Aldous Huxley Posts

The brave new mediocre: ‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood reviewed by Anil Menon

Anil Menon wrote a fantastic review of Booker winner 2019 Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments for the Hindu. The review was published in print on Sunday, 27 October 2019 and in digital on Saturday, 26 October 2019. Here is the original url. With Anil Menon’s permission I am c&p the text below.

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A dystopian novel is where the Enlightenment goes to die. Since we’re awash in dystopian novels, perhaps it suggests that far from fearing this eventuality — the onset of a dark age — perhaps we’ve become resigned to it. As Cavafy suggests in his poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ for those weary of civilisation, barbarity may even represent “a kind of solution.”

There are two kinds of dystopias. In dystopias of the first kind — represented by Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and their numerous progeny — the prison gates are locked from the outside. This means there’s an inside and an outside; there’s a jailor and the jailed; there are secret messages and secret societies; there are betrayals and breakouts; and at the end, a door is either closed for good or left ever so slightly ajar for a sequel to squeeze through. In dystopias of the second kind — represented by Huxley’s Brave New World — the prison gates are locked from the inside. There’s no need for jailors, because the people have jailed themselves. These novels are much harder to write.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a dystopia of the first kind, and at the end of the story, she chose to leave the door ajar. Thirty-four years later, the much-awaited sequel, The Testaments, tells the rest of the tale. For those who came in late, a brief recap might help. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that the U.S. has fragmented into a number of independent republics, and one of the largest fragments — the Republic of Gilead — is now run by a Puritan theocracy.

Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, all theocracies are alike. The men are men; uninformed and uniformed, and uniformly jerks. But women in Gilead come in four basic models: the Aunts, celibate women in charge of female indoctrination; the Wives, who are just that; the Marthas, who do manual labour; and the Handmaids, who are wombs-on-rent. Then there are the whores. Of course, there are no whores in Gilead, just as there was no poverty in the Soviet Union.

This set-up offers a lot of scope for misery, and in The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood used all the fine English at her disposal to depict just how ghastly a world based on the Womb and nothing but the Womb would be. This world is a dystopia not (only) because men have total power over women, but because women have been coerced, persuaded, indoctrinated, habituated into oppressing other women.

It’s clear Gilead is in deep trouble. Their science is Biblical, their society Saudi, their never-ending wars Balkan, and their economics Soviet. Dystopias of the first kind always have lousy economics. Consequently, for all the horror, the reader may relax: it’s only a matter of time. Nonetheless, it seems some readers couldn’t relax. Atwood mentions in the acknowledgements that she wrote The Testaments to answer a persistent query: “How did Gilead fall?” The urge to please readers is always inimical to great literature.

The Testaments is a plot-heavy novel and has three storylines. The first deals with the musings and machinations of Aunt Lydia, the most powerful of the four Founders of Gilead’s Aunt institution; the second with Agnes, the daughter of a powerful Commander in Gilead; and the third with seemingly ordinary Daisy, who lives in Toronto and is being raised by two very nice and seemingly ordinary people. Daisy turns out to be not so ordinary, and her storyline is the usual Hero’s journey. Agnes serves no real purpose other than to illustrate the life of a “privileged” teen in Gilead. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia serves up info-dumps, while she waits for Daisy to turn up in Gilead and set the republic’s destruction in motion. The last dozen chapters compress everything into summaries, hasty action scenes, and neat resolutions.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, whose protagonist Offred is entirely ordinary, all the key characters in the sequel are exalted in some way. They are important on account of destiny or social role or birth or ability. It’s not just The Testaments’ plot-heavy nature or its disinterest in ordinariness that gives it a genre feel. Atwood has always had an interest in plot. But she is also interested in subtext. The Handmaid’s Tale had a plot — a threadbare one, to be sure, but there was one — and loads of subtext.

