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The draw of the Gothic

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

To understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410 A.D. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. “The city which had taken the whole world,” he writes, “was itself taken.” The old order—of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty—has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.

The term gothic was first used as an insult, and writers of the genre have always had a reckless disregard for either praise or blame. At first, however, the insult was leveled not at a work of literature, but at the brutally ornate architecture of gargoyles and buttresses which distinguish the great cathedrals of the medieval age. During the renaissance, Giorgio Vasari—an Italian scholar with a taste for the white facades and polite proportions of Classical architecture—found himself within a vaulted cathedral, and was appalled. It was, he said, all confusion and disorder, a “deformed malediction” that “polluted the world.” It was as barbarous an act of social and aesthetic rebellion as the work of the Germanic tribes that tore down the last of the Roman Empire. It was, in fact, Gothic.

Read more at the Paris Review link here

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Book review: Indian Nationalism – The Essential Writings, ed. S. Irfan Habib

A review essay by Dr Kamalakar Bhat

Indian Nationalism

Title: Indian Nationalism — The Essential Writings
Editor: S. Irfan Habib
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2017)
Pages: 285
Price: INR 499 (Hardbound)

They used to say when history repeats itself, it becomes a farce. Well, history seems to have a way of throwing irony at us. At least that is what I imagine those commentators would feel who announced the last rites of the concept of nationalism with glee in the last decades of the previous century, amid the oft repeated phrase of globalization. While 20th century saw the rise of nationalism in the first half, it also saw its waning hold towards the turn of the century; many saw globalization as having sent nationalism to the side wings of the world theatre, but come 21st century, and nationalism is back on the centre stage with a vengeance.

The use of the word ‘vengeance’ is perhaps far from being fortuitous at the beginning of a review of a book on Indian nationalism. It is this side of nationalism, the angry, militant, violent side that has been its manifestation in India recently, and as the quotes on the cover page of this book signify, that seems to be the immediate context that has engendered the publication of this book. Readers need only to take a look at its cover page which prominently displays Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Is hatred essential to Nationalism?’ to understand the raison d’être that has occasioned it. The prefatory note begins by alluding precisely to this context – words that stand out in the first two sentences are: ‘hyper-nationalism’, ‘shrieks’, ‘frenzy’, ‘threatening’, and ‘tear apart’. The contemporary public discourse in India, surfeit with strident, insistent and persistent debates surrounding nationalism are surely the reason this book has been conceived and designed the way it has been. We have today a generation that is ready to go ballistic over nationalism, raise its emotional and nuisance quotient very high in defence of just the word with very little meaning, intent or content attached to the idea behind it. Perhaps it is to remind this generation of ‘nationalists’ that the book provides an account of the history of the idea in India and its various shades as it developed during the era that nation itself was in the making.

It is true that even the earliest theorizations of nationalism refer to the positive and the negative sides of this political concept. And this schismatic view runs through the entire history of scholarly attention to this idea. Every kind of duality may be found attributed to the idea – whether about its nature or meaning. Thus, we have good and bad nationalism, Western and Eastern nationalism, nationalisms of the oppressors and the oppressed, original and pirate, liberal and illiberal, civic and ethnic, etc. The grounds on which these classifications are made are different but in much of the scholarship on nationalism, an urge to employ a schismatic view is common. Such classical experts on nationalism as Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Ernest Gellner, Horace B. Davis and Eric Hobsbawm have all seen in nationalism some sort of ‘Janus Face’. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman in their book Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, list thirteen contrasting distinctions to be found in the literature on nationalism. This book too, through its paratext, the essays included and the sections under which these are arranged reminds the readers that one can’t take the idea of nationalism as an unquestionably noble value (as some news anchors are wont to assert), or as a naturally beneficial and benevolent idea. Irfan Habib, noted historian, who has edited this timely collection of essays on “Indian Nationalism”, points out at the outset that nationalism is a double-edged sword which ‘…can be a binding force or a deeply divisive instrument used to cause strife around political, cultural, linguistic or more importantly, religious identities.’ If our polity had better use of its memory then, one doubts whether after the horrors unleashed by parochial nationalism at the dawn of independence, we would have ever allowed it to resurface and resurge.

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Why translation deserves scrutiny

(From The New York Review of Books. Written by Tim Parks. Link to the complete article given below)

Is translation a discipline or a cause? A catalogue sent to me by a small American publisher begins by naming all the translators of the foreign titles the company is offering, inviting the reader to thank and celebrate the people who have made the English versions of these books possible.

