Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Awe-full

What a glorious day it's been in Philly today. A clear blue sky, the temperature a lovely 70 degrees. Just the perfect time to do a little fisking. So here goes:

****

The target for today is this interview with Kiran Nagarkar over at Rediff that a friend sent me a link to. It's a terrible interview, an almost textbook demonstration of why an interviewer needs to be more than a mere doormat for the interviewee to walk all over. The interviewer, someone called Lindsay Pereira, gives us one whole page of unadulterated gush about Nagarkar, and then goes on to do the rest of the interview like a wide-eyed schoolboy desperately looking to impress his favourite author by trying to sound all grown-up and sophisticated. Not once in the entire interview is Nagarkar questioned or put on the defensive - not only is he allowed to ramble, even the reasonable things he tries to say are amplified to the point of being ridiculous. The critics didn't like your new book? Obviously that's because they're shallow wastrels who don't understand your true greatness, isn't it appalling by the way, how the quality of criticism in this country has declined? You don't like Rushdie? Of course, of course, you're the really funny and subversive one. You don't like Beckett either? Ah, but the theatre of the absurd is dead anyway [1].

Consider just this one question:

You shared a very special relationship with (the late poet) Arun Kolatkar. I still find it hard to believe that his work, like Jejuri, is respected mainly by students of literature alone. Does that bother you -- the fact that his work ought to have had a wider audience, or that his obituary ought to have been on the front page, not page 6?
What is Nagarkar supposed to say to this? That no, actually, despite the fact that he was a good friend of mine and one of the greatest poets we've ever had, I totally think he deserved to be buried somewhere in the depths of a paper while the latest Bollywood Starlet cavorted on page 3? Come on. (And isn't it a bit rich for someone from Rediff to be criticising others for shallow journalism? Remember the glass walls?). And what does Nagarkar, handed the opportunity on a platter, come up with? He tells us how Kolatkar was such a great guy. Played the clarinet. Did Buster Keaton impressions. Was totally the life of the party. Everything we wanted to know about Kolatkar, in fact, except why, in Nagarkar's opinion, he was such an important poet and what his poetic contribution might have been. Aaargghh! And does Mr. Pereira question him about this? No. Not ashamed to show his mettle as a literary critic he chimes in with:

"And, at the same time, there are so many ways of looking at it."


What insight! What a stunning perspective on Kolatkar's work. And then, when Nagarkar has blathered on some more, he comes up with:

"So does it bother you that he has been completely marginalised"?


If you're reading the interview, stop at this point, and go back and look at the last three paragraphs of Nagarkar ranting. It should be obvious to even the meanest intelligence that hell, yes, it bothers him. It bothers him so much that that's all he's been saying. If Mr. Pereira were to stop being so infernally starry-eyed and actually listen to the man he (and the rest of us) might actually get something out of this interview.

The point is not just that interviews like this are unfair to the reader because they reveal so much less about the person being interviewed than a good interview could have, it's also that they're unfair to the person being interviewed. The first time I read the interview I came away with a little less respect for Nagarkar than I'd had before. If you haven't figured it out by now, I don't take kindly to people shooting off their mouth about Beckett or Rushdie or Coleridge. But then I went back and re-read the piece and realised that most of the things that Nagarkar was saying weren't that unreasonable. He was being opinionated, true, and I don't necessarily agree with him, but he wasn't being dismissive - he was very clear throughout that this was a matter of preference, not judgement.

Look, I have a lot of admiration for Nagarkar (and god knows I worship Kolatkar), and tepid reviews of his new novel (which I haven't been able to get my hands on yet, but fully intend to read) notwithstanding, I think the perspective he's coming from is quite interesting. So he wants to worship at the altar of Rabelais. Fair enough (though I don't understand why someone who loves Rabelais doesn't get Rushdie). Why does he think that's the appropriate response to the rise of fundamentalism [2]? What does he see as the key ingredients of the satirical art, and in what ways does he try to bring them into his writing? How is this different from what he was trying to do with his earlier books, and if it isn't, then why does the style seem to have changed so much? Who does he think are the other writers, whether in India or elsewhere in the world who have done or are trying to do something similar? These are all questions I would love to hear asked of Nagarkar - instead of all this silly name dropping about Brecht and alienation.

