A Tale for the Time Being Posts

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Arctic Summer, AlephThe closer he came to those caves, the more he began to falter. He knew that something took place in the dark, a sexual attack across racial lines. The caves held that kind of power. But it wasn’t simply a question of the action; it was what the action arose from — what it meant. The problem was fundamental. No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed; they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him. ( p.142)

E. M. Forster is known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. He also left an unfinished novel Arctic Summer. He began writing it in 1909 but it was never published. More than a century later, South African writer, Damon Galgut has written a fictional biography of E. M. Forster. He says, “I have used actual dialogue recorded by Forster ( and others) in letters or diaries, I have sometimes altered the words a little, on the assumption that nobody recalls conversations, even their own, with complete certainty.”

Arctic Summer begins with a journey that Forster makes to India in October 1912. He was following a young Indian whom he had met in England — Syed Ross Masood, associated with the Aligarh Muslim University. The book is a well-researched account of E. M. Forster’s life, his search for love, living under the shadow of his mother even though he was beginning to be recognised as a successful author. Yet the novel is written so gently and with a great deal of sensitivity, it is also difficult to distinguish between the real and imagined worlds, a credit to Damon Galgut’s fine craftsmanship.

A bio-fic is one of the best ways to know a historical period, apart from getting to know the protagonist/figure intimately. It is probably one of the most demanding genres to be dabbling in. The author has to do extensive research to get the facts right, then creatively build a story, suitable for contemporary readers, bordering on historical fiction but focused upon one person ( in this case Forster) to carry the story forward. Prior to Arctic Summer the seminal biography of Forster was written by P. N. Furbank ( whom Damon Galgut met as well). Arctic Summer though accurate about many details of Forster’s life tends to make details public about his homosexual relationships than probably Forster would not want to acknowledge so openly; though many of his close friends knew of these liaisons.  Maybe Damon Galgut has the good fortune of being able to write Arctic Summer at a point of time when conversations about same-sex relationships are recognised and being discussed regularly in society, albeit some people continue to view such alliances with hostility, anger and outrage. So to take a respected author such as Forster, to discuss his sexual life as being an inextricable part of his career ( since for love he travelled to India the first time), Damon Galgut has taken on a bold aspect of Forster’s life — homosexuality— and created a fantastic story. It is also appropriate to publish Arctic Summer in 2014 when there is  a flood of literature on World War I; this will be top of that heap, probably even on the list of some literary awards. 

Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 595

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

On translations in India, 2013. Published in DNA, 20 Dec 2013

DNA, translations(My article on translations in 2013, trends and changes has been published this morning in DNA, 20 Dec 2013. I cannot find the link online but here is a clipping of it sent via email to me.  I am also c&p the text below. )

Cobalt Blue2013 was a positive year for publishing, certainly for translations that were visible. Translations were on the DSC Prize South Asian Literature 2014 shortlist that mainly focuses on general fiction in English, not in a separate category— Anand’s Book of Destruction (Translated from Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan) and Benyamin’s Goat Days (Translated from Malayalam by Joseph Koyippalli). Other translations that left an impression upon literary conversations of the year are — Shamsur Rahman’s The Mirror of Beauty ( translated from Urdu by the author); Habib Tanvir’s Memoir ( translated by Mahmood Farooqui); Sunanda Sankar’s A Life Long Ago ( translated from Bengali by Anchita Ghatak) and Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto); Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Translated from Hindi by Laura Brueck); Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi by Jason Grunebaum); Syed Rafiq Husain’s The Mirror of Wonders ( translated from Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Malarvan’s War Journey: Diary of a Tamil Tiger ( translated by M Malathy); Mohinder Singh Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition ( translated from Punjabi by Navtej Sarna); Prabha Khaitan A Life Apart ( translated from Hindi by Ira Pande) and an anthology of New Urdu Writings: From India & Pakistan ( edited by Rakhshanda Jalil). In fact Penguin India’s best fiction title for the year was The Mirror of Beauty, according to Managing Editor, Sivapriya. She adds, “At Penguin we are developing a focused translations list that spans contemporary texts and modern classics and older classics.”