I go to a university seminar on translation whose program is headed with a quotation from Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments… who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

I go to a translation conference where the keynote speaker observes with satisfaction that the period when a speaker might show an example of translation, criticize it, and suggest his or her own supposedly better version—“the time of the ‘Translation Police’”—is thankfully over. Toward the end of the same conference, a revered pioneer of Translation Studies is pleased that “everything we have heard here makes a mockery of pedantic questions of fidelity and the old tendency to hierarchize some translations as good and some as bad.”

When a member of the “Translation Police” does show his face, he is rebuked. I open The New York Times and find an angry letter from a number of well-respected names in the translation community. They are attacking Benjamin Moser’s negative review of Kate Briggs’s recent book on translation, This Little Art. Moser had taken issue with Briggs’s remark that “we need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.” He felt the claim needed qualification: Which translations, why? He was also unimpressed by Briggs’s enthusiasm for the first translator into English of Thomas Mann’s novels, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose German, it is generally agreed, had shortcomings that led to there being a large number of mistakes in the English versions. Those writing the letter to the Times deplore Moser’s “simplistic and retrograde… insistence on accuracy.” Translation is a complex subject, they observe, and accuracy not such an easy issue to pin down.

Read more at the New York Review of Books link here


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Essay: Nikos Kazantzakis – Life and Works

By Sushant Dhar

Nikos Kazantzakis

Nikos Kazantzakis in Antibes, 1956 
Photograph by Henri Chaillet

I rose and held out my hand to the rain like a beggar. I suddenly felt like weeping. Some sorrow, not my own but deeper and more obscure, was rising from the damp earth: the panic which a peaceful grazing animal feels when, all at once, without having seen anything, it rears its head and scents in the air about it that it is trapped and cannot escape. I wanted to utter a cry, knowing that it would relieve my feelings, but I was ashamed to. The clouds were coming lower and lower. I looked through the window: my heart was gently palpitating. What a voluptuous enjoyment of sorrow those hours of soft rain can produce in you! All the bitter memories hidden in the depth of your mind come to the surface: separations from friends, women’s smiles which have faded, hopes which have lost their wings like moths and of which only a grub remains – and that grub had crawled on the leaf of my heart and was eating it away. My misery lasted for years, perhaps even to this day. I was born, after all, on Friday the eighteenth of February, the day of souls, a very holy day indeed, and the old midwife clutched me in her hands, brought me close to the light, and looked at me with great care. She seemed to see some kind of mystic signs on me. Lifting me high, she said, “Mark my words, one day this child will become a bishop” (Zorba the Greek).

And came Nikos Kazantzakis, the one who stared back at the abyss with unflinching courage.

It was the seventh day of November, 2016. I was sitting quietly in my room, looking through the window, watching the red dot disappear behind the snow clad mountains. I had finished reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ had taken hold of my mind. While browsing the web, I came around a breath-choking prologue: ‘I collect my tools: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, intellect. Night has fallen; the day’s work is done. I return like a mole to my home, the ground. Not because I am tired and cannot work. I am not tired. But the sun has set.’

These sentences were written at the time when Kazantzakis had a premonition of Charon coming soon to visit him. The words stunned me. I looked for the author and the book. I hadn’t read anything about Nikos Kazantzakis. Reading Report to Greco, Kazantzakis’ autobiographical novel, was akin to being part of the author’s spiritual journey. The moment I started reading Greco, I was transported into a different realm of writing. I hadn’t ever experienced such joy of reading. Pure philosophy. The uphill path. It was like reading something written with blood. The central theme of all his writings is the battle between soul and flesh; the unaccommodating ascent to the summit. All of his works speak of harmonizing the two forces that are fighting within each human being. He writes about real freedom; to hope nothing, to deliver man from man, to deliver god from god, to erect our personal bridges and jump over the abyss.

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Remembering Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish 10 years after his death

(From The National. Link to the complete article given below)

In describing Darwish’s legacy and greatness, Ahdaf Soueif, an award-winning British-Egyptian novelist and writer, told The National: “Mahmoud Darwish is simply a great poet. He has the poet’s god-given ability to use language to trigger new perceptions and to create the aesthetic fusion that hits the listener or reader’s heart and mind at the same time.

“Add to this that he was Palestinian at a time when Palestine was ‘the cause’ for every native speaker of Arabic, and that he was committed to that cause and fought for it, that he was modest, and charismatic, and you have a superstar. Darwish filled stadiums when he read. You cannot overstate his legacy.”

Born in 1941 in a village in what is today Israel, he witnessed, and was often a part of, seminal chapters in the history of Palestine throughout the 20th century and the start of the 21st century. He was a refugee, revolutionary, nationalist, humanist – all chronicled in his poetry.