There's a point in the interview where Nagarkar says that awe is not conducive to criticism. True. And neither is it helpful to interviewing. [3]

****

As for this whole thing about criticism today not being what it used to be - where have I heard that one before? Nagarkar should go read Marvell:

"Who best could praise had then the greatest praise,
'Twas more esteemed to give than wear the bays:
Modest ambition studied only then
To honour not herself but worthy men.
These virtues now are banished out of town,
Our Civil Wars have lost the civic crown.
He highest builds, who with most art destroys,
And against others' fame his own employs.
I see the envious caterpillar sit
On the fair blossom of each growing wit.
The air's already tainted with the swarm
Of insects which against you rise in arms:
Word-peckers, paper-rats, book-scorpions,
Of wit corrupted, the unfashioned sons. "


Or Shelley:

"The herded wolves, bold only to pursue;
The obscene ravens, clamorous o'er the dead;
The vulture's to the conqueror's banner true
Who feed where Desolation first has fed,
And whose wings rain contagion."


Or Arnold:

"They outtalked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;"
The point is that every generation of writers believes that the critics who review their work are a bunch of narrow-minded poltroons, not deserving of the name of critics and that the once golden age of criticism is now dead [4]. I'd be willing to bet that the first caveman to paint on a wall ended up braining some other caveman with a rock because this second caveman pissed all over the first caveman's masterpiece. Nagarkar should know better. And interviewers should not let him get away with this.

****

One last section of carping (since I'm on a roll here). What the hell did Jhumpa Lahiri's family ever do to her that she can't untie herself from her mother's pallu? Wasn't the Namesake bad enough? Does everything she writes have to involve being Bengali and living in Boston and growing up in the time warp of being Indian in ways that people in India stopped being decades ago? I mean seriously, Lahiri should live a little.

Take this story in the New Yorker. There are some really good bits to the story, the writing's clear and exact, but does it really have to be scaffolded with all this insistent Indian-ness? I loved the way the story ends, but in order to get to that ending I had to yawn my way through page after page of twee-ness about being Bengali and growing up with conservative / immigrant parents, all of which felt like terrible deja vu.

The point is not that Lahiri is a bad writer. On the contrary, the point is that Lahiri is good enough a writer to not need all these immigrant trappings. This is not some 19 year old trying to write a book that will sell and pitching it as being about the South Asian experience in the US. This is a serious writer trying to write serious fiction. I mean, okay, so it's legitimate to use the settings you grew up in as a frame within which to set your fiction. But it needs to enhance your writing, not support it. Anyone who's read any Roth knows that he grew up in a Jewish household living in the New Jersey suburbs. And there are few, if any novels that Roth has written that don't draw on that experience. But they don't insist on it, the way Lahiri does - that's just background - it's there and it informs the action of the novel, but (post-Portnoy) it's not insisted upon, not used to fill in the spaces in the writing. With Lahiri it's like most of the time that's all she's writing about - it almost feels as though it's the plot that's an aside and the background that's the point of the writing. And beyond a point that's just boring.

If Lahiri wants to be a truly impressive writer, it seems to me, she's going to have to snap out of this obsession with her own background and start writing beyond it. I would love to see a story by Lahiri where the protagonist wasn't Indian-American and didn't live in Massachusetts. And I swear, if the next story of hers I read talks about how they used to have all these big parties of all the Indian families and her mother would stand around in her sari cooking fish and the table would be laid hours in advance, I'm putting it down right there.

Notes

[1] Oh, it is, is it? The next time Ms. Pereira decides to kill off an entire genre, she may want to make sure of the corpse before she starts ordering supplies for the wake.

[2] I can't help thinking of Woody Allen in Manhattan. That bit about how you Nazis don't respond to satire because it's really hard to satirise someone with shiny boots.

[3] By way of contrast, see Jabberwock's piece on Nagarkar and his new book

[4] Which is not to say, of course, that critics aren't often empty-headed poltroons. Only that every generation has its mix of good and bad critics. There's no golden age.


Categories: ,

28 comments:

Neela said...

I think Lindsay Pereira is a male name (at least in the Bandra/Santacruz/borivili area).

n!

Falstaff said...

Really? Lindsay??

Ah, well, it doesn't matter much, does it? Change Mr. to Ms. and schoolgirl to schoolboy and everything else still applies.

Veena said...

This is funny. The boy and I had the exact coversation abt Lahiri this evening. Incl. the example of Roth. And I was going to blog about it first! Ah well, can't say I can say it better than you, so its all better this way.

Aishwarya said...

Lindsay Pereira from rediff? Yes he's male.

Absurdism's? dead? And I missed it? :(

dazedandconfused said...

On the other extreme, I pity our NDTV type news presentators who seem to jump upon any of their guests to score a point or two showing complete lack of a depth of understanding of the topic at hand. (Once Prannoy Roy tried to bait Bill Gates on Google/Linux, utter failure)

Will we ever get an authentic BBC Hard Talk, Indian style?! (And don't show me Arnab Goswami please)

I prefer Rajat Sharma's 'Aaj Ki Adalat', any day. At least he doesn't take himself too seriously there...