In The Testaments, however, there’s virtually no subtext. The meaning is all on the surface. What you see is what you get. Events cause other events, obstacles are external, sections end on cliffhangers, and characters remain unchanged by the plot. In Atwood’s short story ‘Happy Ending’ (now a writing workshop staple used to discourage plot-intensive stories), she remarks that plots are “just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” That’s not true, but here, in this novel, it is just that.

The writing is always competent — this is Atwood after all — but it could’ve been written by any competent writer. The Handmaid’s Tale requires one to pause frequently and contemplate, as when Atwood writes of a character who has just entered a room: “He was so momentary, he was so condensed.” Or “Old love; there’s no other kind of love in this room now.” The Testaments offers few such pleasures. At one point, in the middle of a flashback on how the Gilead Republic came to be, Aunt Lydia, bored by the all-too-predictable violence, tells us: “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment.” So too is a novel in the throes of enacting an unnecessary sequel.

This novel is entertaining enough; a film starring Meryl Streep is sure to follow. It boggles the mind however that the novel was even shortlisted for the Booker, let alone managing to win a share of the prize. Perhaps this is truly the age of the “new mediocre,” as The New York Times fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, recently said in another context. Brave new mediocre. If we have lost the ability to distinguish a mediocre literary effort from a superlative one, or worse, if we have lost the courage to even acknowledge there is a problem, then it is not corrupt institutions we should fear. It is ourselves. There is no rescuing prisoners who fancy themselves free.

30 October 2019

Happy Birthday HarperCollins!

2017. A landmark year for HarperCollins worldwide. The publishing firm is celebrating its bicentennary and the Indian office is marking 25 years of its operations locally. Stories from HarperCollins Publishers ( 1817 – 2017)  a succintly produced edition chronicling the firm’s history. There are fascinating nuggets in it. 

HarperCollins Publishers began as J. & J. Harper, a small family printing shop run by brothers James and John Harper in New York City in March 1817. In 1825 the company posted an advertisement in the United States Literary Gazette announcing five forthcoming titles. Scotsman Thomas Nelson ( born Neilson) opened a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh in 1798, eventually publishing inexpensive editions of noncopyrighted religious texts and popular fiction. Collins also started out as a small family-run printer and publisher. Chalmers and Collins, established by millworker and seminarian William Collins and Charles Chalmers ( brother of evangelical preacher Thomas), published its first work in 1819. It began by publishing only the writings of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Chalmers, but soon published other authors, eventually forming William Collins and Sons.

In 1962 what was then known as Harper & Brothers merged with textbook publisher Row, Peterson & Company, forming Harper & Row. HarperCollins as a brand came into existence in 1989 after News Corporation purchased Harper & Row ( 1987) and Collins ( 1989). Today HarperCollins global brand publishes approximately 10,000 new titles every year in 17 languages and has a print and digital catalogue of more than 200,000 titles. Along the way it has acquired other well-established businesses with robust identities of their own such as 4th Estate, Angus & Robertson, Amistad Press, Avon Books, Caedmon Audio, Ecco Press, Funk & Wagnalls, Granada, Harlequin, J.B. Lippincott, the John Day Company, Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., Thorson’s, Unwin Hyman, William Morror and Company, Zondervan, HarperCollins Christian Publishing and others. Many of these remain as imprints of HarperCollins.

Over the years it established credibility as being an author’s publisher for it protected rights and fought against piracy. In the 1800s Harper brothers ensured that they were fair in paying royalties to their authors, particularly those who were overseas. Their fiercest competitor was Mathew Carey’s publishing house of Philadelphia. A cease-fire between the rivalry happened in 1830s and “The Harper Rule” agreement was reached. According to Stories from HarperCollins Publishers “in [this] a publisher would cease printing when a competitor purchased advance proofs and announced forthcoming titles, or had previously published a British author.” This enabled the Harper brothers to invest more in finding and developing relationships with authors. They also began to explore other markets in the 1800s such as Canada, Australia and India. Interestingly they broke into new markets with texts such as prayer books, geography, gospels, dictionaries, schoolbooks, readers and primers.

