Tuesday, September 21, 2010

literary allusions

I loved that Dabang referenced Mohammed Hanif. Ve-ry nice.

Also, that film should *not* be shown in a multiplex. It needs a theatre with curtains that part, where there are lower and upper stalls and a balcony. Also, people must have loose change.

(Though the Khan's face sometimes looked inflexible...botox?)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Consider the Footnote

The first time I was properly introduced to a footnote, I was studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the Arden edition. It wasn’t a thing you could ignore, because on most pages the footnotes occupied more than half the page, with scholarly references, asides on interpolations and interpretations. Reading Shakespeare that way was somewhat like reading with five books open at the same time.

Which, when you come to think of it, is exactly what reading a footnote is like: it’s an interruption but a necessary one. You’re moving along the page at a good clip and suddenly there’s a number or a symbol flagging you down for speeding and, like a slightly guilty but otherwise obedient driver, you stop to listen.

Or, if you’re like me, you might think of footnotes as half-open doors in which people are having very interesting conversations that you can’t help wanting to hear. It’s a brief and very illuminating pause on your journey.

All of which is to say that footnotes needn’t be the dry-as-dust academic device most of us think they are. Consider the number of fiction writers who have made an art form of footnotes:

J.G. Ballard’s ­­­­­­­­­­­­Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown is a book where the ‘main’ text is just one sentence long. But every word of that sentence has a footnote, with each note incrementally telling a complex story. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a single poem but the main narrative is told in the footnotes. It’s like reading Shakespeare in the Arden editions, only the footnotes are also part of the text and not merely a commentary on it.

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke uses footnotes to provide both a history of magic and a sense that the fantastic events in the book are ‘fact’, in much the same way that someone today might make a colour photo black-and-white, as shorthand for something that is ‘authentic’ or about the past. In all these cases, both author and reader are complicit in the knowledge that the footnote, despite its claims to being ‘fact’, and an authoritative interruption, is also fiction.

Jasper Fforde takes this knowledge one step further in his Thursday Next books, where the characters in the book (who can enter and leave different fictional works) communicate with each other via a device called the footnoterphone – the urgent notes that these agents leave for each other appear as footnotes in whatever book they happen to be at that time.

If all of that sounds too complicated wait till we get to David Foster Wallace who made the footnote his own unique device*. He didn’t use footnotes in the cute way that Fforde or Terry Pratchett (in the Discworld books) do. For him, the footnote was a necessary life-line, a way to keep track of the process of thought itself, and the many implications of writing a single sentence. He footnoted his footnotes (and endnotes) and often made them into long digressions that were almost separate mini-essays.

One curious and interesting footnote I’ve recently seen is in a poem by Vivek Narayanan. The footnote appears in the last stanza** of the poem – against the last word, actually – and looks like prose but isn’t.

I’d like to consider the footnote in a different way entirely: in the poem, as in all the other instances, the footnote is a visual and non-linear device. What would its analogue be in other art forms?

Cinema, music, theatre, all being linear, can’t accommodate footnotes (unless they’re in the form of a director’s commentary found as extras on DVDs). What about paintings, though – could they have footnotes? What would they look like? What about fashion or food? Can clothes and cakes be footnoted?

I find all these possibilities very exciting and wish someone would explore them. I look forward to new and creative uses of the device. In effect, you could say, I have a footnote fetish.


*DFW died two years ago this month. He committed suicide by hanging himself. His suicide note might be read as a perfectly literal, perfectly macabre visualisation of the word.

**I could wish that it had not been so continuous with the poem itself but that’s just me.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express. This week they've put my column at the bottom of the page. Heh.)


While we're on the subject of DFW, I recently read a review he wrote of an anthology of prose poetry [pdf]. In it, he calculates the square root of the book's ISBN. No, really. Plus, he's cheated his 1,000 word review most ingeniously. I wish the editors of books pages in newspapers and journals here would allow this sort of thing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My crystal, your mud

The road between clarity and obscurity is paved with the refractive indices of words.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"mysterious adventures in the country of language"

France's left-wing Liberation newspaper suggests Hollywood may be better off if Godard stays away from the ceremony. "Godard's speeches have become mysterious adventures in the country of language," it says. "It would be interesting to measure their effects on the American public."

So apparently Godard's got the letter telling him he's being given an honorary Oscar, but he won't say anything except a thank you to inquisitive reporters. His partner asks, "Would you go all that way just for a bit of metal?"

Apparently many people would, absurd though it sounds when she puts it that way.

Actually, they should send someone over like they did with Ray. Maybe Isabelle Huppert - with Uncle Oscar. And while JLG refuses to so much as twitch the curtains to see what's happening outside, they chould have Herzog follow Huppert around the house, filming the attempt to give the man his statuette. Herzog can whisper confidentially to the camera as Huppert stalks around and yells incomprehensible obscenities at the blank windows; maybe Depardieu can make a short appearance just to play the violin in Herzog's face and Herzog can turn around, pull out a gun and threaten to shoot Depardieu or himself, before being overcome with nostalgia. Godard can then put up cut out signs in his window telling people to kindly fuck off.