The writer ‘has to resist’

In 2008, Darwish was the first writer approached by Soueif and other members of the Board of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest) to be one of the festival’s founding patrons. He accepted.

Darwish was due to participate in the inaugural festival but had to decline due to health issues. His address was a letter welcoming the group of international writers who had travelled to Palestine for the festival, and thanking them for their solidarity. Three months later, he was being laid to rest in Ramallah.

“Darwish was 100 per cent artist, he was also 100 per cent engaged with the struggle for liberation,” says Soueif by email. “In his address to PalFest in 2008, Darwish described his personal task: how the poet ‘has to use the word to resist the military occupation. And has to resist – on behalf of the word – the danger of the banal and the repetitive.’ It’s tremendously touching as well as instructive to read his work with an awareness of that constant struggle to make his work serve his cause and, at the same time, to allow his work to be true to itself, and to create a bit of space for the ‘literariness’ of his poetry.”

Read more at The National link here


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10 famous book hoarders

(From Lit Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

I have a hard time getting rid of books, and if you’re reading this space, you probably do too. As Summer Brennan put it, “what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose?” Not anyone I know. But apparently, you only have to own one thousand books to qualify as a book hoarder. Which seems a bit low, to be honest—unless we’re talking about one thousand books in a New York City one-bedroom, in which case, sure.

In general, I’m interested in other people’s book collections. How many books, which ones, how are they kept, where are they kept? So, one rainy afternoon, I started poking around the book collections of famous people, to see which ones happened to be (technical or actual) book hoarders. Some of the results surprised me—though I admit I already knew about Karl Lagerfeld.

N.B. that of course this list is in no way scientific or exhaustive—no doubt there are scores of famous people out there with large libraries (disposable income and lots of space tend to make that possible), but either the actual numbers have never been documented, or I simply couldn’t (or didn’t) dig them up. Notables with high figures who didn’t make the top ten include Marilyn Monroe (400 books), George Washington (1,200 books), Charles Darwin (1,480 books), Oprah (1,500 books), Frederick Douglass (2,000-odd books), and David Markson (2,500 books). If you have any further intel on this score, please add on to the list in the comments as you see fit.

Karl Lagerfeld: 300,000 books

Karl Lagerfeld has more books than pretty much anybody. During a “master class” at the 2015 International Festival of Fashion and Photography, Lagerfeld explained: “Today, I only collect books; there is no room left for something else. If you go to my house, I’ll have you walk around the books. I ended up with a library of 300,000. It’s a lot for an individual.” No kidding. His collection includes books in French, English, and German, and in order to create more space in his home for all the volumes, he stacks his books sideways—that is, horizontally instead of vertically. Oh, and there’s a catwalk to reach the upper levels. This is Lagerfeld, after all.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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When writing fiction hurts the people you love

(From The Literary Hub. Link to the complete article given below)

I was sitting in the Science Center Library, reading Paradise Lost. This was in the late 1970s, when I was an English major at Harvard. There are famously gorgeous libraries at Harvard, but I preferred to sit in one of the uglier spaces, beneath buzzing fluorescent lights, with calculators clicking all around me. I was unlikely to run into anyone I knew in the Science Center, though there was no reason for me to be so furtive. It’s just the way I am, habitually keeping to myself. Private and solitary.

I came to the end of the poem. Adam and Eve, our guilty parents, cast out of the garden. But then: “The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest. . . They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.” The lines hit a nerve and I burst into tears. Loud, gulpy, snot-filled sobs. In the middle of the Science Center, for everyone to hear. I could not stop. I sat in that cubicle and wept and wept.

Guilt has always moved me. I imagine the pain someone must have been in to do whatever awful thing he did and want him to have another chance. Such possibly kind, possibly stupid empathy is useful for a writer, but it’s not the whole story. My mother was a war survivor and I inherited her unspoken guilt at having made it out alive, but that doesn’t fully explain it, either. I feel guilty for being a fiction writer. I’m not referring to the self-doubt many of us feel about making up stories while the world burns. I’m talking about the suffering we cause by writing.

Read more at the Lit Hub link here


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Should we stop reading into authors’ lives and get back to their books?

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below)

As soon as the news of VS Naipaul’s death broke a few weeks ago, a thousand think pieces rose as one, as though to take his place. His legacy was both attacked and defended, his misogyny and racism condemned and forgiven. This frenzied conversation crystallised around a question readers have been grappling with for years, but with increasing urgency: to what extent should we consider an artist’s personality, politics and ethics relevant to our appreciation of their work?