Falstaff said...

Aishwarya / Neela: okay, will accept your word on it. Have made the changes to the post.

Veena: :-). Don't see why you shouldn't blog about it anyway, though.

Aishwarya: Not to worry. You're in good company. Someone should have told Colm Toibin, who just came out with a short piece commemorating Beckett's birthday in April 27 issue of the New York Review of Books. It's not a particularly brilliant piece - it's basically an excuse for Toibin to write some truly splendid prose and leave us with a handful of lucid and clever bon mots about Beckett's work, without really saying much, but it's hardly the kind of thing you would expect to see written about a field dead and buried.

d&c: True. I can't really comment on any of the shows you mention, never having watched any of them, but I can see how general cluelessness could be an issue. The idea isn't just to attack the interviewee for the sake of it, the idea is to question and probe, not just blindly echo everything the interviewee is saying.

Cheshire Cat said...

The interview is worth reading if only for this gem:

"I find writers who navel-gaze to be exhaustive beyond belief".

As for the criticism of the state of criticism, I was playing tennis with a friend today and he thought that his chances of winning would improve if he were playing someone more skillful :)

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Lindsay Perreira even has a blog.

The Jhumpa Lahiri story isn't all that bad. What's wrong with drawing upon personal experience, as long as you create something good out of it.

But you're the academic, I'm just a print hustler. Maybe you know best.

csm said...

a couple of evenings ago, there was this karan thapar interview with vilasrao deshmukh, like a lamb to slaughter...

thapar (may be a tad too vicious) tore into deshmukh. the latter had no clue on
1. the farmer suicides
2. the detailed plan of restarting the dabhol plant
3. the min procurement price promise he made to the farmers
4. the budget deficit

time and time again, deshmukh kept inserting his oversized foot into his oversized mouth much to thapar's delight.

it was a sad commentary on the poltical leadership and even more so on the kind of preparation i would expect anyone to undergo before they go live on national tv.

if i were sonia, i would make him desh se mukth.

Anonymous said...

Talking of starry eyed interviewers and stupid questions, there are few better examples than the interviews of Nobel laureates.
Example: Martinus Veltman, Physics '99, gets asked: 20th century was the century pf physics, do you think the 21st will be of biology?
Veltman: I do not know. (He is a theoretical particle physicist, not an astrologer.)

Another gem: t'Hooft,physics '99: why are there so few women in theoretical physics?
t'Hooft: It is true that there are very few, but I do not know why. etc.
Ak

Falstaff said...

cat: Ya, I know, I loved that bit.

aqc: Yes, I know. Someone else just pointed that out to me. The things you learn every day.

Re: Lahiri. I think the trouble is that I can't help seeing the story in context. If I'd never read anything by Lahiri before, I would probably have been impressed by the story. As it is, I read the first half thinking, didn't she already say this in the Namesake? Repeatedly? I'm not saying it's a bad story per se, only that in my opinion it would be a much better story if it didn't go on and on about the immigrant identity bits.

And I hardly think my being an 'academic' should matter - there are many things Corporate Strategy covers, but literary criticism is not one of them.

csm: I blame Thapar. You can't seriously expect politicians to know things.

anonymous: nice. loved the 'will the 21st century by the century of biology' question. such a ridiculous thing to ask anyone but a film star.

DoZ said...

Falstaff: Agree with you about Lahiri. A friend who read Lahiri for the first time was blown away, but everyone who's read either the Interpreter of Maladies or the Namesake was only impressed with the (out-of-character for Lahiri) twist at the end. I would definitely like to see what she might make of non-Bengali characters, let alone non-Indian ones.

Anirudh said...

This was fun. I am yet to read anything by Nagarkar but I should do it soon considering I've read a great deal about him in the past two weeks.

Anirudh said...

I have now also read the interview. As a blogger would say, much hilarity ensued.