HarperCollins has an imprint dedicated to translations from Indian literature—Harper Perennial. Minakshi Thakur, Sr. Commissioning Editor says that “The translation market grew marginally in terms of value in 2013, but in terms of numbers it grew considerably. Harper did 10 translations as opposed to the 5 or 6 we were doing every year until 2012, from 2014 we’ll do about 12 titles every year.” Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu “Translations from Indian languages to English, from one Indian language to others and from world languages to Indian languages is definitely on the rise. Personally I have sold more translation rights and published more translations this year than before. Good Indian language authors are in demand like never before.” This assessment is corroborated by Aditi Maheshwari, Publisher, Vani Prakashan who says that “When we decided to do translations some twenty years ago, it was a very new phenomenon. We did translations from English to Hindi, Indian languages to Hindi and international languages to Hindi (without English as a medium).”

Another interesting aspect of translations too has successful publishing collaborations like that of making short fiction by Ayfer Tunc, Turkish writer and editor of Orhan Pamuk, The Aziz Bey Incident and other stories. It has been translated into Tamil and Hindi, but the English edition of this book is not available in India, all though it was released at the London Book Fair 2013. According to Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette, “the books sell well enough without being blockbusters —they were conceived with mid- range sales of 3k-5k like all translations are, and most of the time they tend to deliver that.”

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

My article on the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been published today in the Op Ed page of the Hindu, 19 Oct 2013. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-long-and-winding-road-to-the-booker/article5248697.ece?homepage=true . The article is published below.) 

The Luminaries

On October 15, 2013, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries — a thriller spread over 800 pages with a variety of voices recounting and recreating details. It was a win that surprised many. Set in 1866 in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, the story begins when a traveller and gold prospector, Scotsman Walter Moody, interrupts a meeting of 12 men at Hokitika’s Crown Hotel. These men are immigrants but locals now who gather in secrecy to solve crimes. The novel is about the mystery surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the stories told by those 12 men. The narrative architecture is based on the 12 signs of the zodiac and the seven planets; each chapter is half the length of its predecessor, adding pace and tension. Of the books shortlisted — Jim Crace’s Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names — it was widely assumed that the battle for the winning post would be between Jim Crace and Colm Toibin.

The Luminaries is in the tradition of a good, well-told, 19th century English novel. It has a leisurely pace with the story slowly being told, bit by bit. Eleanor Catton has trained at the best creative writing schools and is an alumna of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But this novel is an example of original thinking and excellent craftsmanship that are not easily taught.

The chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast.” It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.” It is true that the 19th century novels were serialised (for example Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope) and then put together as a book. Present day writers are taking advantage of virtual publishing to do something similar. The Kills by Richard House, long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, actually began life as four enhanced e-books that were then published as a single printed volume. But in the 21st century, to first publish in print such a thick book as The Luminaries takes extraordinary courage — a fact that did not go unnoticed even by Catton. In her acceptance speech she said, “… The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher’s nightmare. […] I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to […] have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.”

FOR MORE ENTRIES

At 28, Eleanor Catton is the youngest winner of the Booker. (Before her the prize went to Ben Okri who won it when he was 32 for The Famished Road.) Catton was born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country. The winner receives £50,000, or about $80,000. The winner is selected by the judging panel on the day of the ceremony. In September 2013, it was announced that from next year the prize will be open to all those publishing in English, across the world, a move that has not necessarily been received well by many writers. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the foundation, wrote at the time: “Paradoxically it has not […] allowed full participation to all those writing literary fiction in English. It is rather as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games.”

It is a fortunate coincidence that in 2013, three of the high-profile international awards for literature have been won by women — all for very distinct kinds of writing. Lydia Davis won the fifth Man Booker International Prize 2013 for her short stories (the length of her stories vary from two sentences to a maximum of two to three pages) and the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013 to Alice Munro, for her short stories and Eleanor Catton, Man Booker Prize 2013, for a novel that has been described as a “doorstopper.” For the world of publishing, these achievements sets the seal of approval on craftsmanship. It is probably recognition of geographical boundaries disappearing in digital space, conversations happening in real time and emphasis being placed on good content. It’s not the form but the craft that matters. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize win is a testament to the new world of publishing.

(Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist. E-mail:jayabhattacharjirose @gmail.com)

19 Oct 2013