It seems that almost no one can separate the writer from the books when it comes to Naipaul. The same is true of our response to work by authors who have recently been accused of various levels of misconduct following #metoo. In the past week alone, compelling and devastating reports of abuse by lauded authors have appeared in the media: Gwyn Conger Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s second wife, detailed his sadism and womanising in a memoir that has recently come to light; author Joyce Maynard has written of her experiences with JD Salinger, who summoned her to live with him when she was 18 and he was 53.

Practical criticism – the academic approach to texts that aims to consider words on the page independently of their author or the reader’s preconceived ideas – began almost 100 years ago; now, in 2018, such death of the author” talk appears to be dead itself. While the takes on Naipaul were diverse, and some argued that Naipaul’s bad character was irrelevant to his work, the fact of his bad character was always front and centre. It could not go unmarked– but what remains to be decided is the extent to which it marks the legacy of a Nobel prize-winning author.

Read more at The Guardian link here


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is Literature dead?

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead. We were at the dinner table, discussing The Great Gatsby, which he was reading for a ninth-grade humanities class. Part of the class structure involved annotation, which Noah detested; it kept pulling him out of the story to stop every few lines and make a note, mark a citation, to demonstrate that he’d been paying attention to what he read. “It would be so much easier if they’d let me read it,” he lamented, and listening to him, I couldn’t help but recall my own classroom experiences, the endless scansion of poetry, the sentence diagramming, the excavation of metaphor and form. I remembered reading, in junior high school, Lord of the Flies—a novel Noah had read (and loved) at summer camp, writing to me in a Facebook message that it was “seriously messed up”—and thinking, as my teacher detailed the symbolic structure, finding hidden nuance in literally every sentence, that what she was saying was impossible. How, I wondered, could William Golding have seeded his narrative so consciously and still have managed to write? How could he have kept track of it all? Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer, had begun to read with an eye toward how a book or story was built, and if this was what it took, this overriding sense of consciousness, then I would never be smart enough.

Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. Literature—at least the literature to which I respond—doesn’t work that way; it is conscious, yes, but with room for serendipity, a delicate balance between craft and art. This is why it’s often difficult for writers to talk about their process, because the connections, the flow of storytelling, remain mysterious even to them. “I have to say that, for me, it evolved spontaneously. I didn’t have any plan,” Philip Roth once said of a scene in his 2006 novel Everyman, and if such a revelation can be frustrating to those who want to see the trick, the magic behind the magic, it is the only answer for a writer, who works for reasons that are, at their essence, the opposite of schematic: emotional, murky, not wholly identifiable—at least, if the writing’s any good. That kind of writing, though, is difficult to teach, leaving us with scansion, annotation, all that sound and fury, a buzz of explication that obscures the elusive heartbeat of a book.

Read more at The Paris Review link here


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Is literature dead?

(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)

One evening not long ago, my fifteen-year-old son, Noah, told me that literature was dead. We were at the dinner table, discussing The Great Gatsby, which he was reading for a ninth-grade humanities class. Part of the class structure involved annotation, which Noah detested; it kept pulling him out of the story to stop every few lines and make a note, mark a citation, to demonstrate that he’d been paying attention to what he read. “It would be so much easier if they’d let me read it,” he lamented, and listening to him, I couldn’t help but recall my own classroom experiences, the endless scansion of poetry, the sentence diagramming, the excavation of metaphor and form. I remembered reading, in junior high school, Lord of the Flies—a novel Noah had read (and loved) at summer camp, writing to me in a Facebook message that it was “seriously messed up”—and thinking, as my teacher detailed the symbolic structure, finding hidden nuance in literally every sentence, that what she was saying was impossible. How, I wondered, could William Golding have seeded his narrative so consciously and still have managed to write? How could he have kept track of it all? Even then, I knew I wanted to be a writer, had begun to read with an eye toward how a book or story was built, and if this was what it took, this overriding sense of consciousness, then I would never be smart enough.

Now, I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. Literature—at least the literature to which I respond—doesn’t work that way; it is conscious, yes, but with room for serendipity, a delicate balance between craft and art. This is why it’s often difficult for writers to talk about their process, because the connections, the flow of storytelling, remain mysterious even to them. “I have to say that, for me, it evolved spontaneously. I didn’t have any plan,” Philip Roth once said of a scene in his 2006 novel Everyman, and if such a revelation can be frustrating to those who want to see the trick, the magic behind the magic, it is the only answer for a writer, who works for reasons that are, at their essence, the opposite of schematic: emotional, murky, not wholly identifiable—at least, if the writing’s any good. That kind of writing, though, is difficult to teach, leaving us with scansion, annotation, all that sound and fury, a buzz of explication that obscures the elusive heartbeat of a book.

Read more at the Paris Review link here