Anonymous said...

the funny thing is, it is YOUR rant that sounds as if it were written by a schoolboy. you want the interviewer to take a stand, put an author on the defensive, etc. etc. you, my friend, have been watching more american TV than what's good for you.

have you read the book? no. are you, therefore, qualified to comment? no.

incidentally, the theatre of the absurd died in the 60s. you'd know that if you were literate. you're not.

you "don't take kindly to people shooting off their mouth about Beckett or Rushdie or Coleridge."??? you have GOT to be kidding. leave your pint-sized ego at the door, moron.

you "don't understand why someone who loves Rabelais doesn't get Rushdie"? why, because you get rushdie and rabelais, do you? you live in philly, for chrissake.

and, speaking of trying to impress, what's with the quotes by marvell AND shelley AND arnold? just back from your bachelor's degree, are you?

look at the huge number of comments your post has inspired. FOURTEEN WHOLE COMMENTS. wow. you must be a popular blogger. i find it strange that there's always a tiny group of bloggers (mostly from delhi, surprisingly), who insist on linking and commenting and nodding their heads in agreement with anything and everything a fellow-blogger-of-the-circle happens to put up. it's why your comments crop up at ALL their blogs, and vice versa. you guys need to get a life. get an education. you sign off your posts with 'Falstaff'. MY GOD -- and THAT'S not pretentious??????????????? you make me laugh.

Anonymous said...

the funny thing is, it is YOUR rant that sounds as if it were written by a schoolboy. you want the interviewer to take a stand, put an author on the defensive, etc. etc. you, my friend, have been watching more american TV than what's good for you.

have you read the book? no. are you, therefore, qualified to comment? no.

incidentally, the theatre of the absurd died in the 60s. you'd know that if you were literate. you're not.

you "don't take kindly to people shooting off their mouth about Beckett or Rushdie or Coleridge."??? you have GOT to be kidding. leave your pint-sized ego at the door, moron.

you "don't understand why someone who loves Rabelais doesn't get Rushdie"? why, because you get rushdie and rabelais, do you? you live in philly, for chrissake.

and, speaking of trying to impress, what's with the quotes by marvell AND shelley AND arnold? just back from your bachelor's degree, are you?

look at the huge number of comments your post has inspired. FOURTEEN WHOLE COMMENTS. wow. you must be a popular blogger. i find it strange that there's always a tiny group of bloggers (mostly from delhi, surprisingly), who insist on linking and commenting and nodding their heads in agreement with anything and everything a fellow-blogger-of-the-circle happens to put up. it's why your comments crop up at ALL their blogs, and vice versa. you guys need to get a life. get an education. you sign off your posts with 'Falstaff'. MY GOD -- and THAT'S not pretentious??????????????? you make me laugh.

Anonymous said...

the funny thing is, it is YOUR rant that sounds as if it were written by a schoolboy. you want the interviewer to take a stand, put an author on the defensive, etc. etc. you, my friend, have been watching more american TV than what's good for you.

have you read the book? no. are you, therefore, qualified to comment? no.

incidentally, the theatre of the absurd died in the 60s. you'd know that if you were literate. you're not.

you "don't take kindly to people shooting off their mouth about Beckett or Rushdie or Coleridge."??? you have GOT to be kidding. leave your pint-sized ego at the door, moron.

you "don't understand why someone who loves Rabelais doesn't get Rushdie"? why, because you get rushdie and rabelais, do you? you live in philly, for chrissake.

and, speaking of trying to impress, what's with the quotes by marvell AND shelley AND arnold? just back from your bachelor's degree, are you?

look at the huge number of comments your post has inspired. FOURTEEN WHOLE COMMENTS. wow. you must be a popular blogger. i find it strange that there's always a tiny group of bloggers (mostly from delhi, surprisingly), who insist on linking and commenting and nodding their heads in agreement with anything and everything a fellow-blogger-of-the-circle happens to put up. it's why your comments crop up at ALL their blogs, and vice versa. you guys need to get a life. get an education. you sign off your posts with 'Falstaff'. MY GOD -- and THAT'S not pretentious??????????????? you make me laugh.

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

What's with this dude commenting in triplicate all over your blog, F? He should get a life. And some castor oil, he's so full of shit.

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Anonymous said...

hehehe this anonymous ranter sounds so much like the lindsay pereira...spineless, gutless, and will never own up. and if you see him, you'll know that it doesnt matter whether he's male or female. you got him good though. great blog btw.

Rina

thank god im not a delhi guy said...

are you really bashing up some guy at rediff ?? i suppose its because you think you're white ? or from 'philly' rather than India? my poor African-Indian-American friend (yes north indians are black despite their own silly claims) lets see, i suppose you got your education in the States after your dad went there as a cab driver and pulled you o'er there to live with him in a tiny 14 inch apartment ?? All the same I'm sorry that you think your opinions are better than most others. how terrible for you if this is how you spend your spare time... well i suppose its hard reading about other people who're doing more important things than yourself and who's written work actually figures somewhere meaningful.. unlike this place... where am i again ? is this the way to the classroom where guys named ranjeet talk like white men ??