Heart of Darknessremains one of the most widely read novels in English; and the movie adaptation Apocalypse Nowhas brought Conrad’s story to still more. The very phrase has taken on a life of its own. Conrad’s book has become a touchstone for thinking about Africa and Europe, civilization and savagery, imperalism, genocide, insanity — about human nature itself.
It’s also become a flashpoint. In the 1970s, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe declared Heart of Darkness “an offensive and totally deplorable book,” rife with degrading stereotypes of Africa and Africans. Conrad said Achebe, was a “bloody racist.” Not long afterward, a half-Kenyan college student named Barack Obama was challenged by his friends to explain why he was reading “this racist tract.” “Because…,” Obama stammered, “Because the book teaches me things. . . .About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world.”
I spent many happy days as an undergraduate student of literature reading whatever I could by Joseph Conrad. I even read his diaries. His minor works. Thoroughly enjoyed reading his novels. So imagine my delight when I discovered historian Maya Jasanof’s enlightening The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. It is written in the characteristic modern style of writing biographies; heavily influenced by Richard Holmes’s methodology of the biographer following in the footsteps of their subject — combining a deep understanding of their subject’s context while maintaining a modern travelogue. With the informed perspective of “two worlds” ( if you will) and the advantage of time, the biographer is also able to put together a fascinating analysis. In this particular book Maya Jasanof’s argument is that Conrad’s own life reveals him as a “prophet of globalization“.
Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, to Polish parents in the Russian Empire. At sixteen he left the landlocked heart of Europe to become a sailor, and for the next twenty years travelled the world’s oceans before settling permanently in England as an author. He saw the surging, competitive “new imperialism” that planted a flag in almost every populated part of the globe. He got a close look, too, at the places “beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,” and the hypocrisy of the west’s most cherished ideals.
In fact 2017 has been declared as the Year of Conrad by the Polish Parliament. To commemorate this occasion the Polish Institute New Delhi in collaboration with the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is celebrating this incomparable author’s life and works through a series of lectures by two experts on the author, one from Poland and one from India, who will analyse the critical elements and themes of his writings which make them one of a kind. The lectures will be complemented by the screening of ‘The Secret Sharer’, Peter Fudakowski’s cinematic adaptation of one of Conrad’s most renowned writings .
Prof. Andrzej Juszczyk, the Director of the Joseph Conrad Research Centre of the Jagiellonian University will deliver a lecture on “Twixt ‘East and West’, ‘Empire and Colony’, ‘Me and Myself'”. Prof. Juszczyk will share the stage with Prof. Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, who will deliver a lecture on “Fables of Identity: The Deleted Hyphen in Conrad’s The Secret Sharer”. The event will be held at the School of Languages 2, Room 131, Jawaharlal Nehru University on 3rd November 2017 from 10:30 am onwards.
Joseph Conrad The Dawn Watch HarperCollins India, 2017. Hb. pp. 370
In June 2017 while inaugurating the National Reading Mission programme the prime minister of India said that instead of presenting bouquets people should gift books. A great idea! During Diwali, festival of lights associated with the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, folks gift presents to each other. Why not books?
Here are my recommendations of some beautiful books. It is an eclectic list of books meant for readers of all ages. Diwali is an excuse to indulge oneself. Why not buy delicious books as gifts?!
Dayanita Singh: Museum Bhavan An extraordinary publishing achievement is to package the mind-blowing exhibition curated by photographer Dayanita Singh into this nifty, limited edition, box. Every piece is unique. A timeless treasure!
The Illustrated Mahabharata This has to be one of the most scrumptious books ever available. It is a retelling of the Hindu epic with beautiful illustrations and layouts.
Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.
Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Livingis a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend theLiving, a work of fiction,won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.
Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbowis a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.
Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus .
Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!
An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!
Maylis de Kerangal Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India
Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India
Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books
Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury
Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography . It is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed. Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”
As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:
Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326
Douglas Smith’s Rasputinis a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.
Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:
Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.
Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita.
Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599
The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true. Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.
The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.
From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.
Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.
Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’
On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’
Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.
‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’
No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’
In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.
Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.
In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.
The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.
Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499
India has a tradition of fine women writers, and some of the earliest established names among them were also pioneers in fields beyond literature. Roekya Sakhawat Hossein (1880-1932) was a leading Bengali feminist in at the turn of the 20th century. Her sci-fi utopian novella, Sultana’s Dream (1905), was decades before her time and is a delight to read even now. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) was both the first woman to read law at Oxford, and the first Indian national to study at a British university. During her career as the first female lawyer in India, she advocated for women in purdah and children. She wrote a dozen books including her memoirs, India Calling (1934). Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) known as the “Nightingale of India,” was not only a poet, but also the first female governor of an Indian state, and the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Her debut collection of poetry, The Golden Threshold, was published in 1905.