All this can then be screened at the Oscars to a standing ovation.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Rama on the Sea Shore

Can't believe I forgot to post today's column! Apologies!


I have to confess I’m a Rama sceptic. I prefer the Mahabharata to the Ramayana. I say this with head slightly hung, because there’s no real basis for this prejudice. I haven’t read anything except Rajaji’s version for children, Chinmayananda’s Bala Ramayana, a few Amar Chitra Kathas and stories my grandmother told me when I was a child. I’ve never attended Ramkathas or Rama Navami lectures. Despite having read A.K.Ramajujan’s illuminating essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas, I have never been tempted to re-read the epic.

All of this is why I find myself still amazed that for months now I have been listening to a new version of the Ramayana. Shanta Rameshwar Rao is an educator and a writer of children’s stories. One day, she told me she’d written a version of the story for children and wanted to test drive it with a few interested people. Since I was avoiding telling my son any Rama stories, I was conscious of the gap in his education – which included addressing the less-than-perfect aspects of Rama and the epic itself. I thought this was a good opportunity to introduce him to the story while also passing the buck to someone more competent.

Since Shantamma began reading her version last December, the audience has changed, grown or been reduced, but my son and I have been steadfast listeners. Last Saturday, we reached the point in the story when Rama prepares for war. Hanuman has returned from Lanka, confirming that he’s met Sita and given her the ring. But the chapter begins in a very unwarlike way: Sugreeva is lying drunk and dreaming in his room and Lakshmana has to wake him and remind him of his promise to help Rama.

The most interesting moments in this chapter, though, describe Rama at the sea shore. Standing there, facing the sea, Rama is conscious of his godhead. He imagines he can wave his hand and command the sea to retreat so that his passage to Lanka is clear. He is all arrogance at first and rage afterwards when he realises that the sea will not obey. Sugreeva tells him he needs to pray and Rama performs penances. Still the sea is indifferent. Furious, Rama shoots into the sea the powerful arrows Vishwamitra once gave him.

The sea boils and throws up agonised and dying sea monsters – rare, wonderful creatures, described in loving detail. They come up, airing their strange eyes and tentacles and expire on the waves. It is Sugreeva, drunk and unkingly at the beginning of the chapter, who tells Rama that the sea cannot be commanded, that it is a force of nature, an entity without which we cannot survive and that all life forms are connected. He suggests that Rama, in all humility ask Samudra for help in crossing his domain.

This a penitent Rama does and in the most magnificent part of the chapter, Samudra rises from his underwater throne to greet Rama. He is an awe-inspiring figure, decked out in pearls and corals. Rama apologises for the destruction he has caused and Samudra blesses him and agrees to help him cross into Lanka.

Yes, this is a 21st century, environmentally conscious version, but it’s not preachy and is unafraid of complexity. Rama’s behaviour is not only shown to be inexcusable, it is given to Sugreeva – the flawed, weak king he supported against Vali – to point out his failings to him as they stand on the seashore. We question Rama’s godliness, even his awareness of it, and what it means to be godly when it shows itself in erratic and destructive actions.

Uniquely, Shantamma takes us underwater, to briefly see the world above from a different perspective. It is a moving but clever section that makes one wonder at the actions of the entire human race.

Listening to her read, I understood the attraction of Ramkathas and the great pleasure there is in listening to stories told or read aloud, in simple language that masks great depth and interpretative power. I now appreciate the skills of the narrator who can assess the mood of her audience and interpolate her own narration with witty asides, so that one is involved and interested to the end.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Cat Who Was Slow On The Draw

The Landmark sale started today. I have to say, when I picked up books last week, they averaged off at 50 bucks. Today was more expensive, but I got some good stuff and one brilliant find.

Good stuff included Marai's The Rebels (tr. George Szirtes) and The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin. These were on sale, so they count as good.

Great finds were P.D.James' book of essays on crime fiction and Cosmicomics.

The brilliant find? This was at the bottom of a pile of books on massive discount: The Best American Poetry 2007 Guest Ed Heather McHugh.

Was shopping with Cat, who is in town, and I beat him to it! I am awesome! As is the book! Seriously. This one by Nicky Beer, for instance. (Cat, you should tell me which poem you wanted to read and I'll post it here).

I think Cat bought more than he can take back, but nothing - not even the discovery of Gladys Mitchell, which he didn't buy - is going to make up for his not seeing BAP 2007 before I did.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Another poet cop

After Adam Dalgliesh, meet Inspector Chen Cao. And his creator, Qiu Xiaolong.

(Landmark sales are A Good Thing. I got this, The Right Attitude to Rain and The China Lover together for 99 bucks. Hardcover.)