animorphs :P

    And speaking of long sentences, here’s what Mr.Hemingway’s got to say,

    “That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream”

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  9. Totally love David Foster Wallace. That, although I have yet to tackle Infinite Jest, but I will some day. I like to pick a book up , go to any page and read randomly- of course, after I have read it once. DFW writes that kind of prose. So does Roberto Bolano.

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  10. Wow, this post certainly got more comments than I expected :-) I read about Michael Chabon’s new novel having an entire chapter in a single sentence. Anyone read it?

    Adarsh Radhakrishnan: Nice to hear you talk about “pattern of sounds that emerge out of the words.” One of the things I love about Dostoevsky and Nabokov is how musical their writing is. You can almost hear the sentences sing. Like this passage from “Pnin”:

    “Somewhere in the middle distance hung an obscure liver ailment, and somewhere in the background there was Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Roy’s particular field, an overgrazed pasture, with the trickle of a brook and a clump of initialled trees; a barbed-wire arrangement on either side of this field separated it from Professor Stowe’s domain, the preceding century, where the lambs where whiter, the turf softer, the rill purlier, and from Doctor Shapiro’s early nineteenth century, with its glen mists, sea fogs, and imported grapes.”

    You can almost dance to this stuff. I wonder if, he’d been a blogger, someone would have commented “Why can’t you write in simple English?” :-)

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  11. Maybe the Russians have it genetically programmed in them to write great literature(or make great films, or write great music). No wonder Dostoevsky alone spawned adaptations from cinematic equals such as Bresson, Godard, Kurosawa and Visconti.

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  12. @brangan: I was talking mostly about the very visible strain. I don’t mind knowing that someone is attempting something unusual in cinema/ writing. That is exactly the sort of work that allows the rest of us to really stretch. However, there is experimenting and seeing how far one can go stylistically versus trying to just load a text with every “aha how clever of me” moment you’ve ever had. Again totally agree with you about his work in magazines. I read this beautiful piece by DFW about the Internet recently and it blew my mind. In long form though, all that excess sort of takes away something from “the moment” you often have with the great novels. Of course, this is just me and it could be I need to grow into “Infinite Jest” as I have into Joyce, ever so slowly. :)
    Jai Arjun is pure awesomeness. However, do reconsider. I would love to see an expansion of these bits. :)

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  13. I struggle with DFW. In that, I don’t know whether to blissfully stay in this mostly undiscovered land or spark a movement to make Infinite Jest totally mainstream. I think I do a bit of both.

    But yes, read Infinite Jest and stick to it for a few months!

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  14. “One of the things I love about Dostoevsky and Nabokov is how musical their writing is.” But BR, for Dostoevsky it could be just the translator’s skill, no? I read ‘Brothers Karamazov’ sometime ago but did not find the writing particularly ‘beautiful’. What struck me the most was the insightlful peeks into human psychology. Other than that, I remember feeling exasperated with the plodding plot, long stretches of dialogues that just don’t seem to get to the point, and side characters that do nothing to enhance the main story. I felt that the novel could easily have been cut down at least by a quarter if Dostoevsky had a competent editor.

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  15. Vivek Gupta: “I felt that the novel could easily have been cut down at least by a quarter if Dostoevsky had a competent editor” — in that case, would love to hear your thoughts on Tolstoy :-)

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  16. Yes, Tolstoy’s books are really really long and almost always come in no less than a 1000 pages but I feel even a relatively very short Dostoevsky novel like C&P takes much longer time to fully read and gestate than say, an Anna Karenina. Maybe thats because Tolstoy is much more straight forward or spontaneous, if you will, as opposed to the psychotic rides Dostoevsky takes us through the most inscrutable of characters.

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  17. Baradwaj: Why do you have to ‘compete’ with that young chap, whomever that is? Just share your reading experiences. We, the sophisticated fanboys that we are, know what works for us and what does not. Now, let’s look forward to the pillayar suzhi for ‘Between Reads’ :)

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