Despite our strong tradition of women writers in the early 20th century, to my mind it was the 1974 publication of the “Towards Equality” Status of Women in India Report that marked a watershed moment for women’s movements, and in turn, women’s literature. Though Indira Gandhi, the first woman prime minister, had been in power for years, it was the Report that gave more women a voice and an opportunity to express themselves.
Another literary turning point came in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and thousands of Sikhs were massacred in retaliation. For the older generations, this violence brought back memories of the 1947 Partition of India; young writers and social activists including Urvashi Butalia began recording their stories. Butalia eventually wrote a seminal book, Other Side of Silence (2000), based on these oral histories as well as her own family’s story of moving to India from Lahore, now in Pakistan. Around the same time Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin’s groundbreaking Borders and Boundaries (1998) was published, documenting women’s experiences of Partition, about which until then it seemed a collective amnesia had existed.
Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.
Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.
Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014, ) explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”). Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”
Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(1986). But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies. In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence itis easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.
The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.
Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.
David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799
On 20 June 2017 Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing was released at Taj Man Singh Hotel, New Delhi. He was in conversation with noted journalist Nalin Mehta. To introduce Ruskin Bond his long time editor and co-founder Speaking Tiger, Ravi Singh, read out a beautiful speech remembering their decades of association. With Ravi Singh permission the speech is published below. I am also including a short clip I made at the launch of Ruskin Bond talking about the noted Hindi writer Rakesh Mohan being his teacher at Bishop Cotton School, Simla and later Bond’s poor attempt at translating Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” into Hindi.
L-R: Ravi Singh, Ruskin Bond and Nalin Mehta
I remember my first meeting with Mr Bond. It was in 1995, shortly after I’d entered publishing, and I was both excited and nervous. I’d read his stories in school—‘The Kite Maker’, ‘A Face in the Dark’, ‘The Room of Many Colours’, ‘The Tiger in the Tunnel’—and I’d gone back to them many times: there was wonder and magic, of course, but they were also about unusual things—about losing and dying; children finding fellowship with elderly strangers; mutual, unspoken respect between people and animals; and some very subtle and scary ghosts. He was to me the equal of Chekhov, Tagore, Premchand or Dickens—like a benevolent but unreachable legend. By the time I met him, I had read many of his other works, including the intensely moving classic The Room on the Roof—and the memorable long stories A Flight of Pigeons, Time Stops at Shamli and Delhi Is Not Far.
So I wasn’t at all prepared for the understated, warm, witty and utterly approachable person who treated me as an equal and made me a friend. This happened so effortlessly, that it was only much later that I was surprised and grateful. It seemed entirely natural to have such an engaging and generous companion. And that is exactly whatRuskin Bond’s stories have done to millions over 60 years—to readers of all ages, and in big cities, small towns and little hamlets. Only the greatest writers can do that.
Lone Fox Dancing is the story of the making of this extraordinary storyteller and human being, who has never been afraid to be simple and entirely himself. The autobiography begins in Mussoorie in the 1930s, moves to Jamnagar, Dehradun, New Delhi, Jersey, London, and returns to Mussoorie. There’s mischief and adventure in it; there’s also loneliness, resilience, eccentricity, conviction, compassion—and above all, there’s friendship—with people, with birds and animals, with great trees and with little flowers growing out of broken concrete.
Read this book to see what’s been gained and lost in India since the 1930s and 40s—not in the halls of power but in the streets and mohallas, bazaars and cinema halls, jungles and railway stations. Read it to know how writers are made, beyond noise and glamour. Read it for the art of carrying on when you lose a beloved parent, when your work is rejected or under-appreciated, when someone you love doesn’t love you back, when people fail you or you fail them, when your earnings are paltry though your responsibilities are growing, or when winters get cold and miserable.Ruskin Bond has found there’s always reward if you persevere; there’s spring and birdsong after harsh winters, there’s beauty and there are friends in unexpected places, and a sense of humour—a good joke—and plain old optimism will sustain you through hard times and keep you grounded in good times.
Mr Bond’s long-awaited autobiography has everything we’ve cherished in his enduring stories and essays.
I really shouldn’t stand any longer between you and one of our finest, most entertaining and best-loved writers—except to say how delighted and privileged we are to have published his autobiography…
( I interviewed Sam Miller on his memoir Fathers for Bookwitty. It was published on 13 June 2017.)
Veteran journalist Sam Miller was born and brought up in London but chose to spend the better part of his life in India. His father was the renowned literary journalist, Karl Miller, who co-founded the London Review of Books. His mother, Jane Miller, is a writer who has also worked as a publisher, translator and teacher. Miller joined the BBC World Service and was stationed as the BBC TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and then as Managing Editor, South Asia. His love for India runs deep as is evident in the many books he has published: Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Blue Guide: India ( 2012) and a Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (2014).