Poet Gulzar and veteran Bollywood actress-turned-politician Hema Malini cutting the HarperCollins 25th anniversary cake, New Delhi, July 2017.

The stable of authors associated with HarperCollins is extraordinary. The firm published the American edition of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak ( 1823), Edward Lytton Bulwer’s The Coming Race ( 1871), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds ( 1898) and The Invisible Man ( 1898). These were deemed as “scientific romance”. Later with the acquisition of Unwin Hyman by Collins the firm discovered the winning formula of fantasy worlds furnished with maps and illustrations as has been proved with the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ( 1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy ( 1954 – 55). Other writers include ( listed in no specific order) C. S. Lewis, Paulo Coelho, Deepak Chopra, Erle Stanley Gardner, Aldous Huxley, Herman Melville, Harper Lee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, George R. R. Martin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sylvia Plath, Pearl Buck, Doris Lessing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Martin Luther King Jr., Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E. B. White, Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, Judith Kerr, Armistead Maupin, Alan Cummings, Caitlin Moran and Roxane Gay.

In the 1800s the publisher made exploratory trips to India too and witnessed an explosion in fiction writing in the 1890s due to high population density coupled with growing literacy. In 1992 HarperCollins establish a base in India when it entered into a partnership with the Indian firm, Rupa Publications. After a few years a new collaboration was forged with the India Today group. Finally HarperCollins became an independent entity of its own and its headquartered in Delhi NCR. The CEO is Ananth Padmanabhan.

To celebrate 25 years of its impressive presence in India, HarperCollins India ( HCI) has launched a campaign that consists of special editions of 25 of its iconic books and short films promoting storytelling and books. This list includes writers such as Anuja Chauhan, Anita Nair, Kiran Nagarkar, Rana Dasgupta, Siddharth Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray, Akshaya Mukul, Vivek Shanbhag, B. K. S. Iyengar, Arun Shourie etc. HCI has also launched a scrumptious list consisting of 25 facsimile editions of Agatha Christie novels.

Happy Birthday, HarperCollins!

2 August 2017 

 

 

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

“Creative Writing in the Present Crisis” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1963

Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007

( As the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru would have been the patron of Sahitya Akademi. The following are extracts from a speech he delivered extempore at the awards for 1962. These are given to books of outstanding literary merit published in the Indian languages during the preceding years. This has been reproduced in the Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007, Vol 1 Book 1, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Editors are Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A. J. Thomas. They have edited four volumes of stories, essays, speeches published in the institute’s journal, Indian Literature for fifty years. Many of these have been translated into the English language. A pleasant surprise was to discover this wonderful speech by Nehru and another one by Aldous Huxley on “Literature and Modern Life”, delivered in 1961.)

“…Sahitya Akademi deals with all the languages of India and tries to encourage them and to bring about as much as possible, not a synthesis of them, but a mutual understanding and comprehension of them by translations from one language to another. ….

Really the growth of the Indian languages took place afresh about a hundred or hundred or twenty years ago. That period coincided with the introduction of printing, etc. in India and it was influenced naturally by ideas which had come to India through the English language mostly, through other languages too. The modern world gradually crept into India and that influenced our languages. And the modern literature in these languages is naturally much affected by the modern world, modern problems. That is as it should be. And so we find an interesting aspect of this questions, that, in a period when English was more or less the official language of India under the British Rule and was affecting large numbers of our people, the coming of English affected the Indian languages in a different way by indirectly encouraging them, because English happened to be the vehicle through which we came into contact with the new world. And, therefore, modern ideas, modern concepts began to enrich our languages through English or because of our knowledge of English, and our languages grew. I have no doubt they will grow. Even now they are strong and very effective languages and a large number of books are being published, books of merit. I have no doubt this will grow. But to think that a language is crushed or suppressed by another language, is not quite correct. It is enriched by another language. So also our languages will be enriched the more they get into touch with each other … .” ( p.319-320)