His elegant essay for Granta, “Gandhi the Londoner” makes for a compelling read. It was propelled in large part by Sam Miller’s curiosity about the years Gandhi spent in London upon his arrival in 1888, a period glossed over in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film. What comes through clearly is Sam Miller’s obsession to know more about the past, in particular that which is less remembered in the popular imagination, and to weed out historical inaccuracies that may have crept into modern retellings of this period in Gandhi’s life. It is this remarkable quality as a discerning writer and historian that comes together beautifully in Sam Miller’s recent memoir Fathers. In early 2014 Miller returned to his childhood home in London to spend time with his father, who was dying. Shortly after his death, Miller began to write about his father, investigating a family secret that he had been told about years ago, involving his parents and a close friend. With his mother’s help, his father’s documents, and interviews with people from the large circle of his parents’ friends, he put together a heart-warming memoir that explores childhood, marriage, and friendship, as well as exploring the personal relationship each of his parents had with their closest friend from Cambridge, Tony White.
Miller kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:
How many drafts did this memoir take? It flows smoothly as if it just wrote itself. There is almost magically ethereal quality to it.
It was the easiest thing I’ve ever written; it just came pouring out of me. There were one and a half drafts really. I’d written about half the book in conventional chapters, with long passages of prose. It felt a bit stodgy and linear to me, with all those ‘joining together’ sentences that often feel artificial. At the time, I was reading a French book called HHHH by Laurent Binet, and he uses short numbered chapters—and I tried it out, breaking up the text, inserting a few mini-chapters that enabled me jump more easily in time and place. I hope it allowed the text to flow more smoothly, more naturally—bringing it a little closer, in my view, to the way we talk and the way we think. I read my words out loud to myself as I write, and it is important that the text sounds right, as if I were writing for radio.
The elegant manner in which you write investigating your paternity also conveys the immense love you grew up with. Was Fathers emotionally tough to write?
It felt good for me, as if it were a kind of therapy, a way of releasing something that I’d half-buried. But it also was about dealing with grief, and a more specific sense of anger with myself for having not been there when my father died.
This story is as much yours as it is your parents’ and their close friend Tony White. How did you feel about your mother supporting you on this project? Would you have written this memoir if it had not been forthcoming?
I write anyway, not always for publication. So I think I would have written this tale, for myself at least. But my mother was always part of the story, and the telling of the story. I wouldn’t have published it without her support.
How closely involved was your mother with this manuscript? Were you required to make any critical changes in the drafts—sections you felt needed to stay and your mother thought otherwise or vice versa?
I would talk to her as I was writing, but only showed it to her in larger chunks. We did discuss minor changes, but nothing I would describe as critical. I know so much of the story through her anyway (and she is a writer too); that it has a strong Jane Miller imprint on it, though the final version is very much mine in style and content.
The forgiving nature of your father is an extraordinary quality to have just as the calm acceptance of your presence in the lives of the three adults: Karl and Jane Miller and Tony White. While writing Fathers did you ever wonder about the evolution of the institution of marriage? It seems to have been far more accommodating in your parents’ generation than it is today.
I don’t feel very well equipped to comment on the institution of marriage, but I do think that almost every couple’s relationships are pretty different from each other. And therefore simply following convention and ideas of normality are not a great basis for forming a relationship. I’m not quite sure that ‘forgiving’ is the right word here; I think my father’s response was more complicated than that and related to his own upbringing, and to his own ideas about the (un) importance of fidelity.
Does the crucial family secret your mother shared make you ever wonder about the popular debate about genetics vs environment being influencing factors in the growth of an individual?
Yes, I do. But I’ve not come up with any useful conclusions. I’ve been intrigued to notice the ways in which I am similar to Tony White, but these are not necessarily genetic. They could be learned, from what I know of Tony—and more indirectly and even subconsciously via my parents.
Many times in the memoir you allude to your father’s poems describing his friends bordering on the homoerotic or comment often on his close male friendships which, for his generation, seem nothing out of the ordinary. “Karl Miller struggled to reconcile close male friendship with the possibility or reality of homosexual love. My father was not, I think, a homophobe, but was sensitive to accusations that he might be.” Do you think it’s fair to your father and his generation to read in to their relationships what is a popular 21st century concept of homosexuality?
I’m not so sure that it was so different in the fifties; it was just talked about less. I would distinguish homoeroticism from homosexuality, as think my father would, and as I think Thomas Mann would have even before my father was born.
While writing this memoir were there any others you referred to as literary examples to emulate?
Not really. It was written for me, and then my mother. I was pleasantly surprised when the earliest other readers liked what I had written—I had been expecting them to suggest changes, particularly to the structure.
Of all the diverse genres you have published, travelogue, translation and memoir, which has been the most challenging and why?
I’ve written a history (A Strange Kind of Paradise) and a guidebook (Blue Guide India) as well! The guidebook was most exhausting. The history book involved the most research—and that was probably the most challenging—I wanted it to be interesting for people who think they aren’t interested in history. The publication (rather than the writing) of Fathers was quite a challenge – a nerve-racking experience. I was apprehensive about the response to what I had written. But the response has been largely positive.
Sam Miller Fathers Jonathan Cape, London, 2017. Hb.